Insights from Reza Aslan’s ‘Zealot’
Published October 1, 2013
In his bestselling new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, author Reza Aslan’s goal was to write a biography of one of history’s most influential people, drawing on historical sources instead of the traditional Gospels to help people understand the man who would one day be called the Messiah. Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor G. Richard Shell recently talked with Aslan about the life of Jesus, what Jesus taught us about leadership, and how a leader’s message can sometimes change after his or her death.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
G. Richard Shell: My name is Richard Shell. I’m here with Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and someone who knows more than probably anyone else today about the facts regarding the life of Jesus. Welcome, Reza.
Reza Aslan: Thank you for having me.
Shell: I’m curious about how this book came to be next on your plate. You have written about Islam, and you have written about fundamentalism, both of which are Islamic-oriented Middle East subjects. How did the idea of writing a life of Jesus come to your mind?
Aslan: Well, it turns out Jesus is Middle Eastern, too [laughs]…. I’ve been wanting to write this book for a very long time. It has its source in my undergraduate thesis work at Santa Clara University, which was on something called, “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark.” This is a very difficult to understand thing that happens in the first gospel where Jesus is constantly denying his Messianic identity, constantly rejecting it when other people throw it at him. Scholars have been trying to figure out why that is for 200 years. I wrote a little thesis on it that then became the impetus for wanting to dig deeper and deeper into the historical Jesus. It’s just that I didn’t get a chance to write the book itself until now.
Shell: It would be helpful if you could just give us your thesis in a nutshell.
Aslan: This is a biography of the historical Jesus, the man who lived 2,000 years ago, the itinerant Jewish preacher who, despite his illiteracy and his lack of education, started a movement that was seen as so revolutionary at the time, so threatening to the political and religious powers of the day, that he was ultimately arrested, tortured and executed for it. It’s an attempt to dig through all of the layers of mythology and interpretation, the legends and theology that have arisen about this man over the last 2,000 years, to see as much as possible how we can get to the person himself. It is, admittedly, quite a difficult task. It’s one that has been part of a quest for the historical Jesus for two centuries now.
What I’m trying to do is distill [the] academic scholarship and research into something that’s appealing, popular and meant for a general audience — people who are interested in trying to figure out who this man was over and beyond what the Christian traditions about him have created. He is a Jewish, nationalist revolutionary who, like the dozen or so other Messiahs of his time, had as his chief goal the removal of the Roman occupation from the Holy Land.
Shell: People who are familiar with the Bible have an image of Jesus as sitting in a meadow with a group of children –
Aslan: Birds on his shoulders.
Shell: Looking at mustard seeds and flowers.
Shell: Your image of Jesus is much closer to the one of the powerful physical person who could overturn the tables of money changers.
Aslan: If you know nothing else about Jesus except that he was crucified, you know enough to begin to question that image that you’re referring to of this pacifistic preacher of good works with no interest in the cares of this world. Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for crimes against the state — crimes like sedition or insurrection, treason or rebellion. That’s all that you could be crucified for. So, again, if that’s all you know about Jesus, then you know enough to think that perhaps this guy was a little bit more of a trouble maker, or a little more revolutionary, than we think.
The image of Jesus as this celestial spirit with no concern over anything about this world — that Jesus, frankly, would have gone totally unnoticed by Rome.
Shell: Interesting. I think a lot of people when they just encounter the Bible have this puzzle. What did this guy do that deserved this punishment? You’re saying, “Well, let’s look at the punishment and go back to see what he must have done.”
Aslan: Precisely. That’s exactly where you start: at the end of the story, not the beginning of the story. This man was at the very least seen as a rebel, as seditious. Let’s be honest: If he did declare himself to be the Messiah, that is a treasonable offense in the First Century. The “Messiah” means “the anointed one.” The job of the Messiah as the descendant of King David is to re-establish David’s kingdom on earth, to usher in the rule of God. Well, if you are claiming to usher in the rule of God, you’re claiming to usher out the rule of Caesar. That is something that the Romans would not have ignored.
Shell: The first time I read the Bible on my own, I remember being struck about mid-way through the second gospel: “Jesus was a Jew! Who kept this secret from me?”
