Transcript of Reza Aslan on the Daily Show

UPDATE (Oct. 13, 2013): To those coming in from a link in the Al-Tamimi article, please read this post of mine. Why al-Tamimi referred to John Oliver as Jon Stewart is a mystery to me.

Here is another transcript. Reza Aslan is “A”, John Oliver is “O”.
O: Welcome Back.
O: My guest tonight, a best-selling author whose new book is called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Please welcome back to the show, the fantastic Reza Aslan!
A: Yes. Yes. Nice to meet you. Good to see you. Thank you. All right.
O: Reza, Reza, Reza, Reza, Reza,
A: John, John, John, John, John, John, John.
O: Uh, thank you for being here.
A: Let’s talk about Jesus.
O: Let’s talk about Jesus. Let’s…
A: You’ve heard of him; you’ve heard of Jesus.
O: I think everybody’s heard of Jesus. I think everyone in the world has a relationship with Jesus, whether they want one or not.
A: Yeah, all right.
O: And, let’s be clear, this book is about Jesus, the man, not so much Jesus, the Christ.
A: It’s about the Historical Jesus, not the Christ of Faith, but, I mean, the fact of the matter is that whether you believe that Jesus was God Incarnate, God Made Flesh, or not, you believe that he was also a man, and if he was a man, then he lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place kind of matters, you know, I mean, it’s like, if you really want to know who he was, you have to put his words and his actions in the context of the world in which he lived, he, the, the teachings have to be seen according to the social ills that he confronted, and, and, the political forces, uh, that, that he, he, confronted.
O: Well, at the time, and, uh, incidentally, I loved this book.
A: Thanks.
O: And, uh, the time, and am place which he lived, it was total, total chaos,
A: Yeah.
O: possibly the most chaotic time in that region, and that region is the Middle East.
A: Uh-zuuh, yeah, yeah, yeah…
O: That’s a high crazy bar.
A: This was, uh, this was probably the most tumultuous era in the Holy Land, which, as you say is saying a lot; a time of apocalyptic fervor, a time in which we’re slowly moving towards this huge Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire that ultimately resulted in the leveling of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the Jews; and every word that was ever written about Jesus in the Gospels was written after that event.
O: Right. ‘Cause I mean you talk about it in here, how, in, in the Bible, Jesus refers [to him seeing?]* a “detached celestial spirit”, and, you know, we, we all think of him in paintings, and with birds on his arms and li-lions curled up at his feet…
A: That part is true, actually..
O: Yeah, okay, okay with, the, the lions curled up at his feet? Okay, it could be. Uh, but, he, this was a man directly involved with the politics of his time.
A: If you knew nothing else about Jesus except that he was crucified, you’d know enough to understand who he was. Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved solely for crimes against the State. Rebellion, insurrection, treason, sedition. These were the only crimes that you could be crucified for. The thieves who were crucified alongside with Jesus were not thieves; the Greek word “lestai” doesn’t mean “thief”, it means “bandit”, and “bandit” was the most common term in Jesus’s time for a, a rebel, for an insurrectionist. I mean his crime was actually etched above his head- “King of the Jews”- for the life of me, I, I can’t figure out why modern Christians think that this is some sort of like, a, a, like a Roman joke, you know, like that,
O: Well,…
A: like the Romans were known for their sense of humor,
A: or something.
A: I mean, uh, every, everybody who was crucified, everybody who was crucified, had their crime publicly displayed so that people know what happens when you defy the will of Rome.
O: But, I, uh, I think why I responded so much to this as well is that, you know, I’ve not had much of a relationship with Jesus the Christ in my life because as a child you, you, you hear these stories and he does seem too ghost-like, too unreal, and, I remember when I was a kid growing up, the thing, the story that I responded to the most was that moment on the cross where he’s screaming “my god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me”, and he becomes real, ’cause that’s human anger.
