Best-selling book about Jesus sparks media firestorm

Published: Tuesday, July 30 2013 4:00 p.m. MDT

The new book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan is eliciting strong reactions on the Internet from a wide spectrum of scholars and experts.

Not coincidentally, as of July 30 “Zealot” ranked No. 1 on Amazon.com’s list of best-selling books.

“Zealot” was released July 16, and Aslan began making the media rounds with interviews such as his appearance on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” But “Zealot” truly became a topic of national discussion only after Aslan spoke with Fox News.

The New York Times’ Julie Bosman summarized the chain of events: “In an interview on Friday that was by turns bizarre and uncomfortable, Lauren Green, a host from ‘Spirited Debate,’ a weekly Fox News webcast, pressed Mr. Aslan on the question of why, as a Muslim, he would choose Jesus as his subject. …

“The nearly 10-minute video clip quickly entered the Internet bloodstream on Saturday after it was posted on Buzzfeed with the irresistibly clickable headline, ‘Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?’ Since then, the Buzzfeed page featuring the video has been viewed nearly 4 million times. Mr. Aslan quickly amassed an additional 5,000 Twitter followers. On Monday, Random House, Mr. Aslan’s publisher, said the interview had clearly helped the book: In two days, sales increased 35 percent.”

After the Fox News interview, intense reactions to Aslan and “Zealot” began populating the Internet. A sampling of those opinions:

Foxnews.com’s John S. Dickerson thought Aslan’s Islamic faith poisoned the credibility of “Zealot”: “(Aslan’s) book is not a historian’s report on Jesus. It is an educated Muslim’s opinion about Jesus — yet the book is being peddled as objective history on national TV and radio. … ‘Zealot’ is a fast-paced demolition of the core beliefs that Christianity has taught about Jesus for 2,000 years. Its conclusions are long-held Islamic claims — namely, that Jesus was a zealous prophet-type who didn’t claim to be God, that Christians have misunderstood him, and that the Christian Gospels are not the actual words or life of Jesus but ‘myth.’ ”

Writing for the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, theology professor and ordained minister Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite endorsed Aslan’s scholarship, especially as it relates to what Jesus preached about money and caring for the poor: “A great deal of the biblical scholarship that informs ‘Zealot’ is not new; readers should consult the book’s extensive notes and bibliography at the end. They provide a thorough summary of the best of biblical scholarship, the majority of it Christian, for more than a century. … When conservative Christian critics decry Aslan’s scholarly take on the historical Jesus as having a Muslim agenda, they might want to note this scholar of religion’s strong argument against anti-Semitism. In fact, Jesus’s advocacy for the ‘poor and the dispossessed,’ as Aslan documents throughout ‘Zealot,’ is, in my view, yet another driver of the conservative Christian push-back.”

The American Conservative’s Alan Jacobs took issue with Aslan’s assertion that Jesus was illiterate: “In claiming that Jesus was illiterate Aslan is (a) asserting flatly a point that is seriously disputed among New Testament scholars and (b) making no new claim. … In sum: Reza Aslan’s book is an educated amateur’s summary and synthesis of a particularly skeptical but quite long-established line of New Testament scholarship, presented to us as simple fact. If you like that kind of thing, ‘Zealot’ will be the kind of thing you like.”

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