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July 31st, 2013
09:07 AM ET

What Reza Aslan actually says about Jesus

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) - As you might have heard, Lauren Green at Fox didn’t do a very good job interviewing Reza Aslan on his new book about the historical Jesus.

Instead of asking him about "Zealot," she asked him why, as a Muslim, he would presume to write a book about Jesus. He responded by citing (and re-citing) his academic credentials.

The interview went viral, and Aslan went to No. 1 on Amazon.com (ahead of J. K. Rowling).

But what does the book actually say? Here are seven of Aslan's key arguments in "Zealot":

1. Jesus was a violent revolutionary

Many scholars have argued that Jesus was a political figure. After all, he was crucified by Rome, and crucifixion was at the time a punishment for political offenses. But these scholars often claim, as John Dominic Crossan did in "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography," that Jesus was a nonviolent revolutionary.

Aslan portrays Jesus as a man of war who worshiped the "blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua” and who knew full well that “God’s sovereignty could not be established except through force.”

2. Jesus’ kingdom was worldly

In the Gospel of John, Jesus famously says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Aslan begs to differ. Jesus’ kingdom was neither purely nor predominantly spiritual. He preached “a physical and present kingdom: a real kingdom, with an actual king that was about to be established on earth.”

3. Jesus revolted against Roman and Jewish authorities

Jesus didn’t just take on Rome. He took on Jewish authorities, in particular those who ran the Jerusalem Temple.

“There can be no doubt,” writes Aslan, “that Jesus’s main antagonist in the gospels is neither the distant emperor in Rome nor his heathen officials in Judea. It is the high priest Caiaphas, who will become the main instigator of the plot to execute Jesus precisely because of the threat he posed to the Temple’s authority.”

4. Palm Sunday is the key moment in the Jesus story

Every Jesus biographer has a key moment in the life of Jesus when his essence is revealed. For Aslan, that moment comes when Jesus mounts a donkey and rides into Jerusalem.

In this celebration, commemorated in the Christian world every year on Palm Sunday, Jesus is not demonstrating his humility. Instead, he is announcing his kingship.

The “unmistakeable” message of this scene, according to Aslan, is that “the long-awaited messiah — the true King of the Jews — has come to free Israel from its bondage.”

5. The early church turned Jesus into a pacifist preaching a spiritual kingdom

In 66-73 CE, a bloody Jewish revolt against Rome left Jerusalem in ruins and chastened the early Christians, who reinvented Jesus as an apolitical figure in order to make nice with Rome.

Those who wrote of Jesus in this way (Paul included) never met the man, and, in Aslan's view, they badly mischaracterized him, turning “their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.”

6. The idea that Jesus was God also originated with the early church

As a Jew, Aslan observes, Jesus would have rebelled against any notion that God is incarnated in human flesh.

Therefore, the elevation of Jesus to divinity must have come after his crucifixion, at the hands of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who “transformed Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod.”

7.  The Bible isn’t to be believed (as history)

In "Zealot," Aslan repeatedly refers to passages in the New Testament as “preposterous,” “fanciful,” “obviously contrived,” “riddled with the most basic errors,” “simply ridiculous,” and “absurd to the point of comedy.”

Here the Bible is a source for data about Jesus’s life, but that data must be carefully sifted through a scholarly lens, and in particular through the socioeconomic realities of life in the ancient Mediterranean at the time of Jesus.

At least as Aslan sees it, Jesus probably didn’t tell his followers to turn the other cheek. He probably did say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10:34).

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Books • Christianity • Islam • Jesus

soundoff (854 Responses)
  1. Jennifer

    So why did he write about Jesus? It's all just about the money, would we be talking about his book if the subject were Mohammed? Of course not!
    Funny how some people embrace a "biography" written 2000 year after Jesus' birth over one written few years after his death. That's how smart some people really is.

    August 6, 2013 at 3:16 am |
    • raincheck

      He believes in, or at least promotes, the universality of religion. Making Jesus into a human prophet is one step closer to that goal. If it makes you feel better he's reworked enough Islam to have a lot of Muslims hating him to....just look around at the discussions of his earlier works.

