Aslan is the author of Zealot, a study of the historical Jesus, in which he argues that Christ was executed as a political rebel by the Roman authorities. The thesis is nothing new, but if reviews are anything to go by, Aslan proves a skillful populariser of an old interpretation. Not that this mattered to the Fox News host Lauren Green, though, who spent most of the ten minute segment insinuating – indeed on occasion saying outright – that Aslan’s Muslim faith rendered his argument invalid.
Towards the end of the excruciating exchange, she even accused him of hiding his religion over the course of his career, while suggesting that a follower of Islam writing a book on the Christian Godhead was as worthless as a partisan Democrat studying Reagan: an analogy that must have left several historians of the 1980s in the U.S. wondering what they were doing with their time. Green’s line of questioning borrowed heavily from an article posted prior to the interview on the Fox News website by John R. Dickerson, who claimed Aslan was ‘not an objective observer, but, to use his own word, a zealot, with religious motivation to destroy what Western culture has believed about its central figure for hundreds of years.’
Within a few hours of the video’s appearance academic friends of mine on both sides of the Atlantic were discussing it online. What struck them was not so much Green’s profound ignorance of theology – though this is hardly ideal for a Religion Correspondent – but more her misunderstanding of the methods of scholarly inquiry.
Over the past few years, I’ve led a module at Sheffield called The Uses of History, which explores (among other things) the objects and ethics of the practice of history. One recurring question is how academic historians have claimed intellectual authority over the past two centuries. I ask students to consider whether ‘gatekeeping’ in the form of the doctoral exam and expert peer review could be read as a kind of intellectual imperialism – a way to drive out ‘quack’ practitioners and elevate ‘professional’ history above its ‘amateur’ counterpart – but Aslan’s interrogation served as a useful reminder of the merits of the academic method. As Green returned over and over again to his faith, Aslan – who holds higher degrees from Harvard and California and can read New Testament Greek – calmly insisted that he had the training, judgment, and credibility to write knowledgeably about First Century Judea. His insistence that he was an accredited expert pursuing knowledge for its own sake eventually pushed his inquisitor to cite unnamed scholars who disagreed with him, although she was unforthcoming about their line of critique.
Aslan’s biases may well influence his work – my own political leanings certainly affect the questions I ask, and quite probably the answers I arrive at too – but to acknowledge that his perspective will shape what he sees by no means refutes his historical claim. This, I think, is the gravest error Green made: she assumed that the author’s background made him incapable of writing anything of value about the roots of Christianity. Thus she ignored what he actually sees, and attacked the position from which she supposed he was seeing it. Aslan’s response was to say that she was situating him in the wrong place, for he wasn’t viewing Christ’s life from the subject position of a devout Muslim, but rather that of an academic expert committed to the idea of objectivity. The debate therefore hinged on where Aslan stood and not the substance of his argument.
I’d hope Aslan would be treated differently in the circles of academia. For all our many foibles, professional historians are expected to attack the substance of a claim they disagree with, rather than to sully the name of the person making it. Consider for instance the great Marxist scholar of seventeenth-century England, Christopher Hill. The revisionists who have dismantled his interpretation of the English Civil War over the past few decades have done so through demonstrating its many flaws rather than resorting to relentless red-baiting. He wrote as a left wing radical, but to merely call him a Communist says nothing about the value of his work.
Perhaps the most troubling element of the interview for me, however, was Green’s implication that only Christians have any credibility in studying the historical Christ. We talk a great deal in the Uses module about ownership of the past, discussing, for instance, how history can become a commodity when it is annexed by the heritage industry, or the privileged domain of experts in the hands of professional historians. But people find meaning and communal solidarities in claiming ownership of ‘their past’ too, and while these battles are most visible when they lead to battles over places and things – think of Temple Mount or the Elgin Marbles – they can also involve a struggle over who has the authority to represent. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, many African-American historians argued that only those of African descent had the right to write about subjects like slavery. Such a claim was understandable – the overwhelmingly white academy in the U.S. had a shameful record in its treatment of people of color as both scholars and historical subjects – but when ownership of the past is invoked to shield particular peoples, movements, events, and ideas from critical inquiry it surely inhibits understanding and precludes the kind of democratic debate that scholarship ought to foster.
The message given to Aslan to stay off historical turf that did not belong to him is therefore a familiar one, particularly for historians of nationalism or religion. When the popular historian Tom Holland, whose writing has appeared on this blog before, wrote a study of the historical roots of Islam, he found himself subject to threats that led Channel 4 to cancel a public screening of a documentary tie-in. But Holland also encountered substantive critiques of his work from both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, who challenged his use and interpretation of source material, and it’s this kind of engagement that’s totally missing from Dickerson’s article on Zealot and the Fox News interview.
Aslan’s work will hopefully receive similar scrutiny from scholars who may or may not be devout Christians, and it ought to stand and fall on the merits of its case rather than the background of its author. Certainly the book won’t lack for well-informed readers. Last time I checked, it stood top of the Amazon.com sales rankings in the U.S., having been pushed to #1 by the furore surrounding the Fox interview. In suggesting Aslan had no authority to speak, Green may have multiplied his audience many times over.
Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the 19th-century United States. You can see Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter @andrewdheath.
Image: Reza Aslan in 2012 [Wikicommons]
 Aslan’s training is not in the History of the Ancient Near East, but rather the sociology of religion and theology, and I did not find his claim that his credentials alone made him an objective observer as persuasive as other points he made.
 This is a point that American conservatives have made too. See for instance http://www.theamericanconservative.com/bulverizing-reza-aslan/.
 This point could be extended more broadly to thinking about to the revisionist assault on Marxist historiography in other areas, particularly the French Revolution. With some colourful exceptions, scholars have opted for critical inquiry over character assassination.
 In his response to critics of the documentary, Holland (like Aslan) emphasized the spirit of academic inquiry, stating that his work was ‘a historical endeavour… not a critique of one of the major monotheistic religions’: http://bips.channel4.com/programmes/islam-the-untold-story/articles/all/tom-holland-responds-to-the-programmes-critics