Who was Jesus Christ the man? Religious scholar Reza Aslan re-examines Jesus, discovering a man he says wasn’t just a peaceful teacher but also a political revolutionary who urged his followers to take up arms. In his new book, “Zealot,” Aslan examines the political life of Jesus, and what inaccuracies between the Gospels reveal about Jesus’ life.

Interview Highlights

Jesus Christ: Savior or Politician? 24 July,2013forum

Reza Aslan, associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside; and author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

  • Denarius

    Prove to us that your god or any god exists, because only then will Jesus, Mohammed and whatever other charlatans have relevance in our lives. If the goal is to instruct about anti-imperialism, the story of Jesus cannot be helpful because it is always based on rumors and inferences and the data is sparse. Even the owners of empires can claim he’s on their side. If you want to talk about revolutionaries, there are many others to choose from. Speak about one who has actually written something, who didn’t go missing for 18 years, and whose followers didn’t ridiculously claim him to be a god.

    • Vincent Forrest Tippens

      Find another figure who has fanatical followers of the man rather than the story two thousand years later.

      There’s a good reason for him writing, and getting an interview with Fox to generate controversy – to provide a new view that at least partially chews on the original biblical concepts.

  • dornbiker

    The first question to answer in trying to uncover the historical Jesus is: Did he actually ever exist? Or was Jesus a mythical creation sharing many qualities (virgin birth, rise from dead, miracles, etc.) of other mythical entities of that age, euhemerized by later (70-120 years) Jewish activists. Having heard Mr. Aslan on other forums, it seems he is an “historicist.” There is a growing current of “mythicist” thinking, with such figures as Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, etc. Even Bart Ehrman makes the case that everything in the New Testament is contradictory and dubious, yet stops short of suggesting Jesus ever existed. Can Mr. Aslan say with absolute certainty that Jesus existed?

    • Vincent Forrest Tippens

      By that logic, we should try to figure out if Gandhi actually existed.

      • marte48

        not really. We have direct evidence that Gandhi existed. We have no such direct evidence for Jesus. Do you believe in Santa Claus?

  • RabbiCaudill

    YES! Finally, someone who understands the reality.

  • Mrs. Eccentric

    a few years ago i started reading about the historical Jesus in an effort to understand something about how Christianity started. After a couple of years i came to the conclusion that if western academics were looking at the existing evidence as an argument for the actual historical existence of any other figure the judgement would be – no such person lived.

    As far as i could tell, the only part of the early christian story which was entirely original was the idea that these stories were being told about/these teaching had been promulgated by a real person. i have to say this whole journey has given me completely unexpected insights into the nature and function of myth in society. steph

    • TrainedHistorian

      Actually, the vast majority of us “western academics” specializing in Western antiquity do agree that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Among other reasons, there are actually better written sources for him than for the vast majority of other folks who lived at that time and place, because, inter alia, they are written sooner after he lived than the majority of ancient sources used all the time for other ancient people. (Consider that Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ information about many court figures and events of Julius and Augustus’ rule are used all the time by us without questioning their existence or occurence, even though there’s a greater chronological gap between those events/figures and Tacitus’ & Suetonius’ writing (over 100 years), than between Jesus’ life and Paul’s letters (20 years) or the gospels (40-50 years).

      Among ancient figures, only a tiny handful of rulers (who left coins & inscriptions) and writers (like Paul) have better documentation for their existence than Jesus of Nazareth. One can not study ancient history at all if one assumes that only those who are that well-documented (some rulers and writers) existed. Contrary to what you stay, the mythicists of Christ apply a far, far more rigorous standard to the existence of Jesus of Nazareth than they do to the vast majority of other ancient figures.

      • Mrs. Eccentric

        hello Mr./Ms. Historian! “Actually, the vast majority of us “western academics” specializing in
        Western antiquity do agree that Jesus of Nazareth existed.”

        ah, seems once again my writing could be more clear – fortunately Mr. Krasny and Mr. Aslan got my drift. Your statement is my point – i believe that looking at the same situation regarding any other person than Jesus, and more specifically a religious figure who is claimed to have actually existed as the person starting a religious movement with particular biographical characteristics (born in a manger, throwing out the money changers, walking on water, instituting the eucharist at the last supper, traveling and preaching with 12 disciples, etc.), most western academics would pooh pooh the idea. See my phrase ‘…of any other figure…” ie., other than Jesus, the god figure of the predominant religion of the western world for the last 2,000 years.

        I base this on the scanty historical evidence, plus (as i mentioned above) the fact that pretty much everything Jesus is supposed to have said or done was earlier said or done by other religious figures (Odin, Mithras, Osiris/Isis, etc.) – all of whom are regarded as fictional entities by the western academic community.

