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Thursday, August 28, 2014

MY PERIODIC APPEAL 


[Links to my books The Ghost in the Gospels and True Jew are at the right. True Jew is the more recent. It is shorter and, with concise arguments, it is a faster read.]

I apologize for being repetitive about this, but every once in a while I have to appeal again to the writers of TV police and detective dramas to read my books, especially True Jew, and you tell me how rational I have been and whether or not I have proven my case. An abundance of evidence, a very solid pattern, tells us that Jewish leaders tried to save the life of Jesus and put a stop to that Roman execution.
 
The writers of cop dramas have the best understanding of scientific method, or more simply, rational thinking. Better than anyone else I have come across. New Testament scholars, or historical Jesus scholars, are intelligent people. I have no doubt their IQs are much higher than mine. If you plunked them down in any scientific field, like chemistry or biology or the history of China, I am sure they would do a great job.
 
But in historical Jesus studies, they have decided to throw all reason out the window. Evidence is considered completely irrelevant and only ideology matters. Their chief ideology is that Jesus was surrounded by Jewish enemies who were the primary instruments of his demise. It does not matter how much evidence this ideology cannot explain. The ideology must reign supreme.
 
How many times have I seen this kind of “reasoning” exposed and challenged on the TV shows I am referring to? I recall this happening at least twice on Numbers, when that show was on the air, and at least once on CSI: New York. The same lesson has been taught on many of the other shows, but those two times on Numbers really impressed me. If I recall, the second time, the point was made by Charlie’s girlfriend. It was funny because Charlie the mathematician was usually the one to make this point, and in fact, I think he had previously argued this on another case. But this time his girlfriend had to remind him.
 
On a cop show, the theory is that so-and-so committed the murder or whatever the crime is. But the good detectives, like Charlie, are alert to the facts. They want to know whether their theory indeed explains the evidence. If there are a couple of pieces or more that stick out as unaccounted for by the working theory, then they question whether this suspect was the perpetrator. They go looking for another theory that will explain the evidence better. When Charlie’s girlfriend reminded him of correct scientific procedure, Charlie immediately got the point and said something like, “Okay, let’s go back to the evidence and see what is not adding up under our current theory.” The goal is to really pay attention to all the evidence and not erase or rewrite any of it so that our current theory will falsely hold up.
 
That’s how it’s done, that’s how it should be. But not in historical Jesus studies. If anyone was paying attention to the facts, they would know that a high priest ripping his robes (in Mark and Matt) was not an act of condemnation, but an act of pleading, begging Jesus not to do something, an act of persuasion which was not followed up by threats or any severe actions (as the examples in Josephus teach us). They would pay attention to the facts that in John and Luke, there is no death penalty against Jesus, and in Acts, Paul specifically says there was no such decision that Jesus had done something worthy of death.
 
There are many more details like that which do not make much sense if Jewish leaders were out to conduct a hostile procedure against Jesus. On Numbers, they would go back to the drawing board and try another theory. Historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, generally operate by two or more theories. One is that Jewish leaders were responsible, or at least partly so, for his death, and then they use another theory or theories to explain away the evidence that their primary ideology cannot make sense of. They will say that the Gospel authors were not historians or were more mythmakers, and so there are odd things in their story, but that is just something scholars employ to get rid of troublesome evidence.
 
Everyone knows the details of the so-called trial scene in the Gospels do not match up with the way Jewish trials were conducted. But scholars shrug their shoulders and say, who cares, we don’t have to explain this, we all know Jewish leaders were doing something bad. How do they know this? Their ideology tells them so. If you were watching detectives “reason” like this on a TV show, you would change the channel. What you would be waiting for is one detective to say, “Let’s try another theory,” and when that does not happen, you would say, “This is crap” and reach for the remote.
 