      August 6, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Layla

      Why shouldn't he write about Jesus? After all, doesn't Jesus belong to the ages? What are you afraid of?

      August 6, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
  2. required

    Why do you do this Reza? What you're doing is like Judas turning in Jesus for a bag of money. What good is it? After what Jesus went through, and you don't believe him. You sold out all the apostles too, called them all liars. They went to their deaths too saying the truth about Jesus. You called Jesus names, mis-characterized him, and guess what... he's still there, he exists, and he's got the power of God... the Holy Spirit.

    Why?

    There is a huge difference between trying to understand the history and what's being said, making some mistakes while trying to figure it out, verses outright denying the historical account from eye witnesses. Big time difference. The one is just trying to understand a complex topic, the other is turning in your best friend to kill him all over again for cash flow. It's sick. You're saying God's son didn't do what he did, when centuries of history say he did, and did God and the angels. See the New Testament, Reza, actual angels saying Jesus did what he was sent to do. Angels with the appearance of lightning said it... what good is cash going to do you against that?

    They told the truth, you didn't.

    August 6, 2013 at 2:34 am |
    • HotAirAce

      So, you must have proof, as in conclusive evidence, for angels and the rest of the crap in The Babble. I can't wait to hear and see it.

      August 6, 2013 at 2:42 am |
      • required

        Proof of God? Sure, I'm breathing right now, that's his gift... life.

        August 6, 2013 at 3:48 am |
        • required

          I am carrying around proof of God all day long, day after day... a gift from God. He is the best ever.

          August 6, 2013 at 4:56 am |
  3. TRE

    WOW! I hope this guy didn't spend a lot of money on his biblical studies.

    August 5, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
  4. Mark

    Any response from Dr. Aslan about the piece in First Things regarding his mis statement about his academic credentials and actual teaching responsibilities? http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/07/29/scholarly-misrepresentation/

    August 5, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  5. Ari

    Galatians 1:6-10 talks about the perversion of the gospel by others. It is both a warning to an early church but also a warning to a future where there would be false prophets claiming to have an angelic visitation to provide a new bible (Joseph Smith's book of Mormon) and Mohammed (Quran). Both alleged prophets claim that have a new revelation that supersedes the gospels of the new testament from an angel.

    The key verse of warning about such things is verse 8: But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.

    This was a warning about the future people who would claim to be prophets with new revelations that contradicted what the bible said.

    August 5, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • hee hee

      You realize that scholars do not take the bible as the final word on history, right? If they did, that would be religion, not history.

      They use many sources, archaeological and written. It's strange that I should have to point this out.

      August 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  6. Reality

    o Once again we come to save Aslan and the other 1.3 billion lost Muslims from their Three B Syndrome, i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in Islam but this time reducing the Five Steps for Deprogramming Islam to One Step in order to by-pass most of the language barrier:

    Gabriel never existed!!!!!! No Gabriel, no communiques from heaven and therefore Islam has no foundation!!!

    from Google Translate:

    غابرييل لم تكن موجودة!!!!!! لا غابرييل، لا بالبيانات من السماء، وبالتالي لا يوجد لديه أساس الإسلام

    August 5, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  7. Lamb of dog

    It's all lies.

    August 5, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  8. Here's what really happened

    Reza lied.

    The apostles told the truth.

    August 4, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
    • Salero21

      Yes!

      August 5, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • His panic

      You got it!

      August 5, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
      • My Name is Bond

        STHU panic! You have me bloody mad now! Remember the Armada!

        August 5, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
        • M&Q

          No you do STHU Bond, you are full of wacky backy you ar.se!

          August 5, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • EX catholic

      I agree!

      August 5, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • In Other Words

      Me too!

      August 5, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • Quest ion

      How, when, where and why did he lie?

      What did he say?

      Who is he?

