Playwright Motti Lerner and author Reza Aslan may not have been aware of what the other was doing, but it’s oddly serendipitous that this year they should each debut new works about Paul and Jesus, respectively, that offer fresh and forthright depictions of these men.
If being at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List (Hardcover Nonfiction) wasn’t enough marketing oomph for Reza Aslan’s biography of Jesus entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth , his now infamous interview on Fox News following its publication certainly put it over the top. Already fast becoming a national phenomenon, Aslan came under fire for having the sheer audacity to be a Muslim man who authoritatively writes about a Christian subject—correction, the Christian subject. Never mind his twenty years’ worth of academic research and scholarship, including three advanced degrees, not to mention the rights afforded him by the First Amendment. Never mind that Jesus is a central figure in Islam. The Fox News video went viral, and while Aslan’s detractors have slinked away with their tails between their legs, he and his work have stood strong.
Oftentimes a writer’s background will come into play in establishing whether he has the authority to take on a particular subject. Not only is Reza Aslan a Muslim; he is an Iranian American, born in Tehran in the early seventies, raised Muslim but became a teenaged convert to Christianity, and adopted Islam again as an adult. More important than his personal religious background is his career as a scholar of religion as well as a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Motti Lerner, who wrote Paulus, studied math and physics before discovering theater in the mid-seventies. Born in Israel, he now works as a playwright and teaches playwriting at the Kibbutz College in Tel Aviv. He identifies as both a Jew and an atheist. Some may think that a contradiction in terms, and perhaps insufficient credentials for writing a play about the Apostle Paul, and yet here we are.
Numerous scholars and journalists have pointed out that Aslan is simply adding to a scholarly debate about Jesus that has raged for centuries, a charge with which he would agree. In an interview with the New York Times, he says, “Much of what I argue in the book has been argued by my predecessors and colleagues. ... To be perfectly frank, if you’re a biblical scholar, you’re not going to find much that’s new in my book.” What Aslan offers instead of new ideas is a new way of presenting ideas—one that is easily digestible for the average reader. Even so, to the average reader, much of what he says may be quite new. Lerner, too, prefers an accessible medium to present ideas: theatre. Conflict and drama are his chosen canvas. Both Paulus and Zealot embrace intellectual populism, one through an artistic lens, the other through an expository one.
Although Zealot focuses on the life and times of Jesus, Aslan’s portrayal of Paul is worth some study as well. While our play undertakes a psychological examination of Paul, Zealot portrays him as a political figure. Aslan emphasizes Paul’s near-total divorce from Judaism; his mission to spread Jesus’s message to Jews and Gentiles alike is portrayed as being quite a large threat to the work that James (Jesus’s brother and appointed successor) and the remaining original apostles were doing. Others insist instead that Paul was preaching a radical new form of Judaism. Still others reject the notion that Paul single-handedly invented Christology (a concept that attempts to understand the nature and work of Jesus, as depicted in the Bible), suggesting that the worship of Jesus not only predated Paul but also existed after Paul, independently of him.
Paulus allows us to examine Paul the way that Zealot allows us to examine Jesus. Far from insisting that our images of both men need be remade from whole cloth, each writer in turn invites us to place both men in the context of their times. Through this context we gain a richer understanding of each of them. Aslan’s Jesus is a Jewish revolutionary fighting for the return of the Kingdom of God to earth in the face of Roman occupation. A zealot—lower case z, not to be confused with the later political party—Jesus is a young, energetic upstart ready to take on the mantle of prophecy. Reza Aslan's Jesus is more angry, rebellious, and outraged by all the injustice around him; he speaks truth to power. Motti Lerner’s Jesus is a reluctant idol, misunderstood by Paulus. He is an elder sage, full of cautionary wisdom and has had a lot of time to reflect on his life. He is more resigned, cautious, careful, patient, mature, pragmatic, and shrewd; he is a tempered, calculated radical. Aslan’s Paul is a deluded, self-aggrandizing radical—a rogue agent, answerable to no one but God. He is more ambitious, driven, egotistical, and power hungry. Lerner’s Paulus is a sympathetic evangelist, constantly at the mercy of the earthly powers that be; he is introspective, anguished, tormented, tested, and conflicted. In both works, Jesus is a Jew. Paul makes him, needs him to be, The Christ.
Despite the differences, Zealot and Paulus seem very much, if not of a piece, then certainly resonant with each other. They share an equal fascination with the mythical and historical origins of their subjects that ultimately enlighten us. With Paulus, Motti Lerner adds his voice to the enduring discussion of these two figures, with the compassion of an artist as well as the inquisitiveness of a student. May the dialogue continue.