Who will give us a remote to find a more sensible show in historical Jesus scholarship? My book, True Jew.
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

SOLID PATTERNS OF FACT 


There is a scholarly and popular conception of the Gospels that the evidence is a mess, that nothing is clearly told, that there are contradictions galore, and that the upshot of it all is that we will never recover the history with any accuracy. That is a scholarly construction of the documents, intended to prevent us from seeing what is obviously there. The fear of recovering the historical, Jewish Jesus is so great that no one is willing to see how much of the evidence is startlingly clear. The mess is in our heads, not in the Gospels.
 
I will give two examples here. One concerns Judas, and for the other, I will step outside the Gospels to see what is in Josephus.
 
About Judas: There is not one piece of unambiguous, relevant evidence that Judas was a malicious guy who did something bad to Jesus. By ‘relevant’, I mean relevant to the charge of being a traitor. If there was unambiguous evidence that Judas was six feet tall and had red hair, that would be interesting, but it is not evidence that Judas betrayed Jesus.
 
There is only one piece of Gospel evidence concerning Judas that could be called unambiguous for his bad character and that is the statement in John that he stole money from the box used to collect for the poor. But it is not relevant to the charge of betrayal. It has nothing to do with being a traitor and sounds more like an attempt to cast aspersions on Judas. Not to mention that John, the last Gospel, is the only one to mention it and that it is a statement made by the Gospel author without saying where this information comes from. We don’t know who originally made this accusation.  Despite its being an unambiguous allegation, it is a very weak piece of evidence.
 
Everything else about Judas is highly ambiguous. Each piece could be given a negative spin or a positive spin in regard to his character. One could argue there is an attempt to convict Judas by innuendo, but it is tradition that has gotten us used to seeing only the negative spin. We don’t see how all this evidence is given in such a way that it could just as easily be viewed in a positive way.
 
We have come to call it the kiss of betrayal, but the text does not say that. The kiss could have been given out of genuine affection, concern for what was happening, and a need for comfort in circumstances that Judas had nothing to do with. The alleged suicide we interpret as being out of guilt, but if it did happen, it also could have been out of frustration that he was being falsely accused of betrayal. The text in Matthew does not make it clear what the motivation for the supposed suicide was. Someone recently informed me that the Greek verb used for ‘to hang’ himself can also mean choked up with emotion. I have not checked out this information yet, but if correct, then the suicide could be quite an exaggeration. Judas could have been overwhelmed that Jesus was unexpectedly arrested and executed. Too choked up to deal with it.
 
The one solid piece of information we have—that Judas left the table and returned with authorities—is also one of the most ambiguous. There are a lot of things that could explain that. He could have been going out to get more food, as John reports that some believed, and then was dragged back by soldiers who spotted and recognized him as a member of Jesus’ group. There is an even better explanation which I give in my books. My point here is that the Gospel authors refrain from spelling it out in a way that would clearly make it an act of betrayal.
 
Some will object that ambiguous though this may be, when you add it all up, Judas must have been doing something bad. And that is where so many make a major logical mistake. Too many scholars believe that if we have a lot of ambiguous evidence, it makes for a better case. In fact, just the opposite is true. The more ambiguous evidence we have, the worse the case is because it becomes pretty obvious that no one had anything unambiguously evil to report about Judas. And that is significant.
 
The solid pattern of evidence we have about Judas is that all the evidence (except for the late remark about stealing money intended for the poor) is ambiguous. That is very suspicious. The question scholars avoid asking is: What is the best rational explanation for why there is all this ambiguous evidence? Betrayal is not the answer. If Judas really had betrayed Jesus, we would expect there to have been some clear statement of motive or conflict with Jesus, or at the very least some clear accusation at the time from someone who knew him (whatever negative attitude there is in the Gospels towards Judas, it comes from the Gospel authors Luke and John, and not from recorded statements of his fellow disciples).
 
Judas not betraying Jesus is a better explanation of the ambiguities and I get more specific than that in my books.
 
I will be briefer concerning Josephus. The solid information that emerges from the histories of Josephus is that Jewish leaders never cooperated with Rome in the arrest and prosecution of Jews. There is not one piece of information in Josephus that Jewish leaders ever did such a thing. No scholar has ever presented any evidence that Jewish authorities helped Rome arrest or prosecute Jewish troublemakers. Many have claimed that such was the case, but they have asserted this without a stitch of evidence to back it up.
 
