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Author Examines Jesus As A Historical Figure

Reza Aslan spoke at the Indian Summer Festival in in July 2014 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
us_mission_canada via Flickr

Who was Jesus? Much has been written about his religious influence, but less is known about the man from a historical perspective.

“We can say with some measure of confidence that he was a Jew,” said Reza Aslan, an acclaimed religious scholar and author. His book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” was released this week in paperback. “We know that sometime around the first century he started a movement, a Jewish movement, that was predicated on something he referred to as the kingdom of god. We know that as a result of that movement that he was executed by a Roman force sedition, and that’s about it.

“But while it is true that we know very little about Jesus, the nice thing is is that we know almost everything about the world in which he lived. What scholars try to do is take that little bit of information that we have about the man, place him firmly in his time and place, and allow that time and place to fill in the holes, as it were.”

Digging into the past also means looking at how simple things, like the meaning of a word, has changed. Messiah, for example, means different things in the first and 21st centuries.

“In the first century, the messiah meant something fairly standard: It meant that you were the descendant of King David and that your principal task was the re-establishment of David’s kingdom,” Aslan said. “If you say that you are the messiah and you die without doing the one thing the messiah is supposed to do, you are not the messiah. In many ways, that was all equally true of Jesus. The main difference, however, is that Jesus’ followers, buoyed by this ecstatic experience of Jesus is risen, which is defined however you want to define it — that’s really a matter more of faith than of history, decided to redefine the very concept of messiah. In redefining it, they allowed this movement to survive Jesus’ execution.”

How Jesus saw himself also remains a mystery, but Aslan said there are a few clues.

“It seems very clear that the term that Jesus preferred for himself was a term that we’re kind of not very sure what it means: The term is son of man,” Aslan said. “He seems to be using it very much in reference to a particular verse in the book of Daniel, in which Daniel has this vision that he refers to as one like the son of man coming with the clouds of heaven who is given authority as king over all nations of the world. If that’s the reference that Jesus was applying to himself, then he thought of himself as king. He thought of himself in a kingly fashion, which, by the way, is what messiah also means.”

While historic and religious perspectives may at times seem at odds, Aslan said he does not see conflict.

“As a historian, I am interested in what is likely,” he said. “I have no problem with the faith answer at all … because I do truly believe that the person of faith and the historian are asking two different questions. The person of faith is asking what is possible. The historian is asking what is likely. These two things do not have to be in conflict with each other. It’s up to the reader to decide which they value more.”

Related Event

Maryville Talks Books: Reza Aslan

  • When: 7 p.m. Sept. 18, 2014
  • Where: The Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road, St. Louis
  • Cost: $20 for one or $25 for two; ticket price includes a copy of "Zealot"
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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