Speaking before a dramatic collage of various depictions of the Christ, New YorkTimes bestselling author and renowned religious scholar Reza Aslan addressed a crowd of students and faculty May 7 in Drexel’s Main Auditorium to discuss his most recent book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Aslan was the fourth lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences’ annual Distinguished Lecture Series.
“Zealot” is an attempt to separate what was likely the life of the historical Jesus from the narrative of what Aslan calls “the Christ of Faith.” Since there is very little evidence regarding the life if the historical Jesus, Aslan stressed that a way to investigate Jesus’ life is by exploring the political and social realities of first century Palestine, along with an intense study of the original language of the New Testament, Koine Greek.
According to Aslan, there are three things upon which most Biblical scholars agree..
“We know maybe three things, and when I say ‘know,’ I mean we can be somewhat confident in. … We would agree that Jesus was a Jew — sounds obvious but it is good to remind ourselves of that every once in a while. In fact truly, truly, the difference between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith is that the Jesus of History was a Jew preaching Judaism to other Jews, and I want you to lock that in back of your mind because that is the key in separating the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. We know that sometime in the first half of the first century he started a Jewish movement predicated on this notion called the kingdom of God … and that he was executed by Rome as a result of this movement for the crime of sedition, and that’s it. Remove the Christian writings from the equation and that is all we can say with any kind of confidence,” Aslan said.
Due to this, Aslan explained, many scholars feel that because there is so little known about the historical Jesus, their only option is to focus on the Christ of Faith because it is more accessible to them.
Aslan, however, disagrees and said that though we know little about the Jesus of History himself, we do know a large amount about the time in which he lived.
“First century Palestine is an era that is exhaustively documented, thanks in no small part to the Romans who occupied this land. Whatever you want to say about the Romans, they were pretty good at documentation,” he said. According to Aslan, because of detailed Roman documentation, historians know how much a bushel of wheat cost in the time of Jesus.
Thus, Aslan explained that one of his analytical methods was to take those few facts known about the historical Jesus, place Jesus firmly in the time and place about which so much is known, and use the Gospels to try tease out the real truth of the historical Jesus.
The time of Jesus was one of intense conflict in the provinces of Judea and Galilee where he preached. Political and social groups such as the violent Sicarii, aristocratic Sadducees, monastic Essenes and strict Pharisees were only some of the larger groups vying for power in the Holy Land. All the while, the country was being crushed under the boot of Rome.
Aslan explained that Jesus was far from being the only person to have declared himself the Messiah in and around his time. In fact, according to Aslan, the 72 followers he had at the time of his death suggests that Jesus would have been considered nothing in comparison to another self-proclaimed messiah only known as “the Egyptian” in surviving texts, who had 4,000 followers before he and his followers were killed by the Romans .
According to Aslan, because of the intricate political structures in Judea, Galilee and Perea, to call oneself messiah in first century Palestine was to blatantly say one had aims to remove Roman rule from Palestine, and therefore was a treasonous act. Aslan explained that in previous Hebrew Scriptures and tradition the Messiah was simply a man that would do his work on earth in one life time, but the concept of the resurrection of Jesus changed all that. While there was a belief in both the miracle of one person bringing another back to life and a national resurrection of the Jewish nation as a whole, the idea that an individual could die and three days later rise from the grave unassisted was unprecedented in Jewish thought.
Aslan explained that for the apostles to say this, whether historical fact or not, gave Jesus’ movement momentum after his death. However, what really made his movement into the world religion it is today, according to Aslan, was neither Jesus nor the apostles, but the teachings of Paul. Aslan explained that the movement in the early years after Jesus’ death was led by his brother James and was centered in Jerusalem.
James’ movement was not a unique religion but simply another sect of Judaism, and James treated it as such. James and his assembly followed the teachings of Jesus, but they also followed all of the dietary and purity restrictions of ancient Judaism. The assembly of James would accept gentiles, but only on the condition that they first convert to Judaism. According to Aslan, however, it was Paul who went out to preach to gentiles and, unlike James, not only ignored the laws of the Old Testament but actively replaced them with his interpretations of the teachings of Jesus. Then, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by Titus’ forces, James’ movement was decimated and scattered, leaving Paul’s followers to shape the course of what we now call Christianity.
After Aslan’s lecture there was also an extended question-and-answer session.
James D’Angelo, a senior journalism major, said he very much enjoyed the event and that Aslan seemed charismatic and engaging. As a Catholic, D’Angelo said he learned that, “there’s a lot more to the story of the history of making the Bible than they teach you in church or Sunday school and stuff like that, which I guess was the point of his lecture; there are different ideas of the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith and people really don’t know either of them.”
In addition to “Zealot,” Aslan has also written two other books titled “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” and “Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization.” All three of his books were available for purchase at the event, and Aslan held a book signing for audience members after the question-and-answer portion of the evening.
Aslan is also the founder of Aslan Media, a global social media network that aims to educate about social, political and economic conditions throughout the Middle East, and co-founder and chief creative officer of BoomGen Studios, an entertainment company that also seeks to provide creative content from and about the Middle East. Born in Iran, he lives in Los Angeles and is an associate professor of creative writing and cooperating faculty for the Department of Religion at the University of California, Riverside. He has appeared as a religious expert on numerous television networks and shows such as Fox News, “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” The talk was free and open to the Drexel community.
Previously lecturers include The Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington, neuroscientist David Eagleman and author Sir Salman Rushdie.