Scholars have done something even worse: They have suppressed the information in Josephus that Jewish leaders would refuse such help and, in general, avoided dealing with the Romans in their attempts to suppress Jewish riots or trouble of any kind. In one case, a Roman procurator asked Jewish authorities to turn over some Jewish men and they would not do it. The picture that the overwhelming majority of scholars give us, portraying Jewish leaders working with Rome, is absolutely false. We have an exceptionally clear pattern of evidence in Josephus of these leaders keeping aloof from Rome, never helping them to get Jews. The historical record is clear. It is scholars who obfuscate.
 
Use this information wisely and the Gospel story of Jesus’ death lights up with unexpected clarity. The truth about how Jesus died is not a threat to Christianity, but it may well be to those scholars who wish to hold on to a dishonest account of the evidence.
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer


Sunday, June 29, 2014

FALSE FACTS VERSUS FALSE THEORIES 


I think I have posted about this before, but it’s worth going over again. Charles Darwin got it absolutely right when he wrote, “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.”
 
It is exceptionally hard to overturn a false fact. We don’t examine the premises of a fact. If it’s fact, it doesn’t have premises (so we assume). How could you ever expose its falseness? Something that is taken to be a fact hangs around for a very long time for exactly that reason. We all assume it doesn’t have the very premises that prop it up. It is almost impossible to get anyone to look closely at a false fact. There is nothing to look at. It’s just a fact.
 
That is exactly why New Testament scholarship never changes. No one questions the false facts of Jewish leaders putting Jesus on trial and Judas betraying him. These are actually theories, not facts, but no one tells you that. The Gospels contain a pattern of facts, details, which may or may not support the theories. Trial and betrayal are interpretations of the clues in the Gospels. Are they good interpretations? Obviously not, otherwise they would be honestly presented as theories.
 
If these were good interpretations, scholars would present them as such and give a very convincing argument, based on the actual evidence in the Gospels. But scholars don’t do that because they know they don’t hold up as good interpretations. The only way they can put them over is by presenting them as facts, albeit false ones, and this way, no one will question them. No one will look hard at the real evidence which is that the Gospels never call the questioning of Jesus a trial and never use the Greek word for betray to describe Judas’ action.
 
I have a better theory (one theory resolving both problems) which I present in my two books. But even though I can establish that this theory is right because it is provable well beyond a reasonable doubt, I would never claim it is a fact. It is a good interpretation of the evidence we have, but that cannot convert it into a fact.
 
At an informal meeting, not a trial, Jewish leaders tried to save Jesus from a Roman execution by trying to ascertain exactly what the Romans thought he had done and what in fact he was actually doing in his preaching. That will resolve all the supposed contradictions and oddities in the Gospel accounts. But I would never claim this is now fact. It cannot be a fact anymore than the accusation of Jewish leaders interrogating Jesus at a hostile judicial procedure can be a fact. Neither informal meeting nor hostile trial is a stated bit of evidence in the Gospels. But one (my theory) explains all the evidence well and the other does not.
 
Scholars realized a long time ago that they don’t have to prove anything. All they have to do is falsely pass off their views as facts and proof is thereby easily avoided.
 
© 2014 L. Zitzer

Thursday, May 29, 2014

HUMANITARIANISM LOST AND FOUND 


No sooner did I put up the last post on humanitarianism in ancient Judaism than I came across the following quote of Lionel Trilling, which I found in Jacqueline Rose’s States of Fantasy. She quotes him as saying, “neither the Jews nor the Greeks thought like humanists—they believed that nothing could be, or should be, more incomprehensible than alien cultures, the ways that goyim or barbaroi chose to go about being persons or selves.” It is a very shortsighted vision of humanism.
 
