I wasn’t planning to write any more about Reza Aslan and the conservative freak out over the fact that a self-identified Muslim (and one-time evangelical Christian) wrote a book about Jesus. Then I saw this awful clip from Fox News’s online program Spirited Debate in which Fox News has a conniption about Islam. Watch and cringe.
The clip begins not with anything about the book, Zealot, but rather that Aslan used to be a Christian before he “converted back to the faith of his forefathers,” with hints of apostasy when the anchor darkly hints that Aslan is questioning “the core tenets of Christianity.” (Faith of his forefathers? For me that would be, what, Greco-Roman mythology?)
Her very first question to him was this: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”
The anchor is Lauren Green, the Fox News religion correspondent.
The look on Aslan’s face is priceless as he pauses, seemingly in shock at the brazen ignorance of Green, who I again remind you is the religion correspondent and an actual graduate of a real college. “To be clear,” he replies, “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions.”
Green’s reply? “It still begs the question, though: Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”
Not only did she incorrectly use the phrase “beg the question” (which refers to a conclusion that is assumed true), she seems ignorant both of the role of Jesus in Islam as well as a fact I thought was obvious: Scholarship involves learning about things other than one’s own personal opinions and beliefs. (Insert Fox News joke here.) That’s why Aslan replied forthrightly that he studied Jesus because “it’s my job as an academic. I’m a professor of religion, including the New Testament.” At this point he was speaking very slowly to try to get the words to penetrate the anchor’s protective helmet of hairspray.
In Islam, Jesus is revered as a prophet, and he appears in the Qur’an by name 25 times to Muhammad’s five. While Muslims do not accept that Jesus was the literal son of God, they do hold that he was God’s messenger and Messiah and will return at Judgment Day to defeat the False Messiah, known in Christianity as the Antichrist. They agree with the doctrine of the virgin birth and hold that Jesus was God’s special creation. They differ only on whether the miraculous child was of divine substance, a question that more than a few Christian groups have also wrestled with. The other major difference is that the Qur’an (4:157-158) holds that God substituted a lookalike for Jesus at the crucifixion, and Jesus was assumed into heaven:
And [they] said, ‘Verily we have slain Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of God; yet they slew him not, neither crucified him, but he was represented by one in his likeness.’ […] They did not really kill him; but God took him up unto himself. (trans. George Sale)
But even this was hardly a new opinion at the time of its composition, nor originally an Islamic one. This was the well-known Gnostic heresy of Basilides, preserved by Irenaeus in Against Heresies:
Wherefore he did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them. For since he was an incorporeal power, and the Nous (mind) of the unborn father, he transfigured himself as he pleased, and thus ascended to him who had sent him, deriding them, inasmuch as he could not be laid hold of, and was invisible to all. (1.24.4, trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut)
The same heresy appears in the Gnostic Second Treatise of the Great Seth, written in the third century as though in the voice of Jesus himself:
For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. […] They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance. And I subjected all their powers. For as I came downward, no one saw me. For I was altering my shapes, changing from form to form. And therefore, when I was at their gates, I assumed their likeness. For I passed them by quietly, and I was viewing the places, and I was not afraid nor ashamed, for I was undefiled. (trans. Roger A. Bullard and Joseph A. Gibbons)
If nothing else, such texts make plain that the study of early Christology is important for understanding Islam, which would be a direct and scholarly answer to the Fox News question. But it’s also the wrong answer. Scholarship should not be based on identity, and one’s inquiry ought not to be limited by one’s personal heritage. I am flabbergasted that an anchor for Fox News would question why a professor of religion would be interested in religions other than his own while having no problem whatsoever with Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly claiming special insight into Jesus with his book on the same subject, Killing Jesus, which is described in almost the same words as Zealot. Compare:
Isn’t it interesting that Killing Jesus is coming out in just two months? It’s almost as if someone at Fox News wanted to make Zealot unpalatable to the network’s key demographic to clear the way for O’Reilly’s book.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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