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INTERFAITH ALLIANCE STATE OF BELIEF RADIO JULY 20, 2013 RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Reza Aslan

Click here for video Click here for audio [REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Reza Aslan is a respected religion scholar, a popular commentator, best-selling author and University professor. His first book, "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam," has been translated into thirteen languages, and named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. This week, Random House released his latest, "Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," and Im very pleased that it brings Reza Aslan to State of Belief Radio. Dr. Aslan, welcome back to State of Belief Radio! [DR. REZA ASLAN, GUEST]: Thanks for having me back! [WG]: You know, I was remembering today - looking forward to this interview - I recall vividly when we talked about "No god but God," just after it came out, and what a great book that was - and here you've written another great book in the Fundamentalism book, and how you win a cosmic war - I can't quite figure out the sequence. How did you get Jesus of Nazareth falling after those two? [RA]: Well, believe it or not, this Jesus book, "Zealot," was the first book that I started working on. I've actually been working on this book, really, I would say for about two decades - ever since my undergraduate degree in the New Testament. And I did a thesis then on something called the "messianic secret" in the Gospel of Mark, and that really began to turn some screws in my mind about examining not just the historical Jesus, but the world in which he lived, and how that world impacted who he was; the things that he said; the decisions that he made - and, ultimately, his tragic end.

[WG]: Yeah. Reza, are you putting Jesus in the Zealot Party, or are you just calling him a zealot? [RA]: Very good question! Yes, so, there is something called the Zealot Party that arises in the year 66 CE - that's the year in which the Jews rise up against the Roman Empire, manage, miraculously, to throw the Romans out of the Holy Land, and then keep them at bay for about 3, 3 1/2 years, until the year 70 CE, when the Romans return under General Titus and end up destroying Jerusalem: burning it to the ground, razing the Temple of God, defiling its ashes, murdering some hundred thousand Jews who had holed themselves up in the walls of Jerusalem, and then scattering the survivors out of the Holy Land for the next, well, about 2,000 years, actually. But the Zealot Party did not arise out of nowhere. They formed out of this sentiment that had been a part of the general apocalyptic fervor of First Century Palestine for most of the century. Zealotism was less a political affiliation than it was a mode of activism; a spirituality; a sense of devout nationalism that called for an end to the Roman occupation, a liberation of the Jews from heathen control, and an establishment of God's rule over the Holy Land. And the argument that I make in the book is that if you look at Jesus' words and actions within the historical context of the time in which he lived, he most definitely shared those sentiments of Zealotism that were so widespread in his time. [WG]: Would you argue that the Zealotism of Jesus was one of the reasons that the people around him were very reticent to recognize him as the Messiah? [RA]: Excellent point. Yes, that's right, and that's where this concept of the messianic secret comes from. You have to understand that in First Century Palestine, simply saying the words, "I am the Messiah," is a treasonable offense, punishable by crucifixion. "The Messiah" means "the anointed one." According to the Jews, the whole purpose of the Messiah was to - as the descendant of King David - was to re-establish the kingdom of David on earth; to re-create the kingdom of God, to establish the reign of God as the sole sovereign over the Holy Land. Well, there's a problem with that sentiment, because there's already a sovereign over the Holy Land in First Century Palestine: it's Caesar Augustus. This is all Roman military occupation territory. And so for someone to say that "I am the Messiah," and that God's reign is about to be fulfilled, is tantamount to saying the reign of Caesar is about to come to an end. And so Jesus was not the only person with these zealot tendencies who claimed to be the Messiah, who was ultimately crucified as a state criminal. There were, as a matter of fact, some dozen or so other messiahs who lived just before and just after Jesus, who made similar claims, and who claimed a similar end as Jesus did. [WG]: I want to jump forward now from First Century to right now. Reza, you were raised Muslim, converted to Evangelical Christianity for a time, and then returned to Islam. How do you think your unique perspective is helpful in writing

