Long before religious scholar and author Reza Aslan was grilled about his credentials during a now infamous Fox News interview with Lauren Green, he was immersed in religious studies, with a particular focus on the little-known life of Jesus Christ. In fact, the author has been working on his latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, since he was an undergraduate at Santa Clara University. The work immerses reader’s in the social, political, and religious world of first-century Palestine. As Aslan puts it, “This may be the first biography of Jesus of which Jesus doesn’t show up until page 80 or 90.” We caught up with Aslan to discuss his research and writing process, the aftermath of his encounter with Fox, and his favorite meme to come out of it.
When you first went through that now-viral Fox News interview, did you think the internet would notice?
Not at all. I understood what was happening about halfway through the interview, I’ll be honest. I went through the interview thinking that of course they’re going to come out swinging. That’s what Fox News does; that’s why they’re so successful. I expected one, maybe two, questions about my perceived Muslim bias in writing this book. I knew it was going to be an attempt to discredit the book and the academic work behind the book by trying to smear the author. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was ten solid minutes of it.
I thought you handled it very well.
Thank you. When it was over, I thought, Wow, that was a surreal experience. It wasn’t until Saturday night that I realized other people are starting to watch this too.
Were you glad other people watched it?
Absolutely. One thing that I’m very proud of was that the book was already a phenomenal success before the interview went viral. People were already enjoying the book. The Fox News interview allowed the book to reach an audience that it normally would not reach, an audience that, under normal conditions, would either have never heard of the book or would not necessarily be interested in the book’s topic. For that I’m grateful.
It’s a shame that they didn’t shine a light on the content of the book itself. How did you go about researching it? It’s incredibly detailed and well-written.
I’ve been researching this really since my undergraduate days at Santa Clara University. I did my undergraduate degree there in the New Testament. I did a thesis on the Messianic Secret in Mark, which is a topic I talk about in the book. This is an attempt by certain scholars to get at this nearly impossible-to-decipher puzzle over who Jesus himself thought he was. By beginning my work there, I think that was the introduction for this book. Right then and there I knew that one day I was going to expand this into a book-length project, and continued working on the research for it after I graduated and during my Ph.D. work. When it came time to actually sit down and work on it, I had this fount of research that I could rely on. At that point it was just a matter of immersing myself deeply into the topic, which I often do regardless of what book I’m trying to write.
Did you have a road map for how you wanted to structure it?
The methodology of the book is based on the fact that, while we know nothing about Jesus outside of the New Testament, we know everything about the world in which he lived. The argument is that if you place Jesus into the time and place in which he lived, then his words and his deeds start to make more sense, a clearer picture of who he is can arise. I began by fully immersing the reader into the social, political, and religious world of first-century Palestine. This may be the first biography of Jesus in which Jesus doesn’t show up until page 80 or 90. I wanted people to become so familiar, so deeply immersed in Jesus’s world, that when they were then confronted with Jesus’s words and actions, they wouldn’t even need me to place them in context, they could do it themselves.
Were you surprised by anything during your research?
Perhaps the most surprising thing to me, and I think it’s also quite surprising to the general public, is just how many other preachers, prophets, and messiahs were walking around the Holy Land, gathering disciples, curing the sick, casting out demons, talking about the kingdom of God, many of them referring to themselves as messiahs, and almost all of them coming to the same end as Jesus—being killed by Rome for sedition. Far from devaluing what is unique about Jesus, it gives us a sense of how to understand Jesus’s teachings by comparing them to how everyone else who made similar claims as Jesus thought and acted. That’s how we can really get to who this man actually was.
Can you think of any modern-day equivalents to prophets in the Holy Land?
You’re going to get me in trouble! As many many atheists and skeptics have said, there is a fine line between a prophet and a mad man. Many of the prophets of Jesus’s time were thought to just be mad men, just sort of crazy people who were claiming to channel the divine. Perhaps that means we should be a little less judgmental of some of our own crazies talking about God on the corner. They might actually have found a pretty comfortable place in Jesus’s time.
I saw that you told a few outlets that your interview with Fox News caused some people to stop watching the network. What exactly did they say?
I’ve gotten a lot of comments from regular Fox viewers telling me that this was a kind of jump the shark moment, a moment in which the curtain was pulled back and the stark journalistic bias that any objective viewer of Fox cannot help but see became so obvious that it could no longer be ignored.
Probably the greatest number of supportive emails that I’ve received were from Christians, who have said, far from feeling threatened or attacked by this book, it has actually enriched their faith. Because again, at the heart of Christianity, is the notion that Jesus is both God and man. Unfortunately in church, you tend to mostly hear about the God part. For a lot of devout Christians, this is the first time they’ve actually gotten an opportunity to learn about the man part. That man is so remarkable—so extraordinary and charismatic and compelling—that whether you believe he is the messiah or not, whether you believe he is God or not, he is someone worth knowing about.
In general, do you think it’s at all possible not to get sucked into the agenda of TV show producers?
I’m in the media. I do a lot of work in the media. I am perfectly familiar with how this works. Whether you’re talking about MSNBC or Fox or CNN, it’s all about getting enough interest out there, sensationalizing the story in such a way that people are compelled to tune in. Fox does it very very well and I can in no way begrudge them. On the contrary, I frankly admire how they have managed to do so well by spinning fear and terror and controversy into ratings gold.
What’s the difference between being interviewed on a network news station and going on, say, The Daily Show?
There was this meme that was going around on social media a couple days ago. It was two stills. One of me being interviewed by a “journalist” on FOX News, and one of me being interviewed by a “comedian” on the Daily Show. Consider the really profoundly sophisticated questions that John Oliver asked in that interview. Compare that to a news interview with an actual journalist. I thought that was pretty funny.
Did you see the Fox interview? Did it make you more or less likely to read Zealot?