Aslan: It’s funny that you say that, because that really is the key to understanding the historical Jesus. It seems obvious. Everybody knows Jesus is a Jew. But there are consequences to that fact, which is that everything that Jesus said or did, he said or did as a Jew. Every word that came out of his mouth has to be understood in the Jewish context. His audience was Jews. So, when Jesus said, “I am the Messiah,” he meant the Jewish Messiah. Every Jew who heard that understood what that meant.
When he overturned the tables of the money changers, when he talked about the Kingdom of God as a very real thing on earth, those were the statements by a Jew about Judaism for Jews. That should immediately change the way that you read the gospels. The gospels were written by Christians, but they are written about a Jew.
Shell: I remember I read the Bible all the way through in a relatively short amount of time. When I hit the New Testament, I suddenly started hearing verses I’d heard before, and they were all from the prophets and various things. I started circling passages that I could find in another book in the Old Testament. It really became obvious that he was referencing a tradition.
Aslan: What’s really fascinating about what you just said is that we have to understand the direction where that prophecy goes. Obviously a person of faith, a believer, thinks that Jesus fulfilled these prophecies that were written by the Hebrew prophets. In reality, the gospel writers wrote Jesus’s story in a way to fulfill those prophecies. For instance, one of the prophecies says that the Messiah has to be born in Bethlehem. But Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. Jesus was Nazarean. That’s how he was known throughout his entire life.
The Gospel of Luke has to figure out a way to make Jesus fit the prophecy. So he creates this entire story about a census that forces Jesus’s family to uproot themselves from Nazareth and go to Bethlehem where he is born. That’s how the prophecies were fulfilled. You take the story of Jesus and you shift it so that it fits the prophecy, not the other way around.
Shell: In law, we call that “reverse engineering.”
Aslan: Right. Precisely.
Shell: Let me ask you a couple things that might be of interest to our audience who are business leaders, people interested in business, because you know so much about the historical life of Jesus and can put it in context for us. In your view, having studied all the records, do you think that Jesus was an effective leader?
Aslan: Let’s talk about the basic facts of this man’s life. He is illiterate, as 98% of his fellow Jews were, totally uneducated. If he was a tekton, like the gospels say, he was at the second lowest rung of the social ladder, just above the slave, the indigent and the beggars.
Shell: A tekton is?
Aslan: A tekton is a wood worker. We always think of him as a carpenter, but the image that we have of him as some guy with a small business — that he’s making tables and chairs and people [are] coming and buying — that’s not what a tekton was. A tekton was a day laborer. A tekton is the kind of guy who hangs out in front of Home Depot waiting for a truck to come by to get a job. He would go from city to city looking for work. You’re talking about the poorest of the poor, illiterate, uneducated. Despite all that, he was able to start this movement on behalf of the poor, the weak, the marginalized and the dispossessed that ultimately led to this confrontation with Rome.
What I’m saying is that the leadership principles there are so fascinating to me because the gospels over and over again say that the people Jesus spoke to were amazed, not so much by his teachings, but by the authority with which he spoke. It was his personal charisma that brought people to him. He wasn’t a scribe. He wasn’t a Pharisee. He wasn’t a priest. He was not learned. He did not talk about the scriptures from a position as an expert. He was not expert in the scriptures.
Instead, what he did was talk about the needs of the individuals he was speaking to. He would address those needs through his charisma. That’s where his power came from.
Shell: In an American political context, he might have been a populist politician — someone who came from the working class and who spoke to the working class and was very charismatic and able to develop a big following.
Aslan: Precisely. Indeed, if you were to distill Jesus’s social teachings, it was about the reversal of the social order: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” The rich shall be made poor, the poor shall be made rich. This was about as populist as it gets. Nowadays we would call him a socialist. We would denigrate him to the margins of society. Well, it turns out that that’s how they thought about him back then, too.
Shell: What about his skill as a communicator — another leadership skill? What evidence do you have to suggest that he either was on the A+ rung or the C rung of communicator?
Aslan: As most people know, Jesus’s primary form of communication was through parables. Some of these parables, of course, are somewhat incomprehensible. For example, “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed” or “the Kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet.” The Kingdom of God, of course, being the primary message that he had in mind. When he talks about the “Kingdom of God,” he’s talking precisely about this reversal of the social order that I was referring to.
