‘How can a Muslim write about Jesus?’ The controversy over Reza Aslan’s ‘Zealot’

“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” is the beginning question in … Continued

“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” is the beginning question in a Fox News interview of Reza Aslan, a religion scholar, on his new book, “Zealot
and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

FILE: Women help Oscar Rivera, 26, prepare to portray Jesus in the Stations of the Cross. (Washington Post/Katherine Frey)

What was most astonishing to me about this question from interviewer Lauren Green is not the news that Reza Aslan is now a Muslim, and formerly an Evangelical Christian, as he carefully notes in the first pages of his book, but how little Green actually seems to know about Christianity, and in particular, Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth was not the “founder of Christianity.” Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Jewish teacher, healer, and reformer, was Jewish his whole life. He was crucified with the sign, “King of the Jews” on the cross above his head (John 19:19). Jews and Gentiles, Romans and Greeks, followed him, learned from his teachings, and formed a diverse movement that eventually became Christianity. This is well-documented in a vast array of scholarship on the origins of Christianity.

In fact, a great deal of the biblical scholarship that informs “Zealot” is not new; readers should consult the book’s extensive notes and bibliography at the end. They provide a thorough summary of the best of biblical scholarship, the majority of it Christian, for more than a century.

Aslan’s response to Green got to the heart of the matter, really. There is a significant distinction between faith and scholarship. “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim.”

One of the foremost interpreters of Islam today, Professor John Esposito is a Catholic who spent a decade in a Catholic monastery. He teaches at Georgetown University. One of the foremost scholars of early Christianity is Professor Paula Fredriksen, who is Jewish. She is the William Goodwin Aurelio Professor Emerita of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University, and now Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Of her many works, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity,” has been of particular help to me in teaching seminary students about Jesus of Nazareth.

I would, in addition, strongly recommend that those interested in the state of biblical scholarship on Jesus of Nazareth also read Fredriken’s new introduction to the second edition of her book, “From Jesus to Christ. The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus.”

Does it matter that Espositio is Catholic, Fredriksen is Jewish and that Aslan is Muslim? Yes, of course it matters; every scholar of religion brings their personal religious journey to their scholarship in terms of their passion and drive for the field. Aslan’s, in particular, is such an American story, in truth. He comes from a background of “lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists,” who “[W]hen I was fifteen years old ‘found Jesus'” and then who went on to a life dedicated to “rigorous academic research” and who returned to Islam as “the faith and culture of my forefathers.” This is what we call American religious pluralism. As a faith narrative it is very similar, in the assumption that faith is a journey of exploration, to the faith narratives of many who attend seminary. Aslan himself attended Harvard Divinity School.

Faith is always a journey, but it is not the same thing as scholarship, nor is it a substitute for scholarship. Scholarship is far broader and transcends the boundaries of any one faith tradition. Indeed, it religious scholarship of the kind that Aslan, Esposito and Fredriksen, as well as many others, represent that holds out such promise for peace and understanding through pluralism, along with generous and informed faith.

Conservative Christian critics of Zealot
, however, seem to suspect a Muslim agenda to take away the “Christ of faith” and substitute only a human being.

Ironically enough, the role of the historical Jesus vis- -vis the Christ of faith is less a Muslim-Christian struggle than it is a struggle that rages within Christianity itself and has, over centuries, up until today. The life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth on poverty, for example, are a huge roadblock to conservatives who wish to use scripture to justify cutting food stamps (SNAP).

The conservative Christian view of Jesus in the New Testament is framed not around the person and work of Jesus, but around Jesus’s death, resurrection and return in judgment on sin (The Book of Revelation). This explains the astonishing disinterest in his life and teachings as is well illustrated by Mel Gibson’s violent film, The Passion of the Christ. As I have written in a book chapter on this subject, this film portrays Jesus as engaged in a “war”; Jesus, in the Gibson film, came not to teach and heal, but to wage war on Satan and sin. The horrific flogging scene in this movie, where Jesus is whipped before being crucified by the Romans, goes on, from beginning to end for nearly 40 minutes. The Sermon on the Mount, by contrast, is mere seconds long.

