Not every scholarly study of early Christianity rockets to best-seller status thanks to an attack by a belligerent cable-network reporter.
But that became the fate last week of Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, just out from Random House in the United States while, in Britain, the Westbourne Press is rushing the book forward from its original August 18 publication date.
The fortunes of Zealot offer a cautionary tale for scholars who publish on touchy subjects—or perhaps a primer on how to provoke conservative-media hostility, and then to capitalize on it, even if you're no religious or intellectual radical.
"You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" Lauren Green demanded of Mr. Aslan on "Spirited Debate," a FoxNews.com online program. Mr. Aslan, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, struggled to divert the interview to the content of his book.
When Ms. Green persisted with her line of questioning, he resorted to responding: "I'm 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 just happens to be a Muslim."
Ms. Green reiterated: "It still begs the question: Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?" Her implication was clear: To write from that standpoint was presumption bordering on Islamist subversion.
"Because it's my job as an academic," retorted Mr. Aslan.
He has parlayed his three degrees in religion, including a master's degree from Harvard University and a doctorate in the sociology of religions from the University of California at Santa Barbara, into a variety of activities, including current- and foreign-affairs commentary, Middle East entertainment programming, and fiction—he also has an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. In 2005 he published No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (Random House), which sold very well in the United States and abroad, has been translated into 13 languages, and was praised by reviewers as wise, passionate, incisive, and thoroughly engaging.
Soon after the Fox interview, Mr. Aslan said on a CNN talk show that he was uneasy about his handling of Ms. Green's barrage: "There's nothing more embarrassing than an academic having to trot out his credentials. I mean, you really come off as a jerk."
A World of Many Messiahs
Still, the exchange, however uncomfortable for the interviewee, rapidly proved a book publicist's dream come to life. Almost overnight, a link to the interview on Buzzfeed attracted five million views. Zealot shot to a No. 1 sales ranking on Amazon.com, and was climbing toward the top of The New York Times's best-seller list. In an odd sense, "historical Jesus" studies had hit the headlines.
Mr. Aslan writes in the book that he wishes to present "the most accurate and reasonable argument, based on my two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history."
What is that argument? That Jesus of Nazareth little resembles the figure embraced by Christianity (or, for that matter, Islam) since its earliest days. He was probably a man who reflected the chaos of his time and place, where Jews sought to rid their land of Roman rulers—one of many claiming to be a messiah and making apocalyptic proclamations. "The itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus' time," Mr. Aslan writes.
That much of his thesis meets little opposition among historical-Jesus scholars. More debated is Mr. Aslan's contention that Jesus' message was not just spiritual but profoundly political. That is evident, for Mr. Aslan, in statements like the one from the Gospel of Matthew that he uses as the epigraph of Zealot: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword."
Such statements would have provoked Roman rage, says Mr. Aslan. So, too, would Jesus' throwing the moneylenders out of the Temple of Jerusalem, an affront to the corrupt priestly aristocrats who were the Romans' quislings. Preaching the coming of "the Kingdom of God" would be insurrection, to the Romans, because it would be understood as advocating that the Jews drive all foreigners from the Holy Land.
Crucially, adds Mr. Aslan, the punishment meted out to Jesus, crucifixion, was reserved for perpetrators of insurrection, rebellion, treason, and sedition—all provocations against Roman rule. So, he argues, "if we really want to know who Jesus was and what he meant, we should start not at the beginning of the story—with him in a manger—but at the end of the story, with him on a cross," meeting the fate of a man whose "zeal" marked him for death.
'Not Controversial at All'
In Mr. Aslan's reading, it was early Christians who began to airbrush Jesus as the "gentle shepherd," Jesus the Christ, during the period when the Gospels were written. That was after the Jewish rebellion against the empire, beginning in AD 66, that Rome put down brutally—"a river of blood flowed down the cobblestone streets," writes Mr. Aslan. Then, diasporic Jews cast out around the Roman Empire abandoned "the radical messianic nationalism that had launched the ill-fated war with Rome."
Of course, allows Mr. Aslan, every seeker of the "historical Jesus" knows that all "well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative arguments" about Jesus run headlong into similarly well-based ones. That is certainly true, say other scholars in the field. But they note, first, an irony in the fuss over Mr. Aslan's book: His conclusions are not particularly new.
The late Geza Vermes, an acknowledged giant among scholars of Jesus, also emphasized that he must be viewed in the context of Jewish history and theology: He was a Jewish holy man, readily recognizable to Jews, even today, but vastly at odds with the Christian Christ of faith.
Another prominent specialist, Paula Fredriksen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has written about Jesus as fitting within a Jewish tradition of apocalyptic preachers and prophets.
In fact, she says by e-mail, during what she and her colleagues call the "Jesus Wars" of the 1990s, a new book on the historical Jesus appeared "every five minutes." And Mr. Aslan's interpretation of Jesus as a "zealot" is, among scholars, "not controversial at all," she said, although not one that convinces her or is generally accepted. In 1967, S.G.F. Brandon published Jesus and the Zealots, still "a go-to classic," she says. (Mr. Aslan cites Mr. Brandon and Mr. Vermes, among other scholars.)
A 'Personal Interpretation'
Ms. Fredriksen finds two major flaws in the Jesus-as-zealot line of argument. First, early accounts of Jesus in Paul's letters, which predate all the Gospels by at least 15 or 20 years, "have no such politically incendiary tradition," she says. "Further, Paul's social-political ethics (keep your nose down and your powder dry, because God is about to step in and change/end history—that's a very loose translation of Romans 13) are echoed by other nonviolence motifs and passive-resistance teachings in the later Gospels."
Second is an argument at the core of her Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (1999): "Jesus died as if Pilate thought that he was a political insurrectionist," but no persecution of his disciples followed, which means that Roman governors "knew perfectly well that Jesus was not a political insurrectionist, the leader of a politically dangerous movement."
Craig A. Evans, a professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, in Nova Scotia, says he suspects Mr. Aslan took too literally the metaphors and even hyperbole intended by Gospel writers who had Jesus say he came with sword, not peace.
Much of the force of Mr. Aslan's account lies in his rich prose—he startlingly evokes, for example, the putrid smell from constant animal sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem. Mr. Evans sees Zealot less as a contribution to scholarship, however, than as a "personal interpretation" informed by "some of the scholarly literature."
Mr. Aslan says that was precisely his goal: "It is a synthesis of a 200-year debate among biblical scholars over who Jesus was and how to understand him in his time and place." He wrote the book for general readers, he says, because "some of these basic aspects about Jesus are not known."
That's an important lesson, says Ms. Fredriksen. "No ancient person is like a modern person. ... A first-century pagan is more like Jesus of Nazareth than is any 21st-century Christian," she says. "If we do not respect the absolute otherness of the past, we'll never find the ancient people whom we search for. Someone should let Fox News know this."
Corrections (8/1/2013, 7:38 p.m.): This article originally misidentified the institutional affiliation of Paula Fredriksen. She is at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, not Boston University, where she formerly worked. The article also originally misstated the publication date of Mr. Aslan's book No God but God. The book was published in 2005, not 2011, the date of a new edition. The article has been updated to reflect the corrections.