In the post below, I cited some of the Jewish trial rules in the Mishnah as evidence of high humanitarianism. Almost one hundred years ago, classical scholar Richard Husband was of the same opinion. He was impressed with how infrequently the death penalty was applied and how close the rabbis came to abolishing it. He was also impressed that the “rules of procedure were drawn in such a way that they seemed to favor the defendant to a remarkable degree.” That is a true humanitarian insight. I should also say, on behalf of the ancient Greeks, that Socrates’ search for rational truth as opposed to prejudiced preconceptions is also evidence of the same.
 
But even as to Trilling’s point about regard for alien cultures, he overlooked how often the Torah speaks favorably of the stranger, the non-Jewish immigrant, among Jews. The Torah declares that the immigrant and native should be subjected to the same laws. The immigrant shall not be judged by separate laws. That is a higher standard than many modern nations follow. Of course, it depends on which laws are at issue. If the Torah meant only criminal laws, it is not that remarkable, but still highly humane, I would argue. If the Torah also means to apply all kinds of civil laws as well, then it is even more impressive.
 
I am not an expert on this, so I am not sure how far Torah expected to extend this equality under the law. I suspect it was the latter (e.g., enjoying festivals and rest on Shabbat was applied to immigrants). But the least we can conclude is that there was not a uniform hostility towards alien cultures in the Torah. At one point, we are told that God gave foreigners their own ways of worshiping him, like the sun and the moon and the stars. The non-Jews in the mixed multitude that went up out of Egypt were also included in the covenant with God. And in light of the subsequent history of other cultures and religions, I would also venture that the omission of any command to Jews to conquer the world and convert everyone else to Judaism is also evidence of the humanitarianism in the Torah. Trilling’s judgment was shortsighted indeed.
 
I bring all this up because I think Trilling’s misconceptions about ancient Jews and Greeks are still common. We are constantly told that ancient peoples were tribalistic and narrow-minded in contrast to our supposed ability to be universal. That is quite a distortion of what the ancient world was like and an overestimation of our own accomplishments (somehow with all this universality, we are at the same time a more greedy culture than the ancient ones).

The rabbis, Socrates, and Plato set a higher standard for humane thinking than we are capable of admitting and it was one that was considerably less greedy than our own standards. We just don’t like paying attention to the details of their thoughts, and that, we think, entitles us to make up anything we want about them. Fiction turns out to be the modern scholar’s greatest tool. Like Vroomfondel says in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “We don’t demand solid facts! What we demand is a total absence of solid facts!”
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A SMALL THOUGHT 


Doing research on Charles Darwin and his historical context has made me realize that there are many humanitarians who have been neglected by academia and, further, that, as far as I know, there are no university courses on the history of humanitarianism. That’s a shame.
 
This got me to wondering what a course on humanitarianism would look like. There would probably have to be multiple courses, broken into time periods or countries or cultures. There is a lot to cover. No one class could do it all. And, of course, attention would have to be paid to why this has never been done before. Why are humanitarians (known as philanthropists in the 19th century) so troubling to us that their existence has to be erased?
 
Naturally, I also found myself wondering what should be presented as the Jewish contribution to this history. There is so much to choose from in ancient Jewish culture. It would be hard to limit oneself. If there was a class covering a wide range of examples from many cultures and only one or two examples could be given from each, I think I would choose to focus on the Mishnah trial rules and that statement in Josephus that our law requires that no man may be condemned to death without a trial by the Sanhedrin (in other words, everyone gets due process).
 
My favorite rule and another part of this Jewish due process was the requirement that death penalty verdicts could not be unanimous. That means at least one judge had to argue for the defendant, thus giving him, in effect, the right to an attorney.
 
But a particular reason why I picked the trial rules as an example of humanitarianism is because at one point, in the midst of discussing the importance of carefully questioning witnesses in murder cases (after all, a man is on trial for his life, and if he is found guilty, not only will he atone with his life, but all future generations that would have come from him are also forfeiting their lives), the rabbis break off and discuss why God began human creation with a single individual. Several reasons are given. One is that it was to remind us that if you destroy one person, you destroy a whole world. Another is so that each person will say to himself that on my account was the world created. Also, no one would be able to say that my father is greater than your father, since we all come from the same ancestor, and this would hopefully help to promote peace between people.
 