This raises a crucial question, and one central to “Zealot” as well. What does the flogging and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth mean? One thing it surely means is that Jesus was literally killed by the Romans. This particular kind of cruel violence and punishment has the Romans written all over it. As Aslan said on The Daily Show, “if you knew nothing else except that Jesus was crucified, you would know enough to understand who he was. Crucifixion was a punishment Rome reserved solely for crimes against the state.” Aslan made the same point in the Green interview. This is, of course, well-known in scholarly circles as well.

It should be pointed out, as Aslan does in the Green interview, that Muslims do not believe Jesus was crucified.

The sifting of blame for the crucifixion of Jesus from the Romans to the Jews is more understandable if you actually know the context of what has happening when the Gospels were composed, that is, after the Roman destruction of the Temple. You then can see the fear newly forming communities of Jesus’s followers had of the murderous Roman military state. This is crucial in interpreting the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus as it is presented in those Gospels. But the effort begun in the Gospel of Mark, and then continued, to “shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from Rome is stretched by the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming in the process the basis for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism.” (“Zealot,” p. 238)

When conservative Christian critics decry Aslan’s scholarly take on the historical Jesus as having a Muslim agenda, they might want to note this scholar of religion’s strong argument against anti-Semitism.

In fact, Jesus’s advocacy for the “poor and the dispossessed,” as Aslan documents throughout “Zealot,” is, in my view, yet another driver of the conservative Christian push-back against “Zealot,” in addition to the well-known Islamophobia message machine of the right.

The life and teachings of Jesus, understood in their historical context, are about feeding the poor, housing the homeless, caring for the sick and loving the neighbor as yourself.

That’s Jesus.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and its former President. She is the author and editor of many books, and has worked with other scholars on two translations of the Bible. She is most recently the author of #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.

  • macnietspingal1

    It’s about time Muslims start discussing the Bible. Sura 3:3 and Sura 2:113 demand it. Now the newest fad is to have Muslims moderate Jewish forums like City-Data Judaism. They ban Jewess me because the Muslims and Activist Internet Jews get together to squash opinions that don’t agree with how one reads the Bible. So powerful are they, they even ban me from posting anywhere on City-Data. They don’t like my mentioning that we should teach Hebrew in public school here in the USA. That everyone should own The Trope Trainer and use that to learn to read Hebrew and also HAKORAN. However, any professor of theology who can’t read these two books , I wouldn’t consider an expert on Jesus. I don’t think Christianity was created by Jesus. I think it was created by Constantine’s mommy to insure that her son retained the Divine Right/Rite/Write of Kings. After all, all Jesus had to say in court is “Lo, Anee lo melekh” and I think there would have been no Christianity at all and who knows what would have followed? People don’t realize that Jesus was a circumcised Jewboy. He had a Jewish mommy and daddy. He loved Psalm 22. So do I because that’s what happened to me too. It’s the Jewish song Eli, Eli. In fact, wonder if Jesus started out with Psalm 23 and ended with Psalm 22 in life like I did in my marriage

  • Rongoklunk

    And for another viewpoint read “And Man Created God” by Selina O”Grady, an ex-Christian, who researched the world that Jesus lived in and found it to be outrageously superstitious where everybody believed in all kinds of gods, and knowledge hardly existed. It was one very crazy world.

  • RevMark2U

    Excellent. And thanks for the link to Paula Frederiksen’s intro to the new edition of her book.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    Rongo – You learned that from only O’Grady? Did you skip all history classes?

  • tianxiang69

    It does not matter what religion someone is unless that viewpoint interferes with an objective analysis of the historical evidence. There is no reason to suspect that just because someone is Muslim they are more inclined to subjectivity than someone from another faith tradition. Obviously, their background will partially inform the way they view or approach the subject matter, just as a Christian might not necessarily write about the historical Jesus with complete objectivity. What I find more instructive is to take into account the background of the author when reading the work but not simply dismiss it. For example, anything Esposito writes about Islam I have to take with a grain of salt because he is on the Saudi payroll which makes him lean more toward being an apologist lest his funds be cut off. I might be more convinced by someone who is more independent and/or with a less ideological position. I just wish that non-Muslims (or actually even Muslims) who write objectively and critically about the historical Muhammad were more free to do so without either being labeled with the invented word “islamophobe” simply because they have some negative things to say about Muhammad or the faith he founded or, as is also sometimes the case, being subjected to death threats.