        So to be blunt, i think Jesus gets a pass because he’s Jesus. But this is just my own very humble opinion. i am not a trained historian, though i have taken a number of college courses (sadly, without graduating). I do understand your point about the evidence for historical figures. As it happens many of the college courses i took were in archaeology, where the question of evidence is of course always present and constantly under examination.

        Happily, in terms of my questions about the origins of Christianity, Paul was voluminously literate, not to mention quite the organizer. Thank you for participating in this discussion, i find this topic fascinating! Unfortunately personal obligations will prevent me from further participation in the next few days. Have a great day! steph

  • Mrs. Eccentric

    also, we were raised Unitarian in the bay area and i remember my dad talking about Jesus the radical socialist back in the 1970’s. Fun memories! steph

  • James Ivey

    Jesus had 4 brothers? I assume he was the eldest.

  • TrainedHistorian

    Jesus was not a “peasant”: the word is NEVER used of him in the gospels. He is called “tekton” e.g. carpenter or mason. “Tekton” was not the same thing at all in first century Greco-Roman Palestine as “peasant.” (the gospels use the word “ergaths” for fieldworkers). He was what we historians of the ancient/medieval world sometimes call an “artisan.” No good ancient historian thinks a “mason/carpenter” was the same as a “peasant.”

    There is not a shred of evidence that Jesus was “illiterate” as Aslan claims. Clearly he knew Jewish scripture well; we simply don’t know if the knowledge was exclusively oral or included literacy. Jewish artisans could be literate. Paul was certainly literate in Greek yet was also an artisan, i.e. tent-maker (Acts 18:3). Aslan gives no evidence at all that a “tekton” was the second lowest class just above beggar or slave, as he claims, or the same as or lower than a peasant. That some Roman upper classes looked down on “tekta” is no evidence that a “tekton” was a “peasant” or that it was viewed as lower than or the same as a peasant. (Snobs today and in the past sneer at carpenters, it doesn’t mean they think they are lower than or at the same class level as lettuce-pickers).

    Aslan’s attempt to portray Jesus as a “Zealot” is not convincing. There is not a shred of evidence Jesus committed any violence against Rome, or preached such. That some Roman authorities thought he was seditious is no evidence that he was! Does Aslan think everyone suspected of terrorism or crime today, and convicted of such, actually was a terrorist or criminal? And first century Roman empire had much more arbitrary courts than modern Western governments.

    In general, Aslan greatly exaggerates the supposed differences between “Jewish” “Roman,” “Hellenic” and “Christian.” Jesus’s closest follower, Peter, had a brother named Andreas, a purely Greek name. Another disciple was called Philip, the name of Alexander the Great’s father. This shows his earliest followers were not as un-Hellenized as he pretends.

    Also, the Gospel of John was NOT written when there was a total break between Judaism and “Christianity” as he claims. The Jerusalem church was still headed by Jews, and there still were plenty of Jews in the churches. The Bar Kochba revolt (132-135) led to the end of a Jewish-led Jerusalem church, not earlier events, And the gospel of John is now dated 66-100, not 100-120 as he says. An Egyptian scrap of it is dated 120. Since it’s obviously not an autograph copy, the gospel itself is clearly older than 120.

    • timholton

      I asked the question about the significance of Christ being a carpenter, but was disappointed that the reply only went to what this means about Christ’s social status. Perhaps you can shed light on the point of my question, which was what the fact that Christ was a carpenter says about the Christian message regarding manual work. “Work” in Christian theology is directly related to charity — to providing. In light of this, carpentry was surely more than a day job for Christ; he was not, after all, a slave forced in to that line. It is interesting that, as Mr Aslan said, Christ’s work was the object of Roman derision — a point that, if true (and do you agree?) — says much about the status of manual workers among Romans. But I’m at least as curious about the mythological and/or historical significance of Christ’s occupation.

      Admittedly I’m taking a step toward answering my own question, but am I on the right track? And if so, can you help me flesh it out. If not, would be interested in that too, of course.

      Thank you.

      • TrainedHistorian

        In general, as in other pre-modern societies with class hierarchy, even free people who worked with their hands were looked down on by the elites in the Roman empire. But the lowest, and those with least power, were slaves, not carpenters. Beggars were probably in status, though not necessarily well-being, a step above slaves because of being legally free. And artisans like carpenters were certainly a step above free rural agricultural day laborers. This is why I cannot accept Aslan’s (or Crossan’s) completely unwarranted use of the term “peasant” for Jesus or the apostles.It’s contradicted by the sources which give them other occupations. Jesus’ earliest named followers seem to have been largely of this lower middle class of moderately-skilled “artisans.” John and James bar Zebedee were fishermen, not peasants, and note that their father could afford to hire laborers (misthotai: literally wage-earners) to replace them when they left the family to follow Jesus (Mark 1:20). Also their father and Peter apparently owned their own boats. This isn’t high, but it’s a step above “peasant” i.e. agricultural day laborers who owned no capital at all and could not afford to hire anyone.

