Author Reza Aslan stops by Drew.

Zealot-1Academic and author Reza Aslan says Zealot, his provocative best-seller about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, told a Drew audience Wednesday night that he has received an “overwhelmingly positive” response to the book.

“People assume I’m getting this negative backlash, especially from Christians,” Aslan said during a talk inside the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts. “But nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Aslan, a visiting professor at Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict last school year, is now a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. In July the book received a massive dose of publicity when an interviewer on Fox News cited Aslan’s Muslim faith in challenging his legitimacy to write a biography of Jesus. The resulting video went viral on the Internet. Aslan has a master’s degree in theological studies and a Ph.D. in sociology.

Zealot depicts Jesus as an illiterate, poor Jewish revolutionary who was executed for advocating revolt against Rome. Aslan said the Jesus most modern Christians recognize is derived from the Gospels of the New Testament—written long after his death by people who didn’t know him.

Aslan was born in Iran in 1972 and emigrated with his family to the United States after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He became a convert to evangelical Christianity at 15, but developed doubts about his faith at college.

During his talk at Drew—a conversation with professor Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre of the Theological School—Aslan took questions from a friendly audience. Asked if Jesus openly espoused violence against the state, he replied: “We don’t know. There is no evidence of it. That said, his views on violence were far more complex than anyone assumed. Jesus lived in a world in which there was no such thing as nonviolent resistance.”

He said his main purpose in writing the book was to propel longstanding debate about the historical Jesus into pop culture. “I don’t want to give the impression that I am trying to remove the divinity from Jesus,” he said. “If you learn something from this book that makes you doubt your faith, then the problem is with your faith.” —Mary Jo Patterson