A: Yeah, I actually had a very similar experience, because I actually converted to Evangelical Christianity when I was a kid and really I mean burned with this Gospel message that I heard; really, really felt it deep in my, in my life, and then in College, when I began to study the New Testament, I became far more interested in this historical person than I ever was of this kind of celestial Christ that, that you’re referring to; this man who lived two thousand years ago, who defied the, the most powerful empire the world had ever known, and lost, but never the less, stood up for the weak and powerless, the, the outcasts and the dispossessed, and ultimately sacrificed his life for those people. I mean Christians believe that he sacrificed his life uh, you know, to free us from sin, it’s a perfectly fine interpretation for the Christ, but what we know about the man, Jesus, is that he went to the cross on behalf of these outcasts that he was fighting for.
O: Uh, can, can you stick around and go to the web?
A: Yeah, let’s do it.
O: Before we go to talk? I, I, absolutely love this book; you’ve gotta get it, uh, Zealot is on the bookshelves now. -The fantastic Reza Aslan.
A: Thank you. Thanks for…
O: Uh.
A: Wow, it’s so quiet all of a sudden.
O: It’s uh, [chuckling] the, the, the Internet is quiet.
A: Yes!
O: And when the Internet is quiet, something awful is about to happen. A Congressman is about to disturb the force.
A: You know, what your audience doesn’t know is that my children have completely taken over the, the green room.
A: I’ve got my twin
O: Really?
A: one-and-a-half year-olds, I’ve got my brother in law and sister in-law’s kids in there; I mean it’s like a daycare…
O: Wow, uh…
A: in the green room now.
O: Aslan runs heavy!
A: Yeah.
O: That’s a heavy people posse.
A: That’s my posse. My posse’s mostly under two.
A: Oh, uh, I thought you were going to Obama it…
O: Oh, okay,
A: That would have been awesome!
O: that would have been, uh, m’ that was why I was just gonna slap you in…
A: Just smack me for no reason, yeah.
O: Yeah, that’s right. Um, uh, yeah. The idea of, um, a timeless god, people o-, people often
A: Yeah.
O: assume that, you know, Jesus would be above politics now, but he, you have to believe that the man he was, he would have been actively involved in everything right now.
A: Simply saying the words “I am the Messiah”,…
O: Right.
A: in first-century Palestine…
O: Right.
A: is a treasonable offense. “Messiah” means “the anointed one”. The entire purpose of the Messiah is to re-create the Kingdom of David on Earth, to usher in the reign of God. Well, if you’re ushering in the reign of God, you’re ushering out the reign of Caesar. Uh, so just that phrase alone makes him a deeply political figure.
O: But, I, I, I’m kind, I’m kind of interested with this in, you know, how this could be offensive. Because I don’t, I, I can’t see it, because the realness of the man becomes immensely appealing; you get, I, personally, go to having a much more personal relationship with Jesus through this; I, I, what how could you push back against this?
A: Look, I mean…
O: How could you push back against an academic other than saying “you’re an academic” and…
A: Right.
O: “Oh, he’s one of them Muslamic people”?
A: Am, I, yeah, I’m a Muslamic person, like a-
O: Yeah. Yeah.
A: Um. Look, if you believe that Jesus is God, than you could believe that the context doesn’t matter, right, so who cares? The world that he lived in. Who cares? The motivations that, that, propelled his actions, I mean, his actions are eternal. His words are eternal, so, the context of his time is totally immaterial. I get that. But, I’m not, I’m not about attacking Christianity. My mom was a Christian, my wife is a Christian, by brother-in-law is a Christian pastor, uh, but I do believe firmly that you can be a follower of Jesus and not be a Christian. Just, just as you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus, if you know what I mean.
O: Yes, I think…
O: I think I know exactly what you mean there.
O: Um. And, and you also one of the fascinated, you talk a lot through this book about the, the problem of using the modern concept of history when we read the gospels, you know, you say that for them history was not actually about uncovering facts, but about revealing truths, which is, you know, it’s a very, it’s almost like…
A: Right.
O: political spin in the modern sense, it’s not about, it’s almost Truthiness, it’s almost Colbert’s Truthiness…