        I would say as a historian of the ancient/medieval period that perhaps the greatest step towards dignifying manual labor in the pre-modern West was taken in a somewhat later period by cenobitic monks (begins in the fourth century), particularly the 6th century Benedictines, whose rule required manual labor of all monks. Did monks draw on the example of the apostles & Jesus as manual workers to justify their manual labor requirement? It’s an interesting question that some specialist of monasticism (not I) might answer.

        • timholton

          Thank you.

  • northerncalif

    Listening now…..The crucifixion was mentioned as the most important message of Jesus and all that we need to know. I beg to differ… the messages, the new philosophy, the good news, the enlightened thinking….the GOSPELS… are part of the depth of the Christian Faiths. This author does not seem to relate to this. The parables and Beatitudes needed to be heard before the death meant anything. This author’s enthusiasm for the facts he chooses puts a slant on this book.

  • dornbiker

    Of course the non-Christian sources for the historical Jesus cited by Mr. Aslan could be forgeries by later Christians. This seems particularly true of Josephus Flavius. Note that after the conversion of Constantine, the new “establishment” church endeavored mightily to destroy any pre-Christian stories and embellish the “historical” record. Not persuaded. But then, who can argue with “faith.”

    • Mrs. Eccentric

      yes, i did crack up when he used Josephus as his big reveal. i would encourage anyone interested in the historical Jesus to check out the scholarship on the Josephus quote. steph

      • TrainedHistorian

        He did not refer to the “Jesus quote.” He refers to Antiquities 20,200, which the great majority of contemporary scholars believe is authentic.

  • Mrs. Eccentric

    hi Michael – it’s ‘stephanie’ not ‘stephen’, just fyi. have a great one! steph

  • Arlene Jech

    Is Reza Aslan aware of the work done by Neil Douglas Klotz in the Aramaic versions of the Bible- and the Syriac Orthodix church;s Bible in Aramaic.

  • Stan Pun

    (not sure if my first post went thru) I don’t know how Aslan can “embrace” Christianity when he believes the core of it is false. Aslan pretty much says Jesus was a failure in life, delusional or a liar in calling himself a Messiah, and that he couldn’t be God. (If he were God, would he fail?). Why would he then move to the Muslim religion, whose Koran calls Jesus a prophet? Though I don’t think it wise to base one’s faith on historical Christianity or the historical Christ, I do find it compelling that Christ, a total “failure” and common “peasant”, with mostly uneducated followers can “craft” a marketing/propaganda campaign (that they knew was not true) that has more influence in today’s world than any other historical figure or governmental powers before and after him. Posting from San Francisco, a city named after some dude that devoted his life to following in a lying peasant.

  • axwallace

    Nothing new here. In 1967 Samuel George Frederick Brandon (1907-1971) a British scholar and professor of comparative religion at the University of Manchester published a controversial book called Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity. Brandon argued that Jesus was a 1st century “revolutionary” figure, who was executed for sedition and that the early church tried to suppress this information, turning the revolutionary Jesus into the “pacific Christ.”

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Since Paul wrote so much of the NT why isn’t the religion named Paulism?

    • Vincent Forrest Tippens

      Because Paul chose the name, and he wasn’t the one being worshipped. You’d be surprised at what you can get away with by saying “This OTHER guy is amazing! This is what he did! Follow him!” when that other person’s view point is similar to your own.

  • trite

    I don’t understand how it can be that crucifixion was reserved only for those guilty of sedition and treason, when two thieves were crucified at the same time as Christ. Please explain, Mr. Aslan.

    • Vincent Forrest Tippens

      He did.
      They weren’t thieves, they were “Bandits” – the most common term for anti-empirical rebels at the time, in that bandits attacked caravans and trade routes in an attempt to starve a city or country.

      Mistranslations are wonderful, eh? Be nice if Martin Luther *actually* knew Latin, rather than having to use dictionaries to translate the Bible to English.

  • Marc Deprey

    Why would Jesus’ body be allowed to be buried if the decomposition of it was part of the deterrent?

  • Unfortunately, the official biography of the one known to most as “Jesus” may not be entirely correct.

  • marte48

    Wasn’t Jesus quoted as saying, when asked about paying taxes, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s?”

  • marte48

    Jesus apparently also lived with his parents until he was 30.

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