Now, obviously this is a message that is profoundly appealing if you’re at the lowest rungs of the social ladder, and it’s profoundly threatening if you’re at the highest rungs of the social ladder. Jesus, by speaking in these parables, figured out a way to communicate the truth of this kingdom to his audience, who would understand precisely what he is talking about. But at the same time, to keep it as much a secret as possible from those who would feel threatened by it. Indeed, he says about his parables, that the secrets of the Kingdom of God are spoken of in parables so that those who have ears to hear can hear them, those who can understand them can understand them. To everyone else, it’s maintained a secret.
That’s a very interesting and unique way of communicating your thoughts in a way that only your intended audience can understand.
Shell: In our teaching here about persuasion, probably the most profound skill is coming up with the right metaphor. The metaphor always has to connect to the specific audience. I think what you’re saying was he knew his audience, and he had metaphors they could relate to.
Aslan: Exactly. It’s interesting, because if you took, let’s say, some Herodian elite and some farmer and said to both of them, “The Kingdom of God is a like a mustard seed,” the farmer understands what that means. This tiny, insignificant seed then becomes the biggest of bushes. The Herodian elite would have no idea what you’re referring to: “What’s a mustard seed?”
Shell: Interesting. A lot of your book is taken up with the succession problem that followed Jesus’s death. That’s a huge issue in business. When a founder gives up the reins or dies or moves on, there are usually rivalries about who’s going to run the company or what direction it will take. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about whether Jesus’s succession planning worked out the way he intended.
Aslan: What we do know is that the person who ended up leading the community that Jesus left behind after his death was his brother, James. James was a very significant man in the first century. He was called “the bishop of bishops.” He led what was known as the “Jerusalem Assembly,” or church. They didn’t have the word “church” back then, but the Jerusalem church was then in charge of all the other churches that popped up everywhere.
James had a very limited conception of what this movement was about. Jesus was a Jew. James was a Jew. This was a Jewish movement. It was for Jews. Certainly non-Jews could join this movement if they would like. But first they had to become Jews. They had to follow all the Jewish dietary restrictions, the Jewish laws. After a few years, James decided to forego the circumcision requirement, which marketing-wise was probably a good idea. But nevertheless, as far as he was concerned, this was a Jewish movement for Jews. And you had to become a Jew to join it.
The rival to James was Paul. Paul was a former Pharisee who never knew Jesus while he was alive, but who has this ecstatic experience of the risen Jesus and decides that he’s going to actually transform this movement for non-Jews. He’s going to preach it to Gentiles. If he’s going to do that, particularly if he’s going to preach it to Rome, he has to get rid of these Jewish requirements. As far as Paul is concerned, forget about the law of Moses, forget about circumcision, forget about the dietary requirements, forget about even the notion of having to become a Jew first — Jesus’s movement transcends Judaism.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. During the lifetime of both men — Paul dies around 66 A.D. James dies at 62 A.D. — James is ascendant. After all, you don’t argue with the flesh and blood brother of Jesus. He wins. Any argument that you have, James is going to win. But after the death of both men, and certainly after 70 A.D., the destruction of Jerusalem, it’s Paul’s idea of Christianity that suddenly becomes ascendant as Christianity becomes less and less a Jewish religion and more a Roman religion. This notion of a universalism — a Christianity that’s divorced from its parent religion — becomes enormously popular and successful. James’s version of Christianity — a Jewish religion for Jews — continues to exist, but begins to slowly die away.
It’s an interesting notion that the successor of Jesus, James, who thinks that he is following Jesus’s vision, becomes the failed version of Christianity. The version of Christianity that divorces itself from Jesus’s teachings and creates something new, appealing, open to everyone, becomes the largest religion in the world.
Shell: I find it ironic, if Jesus was a sort of failed revolutionary, that his kingdom actually ended up overtaking Rome.
Shell: One wonders, depending on how you characterize Jesus, whether he might not have had a bit of an insight into how this would all work out.
Aslan: I think that’s certainly what Christians would say — the failure of the cross was actually a victory. But again, you’re going to have to thank Paul for that and not so much Jesus.
Shell: Well, Jesus appeared to Paul.
Aslan: You’re right. The risen Jesus appeared to Paul. Paul says that he’s getting all this information from the risen Jesus, so that’s a good point.
Shell: That’s where, I guess, a book like yours goes straight to the border of faith, and then it becomes pretty hard to have a discussion around facts.
