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This week on Truthdig Radio in association with KPFK: He survived Fox News. Now the religions scholar discusses his new book, at last. Also: More revelations about the NSA, Bradley Manning’s sentencing and Oregon’s alternative to student loans.
Listen to the show:
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Guests, in order of appearance:
Dr. Reza Aslan is a scholar of religions and author most recently of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney and the author of “The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower.”
Kara Brandeisky reports on the NSA for ProPublica.
Sami Alloy is campaign manager for Oregon’s Working Families Party.
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio from KPFK in Los Angeles. I’m Truthdig.com Managing Editor Peter Z. Scheer. Today on the program we dig into the latest revelations about the NSA’s XKeyScore surveillance program. We’ll assess the conviction of Bradley Manning. And we’ll evaluate Oregon’s innovative solution to student debt. But first, we’re joined live by media sensation and scholar of religions, Dr. Reza Aslan. He’s the author most recently of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Dr. Aslan, are you there?
Reza Aslan: I am. Wow, that was honestly the first time that I have ever been referred to as a media sensation.
PS: [laughs] Well I genuinely want to ask you mostly about the book. I find it really interesting, what I’ve read of it, but I have to start with this Fox News thing that happened. I’m sure annoyed by it [laughs] to some extent, but really I got it from like 40 different people, from different walks of life, all on the same day: Did you see this video?
RA: I’m as shocked as anybody else about it. I mean, when the interview was done, I kind of had an idea that this might make a little bit of a splash, but it never occurred to me that it would hit the zeitgeist the way it has. And most importantly, it’s launched this much needed conversation in America about the role of journalism and media integrity and scholarship and faith and religion and society. As a writer and thinker, this is a dream come true to be able to launch this kind of public discussion.
PS: Yeah, for the people who haven’t seen it—for the three or four people in the world who haven’t seen it—it’s basically a Fox News interviewer challenging your credentials over and over again. You’re a scholar of religions and she seems to imply again and again that because you’re Muslim you shouldn’t be allowed to [laughs] write about Jesus.
RA: Or that I have some secret agenda—
RA: about writing about Jesus. Look, this is part and parcel of Fox News. They have spun anti-Muslim sentiment, fear mongering about Muslims, into ratings gold for more than a decade and certainly there is an anti-intellectual streak in Fox News. By definition, if you are an academic, unless you’re an academic who happens to agree with them on, like, climate science or something—
RA: you are suspect. So a Muslim academic from Iran writing about Jesus, that’s the perfect Fox News storm.
PS: Well I want to ask because you’ve done work about Islamophobia and you’ve challenged Islamophobia and Fox News is obviously a well-known perpetrator of Islamophobia, did you have any sense going into this interview that you might be subject to that point of view?
RA: I knew that off the bat that they were going to probably bring it up. Two days before the interview they had published this attack piece on me that basically said the exact same thing: that I’m not an academic, I’m just some Muslim guy with an opinion about Jesus. So I knew that that was going to be the first question—I wasn’t surprised by it. The second question, I thought, well, OK, let’s just [Peter laughs] get this out of the way. The third question, the fourth question. Sometime around the eighth minute, when I realized that we are still on the exact same topic, that’s when it just kind of occurred to me what was going on. But I had no idea that this was going to go on the way that it had.
PS: OK, so let’s turn to the book, because the book is genuinely interesting—and actually there’s this one part of the Fox interview where you’re allowed to talk about the book and it’s really interesting. It’s called “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and that word “zealot” is really important because you describe in the book—and I confess I haven’t read the whole book, but I’ve looked at parts of it—you describe this place and time in the world. I have to say, I was skimming through the book and I went to bed and I had terrible nightmares about Jesus [both laugh] because the way that you describe what the Romans call Palestine and what I guess is also called Judea is a really scary place.
RA: Yeah, Judea was a province in Palestine, along with Galilee and Perea and Idumea, et cetera. Judea was one of the provinces in this massive land that the Romans actually referred to as Syria-Palestine but which we shorten to just Palestine. And you’re right, this was a tumultuous era, an era that was awash in apocalyptic expectations. If you lived in Jesus’ time, what you would see is one after another of prophets and bandits and messiahs and preachers with mass followers, walking around, healing the sick, casting out daemons, proclaiming the coming of the wrath of God and trying to remove the yoke of occupation from the neck of the Jews. And every single one of them was executed just for doing so, just as Jesus was. This was an era that was boiling over with revolutionary tensions; over and over again movements arose and then were crushed, arose and then were crushed, until about 66, about 35 years after Jesus’ death, when one of these Jewish movements, led by a group of zealots, arose and actually succeeded, kicked the Romans out of the holy land and kept them at bay for about three or four years until in 70 when the Romans came and killed everybody.
PS: So one of the interesting things—and I should say for people who are just joining us, this is Truthdig Radio, we’re speaking to Dr. Reza Aslan, who’s the author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”—one of the things that’s interesting to me as I was reading through the intro of your book is just how insignificant this part of the world, in particular the city of Jerusalem, was to the Romans and how it would come to dominate really what was just a little cult in a little backwater town, would come to dominate so much of the world.
RA: You’re absolutely right. That’s such a great way of talking about it. I mean, you read the Bible and you think that Jerusalem was the center of the universe, the most important city in the world. You read the historical documents of the time and this was a flea on the back of the Roman beast. I mean, Cicero referred to Jerusalem—in fact, to all of Judea—as a hole in the [corner?]. It offered nothing, it didn’t produce anything of real substance. In fact, the Romans repeatedly talk about it as just this kind of meddlesome city, this irrelevant backwater full of superstitious Jews. And what’s fascinating to me is the way in which these band of quote unquote “backwards, superstitious Jews” would ultimately become, in many ways, the foundation of Western civilization as we know it, certainly Western religiosity. So we, in our modern world, think back to that time and assume that everyone else thought that the Jews were important and that Jerusalem mattered, but nobody else did.