A: It’s truthiness-to be… Well, there are two sort of basic facts about the gospels that, that are so obvious, but, but, people don’t understand the consequences of it. One, they’re written in Greek. Why? If they were, I mean, every other document about Jews written by Jews- almost every other document around that time was written either in Hebrew or in Aramaic, Hebrew the, the language of the Scriptures, Aramaic the language of the Jews. Why is it written in Greek? It’s written in Greek because it’s not for Jews, it’s for Romans. The audience was not Jews, the audience was Romans. And, then, secondly, why are there four gospels? I mean, why, why do we need four? Why not just one? And, frankly, these gospels contradict each other in many, many ways. They, they have different timelines, different, uh, outlines for, for, for events. Now, do you think the people, the, the sort of early Church Fathers who put these gospels together and canonized them didn’t know that?
O: [Chuckle]
A: They didn’t realize that “wait, the infancy narratives in Matthew, and, and Luke don’t match”, that Jesus is crucified on a completely different day in John than he is, in, in the other gospels. Of course they knew that, but they didn’t care because thi- this idea of literalism; that the Bible is literally true is a incredibly new phenomenon.
O: Right, but that, but that’s what’s interesting, because it’s not just that they didn’t care, but that they, that they were not intended to be read literally.
A: They were not intended to do that.
O: They would not have wanted people to go, “oh, yeah, so that was exactly the point, I get it”. Uh, no, no, no, it’s a broad- I’m trying to illustrate a broader truth with this kind of lie.
A: I’ll give you one example of this.
O: Huh, yeah.
A: “Lie” is the wrong word. “Lie” is the wrong word.
O: Well, I don’t know, born in Bethlehem, would be a lie.
A: Ee-
O: Because-
A: It would be factually incorrect.
O: [Laughs]. Okay. [Laughs]
O: Yeah.
A: So, so, okay, what you’re saying, this is exactly right.
O: Well, I see. Yeah.
A: Which i- which i-, so, the story you were talking about is the story that Luke says which is that in 6 C.E. there was this census all over the Roman world and that, and what the census said was that every s-, every subject of Rome had to get up from where they were living and go to the, the birthplace of, of their father, and wait there, and be counted.
O: Right.
A: Well, we know a lot about Roman, uh, taxation, uh, because they were very good at documenting, documentation,
O: Oh, and if,
A: …at the time of Jesus for taxation. They were…
O: if nothing else, Romans were stickless for paperwork.
A: really good, they were great, really serious for papyrus work. Um, but, so we know for a fact, two things, one, there was no such census in Galilee, which is where Jesus lived, (there was in Judea, but not in Galilee), and, two, the idea that every once in a while, every subject of Rome had to uproot themselves and their families, travel who knows how many miles to the land of their father’s birth, and then sit there and wait for a Roman official to come and count them
and their property, which they left in their place of residence…
O: [Laughs]
A: anyway, is ridiculous.
O: Yeah, well, when you put it like that…
A: But, but here’s the important thing. Here’s the important thing. Luke knew what he was writing…
O: Right.
A: was factually…
O: Right.
A: incorrect.
O: Right.
A: The audience, the, the readers of Luke’s gospel…
O: That’s the point.
A: knew that what he was writing didn’t actually happen. They weren’t interested in facts, they were interested in truth. The truth that is revealed from this story is that Jesus is born in the city of David and therefore he’s the, the inheritor of David’s kingdom and he is the anointed Messiah. But, the fact is that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, I mean, if there’s one thing that everybody seem to have agreed upon, his enemies and his followers, is that he was a Nazarean.
O: But, but, is the, is the space between those two things where, where fundamentalism begins, then? Because you have something which is saying this is everything, is, it-, literalism, this is a fact, and a gentler, broader truth, an, a, a, a, a more analytical…
A: Yeah.
O: view of everything is where you feel that’s the kill switch, that’s the emergency parachute.
A: Fundamentalism is a reaction to the Scientific Revolution of the, of the nineteenth century. It’s a reaction to Christian liberalism. We as a society came to the conclusion that that which is true is that which can be empirically verified.
O: Right.
A: And, I think a group of conservative Christians felt as though that was a threat to them, because unless you can empirically verify the claims of the Bible, then it’s not scientifically true. And, so, they read the Bible as though it were literally true in a way that it was never intended to be read. Instead of understanding that the truth of the scriptures goes far beyond any kind of historical claims that it makes.
