The now-infamous interview between Fox News’ Lauren Green and author Reza Aslan is a contemporary nine-minute-and-fifty-seven-second Kafka vignette. Watching a journalist argue that knowledge can only be derived from faith against a Master of Divinity arguing that knowledge is a product of empirical research proves what an odd moment we’re at in public intellectual life.
It’s perhaps especially ironic because, like most scholarly works about the historical Jesus, Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is also an inquiry into the nature of knowledge. After 2000 years, the question of who can and can’t know what about someone who may or may not have been sent by God is still breaking news.
Aslan brings up the contrast between different modes of knowing right in the dedication of his book—in the B.C.E of page numbers, if you will. As he states in the Fox interview, while Aslan is Muslim, his wife is Christian, and Zealot’s dedication reads, “For my wife, Jessica Jackley, and the entire Jackley clan, whose love and acceptance have taught me more about Jesus than all my years of research and study.” In his interview, Aslan makes a distinction (which seems lost on Green) between “the Christ”—the theological figure of the Son of God—and Jesus of Nazareth, the historical person who lived in ancient Palestine. The Jesus who loves and accepts humanity is only a story unless you can feel what it means to be loved and accepted. And love (unlike the bloody Middle Eastern politics of the first century) is preferably experienced first-hand.
This may be why it’s so much easier to talk about the abstract theological Jesus than the historical one. Firsthand experiences of love and faith are relatively easy to come by, whereas firsthand accounts of Jesus of Nazareth’s life seem to be nonexistent. The oldest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, is generally thought to have been written sometime between 60–75 C.E., or about 30 years after Jesus is believed to have been crucified. This gospel didn’t exactly come with an author’s name and publicity photo, and while the idea that it was written by Mark the Evangelist, a one-time disciple of Jesus, surfaced and stuck somewhere in the second century, most scholars don’t think that’s true. Not to mention that there are three other canonical gospels (and a host of non-canonical ones attributed to figures like Mary Magdalene and Judas) that all contradict each other.
What I’ve always found hardest to understand isn’t the difference in modes of understanding between believers and non-believers; I don’t share a belief in a miraculously self-replenishing stack of bread and fish or the virgin birth, but I can see (sort of) how you might believe in these things. What’s harder to understand is the ancient mindset in which fact and fiction are not as sharply delineated as they are now. It’s one thing to believe that a miracle has occurred; a different thing to believe that it doesn’t matter whether one truly occurred or not. Or indeed, to have no clear understanding of what “truly” even means.
Aslan chronicles how fluid the epistemic borders of ancient historians were. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, the author asserts that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, despite the fact that to the best of almost everyone else’s knowledge, Jesus of Nazareth was from Nazareth. Luke explains that at the time in question the Roman governor Quirinius instituted a law saying that everyone had to return to the town of their birth to be taxed, and that Joseph went to Bethlehem, which was why Jesus was born there. Aslan writes:
What is important to understand about Luke’s infancy narrative is that his readers, still living under Roman dominion, would have known that Luke’s account of Quirinius’s census was factually inaccurate. Luke himself, writing a little more than a generation after the events he describes, knew that what he was writing was technically false.
Luke (or the unknown writer(s) who composed the Gospel of Luke), Aslan says, didn’t mean for anyone to take his account as historical fact. What mattered was establishing a link between Jesus’ family and the genetic line of King David. Luke is trying to show that Jesus was the Messiah, and the prophecies he wanted to fit Jesus’ story into declared that the Messiah would be a descendent of David. Therefore, Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, which happened to be King David’s hometown.
Aslan emphasizes that Luke isn’t lying, he just doesn’t see why it matters that Jesus wasn’t “really” born where the story needs him to be born:
Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word ‘history.’ The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age; it would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths.
Which sounds a lot like what Lauren Green may have been thinking during the interview. The idea that no Muslim could write a book about Jesus without an ideological agenda does not pretend to be factual; it isn’t based on evidence. Instead, it’s an iteration of what, for some conservative thinkers, is a deeply felt truth: that Muslims are out to destroy Christians and their world.
Fox has defended the interview on air and in print. Brent Bozell, a conservative media critic, said in a televised segment: “Look, the fact of the matter is, the Muslim faith believes that Jesus Christ did not have a divine nature. They do not believe he was God. Therefore, if he’s going to take the attitude that well, he’s juuuust a scholar, he just happens to be Muslim, that he really didn’t care about this issue so much, he’s not a very good Muslim.” A “good” Muslim, presumably, would be too busy obliterating the history of Christianity to learn about it. In the Gospel of Fox, this is the truth, no matter what the facts may be.
Every week, Linda Besner reads a new book and writes on a tangentially related topic.