RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When religious scholar Reza Aslan was 15, he went with some of his friends to an evangelical Christian camp. And it was there that he heard the story of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ. It was a profound experience for him, and he immediately converted to Christianity. But later, when he went to college and starting looking at the Bible as an academic, he started having doubts.
REZA ASLAN: The more I started studying the historical Jesus, the man who lived 2,000 years ago in what was probably one of the most tumultuous eras in the history of the Holy Land - which frankly, is saying a lot - the more I started to realize that there was this chasm between the historical Jesus and the Jesus that I had been taught about in church.
MARTIN: And now, years later, Reza Aslan has written a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan stopped into our studio at NPR West, and I asked him what he meant when he wrote about the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ.
ASLAN: Obviously, there are billions of Christians in the world who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the living incarnation of God. And that's a perfectly fine belief. But whatever else he was - whether he was the Messiah or God, or what have you - he was also a man; he was a human being. And he was a man who lived in a specific time; an era that was marked by the slow burn of a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire that would ultimately result, in the year 66 CE, in the success of actually throwing Rome out of the Holy Land and keeping them at bay for three and a half, four long years.
Of course, in 70 CE, the Romans returned and ended up destroying Jerusalem, burning the temple to the ground; slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews, and scattering the rest to the winds.
MARTIN: And we should say, CE is Common Era.
ASLAN: CE is Common Era - that's right, instead of AD. What I think is important for Christians to understand is that every Gospel story written about Jesus of Nazareth was written after that event; this apocalyptic event which for Jews, signaled the end of the world as they knew it. And that matters because not only is the context in which Jesus lived important in understanding who he is, but the context in which the words that we have that were written about him - were written - is also important in figuring out how this marginal, illiterate, uneducated Jew from the low hills of Galilee, who was executed as a state criminal, ultimately became known as God incarnate.
MARTIN: Which is really interesting - right? - because the common understanding of Jesus was that he was this kind of quiet man; had this ethereal quality, carrying this message about salvation. But you describe Jesus as a revolutionary, a political figure - not so quiet. In particular, you pull out the story of Jesus and the money-changers.
ASLAN: Yes. So of course, Jesus walks into the temple, and he begins to cleanse it. He overturns the tables of the money-changers - who are exchanging the foul, foreign currency of the Roman Empire with the Hebrew shekel, which was the only currency that the temple would accept. And then, of course, in a loud, booming voice, he says: It is written that my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations, and you have made it a den of thieves.
Now, as all historians recognize, this was the action that precipitated his arrest, his torture, and his execution by the state. And there's a very simple reason for that. The temple was not just the center of the Jewish cult. It was, in many ways, the representation of the power and the presence of the Roman Empire. So any attack on the temple would have been seen as an attack on the Roman Empire.
And frankly, to really know who Jesus was, all you have to know is what happened to him at the end of his life. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment that was exclusively reserved for the crime of sedition, for the crime of treason. As I say in the book, if you know nothing else about Jesus except that he was crucified, you know enough to understand who he was, what he meant, and why he was such a threat to the political and religious authorities of his time.
MARTIN: How do you look at the Bible as a source?
ASLAN: I see the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament very much the same way that I see the Scriptures of the Quran or the Gathas or the Vedas, or what have you. I think that these Scriptures are inspired by individuals who in a moment of metaphysical contact with the divine spirit, have been able to communicate something about God to us.
But I also recognize, as a historian, that these - this is sacred history. It's not history in the way that we would think about history as a collection of observable and verifiable events and facts. They are valuable in the sense that they reveal certain truths to us; but that the facts that they reveal are not as valuable as the truths are. And so we have to look at them from a different kind of lens than I think most - certainly, modern Christians tend to look at the Scriptures.
MARTIN: So what else, then, do you use, do you point to? What other sources outside of the Bible helped you construct a fuller picture of Jesus, the man?
ASLAN: I think that the main source that I use is the world in which Jesus lived - first century Palestine, a world that we know a lot about thanks to the Romans, who were quite adept at documentation. What I argue is that if you take what little we know about Jesus - that he was a Jew; that he started a Jewish movement, the purpose of which was to establish the kingdom of God on Earth; and that as a result of that movement, he was captured by Rome, tortured, and executed as a state criminal - if you take those three things, and you place them in this world in which Jesus lived - an era awash in apocalyptic expectation - then in a way, his biography kind of writes itself. And then you can use the Gospels, the New Testament, to sort of fill in the holes, as long as you make sure to test the claims of the Gospels through the lens of the history that we are familiar with.
MARTIN: I wonder if there is another detail that you could share with us from your research - something about Jesus, his life, his growing up - that might run counter to popular conceptions of him.
ASLAN: Oh, there's so much. The first Gospel - the Gospel of Mark, which was written in around 70 or 71 CE - is unusual in that there is actually no statement of messianic identity from Jesus in it. From the beginning of the Gospel to the end of the Gospel, at no point does Jesus ever actually say, I am the Messiah. On the contrary, he keeps denying it when other people claim the Messiah for him. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In fact, in Mark 14:62, Jesus responds affirmatively when asked if he is the son of God.]
This is a phenomenon that scholars refer to as the Messianic Secret. And I think it's the key to sort of getting at something that is almost inaccessible to us. We know how Jesus' followers viewed him. We know how Jesus' enemies viewed him. But we don't know how Jesus viewed himself. And I think that within this messianic secret is a clue that whether Jesus actually thought he was the Messiah or not, he understood something profound - which is that in first century Palestine, simply saying the words "I am the Messiah" is a treasonable offense. Saying that "I am here to establish God's rule on Earth" is equivalent to saying "I am here to remove Caesar from power." And whether Jesus actually believed he was the Messiah or not, in a sense he may have been smart enough not to make such a big deal about it.
MARTIN: Are you still a Christian?
ASLAN: No. I wouldn't call myself a Christian because I do not believe that Jesus is God; nor do I believe that he ever thought that he was God, or that he ever said that he was God. But I am a follower of Jesus. And I think that sometimes, unfortunately - I think even Christians would recognize this and admit it - those two things aren't always the same - being a Christian, and being a follower of Jesus.
MARTIN: Reza Aslan is the author of a new book called "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." He joined us from NPR West. Reza, thank you so much.
ASLAN: Thank you.