Reza Aslan, whose exchange with a Fox news anchor this week sparked a lot of outrage, used to be a Christian. As he discusses both in his book and his interview with Time this week, he “gave his life to Christ” at a camp when he was 15. Born in Iran to a Muslim family, his mother and sister also subsequently became Christians. His mum is still a believer.
While studying religion at university however, Aslan came to the conclusion that the claims of the Bible didn’t hold up. Nevertheless, as a scholar of religions, he kept studying it; his new book Zealot is partly a result of all that scholarly inquiry.
It’s certainly true that the book disputes many of the New Testament’s teachings. Zealot’s premise is that the life of an ordinary man sparked the world’s biggest religion. Aslan’s contention is that Jesus had no intention of starting a religion and neither did his disciples. The real brains behind the creation of Christianity, suggests Aslan, was Paul. The Christ “is an invention of the early church.”
This sounds like a position that undermines Christianity, yet in the extended answers from TIME’s interview below, Aslan treads gingerly around other core Christian beliefs. Here are his own words on faith and religious scholarship, and how to differentiate the two.
TIME: The point of difference between Christianity and all other faiths, Christians believe is the resurrection. Was there a resurrection?
Aslan: As a historian, I cannot comment on the resurrection as a historical event because it falls, quite literally, beyond the boundaries of history.
TIME: Yet you comment on other “miracles.” You argue that it was very unlikely that Jesus stood up in the temple and taught because he was illiterate.
Aslan: I scrutinize every word and action of Jesus, and the claims of his followers according to what we know about history. What cannot be denied is what I refer to as “the resurrectional experience.” Whether or not you believe that after three days of being dead and entombed, Jesus got up and walked out of his own accord, what you cannot argue about is the fervent belief of the followers that this happened. And the fact that their belief in this resurrection allowed this marginal movement of a bunch of backward, illiterate peasants, mostly from the backwoods of Galilee, to become the largest religion in the world. So, all I can talk about, as a historian, is the validity of the experience and the consequences of their belief. As a scientifically minded person, if you asked me is it likely that a man rose from the dead? I would say, no. But I don’t judge the historicity of any miracle. What I’m interested in is the historicity of the claims about those miracles. And the fact of the matter is that the one thing that both his followers, and his detractors, his friends, and his enemies, both agreed about, was that Jesus performed miracles.
TIME: You say that Jesus the man is every bit as compelling and charismatic and praiseworthy, as Jesus the Christ. How can that be true? That’s like saying that muggles are as interesting as wizards.
Aslan: The man Jesus is just as compelling and charismatic as this figure that has been created by Christians, because you’re talking about a poor, marginal, illiterate peasant, who dared to take on the greatest empire the world had ever known, and yes, lost, but who did so in the name of the poor, and the weak, and the dispossessed, and the outcast, and was willing to pay the consequences for that insurrection. He knew that this movement that he was founding was very likely going to end in his arrest and execution, and he did it anyway. That, to me, makes him an incredibly compelling individual, one worthy of being followed.
TIME: So, do you consider yourself an atheist?
Aslan: No, on the contrary, I’m a person of faith.
TIME: And what faith do you subscribe to?
I’m a person of faith, and the language that I use to define my faith, the symbols and metaphors that I rely upon to express my faith, are those provided by Islam because they make the most sense to me. The Buddha once said, “If you want to draw water, you don’t dig six 1-ft. wells, you dig one 6-ft. well.” Islam is my 6-ft. well. But I recognize that I am drawing the same water that everyone around me is.