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 Religion Editor

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

soundoff (4,311 Responses)
  1. Leif

    Yes AI agree lets start reading any of Dr Richard Carriers books:

    "Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus", on the failure of methodology in the study of Jesus and how to fix it;

    "Not the Impossible Faith", on the social and intellectual context of the rise and early development of Christianity.

    DR Richard Carrier has also contributed important chapters to "The Empty Tomb, The Christian Delusion", and "The End of Christianity" on whether the historical evidence confirms that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

    August 2, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  2. jmdansville

    20 years of religious academic study has led Aslan to this conclusion? It would seem more appropriate to study Christ in a place that actually teaches him accurately. One semester in a Bible college will replace all those doubts and inaccuracies, and will do so with serious academic study.

    August 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Theadore Realist


      ... sorry ....................... but - JESUS IS IMAGINARY .....
      ... because ......... http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com and ...
      ........thank goodness because he emanates from the ...
      ...................................................... http://www.EVILbible.com

      August 2, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
  3. William D. Simpson

    "There is no higher opinion than the voice of GOD"

    Throughout recorded time "men" have given their opinions regarding what they, believed or not, about GOD. ALL of their writings reveal what humanity can do to obtain GOD's acceptance, or the knowledge a higher spiritual attainment. In short – man makes the rules regarding what one can choose to do to be accepted by GOD...

    The Bible, the only comprised writings by men throughout the span of time that it took to give us the cannons of Scripture, all reveal that GOD is sovereign in the account of creation, and with the affairs of man. That no man can approach GOD on any terms other than the term established by GOD.

    "Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." John 14:6

    That GOD is holy holy holy and righteous and sovereign, and is judge of all thing, means that what you and I may believe is irrelevant when compared to what GOD has said in the revelation of GOD given to us by GOD through the hands of men inspired by GOD

    Is GOD confused? No, it is we...

    August 2, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • Theadore Realist


      ... sorry – but your http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com and ...
      ........thank goodness because he emanates from the ...
      ...................................................... http://www.EVILbible.com

      August 2, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
    • DWN

      Beautifully stated William. Can we really demote God to the point that we think he made mistakes and that we can correct them. Believing such is hardly different than not believing at all.

      August 3, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  4. ollie

    You should write about the Arabian Sand Prophet – he was an illiterate, genocidal, caravan-robbing, misogynistic, pedophile and rapist.

    August 2, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • sam stone

      the god of israel is a petty, vindictive pr1ck. they all share an angry god.

      August 2, 2013 at 10:47 am |
      • harleybird

        What bible are you reading? I don't have any of that in mine.

        August 2, 2013 at 11:13 am |
        • Picture This


          Which version are you reading? Even the Children's Bible has those stories about "God's" petulant tantrums. Perhaps if they included illustrations, you'd get it:


          (*NOT an ad for that book... just using it as an example)

          August 2, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
        • harleybird

          Link didn't work but that's probably a good thing. However I still don't follow you. Give me an example? The flood? You do realize it took many years to build the ark and all the people needed to do was repent and get in. They had plenty warning and were told how to save their lives and yet they made another choice that had a consequence. Any others?

          August 2, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
        • sam stone

          how about punishing one person for other's "sins"

          August 2, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
        • harleybird

          Where do you read that in the bible? Who was punished for someone else's sins?

          August 2, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
        • sam stone

          how about eternal torture for punishment? how is that vindictive and petty?

          August 2, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
        • harleybird

          Ah. There is no scripture in the bible that says anyone is tortured eternally. There is no bell fire. That is a lie and man made invention that some in Christendom want you to believe.

          August 2, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
        • sam stone

          harleybird: your explanation just shows what a punk it is you worship

          August 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
        • harleybird

          Really? How so? In order for me to understand your position you're going to have to back it up with facts or at least details or something substantial. Just repeating things you've heard isn't doing you any good.

          August 2, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
        • sam stone

          how about punishing one person for the sins of another?

          August 2, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
        • sam stone

          why should i proide facts when you don't?

