IDEAS: How does your book change our understanding of Jesus or Christianity itself?
ASLAN: I don’t think it does. The core belief of Christianity is that he was both God and man. And if he was also a man, then he must be seen in the context of his time. That doesn’t make him any less a divine figure if you’re a person of faith.
IDEAS: There are a lot of versions of Jesus throughout history, it seems.
ASLAN: In the 1980s with liberation theology in Latin America, Jesus was transformed into a revolutionary figure who takes up arms against the powers that be. Under the current situation in the US, the prosperity gospel preached by what I call charlatans like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, there’s this notion that Jesus wants you drive a Bentley. The Christ of faith is malleable and can be reinterpreted over and over again for all time and for all people. The Jesus of history lived a very brief time and in a very specific time and place.
IDEAS: Is the Jesus that people discuss and worship today a figment of historical politics—or even good religious marketing, as cynics like to say?
ASLAN: It’s not about propaganda or lies or inventions that were spread by Jesus’ early followers that have duped millions of people into thinking that this man is God. What we refer to as history, the accumulation of empirically verifiable facts and events, would make no sense to the ancient mind. History was not about discovering facts, but revealing truths. The gospel writers who wrote about Jesus were not eyewitnesses to what they were writing about. They were making a theological argument about a man they had already decided was Christ.
IDEAS: You end by saying Jesus is someone worth believing in. You’re a Muslim. I was curious about what you mean.
ASLAN: I believe you can be a follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just like you can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus. The example set by this man 2,000 years ago is as compelling today in the social environment we currently live in as it was in first-century Palestine.
Reza Aslan is speaking at the Boston Public Library on Sept. 26. Michael Fitzgerald is a freelance writer in Cambridge.