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. 00 00

    10,000,000 directions
    just a waste

    he was god
    let it rest

    just a taste
    is all
    dine with him
    have one meal

    be his guest
    drink talk laugh
    stay just a while

    inside out
    if you care
    from whatever is
    to beauty beyond

    January 19, 2014 at 2:33 am |
    • Keith Grove

      I think you have chosen an appropriate name, you are just a big fat ZERO which also suits your god another big fat ZERO.
      Your few lines of doggerel are pathetic and meaningless, please keep them to yourself and go back to the hole you crawled out of.

      January 19, 2014 at 9:14 pm |
  2. chief of sinners

    We have all been battered in life. A wise man searches the riches of the heart. A foolish man chases riches of the flesh. I know you are hurting inside, there is hope-www.prayerfromasinner.com.

    January 15, 2014 at 3:56 pm |
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  5. yavaid

    I am pretty sure This Relegious scholar will not write about mohammed....and its not hard to find out why he wouldnt.

    October 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • wjshelton

      You would be wrong: No god but God, his first book, is about Islam. Yes, he writes about Muhammad in that book. No, you don't know anything about Reza Aslan. I would also suspect that you know nothing about Islam as well, given your comment.

      October 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
      • Keith

        You talk about "his book" I assume you are talking about the bible, why is it that no matter how many times it is pointed out that much of the bible is a rebelling of stories from much older civilizations that you just IGNORE this fact.
        Of course you IGNORE it because it undermines your own agenda. Your god did NOT write the bible and you know it. Yet you deliberately continue to spread your twisted story so that those who cannot or will not see through your deceptions continue to believe your fairy tales. It is clear that what you write is not credible.

        October 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
        • wjshelton

          Do you have a reading comprehension problem? My statement is clear. I am referring to "No god but God", Reza Aslan's first book. Please tell what rationale you were using to assume that I was talking about the Bible. Your comment has NOTHING to do with anything I wrote. Period.

          October 20, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  6. Frank A

    A Biblical tale begins – "It says in the Bible..." A fantasy story begins – "Once Upon a Time.." A sea story begins – "Now this is no s–t!" All seems the same to me.

    October 18, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Doris

      They might say the "old" and the "new"
      To me, "Gullible's Travels, Part One and Part Two"

      October 19, 2013 at 1:17 am |
      • Keith

        There should be a campaign to require book stores and libraries to move all religious writings to the fiction section, bad fiction preferably.

        October 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  7. Ol' Yeller

    "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."

    Does anyone recognize the disconnect between the Jesus he is talking about and the leaders of today who thump that Bible and chatise any who dare speak against it? Our 'Christian' leaders of today give not one whit about the poor and dispossessed. Their only thoughts and actions go to protect the rich and powerful who need no help or protection.
    When you Folks get this straightened out and start practicing what you preach, maybe the masses will once again start listening to you. For now, your greed and hateful words speak volumes of what is really in your heart and this Jesus you imagine would look down on the lot of you in shame.

    October 17, 2013 at 3:12 pm |

    Why and how can we believe in Jesus Christ?


    October 16, 2013 at 4:00 am |
    • keith

      I took a look at this web site, it turned my stomach.
      It is of course complete HOGWASH.

      October 16, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
      • chief of sinners

        I dare you to read http://www.prayerfromasinner.com

        January 15, 2014 at 3:47 pm |
  9. Keith

    I have looked at your web site and find not one word of TRUTH just the usual mindless and mind numbing GARBAGE

    October 14, 2013 at 2:35 am |

    AvdBerg is a troll on this blog their site is full of lies. Don't bother reading their posts, just click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll!

    October 13, 2013 at 11:28 am |

    AvdBerg is a troll on this blog their site is full of lies. Don't bother reading their posts, just click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll!