  • Hildy J

    There is nothing in the article that is out of the mainstream of current scholarship. I haven’t read the book but I think you could find the same arguments made by scholars of various faiths. The gospels are a collection of fallible writings by different men probably passed through one or more oral traditions before being written down by other men decades after all the key players were dead, buried, and rotted. Including Jesus.

    And because so many of you feel that someone of a different faith should not comment – I don’t believe in Yahweh or Jehovah or Allah so I assume that jews, christians, and muslims will refrain from comment.

  • Joe Painter

    II am a devout Christian (literalistic Episcopalian) and I shall not refrain from commenting. Once again we are caught between procedure and substance:: something I see all the time in law). I do not agree with islam or homosexuality, but I do not judge. My whole entry into law was directed by a Higher Force – I chose to call out the name Jesus. I take my marching orders from Matthew 25:31-40. I chose to direct my efforts for those who do not have a voice. That is what Christianity is all about. And as my priest likes to remind – God is love and Jesus Christ died for our sins. Maranatha

  • smitisan

    Aslan’s PhD is in Sociology of Religions, after a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, meaning he studies religions and cultures, suiting him perfectly to write on this topic. And yes, he does teach creative writing as well. And I’m not even going to bother looking at a review from the American Conservative. You’ve done enough telling half the story (in other words, lying) for me already. Maybe you should take up creative writing

  • smitisan

    As I understand it, Jesus was a Jew. So if we wanna get fussy about it as Green does, Christians have no business writing about Jesus or the Judaism of his period in history.

  • smitisan

    So in your opinion the only people qualified to write on Jesus’s life have to have two PhDs of your choosing? Only wouldn’t they also need one in Judaic history? Indeed, as I said earlier, since Jesus was a Jew, what business would Christians have writing about him anyway? No, I’m not so open-minded that my brains fell out.

  • bill_baar

    Well, I can tell you my Muslim friends quite concerned about non-Muslims writing about the Prophet. Look at some of the reactions to Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”. It’s a fair concern and I think not out of line to query the other on motives and in the case of Alan; credentials.

  • hesthe

    Simon, your Islamophobia is obvious. First of all, Aslan was not maintaining “his own greatness”; he was answering a stupid attack from a hostile interviewer by establishing his credentials as a scholar. Second, he did not claim to have a Ph.D in the History of Religions. As I hear him, he said, “I am an expert, with a PhD, in the history of religions” [my commas]. If he had written it, or not been under attack, he might have spoken more precisely; but an *objective* observer would not accuse him of “misrepresent[ing] his credentials”, or denigrate the value of his experience and study, as you did. Do you need to see a long-form transcript, although such is not the rule in this context. Finally, you are willing to dismiss him without having read the book, or even looked into the notes and bibliography.

    And by the way, “Jacobs” is not written with an apostrophe except in the possessive, and then it is “Jacobs’ ” or Jacobs’s”, but not Jacob’s. Where did *you* study?

  • hesthe

    I saw the video of the interview. Lauren Green is almost qualified enough to interview Sarah Palin. The thought of such an interview (dramatized by Lou Costello and Tina Fey, perhaps) would make me laugh, except for the fact that so many under-educated, bigoted Americans have no idea how bad she was.

  • SimonTemplar

    @ smitisan: No, he does not have to have those special degrees to write a book. That’s obvious, since Aslan does not have such credentials, yet he wrote a book.

    HOWEVER, if he writes such a book, he should not try to give to it more legitimacy than it deserves by claiming credentials he does not have. If he can’t get his own personal history correct…

    hesthe, examining the credentials of a self proclaimed “expert” before one takes the word of said “expert” as truth is EXACTLY what an objective observer would do. Your defense of his claim to a Ph.D in the History of Religion stretches credulity.

    Well, at least you know where your apostrophes belong.

    I really don’t care that he is Muslim. Plenty of other people of different faiths and even atheists have written books about Jesus. In fact, he does not seem to be saying anything new in this book, as so many others have pointed out (see including Hildy J below). It seems to me that the fact Aslan is a Muslim is THE main marketing pitch being leveraged to sell his book.

  • SimonTemplar

    The poor quality of her interview does nothing to increase the quality of Aslan’s book. Other Americans are not bigots simply because they ask the questions she SHOULD have asked.

  • SimonTemplar

    One more thought hesthe: I could let you slide on your defense of his “Ph.D in the History of Religions” if he only said it once. But then he repeated the claim with, “To be clear…I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.” Seriously?

