As Aslan's publisher summarizes his thesis:
Two thousand years ago, an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker walked across the Galilee, gathering followers to establish what he called the “Kingdom of God.” The revolutionary movement he launched was so threatening to the established order that he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal.This is not particularly radical stuff; some of this traces back to Robert Graves's King Jesus and, absent the hint of armed rebellion, has been developed by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. I don't say this to detract from Aslan's scholarship and originality; I haven't read his book, and I'm only looking at the précis. (I will read it, though, because it sounds quite interesting.) Rather, I think that Aslan's claim that he is well within the scholarly mainstream (or, at any rate, within one camp thereof) is entirely correct from what little I've read.
Within decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God.
Sifting through centuries of mythmaking, Reza Aslan sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived: first-century Palestine, an age awash in apocalyptic fervor. Scores of Jewish prophets, preachers, and would-be messiahs wandered through the Holy Land, bearing messages from God. This was the age of zealotry—a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews. And few figures better exemplified this principle than the charismatic Galilean who defied both the imperial authorities and their allies in the Jewish religious hierarchy.
Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources, Aslan describes a man full of conviction and passion, yet rife with contradiction; a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret; and ultimately the seditious “King of the Jews” whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime. Aslan explores the reasons why the early Christian church preferred to promulgate an image of Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher rather than a politically conscious revolutionary. And he grapples with the riddle of how Jesus understood himself, the mystery that is at the heart of all subsequent claims about his divinity.
Zealot yields a fresh perspective on one of the greatest stories ever told even as it affirms the radical and transformative nature of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and mission. The result is a thought-provoking, elegantly written biography with the pulse of a fast-paced novel: a singularly brilliant portrait of a man, a time, and the birth of a religion.
(Now, I'm in a funny position defending Aslan's vision of the life of Jesus,as I would be in defending Borg's or Crossan's--or, for that matter, Bernard Shaw's--because, while I think there is much truth in it, it misses the whole truth. You either accept, for whatever reason, the Gospel's theological historical claims or you do not. For reasons that I will spare you at present--a large part summarized best for me by Charles Gore, with the caveat that the exact nature of certain of the acts of Jesus recorded may be lost to time, but their effect, the emotional and spiritual effect they had, are not, and represent as close as we can get--I do.)
But because he is a Muslim, his work is, the Fox interviewer suggests, inherently suspect, in a way that Borg's or Crossan's is not? That is simply appalling. I wonder if a Christian scholar writing about Islam would face such suspicion, or one writing about Judaism.
And if the answer is no, then the question must surely be, why then should Aslan?
The bigotry and ignorance undermining the interview is, to quote Emily Nussbaum (uh-oh! Is she qualified to have an opinion?), "absolutely demented."
Christians should be thrilled that non-Christians want to learn more about Jesus, and study the import of his life; an "Amen chorus" preaching only to the converted is the first sign of a dead movement.