this book? Because I think it's valuable. [RA]: That's a very good question. Yes, when I was 15 years old, I heard the Gospel story for the very first time, and whole-heartedly accepted it; accepted Jesus into my heart, and actually began about a four- or five-year process as a missionary. I went around the country preaching the Gospel, trying to convert everyone that I met into this belief that I had. When I entered college and began to study the New Testament in an academic environment, however, I began to notice a bit of a chasm between what I was learning about the historical Jesus and the world in which he lived, and the way the Jesus had been presented to me in the Evangelical church that I was going to. And what was kind of strange to me, almost ironic, in a sense, is that the more I learned about the historical Jesus, the more I was drawn to him. In fact, I became, as I often say, a far more devoted follower of Jesus of Nazareth than I think I ever was of Jesus the Christ. This man who lived 2,000 years ago who dared defy the greatest empire the world had ever known - and lost; but who, in the process, presented a path for social justice, the protection of the poor and the weak; speaking truth to power, whether it be the political power - Rome, in his case - or the religious power - the temple priests - is something that was profoundly activating in me. And to this day, when I returned to my Muslim roots, I still see myself as following in the footsteps that, in my interpretation, were blazed by Jesus as this unique and extraordinary man who really shaped who I am as an individual. [WG]: Would you lean toward Nietzsche who said: "The last Christian died on the cross"? [RA]: Well, I would actually change it around, and I would not call Jesus a Christian. Now this is, I think, a more philosophical/theological viewpoint that I talk about a lot in my books, but we have to remember that prophets are not inventors of religion. Jesus didn't invent Christianity; Moses didn't invent Judaism; Siddhartha Gautama did not invent Buddhism; Muhammad did not invent Islam. Prophets are reformers. Their task is to take the religious and social and political milieu in which they live, and to reform it; to recast it; to renew it, in a sense. It's often the case that it's left to the followers of the prophet, after the prophet has died, to then take this herculean task of taking the words and the actions of the prophet that they knew and formulating it into an institution creating a religion - out of it. Which is, frankly, why we are often met with this uncomfortable reality that there is often so much of a difference between the values that are preached by the prophet and those that are espoused by the institutions that arose from the teachings of the prophet. I think a lot of Christians would say that there is a difference between the Christian Church or the Catholic Church and the values preached by Jesus; I know a lot of Muslims, myself included, would say that there is a huge difference between Islam in the way that it's treated by so many Muslims today and the values preached by the prophet Muhammad himself.

[WG]: Oh, that's so well said. I found it interesting that you wanted readers to understand that what you're writing in this book is not the result of the kind of scientific explorations that were so popular a few decades ago, but it's something else. Tell us what that something else is. [RA]: Yes, you're referring to, of course, the whole "Quest for the Historical Jesus" phenomenon that was so much a popular undertaking over the last hundred years or so, and really, in the last fifty years it became really, really extraordinarily popular. But then, over the last few years, it has been abandoned, because I think a lot of scholars have come to the realization that, frankly, the Jesus of history is not accessible to us in the way that other historical characters are. I mean, I say in the book that writing a biography of Jesus is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte; what we are mostly relying upon are the testimonies of faith written by communities of faith, many, many years after the events which they describe, whether we're talking about the Gospels or the Letters of Paul or what have you. Outside of the New Testament, in fact, there's really only one reliable mention of Jesus in any other kind of historical document, and this is a document called the Antiquities, written by a Roman-Jewish historian named Flavius Josephus, who's actually - interestingly enough - writing not so much about Jesus, but writing about Jesus' brother James, and he mentions Jesus as he is talking about what happened to James, who was quite a prominent figure in the 60's in Jerusalem. So, unfortunately, what we are left with is very little historical evidence of this character named Jesus. But what I'm doing is something different. What I'm saying is, if we take what little we know about Jesus: that he was a Jew, which may seem obvious, but I think people need to be reminded of that; that he formed 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 crucified by Rome as a state criminal. Those three things - most scholars are more or less unanimous upon. My argument is, if you take those three things, and you plug them into the world in which Jesus lived - First Century Palestine, an era that we know a lot about, thanks to the Romans, who were quite adept at documentation; an era that was marked by this slow burn of a revolution, the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation; an era that was awash in apocalyptic energy - if you take what little we know about Jesus, and place him in this world, then, in a way, his biography writes itself. What do I mean by that? Let me just explain one aspect of this. Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved exclusively for the crime of sedition. Now, people often say, well, wasn't Jesus crucified alongside two thieves? Not exactly. The Greek word that's used there for "thief" is "listis." "Listis" doesn't actually mean "thief;" it means "bandit." And "bandit" was the most common term in the Roman Empire for a rebel or an insurrectionist. Anyone who challenged Roman rule was called a "bandit." And so, Jesus was a bandit in the eyes of Rome. The crime for which he was crucified was etched in a block above his head: "Jesus, king of the Jews." This thing called the "titulus" is not, as I think a lot of Christians

