Illiterate peasant, woodworker, zealot. They’re surprising descriptors for a man usually referred to as a prophet, a reformer and even the Messiah.
“It is the job of the historian to say what is likely, and of faith to say what is possible,” said Reza Aslan, author of the recently published book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
And so Aslan, a scholar of religions, sets about exploring not the divine Jesus, but one of history, a Jesus who lived in a particularly turbulent time, “perhaps the most tumultuous era of the Holy Land.”
“Zealotry was a widespread phenomenon in Jesus’ time,” explained Aslan. “Zealotry was a political ideology. And the argument here is just that Jesus’ teachings and his actions embody this kind of widespread principle of zealotry.”
It was ultimately his zeal that led to Jesus’ death by crucifixion – “If you are ushering in the reign of God, you are ushering out the reign of Caesar and that is a political statement” – and launched the largest religious movement in the world. But Aslan argues that although Jesus is an ancient figure, mired in legends and mythology, uncovering the pieces of his life is like having a few pieces of the puzzle and filling in the rest based on the most educated, informative guesses. As a historian, Aslan says the picture he’s drawn of Jesus does not mean other interpretations based on faith are incorrect or improbable.
“Is it possible that Jesus, unlike 98 percent of his fellow Jews, was literate and educated? Yes, it’s possible,” said Aslan. “Is it possible that Jesus had a view about what the Messiah meant that was different from every Jew who had ever come before and after him? Yes, it’s possible. Is it possible that Jesus could have, in defiance of everything that Judaism has ever said about God and man and the nature of the relationship between creation and creator, that he himself thought he was a God-man? Yes, it’s possible.
“Is it likely? No.”
Yet it was the possible, and not the likely, that Aslan himself believed as a devout Evangelical Christian in his teens. Born in Iran to a Muslim family, his mother and sister are now Christians. He is married to a Christian woman and has a brother-in-law who is an evangelical pastor. Aslan now identifies with Sufi Islam.
“I believe in God, which means I am open to some absurd possibilities,” said Aslan. “But I understand the power of that faith, and I understand the metaphor of that belief. Just the basic bare bone facts of his life make Jesus someone worth knowing. You can be a follower of Jesus and not necessarily be a Christian.”
As a religious scholar, Aslan said the fact that he does believe in the divine sets him apart from most who study religion and “who are fairly devout atheists.” But it was his Islamic faith and writing about Jesus that has seemingly raised the most controversy; an interview on the Fox News Channel, for instance, subsequently went viral online. Aslan said he expected the criticism not only because “Jesus is a touchy subject” but because of a lack of understanding of what religious scholars do. His previous works include a book about the origins and future of Islam.
The controversy has jumpstarted sales of "Zealot" but also threats. Aslan said he has received death threats because of his writing since 2005 – “in a sense, I’m used to it” – but he said he is not used to threats directed at other members of his family, including his wife, since the publication of “Zealot.”
And what if he were to pick up the book a decade from now and discovered that he got it wrong?
“I hope so,” Aslan exclaimed. “If you say no to that question, then you are not a real scholar. Academia is all about debate and argument. Once you become rigid, you’ve lost the game.”
ABC News' Ben Brown and Nick Poppy contributed to this episode.