The last reason reminds me that the British Aborigines’ Protection Society, founded in 1836, formulated a motto which expresses the same thought: Ab Uno Sanguine (Of One Blood). It was a thought that found a hard time finding a place in the world.
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, March 27, 2014

REZA ASLAN AND THE CULT OF FORGETFULNESS 


In 1968, Australian anthropologist W.E.H Stanner gave a lecture on the radio. The lecture was called “The Great Australian Silence”. It was about the academic and popular failure to confront what colonialism had done to the Aborigines. It was primarily a failure of memory and an inability to deal with the significance of the dispossession of the Aborigines.
 
In his lecture, he said, “Inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent-mindedness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape.” He called this “a cult of forgetfulness” and continued, “We have been able for so long to disremember the aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.”
 
These words are uncannily just as true for Jews or, more precisely, for ancient Jewish culture and the way it is treated in Christian scholarship. New Testament scholars leave out quite a lot about ancient Jewish culture. This cannot be explained by mere absent-mindedness. Misrepresenting ancient Judaism has become a structural matter. Even when scholars say they want to do right by the history of Jewish culture, it has become impossible to remember clearly because theology has structurally altered the landscape of Jewish history. There is an ingrained cult of forgetfulness that is hard to escape.
 
The recent book Zealot by Reza Aslan is no exception. In the post below this, I briefly explained why the theory of Jesus as a Zealot does not hold up. What bothers me even more about Aslan’s book is the sub-title: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. There is precious little of the times—Jesus’s Jewish context—in this book. This makes it like almost every other book on the subject. Aslan does make an effort to be more fair to ancient Jews. He describes the Pharisees as friendly and doubts there was a Jewish trial of Jesus. But it is a minimal effort. He never sees all the evidence in Josephus that Jewish leaders would never cooperate with Romans to get rid of Jews troublesome to Rome.
 
Just as bad, he relies on the usual stereotypes of Judaism. He gives us far too much of the typical trivialization of Jewish culture into a religion of picayune rituals and observances. There are constant references to ‘strict adherence to Torah or the Law,’ as if this were the greatest concern of Jews, as if they measured each other by strictness and literal devotion to the rules. At one point, he calls circumcision and dietary restrictions “basic matters” in Judaism (179).Was there nothing more basic than that? I am sick of this kind of writing about Jewish society. It’s the product of the cult of forgetfulness.
 
Aslan has absolutely no sense of the flexible nature of Torah or its function as a Constitution that served both to battle arbitrary power and to adapt to the needs of the people. One ancient rabbi said that in order to be able to study Torah properly, you had to be as pliable as the reed used for pens to make copies of Torah. Also missing from Aslan’s work are the great constitutional battles the Pharisees fought, which is a tad more important than the friendly nature of Pharisees and perhaps two tads more important than circumcision. Whether it was insisting that a king could be compelled to testify in court or that an aristocrat (the young Herod) should be put on trial for violating an accused person’s right to due process, the Pharisees were doing this 1500 years before the British Parliament was engaged in similar battles with its kings. To neglect one of the most vital things about ancient Jewish culture in favor of the trivial—and every culture has its adornments and practices which may be colorful or not, but they don’t really tell us anything very deep—is an injustice so outrageous, it takes my breath away. We are so used to this in New Testament scholarship and historical Jesus studies that “we are now hard put to keep them [the profound aspects of Judaism] in mind even when we most want to do so,” as Stanner would have said.
 
An equally egregious act of forgetfulness in Aslan’s book comes when he tells us that ancient Jews did not include foreigners or strangers in the idea of neighbor so that they would not have applied “love your neighbor” to them (121-22). What a gross misrepresentation this is.
 
