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“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.
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.