          August 2, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
        • sam stone

          isn't people repeating what they heard the way the biblical stories were passed on?

          August 2, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
        • sam stone

          not only WERE they passed on though oral stories, but that is largely the way they ARE continuing to be passed on

          August 2, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
        • harleybird

          Nope. They were written down and today I don't need to hear them I can read for myself.

          August 2, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
        • sam stone

          come on, harleybird, cat got yer tounge?

          August 2, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
        • harleybird

          No. Bible stories were not passed on orally. They were written down. Dead sea scrolls ring a bell? Also I won't ever pay for your sins. I can't quote a scripture because the bible never says that. Same with firery torment. As for Noah he preached about the coming flood for about 50 years. It took him a while to construct the ark. Read Gen. 6:9-9:19. Those people had ample time to repent and be saved. Is this an example of god being petty?

          August 2, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
        • harleybird

          You still there?

          August 2, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  5. Joel Tucker

    When the author dares to write about Mohammed in the same spirit, I'll consider reading this book.

    August 1, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • kaafir

      My thoughts exactly.

      August 5, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
    • Anjil

      What do you mean "in the same spirit"? Mohammed is already viewed as a human revolutionary in most of Islam. This only likens Jesus to Mohammed.

      August 5, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
      • GOD


        August 8, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
        • dan bennett

          Anybody else sick of this particular brand of atheism? THE IGNORE THE DEBATE AND SHOUT SHOUT SHOUT your personal outrage?

          Because you can't grasp an idea, you claim it can't be true. This is known as the argument from personal incredulity.

          It don't mean squat.

          Are there any, I mean any, serious atheists on these boards, or is it just the mental masturbators?

          Dear Christopher Hitchens, please reach down from heaven and smite your incompetent followers

          August 8, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
        • keith

          You are a sad excuse for a human being, debate you have never heard of the word. I keep writing to local churches asking questions and I get NO REPLY, they must be shaking in their boots because I ASK QUESTIONS.
          Grasp an idea, What idea christianity doesn't have ANY IDEAS, they just scream from the rooftops with hatred, threats, insults and INSANITY.
          Do you know how many times I have asked questions about everlasting life and I get NO ANSWERS.
          I ask about gods love of HIS CHILDREN and get NO ANSWERS.
          I ask about gods responsibility towards the welfare of HI CHILDREN and get NO REPLY.
          I ask about gods PROMISE to send guardian angels to protect CHILDREN and get NO REPLY.
          I am here to have a debate but the christians are TERRIFIED to answer me, you are all cowards, just like your dog a coward and a liar.

          August 8, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
        • keith

          Are you related to the other GOD? I hope not as you speak far too much COMMON SENSE.

          August 8, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
      • Joel Tucker

        "In the same spirit" ... casting the same critical eye, as willing to challenge the faith of followers in the name of historical accuracy, as willing to challenge the historical accuracy of the core religious text. It is not physically dangerous to be critical or disrespectful of a religious leader who taught "love your enemies" and washed the feet of his disciples. A particular Bible is not a sacred object, and what is seen as inconsistencies within its content is actually the willingness of multiple authors to challenge and comment on one another's work, and a religion's ability to accept diversity and challenge itself. "Why I write about Jesus" might be answered in part, "It is safer to write about Jesus than about Mohammed." And, in the final analysis, "Because the name sells books."

        September 5, 2013 at 6:31 am |

    One can NEVER lose "Christ" when/if he truly finds "Jesus!"


    August 1, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
  7. Ronnie Harper

    I am ardently non-religious. I picked up this book two weeks ago and ready in as many days. It is a spectacular book, with compelling historical analysis and thought-provoking probes into 1-3rd century Judea.

    August 1, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  8. Judy

    If he was truly was brother born again in the spirit of God, he will come back, but if not he went to emotional phase n it was not real. But who knows only God knows the heart of Men. May God convict n show him if he is a child of God. But it's probably was persecution and the darts of Satan and probably he hardness of heart. I have been through this but God brought me back in. So pray for this man.

