July 20th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Reza Aslan: Why I write about Jesus

Opinion by Reza Aslan, special to CNN

(CNN) - When I was 15 years old, I found Jesus.

I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God.

Amid the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school.

In the evenings, we gathered in a fire-lit assembly hall at the center of the camp. It was there that I heard a remarkable story that would change my life forever.

Two thousand years ago, I was told, in an ancient land called Galilee, the God of heaven and Earth was born in the form of a helpless child. The child grew into a blameless man. The man became the Christ, the savior of humanity.

Through his words and miraculous deeds, he challenged the Jews who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return he was nailed to a cross. Though Jesus could have saved himself from that gruesome death, he freely chose to die.

Indeed, his death was the point of it all, for his sacrifice freed us all from the burden of our sins.

But the story did not end there, because three days later, he rose again, exalted and divine, so that now, all who believe in him and accept him into their hearts will also never die, but have eternal life.

For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, this was truly the greatest story ever told. Never before had I felt so intimately the pull of God.

In Iran, the place of my birth, I was Muslim in much the way I was Persian. My religion and my ethnicity were mutual and linked. Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable.

After the Iranian revolution forced my family to flee our home, religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household. Islam was shorthand for everything we had lost to the mullahs who now ruled Iran.

My mother still prayed when no one was looking, and you could still find a stray Quran or two hidden in a closet or a drawer somewhere. But, for the most part, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God.

That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being from Mars. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.

I do not mean to say that mine was a conversion of convenience. On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith.

I was presented with a Jesus who was less “Lord and Savior” than he was a best friend, someone with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship. As a teenager trying to make sense of an indeterminate world I had only just become aware of, this was an invitation I could not refuse.

The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I’d just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face.

Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world.

The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.

In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts.

The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.

The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions — just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of different hands across thousands of years — left me confused and spiritually unmoored.

And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.

I began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them a deeper, more intimate familiarity than I ever had as a child, the kind that comes from reconnecting with an old friend after many years apart.

Meanwhile, I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar. No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text.

Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.

The Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.

Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.

I have modeled my life not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an unwinnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed – those his society deemed unworthy of saving.

I wrote my newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" in order to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.

Because I am convinced that one can be a devoted follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just as I know that one can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus.

Reza Aslan is a bestselling author and a scholar of religion. This article was adapted from his newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." The views expressed in this column are Aslan's alone.

- CNN Belief Blog Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Church • Jesus • Opinion

soundoff (4,311 Responses)
  1. Jesse Medina

    One is molded and shaped by its culture and religious views, a perspective is what those views are. Jesus will always be the same today, tomorrow, and for eternity, it is our lack of understanding that thinks differently of this divine man, but I am joyous that you found the truth that ls in the scriptures, and God had given you the gift to share it with others through this book. God Bless Brother!

    July 30, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  2. mrjackson777

    1 John 2:22
    King James Version (KJV)
    " Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son." You can't be a "follower" of Jesus of Nazareth and NOT be a follower of Jesus the Christ. Because Jesus claimed to be The Son of God. Jesus said he was The Mesiah. So either Jesus was lying or he wasn't. To say you believe in the Jesus who set a example of doing good works, but deny and ignore this man said He was the Son of God is ludicrious and foolish.

    July 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Snow

      " To say you believe in the Jesus who set a example of doing good works, but deny and ignore this man said He was the Son of God is ludicrious and foolish."

      whats the link? I had been doing good works all my life, never consciously hurt others and always accept my shortcomings or mistakes as I should. I have been told in my community centers that I am a good role model for kids.. If I say I am god, would you believe it and call any who question it as "ludicrious and foolish"?

      July 30, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
      • Z

        I don’t know Snow…have you fulfilled any old testament prophesies of late?

        July 30, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
    • Ufuomaee

      You said just what I was looking to say but was too dumbfounded to locate! It is heretical to deny Christ while accepting Jesus, just as you can't say you love God and hate your own brother. It is the spirit of the anti-Christ that seeks to rid Jesus from His godly calling – to redeem the world.

      It is God who gives wisdom, Aslan. When confusion came, you should have gone back to Him for clarity. But you sought light in darkness. Jesus of Nazareth is The Christ, the Holy One of God. A half truth is still a LIE!