have come to see it, some bit of cynical irony, some attempt at humor by the Romans. It wasn't sarcastic; it was quite literally a documentation of Jesus' crime, which was, in the eyes of Rome, striving for kingly rule. If you knew nothing else about Jesus except that he was crucified by Rome for the crime of sedition, then my argument is, you know enough to get a sense of, really, what kind of a radical revolutionary this man was; what a threat to the social and political and religious order he was. So threatening, in fact, that he was captured, tortured, and executed for his words, for the movement that he founded. [WG]: Reza, do you think your book offers more to Christians or to nonChristians, in terms of a better understanding of both the historical Jesus and his continuing influence in our world? [RA]: That's a fantastic question. I mean, obviously, I want this book for a general audience, for an audience that maybe knows very little about Jesus, or maybe went to Sunday School when they were kids. But most definitely, my primary audience for this book are those people of faith who are familiar with the Gospel stories in a, you know, a surface way, but who are unfamiliar about the world in which Jesus lived, and how that world impacted him - how it shaped his words, how it motivated his actions. I mean, it's a fundamental and undeniable fact that there are billions of Christians in the world who believe that Jesus was God incarnate - God made flesh. And that's a perfectly valid, perfectly reasonable interpretation of this man who lived 2,000 years ago. But whatever else Jesus was - whether he was the Messiah, or God incarnate - he was also a man. And as a man, he lived in a very specific time; a specific context. And so I think that for Christians, if you truly want to know who this man was - this man who would become known as the Christ, the Messiah, the living incarnate presence of God you should also know the world in which he lived. Because that world defined who Jesus was as a man. He did not live in a vacuum; he lived in a specific time. He dealt with specific problems. He confronted specific powers. And so I really believe that to have a full impression of Jesus, both as Christ as a man, you must know about the world that gave shape to him - the world out of which he arose. [WG]: If you stayed with this book as long as you've said, writing on it, I know, then, how important it was. What were the surprises in your research - or did you have any? [RA]: There were two surprises, actually. Very good question. The first surprise as I sort of mentioned briefly before - is just how many other people there were in First Century Palestine who called themselves "Messiah;" who gathered followers to them; who healed the sick and the lame; who exorcized demons; who called for the Kingdom of God; and who were ultimately arrested and executed for their words. In a sense, many of these people - we know their names; some of them are actually mentioned in the New Testament. A few of them actually had more followers than Jesus did, in their lifetime. Many were even more famous and more well-known than Jesus was in their lifetime. That's

the first surprise. The second surprise is linked to that, which is that out of those dozen or so people who claimed to be the Messiah, only one of them is still called "Messiah," and that's Jesus of Nazareth. And my question - and the question that I try to tackle in the book - is: why? Why is it that out of all those, Jesus - who, actually, when compared to these other figures, was, in his lifetime, not nearly as successful and not nearly as significant - why is Jesus the one that we still call "Messiah"? And to me, the answer lies in what happened after Jesus' death. Obviously, the resurrection is a very difficult topic for historians to talk about - it is the quintessential expression of faith in the Christian world. But regardless of whether you believe in the resurrection or not, what you cannot deny is what I refer to as the resurrection experience: the fact that the followers of Jesus said that they experienced something miraculous and extraordinary. And again, even if you don't believe in what they experienced, you can't deny that that experience resulted in these followers not doing what the followers of all the other "messiahs" who were killed did, which was to just simply go home and abandon the movement. But these followers decided to keep going. They decided to continue preaching Jesus despite the fact that, according to Jewish tradition, his death as a common criminal annulled his messianic claims. After all, what the Jews were awaiting was a messiah who would recreate the kingdom of David on earth. Jesus didn't do that. And so by the definition of the Hebrew Bible, he was no longer the Messiah. And yet his followers refused to acknowledge that, and they kept going. And perhaps the biggest reason not to just simply dismiss their experiences out of hand - whether you're a believer or not - is the fact that 2,000 years later, this is the largest religion in the world. [WG]: This has to be a rather succinct answer, but what did writing this book do to you, and your already appreciation for the historical Jesus? [RA]: It's a very good question. I think, really, what it did was embed into my mind the importance that those who claim to walk in the footsteps of Jesus must maintain to this concept of justice; the idea of social justice. If you strip Jesus of his divinity - and a lot of people reject him as divine, and that's fine; a lot of people accept him as divine, and that's fine - but if you reject Jesus as divine, what you cannot reject is the power of his teachings: that the weak, the meek, the poor, the downtrodden, the iniquitous, have to be the focus of all of our attentions, all of our actions, our words, our efforts. And that means everyone! It may mean people that you disagree with; it may mean people whose sexual orientations you disagree with, or whose ethnic background or even whose religious identities you clash with - it doesn't matter. Every single human being who is downtrodden, who is oppressed, who does not have access to social justice, would, in the eyes, in the teachings of Jesus, be worthy of being stood up for. And that's the reminder that we all have to sort of have clogged in our minds forever, if we want to truly say that we are followers of Jesus - whether Jesus the Christ, or Jesus of Nazareth.

[WG]: Reza, it's a brilliant treatment. The book is a great book; I hope it does well - it deserves to do well. And I have to tell you - I didn't want to say it 'til the end but the messianic secret theme in Mark has always been one of my greatest fascinations with the Gospels... [RA]: Me, too! [WG]: ...Because I happen to think that it says to us some things about Jesus that Christianity failed to get and embrace. So thank you so much. Reza Aslan is the author of the international best-seller "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam," as well as of "Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age." His brand-new book is titled "Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," just out from Random House. I guarantee you, this is one of those books you ought to sell your shirt if you have to and go buy it. Dr. Aslan, thanks. It's a compelling work, I really appreciate you giving us so much time on State of Belief Radio. [RA]: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America the most religiously diverse country in the world while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes. Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong wrong for America and bad for religion. Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.

Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizens Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes. Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBCs The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBCs Nightly News and Dateline, PBSs Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPANs Washington Journal, ABCs World News, and CNNs American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets. While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forums Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the conventions Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77. Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.