    August 1, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • sam stone

      if god has a plan, isn't prayer at the best useless and and the worst blasphemy?

      do you purport to know better than god?

      August 2, 2013 at 9:11 am |
  9. William D. Simpson

    I will ask that people read a book which gives undeniable evidence to the truths of the Bible against Reza Aslan's "THE ZEALOT" to show that he has absolutely no truth to back his false accusations of Christ's historical account. If you wish to read a compelling testimony to the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ I am offering a free eBook version of "LIVING IN THE HOPE OF MY IMAGINATION". He presents his argument as I have presented mine. Lets see whose witness is the more convincing witness of historical truth...

    Author, William D. Simpson


    August 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  10. Believer

    18 inches separated you from faith. Jesus was an new aquaintance, not a lifelong friend.

    August 1, 2013 at 10:41 am |
  11. Hue Gibbons

    Reza, you forgot one thing. Faith is a gift. Either you have it or you don't. I'm buying your book, rock on!

    August 1, 2013 at 8:14 am |
  12. RickP

    Reza Aslan lied in the Fox interview. He does not have a PhD in Religious History; It is in Sociology. He does not teach religion; he teaches revolution using literature. He is anti-Israel and associated with George Soros funded groups like The Center for American Progress, Code pink, Samantha Power, and an Iranian organization that is against Israel. He has no degree in History whatsoever. He wrote the book for a reason he has not disclosed yet. Source: TheBlaze TV

    August 1, 2013 at 5:10 am |
  13. B

    There isn't any historical record of Jesus existing or being anything other than a copycat mishmash of earlier savior/deities. If he'd been crucified there would be a record of it because the romans kept records of such things. Likewise if he'd caused any kind of social upheaval there would have been independent records about him. The bible is an incomplete collection of stories written by people that never witnessed anything in it. It was and continues to be the worlds most successful political tool to divide and conquer. A religious scholar writing a book about religious figures is doing his job. His religion doesn't matter, and everyone that gets their panties in a wad about this have obviously drunk the koolaid.

    August 1, 2013 at 12:45 am |
    • Mike the Massacred

      Thank you for pointing this out.

      August 1, 2013 at 2:47 am |
      • harleybird

        Not true. A few other historians wrote about Jesus. A simple google check will get you that info.

        August 2, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • harleybird

      Not true. A few apostles that were eye witnesses to Jesus and his ministry and death wrote books of the bible. These are facts that are accepted around the world. Just google for yourself.

      August 2, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  14. TheDad

    An individual's worldview is without a doubt impacted by his or her faith or religion.

    To say that Mr. Azlan is an unbiased scholar in this particular instance would be fraudulent, at best. As the failed (and biased) FOX reporter attempted to point-out, how can an individual who was born in a Muslin society and claims to be a Muslim be viewed as an unbiased scholar on Christianity, let alone Jesus Christ? (Fortunately for Mr. Azlan, her fumbles made his book sales soar). Or in other words, how can one's scholarship be credible (or unbiased) in this case?

    The Muslin faith (or religion) is one of the most hostile towards Christianity and Christians all over the world, as evidenced by the overwhelming statistics on persecution of Christians in mostly predominately Muslim nations. And, the Muslim faith denies the deity of Jesus Christ. Consistent with the general beliefs of the Muslim faith, Mr. Azlan's book is a blatant attack on the deity of Jesus Christ – the most foundational truth that Christianity is based on.

    The historical validity of the Old Testament and the frequent references to Jesus Christ contained therein are sufficient enough to help one overcome doubt about the deity of Jesus Christ, the son of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem (and who's birth split time), who lived in Nazareth, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
  15. libertyadamson

    He's obviously no expert on Jesus or Christianity.

    July 31, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • ibelieve

      yeah degrees don't mean anything because you can get them online.... wait can't i be ordained online?? damnnnnn

      July 31, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • keeth


      July 31, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
  16. JonathanL

    This is so nonsensical it gives me hope I can write a best seller and not care about whether it makes any sense.

    July 31, 2013 at 11:00 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45
About this blog

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.