Iranian-born Aslan teaches at the University of California, Riverside. He converted to evangelical Christianity as a teenager, but reverted to his Islamic heritage during his early 20s after discovering what he describes as the ‘great chasm between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith’.
Although he regularly writes about religion, Aslan is not a recognised name in biblical scholarship. When Zealot leapt to the top of the charts, many scholars in the field suggested that his take on the historical Jesus owed much to the post he is actually employed in: associate professor of creative writing.
POPULARISING AN OLD ARGUMENT
Critics have been quick to denounce his book as a rehashing of a once-fashionable but long-discredited theory dating back to the 19th century. They say Aslan’s treatment is superficial, and some have even accused him of inflating his academic credentials.
Headline-grabbing theories about Jesus have been around a long time and Aslan’s claim is not an original one, as he himself admits: ‘It is not new in the slightest. After 200 years of the quest for the historical Jesus, there is nothing new to say about Jesus any longer.’
Responding to the accusation that he is out of his depth academically, the young author seems to think that his critics suffer from professional jealousy. ‘Those scholars who write for a popular audience and gain success in doing so are often dismissed or even punished by their colleagues,’ he tells me. And despite the backlash, he is confident that the historical case for Jesus as a political agitator is a solid one.
THE REVOLUTIONARY RABBI
Not everything Aslan says is controversial. The view that Jesus was as much a political figure as a religious one is widely held. ‘There was no difference between religion and politics in Jesus’ time,’ he says. ‘They are absolutely one and the same thing. And so every seemingly religious word that comes out of Jesus’ mouth has clear political implications.’
But Aslan takes the political Jesus a lot further. Claiming to be Israel’s Messiah was nothing short of an act of open rebellion and a call to arms, he argues. Aslan makes this case right from the start of his bestseller. In an epigraph he quotes Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:34: ‘Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword’.
The author’s critics accuse him of taking Jesus’ stark imagery out of context. After all, this is also the man who says in the same Gospel: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44). Aslan says he used it as an arresting phrase designed to provoke thought rather than as a de facto argument.
The central argument of Aslan’s thesis stands on the most widely attested historical fact about Jesus: that he died by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.
‘The fact that this is a man who was hunted down, arrested, tortured and executed as a state criminal indicates that perhaps there was something else going on here,’ says Aslan.
What about those who say his scepticism of the Gospels is inflated and his conclusions overreaching? Aslan defends himself: ‘When you put what Jesus teaches in the context of the tumultuous era in which he lived, you find a lot of sympathies with the teaching of the more radical revolutionaries of his time.’
BIAS AND BAD SCHOLARSHIP
Whatever the critics make of his scholarship, Aslan’s rise to public attention last year was aided by an interview with Fox News presenter Lauren Green. The toe-curling exchange in which she suggested Aslan was biased by his Islamic beliefs drew an indignant response from the young author. Ironically, it became an astonishingly successful bit of publicity for the book as the online video of their encounter went viral.
Aslan is prickly about being challenged on his religious commitments and has been known to dish out the odd expletive on Twitter when confronted by detractors. But when I ask him, he gives short shrift to any suggestion that his journey away from Christianity and into Islam affects his academic work.
‘My faith background had absolutely zero role to play in my scholarship,’ he says. ‘The academic study of religion is full of people with different religious backgrounds. It’s a perfectly normal thing.’
Religiously biased or not, the book is remarkable for the way it has united most of the historical studies community against Aslan. The strength of feeling against him may partly stem from the exasperation of scholars who, having toiled diligently in the field, are annoyed by the headline-grabbing fame of the new kid on the block.
However, most are just unhappy with the quality of his arguments. New Testament scholar Anthony Le Donne published a stinging critique in a blog titled ‘A Usually Happy Fellow Reviews Aslan’s Zealot’. Taking particular issue with Aslan’s dismissal of the pacifistic elements of Jesus’ teaching, he accuses the writer of a ‘superficial’ and ‘misguided’ treatment of the subject.
Jesus divided opinion in his own day and continues to do so today. Maybe Aslan has gone too far. At the same time, have too many Christians embraced an overly sanitised, ‘meek and mild’ Jesus? Even if we don’t go to the lengths that Zealot does, there’s still something to be learned from the Jesus, who Aslan describes as ‘a far more revolutionary and far more politically disruptive individual than most Christians would recognise’.
3 POPULAR REINVENTIONS OF CHRIST
JESUS THE MYSTIC
From early ‘Gnostics’ to modern-day popularisers such as Deepak Chopra, Jesus has been cast as an enlightened spiritual guru, disconnected from his historical roots in first-century Judaism.
JESUS THE MARRIED MAN
Dan Brown has a lot to answer for. The Da Vinci Code’s claim that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children with her has been absorbed into popular culture.
JESUS THE MYTH
Some sceptics (mainly unqualified ones on the Internet) want to make Jesus disappear altogether, claiming there is little evidence for his existence. However, 99% of historians disagree with them.