  • smitisan

    You have made my ignore list. Add that to your halo. Congratulations.

  • larryclyons

    I found this quote from Aslan’s dissertation supervisor, Mark Juergensmeyer, to be interesting:

    Since i was Reza’s thesis adviser at the Univ of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a “historian of religion” in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.

    So as you were saying? His scholarship is in religious studies. He has a degree in the sociology of religion. To me that qualifies him.

    But to say that because he is a religious scholar he cannot study the historicity of Jesus? That’s like saying since your doctor doesn’t have cancer he cannot diagnose melanoma.

  • leibowde84

    Anyone should be able to write whatever they want about anyone, including Jesus. I hate all these so-called Americans who completely disregard a person’s right to right historical texts that you might not agree with. Pretty much NOTHING IS KNOWN ABOUT JEUS CHIRST HISTORICALLY. All historians agree on this, and going by the Gospels as historical texts is about as logical as looking to the Odyssey as historical documentation of Odysseus’ life. THe Gospels, even according to most Catholic scholars, weren’t meant as historically accurate texts. Thus, secular or muslim exploration of Jesus (who Muslims consider to be an important prophet) is never a bad idea. What hard can it do?

  • leibowde84

    How can anyone blame Aslan, when the RCC disregards facts and teaching of Jesus that are right there in the Bible. I mean, more than once, Jesus explained his desire for his followers to live in a socialist situation. Where no one owns anything individually, but everyone is provided for. Just an example.

  • leibowde84

    I’ve never understood this reluctance to accept secular historians’ findings regarding the historical Jesus. It’s clear that this resentment comes from fear, as Christians consistently use the falsity that these historians are attempting to dismantle Christianity as a reaction to historical exploration. Do they really expect people to believe the Vatican or Priests, who have an obvious bias in finding historical facts that line up with the Bible, more than historians who are merely looking for the truth?! It is embarassing that members of my faith are so reluctant to even accept the possibility that there are portions of the Gospels that aren’t accurate. Of course, I would be delighted if we could find evidence to prove the historical accuracy of the Gospels, but it just isn’t turning out that way. Christians, like everyone else, should be striving to find out what the historical Jesus was actually like, what he did, and what he actually taught. If they are truly satisfied with the incomplete, historically inaccurate stories in the Bible. The important part is the lessons taught, not the historicaly accuracies. So, grow a pair and accept that the Bible is not perfect.

  • leibowde84

    Why should anyone not be able to write a book about the historical Jesus. Look at “Lamb.” That is a piece of fiction that describes, commedically I might add, the part of Jesus’ life (age 12-29) that is not included in the Gospels. It is one of the greatest books I have ever read. And, if you have a problem with it, you are nuts. Why would Jesus be off limits. As a Catholic, I am always searching for more historical information about Jesus’ actual life. It is obvious that a large portion of the Gospels are inconsistent with each other, which leads me to believe there is a lot more to learn.

  • larryclyons

    Matthew 6:
    “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

  • LeonK1

    The Fox interview credentials Lauren Green as the quintessential ninny. Watching that show, I was amazed and how ignorant she insisted on being. Long Live Fox News for its entertainment value, showcasing fools that other organizations would be nervous putting on.

  • zemer

    Is Lauren Green or Yellow gone to any school, does she have any kind of education?

  • longjohns

    Ms. Thistlethwaite. I agree with everything you say except for your attempt to whitewash the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus of their interest in killing Jesus. At the end, what did the Romans have to gain by killing Jesus? On the other hand, it is very believable that were people to challenge the legitimacy of the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Rabbis in Jerusalem or other religious authority in the manner that Jesus is said to have done, a vicious response would ensue. You seem to want to want to unite the religions against their historic animosity against each other. That’s the position of a politician, not historian or a believer.

    Indeed the teaching of Jesus is about feeding the poor and loving thy neighbor. The new Pope might be moving in that direction.

  • tony55398

    Anybody can write about anything, seldom well.

  • Abey

    Those degrees listed in Arslan’s name do not guarantee that he does not have a hidden agenda which is exposed every time he defends Islam. If he is as well informed as he claims to be how does he still believes that the Quran is the literal word of the creator which is good for all time and all places. Many of his countrymen in Iran are dropping Islam like a hot potatoe . Just ask Ali Sina of Faithfreedom.org