Aslan: Here’s the dividing line — and I’m glad that you brought this up. Is it possible that Jesus had this conception of himself utterly unique than what any other Jew understood when it came to the world of the Messiah — is it possible that he thought to himself that this celestial kingdom will overcome the Roman Empire and that no action on earth would do that? Yes, it’s possible. Is it likely? No, it’s not likely. That’s the dividing line between the historian and the person of faith. The person of faith is interested in what is possible. The historian is interested in what is likely.
Shell: The fact that this faith worked out so well in terms of an institution suggests that that wasn’t likely either.
Aslan: I think that’s a good point.
Shell: Two quick points to wrap it up for us. First of all, you have been on this book tour, and you have written a controversial book that looks at something that’s very hard to see — the historical Jesus. What are some of the surprises that you have met on the road as you have exposed this message to different audiences?
Aslan: Well, it’s interesting. I’ve gotten an overwhelmingly positive response, particularly from Christians. I get dozens of e-mails [each week from Christians] telling me that although they actually believe that this person I’m describing is also God, they so rarely get an opportunity to, if you will, suspend that belief and instead look at Jesus as just a man. It’s very hard to do that. If you think that Jesus is fully God and fully man, no matter how hard you try, the man part gets subsumed by the God part. This is an opportunity for them to have that experience.
At the same time, I get just as many e-mails from atheists who say that finally, this is the Jesus that they have been looking for, [not] the Godly Jesus they know is just a bunch of bunk.… For me as a writer and as a thinker, it’s been incredibly satisfying to see Christians and atheists come to this book and both enjoy it for their own preconceived reasons.
Shell: You have had this issue arise, as well, having to do with your own background and your own family.
Shell: Tell us a little bit about that.
Aslan: As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a Muslim. My faith background is Islam. My scholarship, of course, is something entirely different. It might be difficult for a lot of people to understand that religion is an academic discipline, that we are all coming at it from as much of an academic, objective and scholarly route as we possibly can, despite the fact that [we] have our own backgrounds. Jews write about Buddhism, and Christians write about Islam, and sometimes Muslims write about Christianity. In my world, that’s totally normal. But in the popular world, particularly among certain media outlets that shall remain unnamed, that’s crazy. You can’t possibly not have some secret agenda if you are writing about a religion not from that religion’s perspective.
But, to be honest, that’s as much our fault as it is the media’s fault. The truth of the matter is — and I can say this for scholars of almost every discipline, including business — we don’t do a very good job sometimes of communicating to a popular audience. We spend so much time locked in these ivory towers talking to each other and in our own specialized language that nobody else can understand. We talk about these complex theories and ideas as though they don’t have a real world impact. We don’t spend enough time communicating to the popular media, to the popular world.
By the way, when we do, we’re often criticized by our own colleagues for doing so. So, it’s a two-way street. On the one hand, there’s a misperception of what scholars do in the media, but we bear some of that burden ourselves.
Shell: Well, Jesus encountered his culture and was misunderstood, and you’ve encountered yours.
Aslan: I’ll take that.
Shell: Last question: This is a quirky one, but I know a lot of our listeners have read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. The premise of that novel and some sequels is that Jesus had a family, a wife, children, and that there’s a blood line of Jesus that has persisted through the Middle Ages to the present. You have investigated the life of Jesus more than anyone I know, so what do you think?
Aslan: This is a very complex question. It’s one of the biggest paradoxes about Jesus studies. On the one hand, it would have been inconceivable for a 30-year-old Jewish male in the first century not to have a wife and children. He may as well be from Mars. I mean, it would have been absolutely inconceivable. That’s not to say that there weren’t celibates in Jesus’s time. There were. But they were monastic orders. They separated themselves from society, not just from wives and children. Jesus obviously did not do that. That’s the first fact. It would have been downright inconceivable.
Here’s the other fact. In every piece of writing ever written about Jesus by his friends and his enemies, by his detractors and his worshippers, everything written by Christians, by Jews, by pagans, by apologists, everything ever written about Jesus, there is never a mention of wife and kids. That is difficult to overcome. Now, is it possible that we’ll come up with something one day? That a piece of papyrus will suddenly show up — as perhaps my colleague Karen King may have found, which we are still waiting to find out whether it is authentic or not? Will some gospel all of a sudden show up one day that shows that Jesus was married? Maybe. But those are the irreconcilable facts. It would have been impossible to think of him as not married and yet –
Shell: No evidence.
Aslan: No evidence.
Shell: All right. Great. Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, thank you very much.