      August 5, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • Reality

      Might want to do some added reading to determine who lied and who copied from who:

      To wit:

      A sampling is presented at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

      :Jesus the Myth: Heavenly Christ

      Earl Doherty
      Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy

      Jesus the Myth: Man of the Indefinite Past

      Alvar Ellegård
      G. A. Wells

      Jesus the Hellenistic Hero/Zealot

      Gregory Riley

      Jesus the Revolutionary/Zealot

      Robert Eisenman

      Jesus the Wisdom Sage

      John Dominic Crossan
      Robert Funk
      Burton Mack
      Stephen J. Patterson

      Jesus the Man of the Spirit

      Marcus Borg
      Stevan Davies
      Geza Vermes

      Jesus the Prophet of Social Change /Zealot

      Richard Horsley
      Hyam Maccoby
      Gerd Theissen

      Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet /Zealot

      Bart Ehrman
      Paula Fredriksen
      Gerd Lüdemann
      John P. Meier
      E. P. Sanders

      Jesus the Savior

      Luke Timothy Johnson
      Robert H. Stein
      N. T. Wright

      Obviously, "professor" Aslan needs to answer some questions about plagiarism. As do Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (none of whom were apostles) who used the OT to create a lot of prophetical "Jesus" -fit- the – story myths.

      To get an excellent review as to the identi-ty of the scripture authors, see Father Raymond Brown's book, An Introduction to the New Testament, 896 page text approved by the RCC.

      August 5, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
      • Salero21

        Really! Atheism is stupidity in Full bloom.

        August 5, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
        • Richard Cranium

          S21 is a lying troll. Ignore it.

          August 5, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
        • Salero21

          Can't prove me to be a liar, wrong or a troll huh!:-D Therefore atheism is stupidity in Full bloom in any season.

          August 6, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
      • Reality

        Summarizing for the new members of this blog:

        The Apostles' Creed 2013: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

        Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
        and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
        human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

        I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
        preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
        named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
        girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

        Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
        the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

        He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
        a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
        Jerusalem.

        Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
        many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
        and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
        Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
        grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
        and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
        called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

        Amen
        (references used are available upon request)

        August 6, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
        • joshtheapologist

          The period of time between Christ and the earliest Gospel is not enough time for editions of the Gospel message to happen. some witnesses would still be alive to testify, look into William Craig's rebuttal to your pitifully lost idea.

          January 15, 2014 at 7:36 pm |
  9. hee hee

    I really feel bad for this guy. He does some research, and incites the most intense vitriol from people who don't read.

    That Fox news interview was shameful. Why has the US descended into such complete contempt for anything intellectual?

    August 4, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Because of religion.

      August 5, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
      • Salero21

        Really! So now that according to some atheists there is less religion than ever, the people are more stupid than ever.

        See, this is one more piece of Evidence that atheism is stupidity in Full bloom.

        August 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  10. Perry Tanko

    wow, this guy.
    Aslan must want to be elevated to the level of Salman Rushdie; he sure does a job of making disrespect of the Christian prophet, Jesus Christ.

    August 4, 2013 at 9:17 am |
    • hee hee

      He's not doing anything similar to what Salman Rushdie was doing. Salman Rushdie wrote a novel about many things including religion, Islam in particular (which I enjoyed very much, and I wish some of the people critical of it had read it). Aslan is a scholar writing about the history associated with Christ.

      Information is not disrespect. Learn history. Ask questions.

      August 4, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
  11. Sherry Austin

    I'm not a Christian, but I notice that Jesus is always an easy, "safe" target for appraisal. Of course Reza has every right to write such a book and all the credentials to support him. But has he written or would he also write such a book about MOHAMMED? I want to see him do this. I want him to at least answer this question: Do you, Reza, a Muslim, have guts enough to write a book challenging the traditional Muslim view of MOHAMMED?

    August 4, 2013 at 9:08 am |
    • GoodwithWood

      Yes I do think he would.

      August 4, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • hee hee

      He's not obligated to write a book whose theme is chosen out of some absurd notion of fairness.

      Anyway, you could have googled his publications. For example, "Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age, 2010". Doesn't sound like a coward to me.

      August 4, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
    • Johnny

      IF you want a book about Mohammed that bad, why don't you do the research and write it yourself?

      August 5, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • kaafir

      No, he won't write a critical book examining the real life of Muhammad. He cannot, as a Muslim, truly question Muhammad's prophetic credentials.

      August 5, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
      • hee hee

        You don't see any problem with that? Shouldn't we ask questions?

        What do you have to lose? What are you afraid of?