      July 31, 2013 at 2:09 am |
  3. Lewis

    Rezaa potrays Jesus from an Islamic perspective which is fictional. This book must be rightly categorized as 'fiction'.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • niknak

      I agree.
      Fiction, like all religions.

      July 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  4. Armen Gevorkian

    Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet and reza considers Jesus to just be a cool guy. This does not represent the Muslim view of Jesus. Reza knew jews will throw you some shekels if you get christians and muslims at each others throats. Enjoy your pieces of silver Reza.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  5. Ramez Raouf

    I Like the idea. – I always think of Jesus as the revolutionary Leader who broke all the laws of man and challenged his most profound traditions....
    He is Christ the Lord , however. This is superior to history and so cannot be proved or disproved by history!

    July 30, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  6. Mathews

    Reza Aslan says "Jesus was just another man. There is no other God but Allah ! "

    July 30, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  7. atheist

    Amazing how there is NO evidence whatsoever other than the "Bible" of even the existence of Jesus. Every one who ever wrote about him was long after he supposedly lived and it stemmed from one person telling this story. Simply amazing nobody actually looks at the history of this.

    July 30, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • Lalaina

      really? Ever read Josephus? He talked about Jesus, get your arguments right

      July 30, 2013 at 11:39 am |
      • OTOH


        Josephus talked about Hercules too (and so did Tacitus). That must mean Hercules was real, eh?

        Josephus reported about what the early Christians believed - that's it.

        July 30, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  8. Dazen

    It's quite clear the author's intentions on the following part: "...he challenged the Jews who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return he was nailed to a cross. " First of all, Jesus was a Jew and a religious one and he didn't chalenged his own religion. Second he wasn't nailed to a cross because "he challenged the Jews". Is the author using the Christian anti-semitism card? Anti-semitism is always used by Muslims to garner the sympathy of the Western world to the Muslim ideology which is against Israel and Western culture (read: America). So who is buying the author's comments can only be poorly informed to say the least.

    July 30, 2013 at 8:06 am |
  9. Cormack Sr.

    Since you are a Muslim, your lack of objectivity on Jesus is glaringly obvious, not to mention an extreme bias on your part coupled with conflict of interest.

    Write a book on Mohamad get it published and reviewed by an unbiased media.

    July 30, 2013 at 7:54 am |


    July 30, 2013 at 2:03 am |
    • sam stone

      Morals are declining? Compared to when? When we could own other peoople? When women or blacks could not vote? When a group of citizens is denied equal rights (ooh, that's now).

      Tell of this moral utopia you pine for

      July 30, 2013 at 6:06 am |

      And Jesus will fix it for you........Ludicrous

      July 30, 2013 at 6:54 am |
  11. Stephen Hawking is an Idiot!!!!!


    July 29, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
  12. Reza Islam

    The only time CNN agrees with any muslim is when a muslim is going after christianity. Period. And you really wonder if CNN is really happy when there's a fight among religious groups?

    Now one step up... you really wonder if CNN (and other like-minded folks) are inflaming the conflicts? Maybe even started it? I maybe a little paranoid. Because I think all the current problems USA is facing is Bush's fault.

    July 29, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
    • Austin

      well that and all the people who were intertained by the war on fox. and then voted for more. they were duped at many churches.

      this is a secular country.

      July 29, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
  13. chris

    Why does CNN defend this nutjob and his recent interview? ...If you wanna know what a real liar he is, google " reza aslan ihadwatch ", and see what the REAL religious scholars say about him...

    July 29, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • Eternal One

      Right on! Reza as z lan is a stealth jihadist akin to the rotten fascist CAIR, the MB. Hamas, HEzzbollah and of course the iranian mullah's. It is shameful and sipicable CNN, being the currupt islamophilic media news outlet that it is, that it sees no problema in promoting islamofascist lies and garbage from these criminals.I think next time they will allow the syrian al-qaeda jihadist who eated human parts to post an article here. This shows how dumb, currupt, dishonest CNN really is..a never ending ruthless islamic propaganda machine.Oh wait...the BBC almost did that in an apologetic absurd boot-licking interview/pro-islamic/pro-jihadist propaganda piece.