PS: So your book shows a much more complicated image of Jesus and when you’re trying to show Jesus as a historical figure and not just a religious figure, how do you separate the mythology from the history?
RA: It’s very, very difficult, because outside of the New Testament, we have almost no information at all. There’s no trace of this man named Jesus of Nazareth. We have very, very little information, but the truth is that that’s kind of buffeted by the fact that we have an enormous amount of information about the world in which Jesus lived, again, thanks to the Romans who were pretty good at keeping records and so what I try to do is what biblical scholars have been doing for generations, which is take what little we know about Jesus—that he was a Jew who started a Jewish movement in first century Palestine and was executed for it—and place him into all that we know about the world in which he lived in order to get a clearer picture of him. And when we do that, when we do not rely blindly on the claims of the gospels but actually analyze them according to what we know of the history of Jesus’ world, the picture of Jesus that arises, there’s very little resemblance to the kind of pacifistic preacher of good works with no interest in the cares of this world that I think a lot of Christians view him as. Instead, what arises is of this deeply radical, revolutionary figure who was seen as such a threat to the political stability of Palestine that he was arrested as a state criminal, tortured, and executed.
PS: And as you point out, the word “Messiah” had political, revolutionary connotations.
RA: Absolutely. First of all, this is an era in which there was no difference between religion and politics. They are one and the same. But simply saying the words “I am the Messiah” in Jesus’ time would have been a treasonable offense. After all, “messiah” means “the anointed one.” The job of the messiah as the descendent of King David is to recreate David’s kingdom on earth, to establish the reign of God, which means you’re of course pushing out the reign of Caesar and of Rome. Everyone who heard Jesus say “I am the Messiah” understood the radical nature of that statement and indeed everyone in Jesus’ time who said the words “I am the Messiah” was ultimately killed for saying it by Rome.
PS: This is Truthdig Radio. We’re speaking to Reza Aslan, he’s the author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and a scholar of religions. So was Jesus—where was he from? This issue of whether or not he was from Nazareth comes up in your book and it has certain important implications.
RA: Right, I guess this is one of the controversial claims—at least some people think it’s a controversial claim though it’s a pretty basic part of biblical studies that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem; he was born in Nazareth. In fact, Jesus, which is probably the single most common name in first century Palestine, was not even what people called him. People called him the Nazarean. That was his name. It was the one thing that his friends and followers, his enemies, his detractors, his worshipers all agreed on; however, the problem is that the prophecies about the messiah—some of them, not all of them—but some of the prophecies about the messiah which claim that he is the descendent of David insist that he must also be born in the kingdom—or in the land of David, the city of David, which is Bethlehem. And so the gospels of Luke and Matthew, and only Luke and Matthew, bring up various ways to get Jesus’ family out of Nazareth into Bethlehem so that he could be born there but, again, as I constantly remind people, by no means did Matthew and Luke actually think that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The stories that they write about in order to explain how he was born there are quite obviously legendary. They’re mythological, they’re not historically factual. And they’re not meant to be read in a historically factual way. They were meant to put forth a much deeper truth, which is that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the successor of David.
PS: We have a young Muslim woman who wrote a story today [Thursday] for us on our website called “Who Owns Jesus?” and she points out—this is in reaction to your interview on Fox News actually—and she points out that Jesus is a very important prophet in the religion of Islam and that—
RA: Probably the second most important prophet actually in Islam, after Muhammad.
PS: Yeah, so why can’t Christians share him? [laughs]
RA: Mainly because at the heart of Christian orthodoxy, and by no means do all Christians believe this, but at the heart of Christian orthodoxy is that Jesus was not just a man, he was also God. Well that violates everything that Islam, and for that matter Judaism, understand about the nature of God. Islam and Judaism are founded upon this notion of divine unity, which means that God is indivisible. The idea of a God-man is anathema to everything that Islam and Judaism understand about the world and the cosmos and the nature of the divine, which by the way is why it’s incredibly unlikely that Jesus himself would have made such a statement because after all as I never get tired of saying and it’s important to keep remembering, Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Jesus was a Jew, and as a Jew the idea of a god-man would have been so foreign to him that it’s almost inconceivable that he would have made such a claim. And if he had made such a claim the response of his fellow Jews would have been utter confusion.
PS: Let me just ask you, we’re running out of time, but I wonder, having studied him so closely, and seeing him as such a radical and revolutionary figure and at the same time such a zealot, is there a modern figure that you would compare Jesus to?
RA: Well, I mean, I think in many ways people have brought up Che Guevara, some people have brought up Cesar Chavez, people have brought up Martin Luther King. I think that anybody who’s spurred by his faith manages to provide a sense of dignity to the marginalized and the oppressed. They humanize the poor, the weak, the outcast of society and in doing so rallies them to rise up and fight back against the powers that be, be it religious or political or economic. Anyone who does that is walking in the footsteps of Jesus. This is a man whose entire ministry was predicated upon the reversal of the social order. He was willing to go to his death in the name of those who could not speak for themselves, who could not stand up for themselves and he was willing to fight any political or religious powers simply because they were the powers. Forget about anything specific that they must have done or said, just the fact that they were the powerful was enough for Jesus. After all, remember, the beatitudes aren’t just about the meek becoming strong and the hungry being fed, they’re also about the fed becoming hungry and the strong becoming powerless.
PS: That’s very interesting stuff. Dr. Aslan, thank you so much joining us. And I encourage people to go read your book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Thanks for being on the show.
RA: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
PS: Take care.