        August 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  12. My Little Donkey

    Every conquering king back then rode donkeys, and carried no armor or sword. Their armies attacked with palm branches. And if the king's donkey stopped moving, just because, one of their women subjects would pull the donkey some to get it walking again. Of course a lot of conquering kings died doing this, but they were backwards like that in the caveman era, right Reza?

    August 4, 2013 at 3:08 am |
  13. Moe

    Just go to you tu be and search for deedat, he has all your answers 🙂
    I challenge anyone to counter his arguments about what you call a "coherent" belief.

    August 4, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  14. atomD21

    We pin far too much of our belief on stories from "eye wintesses" to events and quotes that were not recorded for 60 years after they may or may not have happened. Aslan's work looks into more of who the historical figure of Jesus possibly was, versus the religious figure we read about in the BIble. You may not agree with a single word he says, but what's the harm in reading the book and coming to your own conclusions? Oh, that's right, independent thought and Fundamentalism have never gotten along...

    August 4, 2013 at 1:18 am |
    • Talk to the hand

      Ick on the book. If Jesus didn't like the original page, I doubt he'd like the book.

      He hates puppets too.

      August 4, 2013 at 2:06 am |
  15. Phil

    As a practicing progressive Christian (who was raised Roman catholic), it baffles me when seemingly intelligent worshippers want to deride anything that might change their beliefs. The sociology and culture of the time is important, is it not? Do you really hold your beliefs away from knowledge? What kind of belief is that? Certainly, it reduces faith to nothing more than comfort, a child clutching a blanket. Take Aslan's book out of it for a second, and ask yourself if a poor Jewish carpenter who was actively fighting against injustice, greed, and marginalization would endorse a world political force that claims him as mascot.

    August 3, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • dgsfgsdffasdfasdfbggfdgfd

      CHINESE PROGRAMS USING SATELLITES TO CREATE MURDERERS.
      SALE OF VENEZUELAN PEOPLE SELLING FOR MATURE NICOLAS STUDIES OF THE HUMAN RACE.
      AN IRRADIATED 100 000 CHILDREN FROM SATELLITES.
      http:://mudpgi.blog.com
      vvcccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccc

      August 3, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • hee hee

      Thanks for expressing this.

      In a word, what's wrong with information and analysis? How about reading his book?

      August 4, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
  16. DWN

    Why is CNN wasting any time on this man and his oddball beliefs?

    August 3, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      Does this help: Aslan went to No. 1 on Amazon.com (ahead of J. K. Rowling).

      So a lot of people do care. My guess is that the people buying this type of book are borderline agnositcs but due to childhood brainwashing can't let go of the concept of a savior.

      August 3, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
    • hee hee

      Which one is oddball?

      For a bonus, read his book and find evidence against his claims.

      August 4, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
  17. dan bennett

    N T Wright "The Resurrection of the Son of God"

    No discussion of Jesus in the 21st Century can proceed without a point by point affirmation or refutation of this book. Period.

    Mr. Aslan can generate enormous revenue and buzz with outworn theories and his own agenda, but no one should take seriously anything he, or other "scholar" for that matter, has to say about Jesus of Nazareth unless they confront this seminal work.

    N T Wright "The Resurrection of the Son of God"

    August 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Reality

      Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection Con/

      From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15: 14, Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

      Even now Catholic/Christian professors (e.g.Notre Dame, Catholic U, Georgetown) of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

      To wit;

      From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

      "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
      Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

      Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

      Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

      The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

      Only Luke records it. (Luke mentions it in his gospel and Acts, i.e. a single attestation and therefore historically untenable). The Ascension ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers.

      The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

      "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."
      http://eternal-word.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2HEAVN.HTM

      The Vatican quickly embellished this story with a lot CYAP.

      With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

      An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,

      p.4

      "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

      p.168. by Ted Peters:

      Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

      So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

      August 3, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
      • John Sharp

        Geez all this discussion about nothing.

        Pathetic

        August 4, 2013 at 7:31 am |
  18. Atheist, me?

    Everything alright buddy?

    August 3, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  19. Reality

    What Aslan and Prothero should have noted:

    . JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Many contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah/Argentine white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man would do or say?

    August 3, 2013 at 8:10 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.