    October 13, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  12. Keith

    The more I read about this the more I thank the powers that be that I am a happy well adjusted and sane ATHEIST.
    These claims and counter claims are about as important as determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This guy Reza is said to have discovered a false Jesus, how the hell can you tell which is the false JC and which is the real JC you are not supposed to ASK QUESTIONS you just go on FAITH.
    Religion is without doubt the biggest SCAM ever invented and you idiots are PROVING it with your ludicrous arguments

    October 12, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • Observing

      Your valid points are missed when you call people "idiots". With that type of a post, in the eyes of some, you will simply be viewed as angry and your point overlooked.

      October 13, 2013 at 6:23 am |
  13. Libanus

    It is evident from the preface that Reza is in deep internal conflict between the religion of his forefathers (Islam) and his adopted religion (Christianity). In fact Islam's origin is based exactly on what Reza writes about, meaning the belief in Jesus of Nazareth (called the Nasara, i.e the followers of the Naseri, in Arabic: of Nazareth). Islam belief in Jesus as a man of God, and not as a son of God. Reza didn't do anything more than trying to prove that Islam was right, and found a happy middle believing in the existence of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and denying the rest.

    In fact in the Koran states: "the closest people to you are the Nasara" (i.e.) followers of Jesus of Nazareth; and "kill those that believe in the trinity (moshrekeen in Arabic) wherever you find them".

    Reza found his happy medium by defining himself as a Naseri, without contradicting niether his father, nor his forefathers. Fascinating...

    October 12, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • wjshelton

      It is evident that you don't have any idea what you are talking about. Have you even bothered reading Zealot? I ask, because it is also evident that you have not read the Qur'an. Your "quotes" simply aren't in it.

      I am so tired of people like you who seemingly do not believe that Reza Aslan can write anything objective simply because he is Muslim. What you are really saying is that no Muslim can ever be objective about anything and, therefore, no Muslim can ever be trusted for any reason. We could actually throw that back on you. Assuming that you are Christian, why should I believe that YOU are capable of being objective? You have shown me no inclination that you are prone to being so..

      That being said, there are a great many scholars of different faiths, Muslims and Christians included, who not only are capable of being objective and disinterested in their analysis of both their own and others religions, but do so without difficulty. Reza Aslan is clearly among that number. (And, yes, I have read his works.) Karen Armstrong is one example of a Christian among those scholars who comes to mind. You, sir, are NOT among their ranks.

      October 12, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • Keith

      More HOGWASH you people are all sadists, you seem to revel in self torture. Dump all your gods and have real FREEDOM. this freedom is wonderful, you don't have to live in a constant state of fear or terror in case you inadvertently displease your vile god.
      Nothing will happen to you and you do not have the loathsome specter of eternal life hanging over you. Who in their right mind would want to spend eternity in the company of any of the gods you grovel too.
      Be strong and tell your gods to go to hell.

      October 13, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
      • Pam

        Have you tried switching to decaf?

        October 15, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
        • Keith

          The great thing about knowing that all religion is, to coin a phrase, HOGWASH is that you don't need ANY form of stimulant to deaden the pain and humiliation that the faith loonies suffer from.
          Thanks for your concern but do not worry yourself, I am fine, I sometimes let my frustration get the better of me when I see normally intelligent people act like idiots and actually believe that fairy tales are true that must be so humiliating.
          STOP PRAYING AND START THINKING, it is SOOOOO envigorating to be FREE.

          October 16, 2013 at 12:37 am |
  14. Sanity

    “We are fond of talking about 'liberty'; but the way we end up actually talking of it is an attempt to avoid discussing what is 'good.' We are fond of talking about 'progress'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about 'education'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

    The modern man says, 'Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace unadulterated liberty.' This is, logically rendered, 'Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.'

    He says, 'Away with your old moral standard; I am for progress.' This, logically stated, means, 'Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.'

    He says, 'Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.' This, clearly expressed, means, 'We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”
    ― G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

    October 12, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • keith

      I read this quote from G K Chesterton and was impressed with it's beautiful phrasing. However I DO NOT UNDERSTAND what it says.
      I am confused by it's apparent contradictions, and murkiness, clearness and ambiguity should be the hallmark of good writing. This quote seems to be writing for the sake of writing, when it should be writing to the sake of CLARITY.