O: Right.
A: The truth is about, the, you know, it, it’s about the message that it’s trying to convey. Uh, not about, you know, the sort of dates and, and facts.
O: Yeah, not the fact that Jesus is a carpenter in Nazareth, a town that has no market for carpentry…
A: No market for carpentry.
O: whatsoever.
A: Yeah.
O: Where all the houses are from mud and brick. There’s no…
A: Mud, mud and brick, yeah.
O: If he’s a carpenter, he’s an unemployed carpenter in the…
permanent sense.
A: Well here’s, here’s a little fascinating thing and since we’re on the Internet I can talk all day about this.
O: Yeah.
A: Um.
A: So, you’re right. For, for a carpenter, for a woodworker, there’s nothing in, in Nazareth for him to do. But, about an hour walk from Nazareth, is this massive urban cosmopolitan city- the capital city of Galilee, called Sepphoris, that’s being built literally from the ground up. And every artisan, every day laborer, every woodworker from, you know, twenty, fifty miles away is descending upon this city to build it. And, so, to Jesus and his family, that means that this is a man who did, who spent most of his childhood not in this tiny, backwoods hamlet, but in this urban metropolis surrounded by Greek-speakers and Romans and Arabs and Syrians and, and very, very wealthy Jews, and all day long, he would build their palaces, build their mansions, and then go home to his mud hut. And this is a man who understood at a deep, deep level the, the distance between the haves and the have-nots in his, in his life, and in his society.
O: Right, and I wanted to be clear, I, I liked this man. I liked the guy who was a day laborer, who was probably illiterate. Who was…
A: Me, too.
O: a radical nationalist. I like this guy. I like him a lot more than I like the, the bird stand.
A: [Chuckles]
O: I, he, he means more to me. You can, you can have a personal relationship with this man and I just wonder how he would feel about Touchdown Jesus.
A: [Chuckles].
O: You know?
O: I wonder if this guy would go “wha- what is that? That seems sacrilegious, but, also, it’s kind of awesome.”.
A: It’s gonna cost him.**
O: It’s kind of great.
A: Uh, if Jesus were alive today, if, if the illiterate, uneducated Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee were alive today, I think he’d be confused by the, the sort of demigod that, that, that he is interpreted as being by, by many people. And, and that’s because the most important thing to remember about Jesus, the single most important thing, is that he was a Jew. Not a Christian. That the only god he knew was the god of the Hebrew Bible. The only scriptures he understood were the Torah and the Prophets. That the concept of a god-man, which doesn’t exist in anywhere in five thousand years of Jewish thought, scripture, or history, would have been so unfamiliar to him that he would be incapable of even conceiving it. You know what I mean? Like…
O: Right.
A: he wouldn’t have the wherewithal to understand what the Hell you were talking about, let alone, uh, you know, uh, recognize it. Let alone, like, you know say, “yeah, that, that sounds good; that’s me”.
O: And that…
O: And that is the true answer to the bracelet “What would Jesus do?”. Just kidding.
A: [Chuckles]
O: What would Jesus do? You go, I, I don’t know, I’ve got no idea…
A: No idea.
O: there’s your blows*** mind. I, I, I cannot recommend this book highly- I loved this. This a- blew my mind. It’s a fantastic read. You’ve gotta get it. Zealot is on the bookshelves now. Reza Aslan, ladies and gentlemen!
A: Thank you.

*Unintelligible. May be “to himself”.
** Unintelligible. May be “It’s kind of awesome”.
*** Unintelligible. May be “blow his”.


Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

8 thoughts on “Transcript of Reza Aslan on the Daily Show”

  1. Sometimes the conversational style of these things hinders more than helps. Surprised that Reza espouses the idea of Jesus being born in Galilee but doesn’t seem to realize that the town next to Nazareth is Bethlehem. Also, doesn’t seem to be aware that in 6bce, it’s all Judaea. Galilee doesn’t become a political entity until after the death of Herod.

    1. He said “6 C.E”. That’s after the death of Herod. Can you elaborate on your second sentence? Bethlehem is over 70 miles from Nazareth.

  2. Also odd that she doesn’t realize that the half man, half god concept wasn’t new and wouldn’t have been unfamiliar at all. Demi-gods were a well known quantity in the Hellenistic world.
    I guess real scholars don’t get book deals and interview tours…

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