The Jesus of the New Testament is a familiar figure to anyone raised in the Christian faith. But the Jesus of history is different from that figure of faith.
According to author and religious scholar Reza Aslan, the historical Jesus was:
• "Very likely illiterate, uneducated — as were 98 percent of his fellow Jews."
• "Poor, extremely poor. In fact, if we take the Bible at its word that Jesus was ... a woodworker, a builder, then that would make Jesus probably at the second-lowest rung of the social hierarchy in his time, just above the indigent, the beggar and the slave."
• "He was from Galilee. Galilee was considered backwoods. It was considered the way many Americans would think of, say, Appalachia or the Deep South. The Galileans were referred to derisively as 'people of the land.' It was a term that suggested they were uncouth, uneducated poor, people who were subsistence farmers."
• "He lived in a village called Nazareth ... This village was so small, so inconsequential, that its name does not appear on any map or document before the end of the first century. This is a village that probably housed maybe 100 families at most. Didn't have any roads, didn't have any public baths, didn't have a synagogue or a school."
• "Poor, pious, illiterate, marginal, an outcast, someone that the authorities of the time would barely regard at all, or would regard as nothing more than a nuisance and a troublemaker.
• "And yet despite all this, through the power of his charisma, through the power of his teachings, he was able to gather a movement to himself, a movement of people like him ... that was seen as so threatening to the political and religious powers of his day that he was ultimately arrested, tortured and executed as a state criminal."
"That really is quite remarkable," Aslan said Tuesday on The Daily Circuit. "People always ask me why I'm interested in Jesus. How could you not be interested in the person I just described? He sounds like the most interesting person who ever lived."
Aslan's new book is "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." The book got an accidental boost from an interview he did recently with FoxNews.com anchor Lauren Green. In the interview, which went viral on the Web, Green asked Aslan why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus:
Aslan interprets biblical accounts of Jesus through the lens of known history about Palestine under Roman occupation. Seen in that light, for example, the Beatitudes are not mere "abstract ethical principles," but "remarkable statements about the reversal of the social order."
"'Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the hungry, for they shall be fed,' etc. We always forget the radical nature of those statements.
"And, frankly, we always forget the second part of the Beatitudes, often referred to as the 'woes,' where Jesus says, 'And woe to the rich, for they shall be made poor. And woe to the fed, for they shall be made hungry.' What Jesus is describing is not some Utopian fantasy that will occur at the end of time. What he's talking about is the reversal of the social order as they knew it. 'The first will be last, the last will be first. The rich will be made poor, the poor will be made rich. The hungry will be fed, the fed will be made hungry.'
"It doesn't take a genius to figure out a) how appealing that message would be to the poor and the hungry, and b) how threatening and radical that message would be to the powerful, the wealthy and the well-fed."
He told Kerri Miller that the miraculous elements of the Jesus story — for example, the virgin birth and the resurrection — "are things that are beyond the realm of the historian. They are by definition ahistorical events. I can't as a historian comment on the resurrection, because it falls outside of history."
ARE FAITH AND HISTORY IN CONFLICT?
Aslan drew a distinction between historians and believers:
"This is the most important thing to understand about the division between history and faith. Faith is about what is possible. Is it possible that Jesus thought of himself as God incarnate? Is it possible that Jesus rose from the dead? Yes, it's possible. Is it likely? No, it's not. And the job of the historian is to say what is likely, not what is possible.
"But a person of faith can read a historical account of Jesus, about what is likely, and still stay firm in his or her own faith of what is possible. I don't think those are necessarily conflicting things, as so many people seem to."
Aslan says the best-known fact about Jesus — that he was crucified under the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate — tells a fundamental truth about him: that at the time of his death he was seen as a political subversive. Crucifixion, Aslan says, was reserved for enemies of the state.
And he suggests that some of the other elements of the Jesus story are not the facts we may think they are. For example, Pilate was a harsh, ruthless ruler, not the conscience-stricken bureaucrat who tried to find a way out of crucifying an innocent man. And the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, Aslan says, was invented to make the story of Jesus conform to prophecies about the messiah. He writes:
"Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which, in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous."
What's more, he says, Luke's readers would not have expected the story to be strictly factual. Most people in the world of that day, he writes, "did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality."
LEARN MORE ABOUT "ZEALOT":
• Still a Firebrand, 2,000 Years Later
Mr. Aslan's book has been greeted with unwarranted controversy. Some conservatives seem offended by merely the idea that a Muslim scholar would write a book about Jesus. This should be no more controversial than a Christian scholar's writing a book about Islam or Muhammad. It happens all the time. Nor is Mr. Aslan's thesis controversial, at least among scholars of early Christianity. (The New York Times)
• Jesus Needs Reza Aslan, Author of 'Zealot'
The author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is at the center of an inexplicable firestorm for writing a book about Jesus. He's been treated to hair-splitting attacks on his academic credentials and claims of a secret Muslim agenda. Nearly every critic of the Iranian-American and Muslim author has fretted over whether he has the right to tackle his subject. In an interview, Aslan was exasperated, pointing out to me repeatedly that his credentials were never questioned when he wrote the bestselling," No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." (Kirsten Powers, writing at the Daily Beast)
• Reza Aslan on "The Daily Show":