      October 12, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
      • lionfou

        EIther that, or you just didn't get it yet.

        It's VERY clear, simple and straightforward to me.

        October 13, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
        • Keith

          You would probably say the same about the bible, which in the opinion of most people is fuzzy, murky and far from straightforward. The problem with people like you is that you are star struck by the pronouncements of famous writers and assume that there seeming clever and concise prose must have wisdom in it. Balderdash, of all the many thousands of supposed learned tomes written over the last 2 thousand years about christianity they are all just fiction or personal opinions no more no less. None of these writers has a phone line to god and so no matter how beautiful their words their prose is WORTHLESS.
          I would advise you to do your own thinking and ignore the opinions of others.

          October 14, 2013 at 2:33 am |
      • Kevin

        What it says Keith is when your desire in life is for "more freedom" the very fact that you have a desire for "freedom" is a clue to the fact that you were born without something ie "freedom" your DNA knows your missing it but you can't quite put your finger on it so you search for it.I pray you find it a clue comes from another Chesterton quote when asked what was wrong with the world Chesterton replied "I am".

        October 17, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  15. Stephanie

    The Bible is a compilation of Jewish History and legends of creation, the travels of Gilgamesh, and other stories of a society who used those stories to tell how people were supposed to live in their various societies. The Bible is not to be taken literally all the time. Jesus taught in parables-just like the stories in the Bible. Now, think about who assembled all these into the book we now know as The Bible. A whole bunch of men (with agendas based on how their followers defined what they "Knew" about the life of Jesus) and an emporer who made the final decision on what went into this one Book and what didn't. Sorry, Jesus' message was very simple. Love your God with all your heart, mind and soul. Treat others as you would want to be treated, care for the poor, the widowed and orphaned, be a good neighbor and welcome the stranger in your midst. The rest falls into place automatically if you follow him.

    October 11, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • Keith

      Well said, it is a story about US not ghost, gods, ghouls or goblins. We are the only actors in this history let's respect each other and tell the gods to go to hell.

      October 11, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
    • Sanity

      so are you infallible?

      October 12, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
      • Eye need glasses

        I thought you wrote "inflatable"

        October 14, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  16. Mark Masih

    I am from Pakistan.
    I know how these fundamentalist Iranian, Pakistani and Muslims in general love Islam and they want all other religions to be fake, only Islam to rule over all. Muslims have a big problem when you say Lord Jesus is son of God. It makes their prophet look smaller, this is why they are trying to remove Lord Jesus any way possible. It is literary jihad on us Christians.
    I am Christian and I know how hard it is for people of my faith to pass each day under my oppressors and persecutors in Pakistan. It is hell on earth. But the good Lord is watching over us. Please don't let satan shake your faith for you don't know until you are crushed between 2 stones what faith really is.
    This article is cleverly written attack on Christ the Savior by a well paid closet jihadi who is fooling you Americans of weak minds. I beg do not let satan in your minds. Pray and I will pray for you too.
    Remember – guard your candle of faith and love, and let not satan blow it out with the storm of doubt.
    God bless all.

    October 11, 2013 at 7:19 am |
    • wjshelton

      Methinks thou hast been partaking too much of the derivatives of floral produce in thy neighboring Afghanistan.

      October 11, 2013 at 7:31 am |
  17. Kofi Kyei

    Christianity is by far the best religion it lets people be of themselves and also lets them worship God according to their own will but not force, it also talks about pace, love and mercy even to ones enemies, I am in and forever will be

    October 10, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • Keith

      Hogwash, remember the Spanish Inquisition and burning at the stake, within the last 30 years Nuns in the catholic church have been THREATENED with expulsion for trying to change the policies of the church.
      There are christian sect who practice shunning, corporal punishment and treating women and children as indentured slaves. I could go on and on but i am sure you will completely ignore reality, be happy in your delusions.