      July 30, 2013 at 4:52 am |
  14. mzh

    Thanks to all for your postings on this regards… I know there are no answers… but I was more likely expecting that you would answer from what you believe in… I mean your faith book i.e. Bible, Torah, Ghita, Tripitak or any others if there is any…

    I am a proud Muslim and I live each and every step of my life by reflecting the teaching of Quran… I study other religions too to know it… and when I know something new, it helps me compare my own faith and also it elevates my level of faith in Islam much more… that I do not submit myself to a creature or any material objects but to The One worthy of Worship who is unseen and towards whom we are returning…

    Here is what I found from Quran and I believe this the best answer and more importantly the truth… now if you want me to show the proofs that you want to touch or see mathematically, no one can at these days but I am definitely absolutely positive that if you study Quran with patience and go to someone who has knowledge of it, you will find yourself something that you have perhaps been looking for your entire life:


    There are 2 elements of human body:
    1. The body which has been created from dust – from the earth
    2. Soul breathed in to it which makes the body to move or ability to think and so on – from up and no one knows more details about it

    # 1: The body which created from dust
    40:67 – It is He who created you
    1. from dust, then
    2. from a sperm-drop, then
    3. from a clinging clot; then He brings you out as
    4. a child; then [He develops you] that you reach your [time of]
    5. maturity, then [further] that you become
    6. Elders (old age).
    7. And among you is he who is taken in death before [that], so that you reach a specified term; and perhaps you will think.

    4:1 – O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. and fear Allah through Whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (do not cut the relations of) the wombs (kinship). Surely, Allah is Ever an All-Watcher over you.

    # 2: Soul breathed to the created body
    32:7 – Who perfected everything which He created and began the creation of man from clay. Then He made his posterity out of the extract of a liquid disdained. Then He proportioned him and breathed into him from His [created] soul and made for you hearing and vision and hearts; little are you grateful.

    There are 4 ways of human creation:
    1. Adam from dust
    2. Eve from Adam
    3. Off-spring of Adam from the mixing of sperm and ovum which we all are
    4. Jesus The Son of Marry – created from only mother without father and this is a miracle or a sign for mankind to know that when God wishes to create anything He only says ‘Be and it is’…


    We are here with a mission and this mission will decide what would be the end result. As we all know that nothing we do without a purpose and so human creation…

    51:56 – And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.

    4:36 – Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbour, the neighbour farther away, the companion at your side, the traveller, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, Allah does not like those who are arrogant and boastful.

    7:158 – Say, [O Muhammad], "O mankind, indeed I am the Messenger of Allah to you all, [from Him] to whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. There is no deity except Him; He gives life and causes death." So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the unlettered prophet, who believes in Allah and His words, and follow him that you may be guided.

    When we end our life the human body stays in the earth as it was created from the earth and the soul goes up where it came from which of course no one knows, and this soul and human body will be merged again on that day for accountability and that human body will not be the same as this earthly life as the environment will be totally different.

    32:11 – Say, "The angel of death will take you who has been entrusted with you. Then to your Lord you will be returned."

    45:26 – Say "Allah causes you to live, then causes you to die, then He will assemble you for the Day of Resurrection, about which there is no doubt, but most of the people do not know (meaning do not use their intellectual to know.)

    45:27 – And to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. And the day the hours appear – that day the falsifiers will lose.

    2:28 – How can you disbelieve in Allah when you were lifeless and He brought you to life; then He will cause you to die, then He will bring you [back] to life, and then to Him you will be returned.

    Then Quran gives lot of pictures after the judgement and there will only be 2 ways, either heaven or hell and there are no third options.

    I hope it will make us to think about the human creation, the purpose of the creation and the end…

    I would ask the mankind to accept Islam as your way of life but its up to individual as there are no compulsion in choosing religion.


    July 29, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Johnmpls

      Thank you mzh for being honest about where you are coming from. (I only wish Reza and CNN would have been also.)

      How do you explain the fruits of your religion, as practiced by many? Many of your fellow Islamic believers are convinced that those who don't believe as you are to be killed. And/or those who change their beliefs from Islam to another religion are to be killed. Or that no country should exist without having the most fundamental of Islamic beliefs as their basis.

      I know that those who believe these don't represent all Muslims, but they DO represent a sizable percentage.

      I know that others (Christians and Jews for example) have in the past had periods of harsh beliefs to others, but I am looking at say, the last 200 years. (Also there is no denying that Muslims were the ones who created the need for the Crusades.)

