Reza Aslan speaking at Roanoke College on April 18, 2012. (Courtest of Flickr.)
Reza Aslan is best known as the author of No God but God: The Origin, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages and named by Blackwell as one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. His new book is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jon Wiener: Jesus on the cross provides a powerful symbol for a couple of billion people of his sacrifice for our sins. But what exactly did crucifixion mean in Roman Palestine?
Reza Aslan: Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved exclusively for the crime of sedition, for crimes against the state. If you know nothing else about Jesus except that his life ended on the cross at Golgotha, you know enough to understand who he was and what kind of threat he posed to Rome.
Your Jesus is “the man who defied the will of the most powerful empire the world had ever known—and lost.” Sounds a bit like Bradley Manning.
I think you could make a lot of comparisons in that regard. The historical Jesus took on the powers that be on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed, the outcast and the marginalized; he sacrificed himself for a group that most Romans—and the Jewish elite—didn’t consider to be real people, much less people worthy of salvation.
I should disclose that I am not a Christian, I am a Jewish atheist, an old and honorable tradition.
You have something in common with Jesus, because he also was not a Christian. He was a Jew.
There’s a famous quote: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”
We have this vision of Jesus as a detached celestial spirit. If that was who Jesus was, he would have lived a long and happy life. He would not have been seized by the Romans, he would not have been viewed as such a threat to the stability of the state that he had to be executed.
You are treating Jesus as a political figure rather than a religious one.
There is no difference between politics and religion in Jesus’s time. Simply saying “I am the messiah” was a treasonable offense. If you are claiming to ring in the kingdom of God, you are also claiming to ring out the kingdom of Caesar.
But what about “My kingdom is not of this world”?
That is from the Gospel of John, written about ninety years after Jesus’s death, after Christianity has divorced itself from Judaism and is now a purely Roman religion. The Jesus in the Gospel of John is no longer a human being. No other gospel ever calls Jesus “God.” Everything else we know about what Jesus said about establishing the “kingdom of God”, including what’s in Matthew, Mark and Luke, is about a real kingdom to be established on earth.