      October 10, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
      • ummm yaright

        lol, you hit the spot

        October 11, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • berryrat

      As a Wiccan, I beg to differ. Some Christians sects will never let us be in peace.

      October 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
  18. Thoughts

    When I look at the imagery of Jesus I see an image of a person who is suffering and I get the idea of symbolically wanting to show mercy to suffering people. I also get the idea of supporting the downtrodden above others, that makes sense to me. To see it as a literal historical figure though does not make sense to me.

    October 9, 2013 at 9:39 am |
    • harleybird

      Except other historians wrote about him. So the bible is not the only source.

      October 9, 2013 at 11:12 am |
      • Keith

        How many more times do I have to state the BLEEDING OBVIOUS.
        These other historians just repeated what they had read in the bible, there is NO OTHER source of information about JC other than the bible.
        You can list hundreds of historians who WROTE ABOUT JC but none of their writings say anything more than the bible does and we all know how far from the truth that is. Historians simply embellished their stories with innuendo and personal opinions but none of it is worth the paper it is written on.

        October 10, 2013 at 2:09 am |
        • harleybird

          Not true. But I wasn't talking about religious docs. I was talking about actual accepted histories by real historians. There are a lot of historical people and places that we talk about as real yet we only have fragments of information. Couldn't the same principal be used for JC? Most scholars agree he was a real person it is only the details of his life some argue about

          October 14, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
        • Keith

          Half of your response is CORRECT, for many historical people and events we know comparatively little so we have to rely on research carried out by archaeologists and historians. These people are searching for the truth and the real professionals go where the evidence points which is very different from religious writers.
          People who write religious history are already convinced that they know the truth and so everything is filtered through their faith, evidence that does not support their view of the truth is either discarded, deliberately ignored or trivialized to the extent that the truth becomes a joke to them.
          Religion should be held to a higher standard than normal histories because those without the ability to think rationally or critically can be fooled into believing fairy tales and devoting their lives to these fantasies. By contrast nobody really cares how many illegitimate children Henry VIII had, it just does not affect our lives, but the insane stories surrounding JC has millions of people believing he was the son of a god. There is not one iota of evidence to support that ridiculous assertion but people devoted their lives to churches based on these stories.
          Again you make assertions that are just not true, you say " I was talking about actual accepted histories by real historians" WHO HAS ACCEPTED THESE HISTORIES? WHO are these "real historians?" and were is their EVIDENCE. There is NO evidence, these "real Historians" can only repeat the stories that already exist because the ONLY evidence there is is the BIBLE. NO ONE has ever done research to show that the character known as Jesus Christ was the son of a god. Just because there are mentions of some one who might have been JC DOES NOT MEAN HE EXISTED OR WAS IN FACT THE SON OF A GOD.
          Most of the gospels where NOT written by eyewitnesses and even those that were are woefully incomplete, there are NO ACCOUNTS by any one who witnessed the virgin birth of JC, it's a fairy tale but people BELIEVE it.
          So NO you cannot apply the same principals to the story of JC, scientific and historical research has RIGID rules that if applied equally to the stories of JC then those stories would be consigned to the category of B grade horror movies.

          October 15, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • Keith

      I completely that we should support and help the poor, the hungry and the downtrodden. But when I look at an image of JC I get a pain in my belly.
      By the way there are NO IMAGES OF JC what you see is just the ravings of a disturbed artist who has NO IDEA what JC LOOKED LIKE

      October 10, 2013 at 2:13 am |
      • harleybird

        Keith, what happened to you to make you hate religion or JC so much? BTW JC is described in the bible and there were rules for grooming in the Mosaic Law so a good guess could be make by artists.

        I guess like Santa, Easter Bunny, and Tooth fairy there is no such thing as a nice well adjusted atheist? Nothing but hate from you guys on this thread.

        October 15, 2013 at 12:05 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.