The stranger or immigrant (Hebrew: ger) is mentioned about 36 times in Torah. Jews are bidden not to forget the immigrant, to help or be kind to the immigrant, practice justice towards him, do not do him wrong, keep one law for both native and immigrant, and yes, even to love the immigrant and stranger because Jews were once strangers in a foreign land, so they know what it is like to be mistreated in a foreign country (e.g., Ex 22:21, 23:9; Lev 19:33-34; Deut 27:19). Moses even includes the stranger in the covenant with God. Love of neighbor and love of stranger are actually very near each other in Leviticus. It is a spectacular act of prejudice that anyone could see one and not the other.

Kindness to the stranger is central to the foundational consciousness of Jewish culture. Israel is not a monolithic dream of a homogenous people. It was always about diversity. Pointedly, at no point are the children of Israel commanded to convert the stranger to the single cause of Israel. Their difference is respected.
 
None of this means that native-born and foreigners were absolutely equal in Israel. No culture has achieved that. But as far as respecting the rights of strangers, immigrants, outsiders, ancient Israel did pretty well, even by modern standards.
 
There are many threads in Torah. You can also find some animosity towards foreigners, as is usual in most cultures. I would never argue that Torah is exclusively about one thing. The question for any culture is: What is the whole story? Reslan has left out quite a lot. He just so happens to have left out everything that makes ancient Jews look less provincial and less tribal. There is a method to this madness of forgetfulness. It is not Reslan’s fault. He is participating in a cult that has become standard in academia. He wants to fit right in and he does.
 
It should not be surprising that many gentiles were attracted to Judaism and that Judaism welcomed them. Gentiles could adopt some Jewish customs, without converting all the way, and became partial Jews, or God-fearers, as they were known. Paul owed his success entirely to the gentile God-fearers. They were his first audience. Early Christianity built on Judaism’s appeal to gentiles. But Aslan would have his readers believe that ancient Jewish culture was parochial and tribal, while Christianity was universal. He would have his readers join the cult of forgetfulness.
 
As Stanner said, this kind of forgetfulness is too structural to be a mere accident. While no one person or institution is orchestrating this, academia as a whole is morally responsible for this nonsense and each scholar has to take responsibility for joining this cult or opposing it. Which side are you on, boys and girls, which side are you on?
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, February 27, 2014

THE ZEALOT THEORY 


It is hard to believe that anyone could propose that Jesus might have been a Zealot. If wishes were fishes, my apartment would have one hell of a smell. The Zealot theory smells just as bad. Little to no evidence supports it and important evidence contradicts it.
 
Then again, considering that most New Testament scholarship is about promoting ideological or theological beliefs and not about paying careful attention to the evidence, it really is not all that surprising that some writers think Zealot is a good possibility for Jesus. Most recently, we have Reza Aslan’s Zealot. This is not a review of that book, as I have not read all of it, but it seems he makes the same arguments others have made.
 
Proponents of this idea like to point out that two swords are mentioned in connection with Jesus’ group and that some of his disciples had suggestive nicknames, like sons of thunder. My response to such evidence is:  Seriously!? Seriously!?  This is incredibly trivial stuff and proves nothing. It does not even tend to prove anything. Not everyone today who carries a gun is a member of gang. Not everyone back then who carried a sword was a rebel. As for names, I would bet that more than half the kids in New York City who style themselves with gangsta names are definitely not gangstas. First century Israel probably had their wannabe Zealots just as we have our wannabe gangstas. These clues in the Gospels amount to nothing, certainly nothing solid. They are too ambiguous and could point to very different realities.
 
More importantly, one major piece of evidence contradicts the thesis that Jesus was a Zealot:  He alone was arrested and executed by the Romans. There are no other cases of the Romans treating a rebel like this. In every case we have of the Romans going after a rebel leader, at the same time they also kill a number of his followers. With Jesus, they arrest only him and leave his group alone. It is impossible to believe that Jesus was a Zealot and the Romans would behave like this. Having scanned Aslan’s book very carefully, but not closely read all of it yet, I cannot see any sign that he has addressed this problem. If I am wrong about that, I apologize.
 
Exaggerate the trivial and suppress the significant, and you can prove anything. I could prove that Jesus was an alien from another planet. There is a better case for that than for Jesus as a Zealot.
 
© Leon Zitzer 2014

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