      So if the fruits of a religion are the truest measure of what the religion is about, than there is no denying that the fruits of Islam have been of war, torture, and intolerance of all those who do not believe the same. By the same token, most of the world's education and medical care have come from those who follow Christ and have been given to those who do not profess the same beliefs.


      July 29, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
      • I AM

        Most methods of medicine and learning have spread from the East to the West. The practice of medicine was taught to people in trade caravans coming out of China. Middle Eastern countries picked up many innovations from the far east and perfected them in the West.

        July 29, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • mzh

      Dear Johnmpls

      I guess all I could say is that I am not the one to judge as this is not given to me… one should be worried about him/herself…

      I think you answered your question “I know that those who believe these don't represent all Muslims”

      And regardless of our faith, we all will be judged by the one Who Created us and one should ask himself about himself rather being judged by others, also we only know the external part and internal part is not known to anyone but the who created…

      I would not justify the entire faith by the followers but I would go and try to learn and if I find anyone doing wrong then I would try my best to stop it whether its my own brother…

      I appreciate your reply…

      May the peace and blessings be upon you…

      July 29, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  15. I AM

    It would be hard to be a christian without following Jesus. Don't know how that would work.

    July 29, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • myweightinwords

      And yet, so very many people do it every day.

      July 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
      • DS

        Actually, no. If they're not following Jesus, they're not a Christian. It's like me claiming to be Santa because I dress in a red suit. Too many people are claiming to be something they're not.

        July 29, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
        • myweightinwords

          Yes, I think that is EXACTLY the point.

          The word Christian has become a catchall phrase that includes a lot of very disparate beliefs and behaviors.

          July 30, 2013 at 9:38 am |
    • Tope

      Jesus said it Himself that, He is the way,the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Him. Christianity without Jesus is no Christianity at all.

      July 30, 2013 at 4:40 am |
      • Abie

        .... Honestly. without Jesus, there's no Christianity. the author is trying to separate the Annointing from Jesus.

        The Christ means the ANNOINTED ONE AND HIS ANNOINTING without which you cant be a Christian.

        July 30, 2013 at 6:31 am |
  16. Johnmpls

    CNN: Be clear on these points:

    – Reza Aslan is a devoted Muslim. Read his other books, or hear him speak.
    – These radically new views expressed in this new book are really the core Islamic beliefs about Christ. Nothing new.

    If a devoted Evangelical Christian were to say he was influenced by Islam during his youth and has now found all these radical things wrong with Islam, you would not let him write a piece like this.

    Be fair.

    July 29, 2013 at 8:38 am |
  17. Cat

    The author is a Muslim. Enough said.

    July 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm |

    Be a true follower of Jesus Christ, in this Final Age,
    based on real Knowledge and true Miracles.


    July 28, 2013 at 5:02 am |
  19. revvyb8

    Reza, I'm sorry to inform you but you cannot actually know one without the other. If you are believing history because it tells you of a revolutionist, I'm sure you can find as many as you can count in several lifetimes. But that is FARRRRR from the Truth that He is. He is The Christ, the Son of the Living God. Christ mean Messiah and Jesus is definitely that! PLEASE, don't stop yet, just because fundamentalists want to force you to believe every word literally. God's Word is true, just not literally every word with a cultural void. Read the whole history (again if you haven't).

    July 28, 2013 at 12:06 am |
    • Rick

      So, we're just supposed to take your word on that?

      July 28, 2013 at 12:12 am |

    BROTHER, The bible clearly says without the spirit of Christ..your none of his. When he wept at the grave of Lazarus that was the man, but when he shouted Lazarus come forth... that was more than a man.. That WAS "Christ" which means the annointed... . God Bless you..Mike Howell

    July 27, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
    • revvyb8

      Thank you for writing your thoughts, my thoughts exactly!

      July 27, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • Rick

      Then Lazarus just died again a little while later, right? Big whoop!

      July 28, 2013 at 12:15 am |
      • I AM

        To be fair, Lazarus was murdered by zealots.

        July 29, 2013 at 11:19 am |
      • TomD

        But Lazarus is saved from the second death! That's the whole point of Christianity. Those who believe in Jesus spend eternity with God, and are saved from the second death.

        July 29, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
        • sam stone

          do you seriously want to spend eternity with the being from whom you have to be saved?

          July 30, 2013 at 6:14 am |
        • sam stone

          While we are at it, it seems absurd to believe there is more than one death

          July 30, 2013 at 6:22 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.