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Thursday, September 28, 2017

OPEN UP OUR EYES AND LOOK 

It is refreshing to take a look at ancient Jewish history through any lens that is not that of a historical Jesus scholar. We all too often forget that Jews have a history that is independent of Christian theology. Take a look from time to time at Jewish history as it stands on its own and you will be surprised at what can be seen.

It is a commonplace among historical Jesus scholars that Jewish leaders cooperated with Rome in the arrest and trial of Jesus. They base this on their preconceived, fixed idea about the Jewish priests and other authorities that one of their duties was to help Rome deal with Jewish rebels and troublemakers. In both my books, I have gone over much of the evidence that contradicts this. Jewish leaders helping Rome is a false picture of Jewish history. But I had completely forgotten that if you read a scholar on Josephus who has nothing to do with historical Jesus scholarship and has no Christian interest in Josephus, we also find information that confirms my point and gives us a picture of Josephus’s concerns which is very different from what so many historical Jesus scholars claim.

Take, for example, Tessa Rajak’s Josephus: The Historian and His Society (second edition). She reminds us how much Josephus hated the Jewish rebels. He blames them for getting the Jewish state into a war with Rome. More important, he also blamed Jewish leaders for not doing enough to restrain them and keep them in line. In short, he accuses Jewish authorities either of weakness or recalcitrance in dealing with Jewish troublemakers. If Jewish leaders had taken any actions to work with Rome to get rid of these upstarts, Josephus would have reported this, and gladly reported it. He was a man of the upper classes. He had no axe to grind against his own leadership. He would have been happy to see them finally, or at least on occasion, doing their job, if it really was their job (the whole point of course is that it was not their job to aid Rome in its police or military work). More of this kind of strong action, Josephus would have argued, could have saved the Jewish nation from destruction.

But that’s not what Josephus gives us. What Josephus does report is that Jewish leaders did nothing to quell rebellious activity until it was too late. Nipping a problem in the bud (like a small-time rabble rouser) was decidedly not in their make-up. They never did anything like that. One could say they avoided it with every bone in their bodies.

According to Rajak, Josephus thought of Jewish leaders as weak in relation to Jewish rebels. I have described them as being unconcerned with Rome’s problems with Jewish rebels because taking action against the rebels would have made them unpopular. For the priests, Jewish unrest was Rome’s deal and not something Jewish authorities wanted to get involved with. Either way (weak or indifferent), the end result was that they would not help Rome constrain these troublesome young men. There was nothing about the historical Jesus that would have changed the leaders’ usual response of doing nothing to assist Rome. That is the real history.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer



Monday, August 28, 2017

THREE REASONS 

Scholars generally do not spell out all their reasons for upholding the view that the Jewish people as a whole (in Jesus’s time, that is) cannot be blamed for the Roman execution of Jesus. (How well they stick to this view is another issue, as most scholars claim Jesus was offensive to many Jews, but I will return to this another time.) If they had to give reasons for not blaming Jews generally, I think the following three would be the ones they would fasten on:

First, there is no historical context for it; Jews never called on Roman governors to execute one of their own. Second, there are contradictions to this in the Gospels which show popular support for Jesus (e.g., Mark 11:18; 12:12, 37; 14:2); such support is more historically believable. Third, a good case can be made that blaming all Jews was done out of anger by Jesus’ followers (because most Jews did not accept Jesus as Messiah) and a desire to deflect blame from Rome in order to avoid Roman persecution.

The odd thing is that these same scholars who exonerate the Jewish people will continue to blame the Jewish leadership of the time, despite the fact that the same three reasons exonerate the leaders as well. Jewish authorities never called on Rome to get rid of Jewish troublemakers, and they certainly never arrested and prosecuted Jews for the sake of Rome. There is no historical context for what they supposedly did to Jesus. The anger that was projected onto Jews as a whole could equally well have been projected onto Jewish leaders and distorted their role in this; the desire to deflect blame from Rome also operates here. Moreover, there are considerable clues in the Gospels to corroborate all this and vindicate ancient Jewish leaders which I go over in detail in both my books. The reasoning, or rather lack of it, which convicts any Jews of complicity in Jesus’ death is as anti-Jewish as it ever was. It is only being applied now to a smaller group of Jews, the Jewish leadership, particularly the priests. (Actually, as mentioned above, the reasoning has not really grown smaller, as most scholars still think Jesus offended a large body of Jews, not just Jewish leaders.)

If it is recognized that this was anti-Jewish reasoning when it was applied to the whole Jewish people, then it is just as anti-Jewish when applied to a smaller group. What makes it anti-Jewish is not the size of the group that the bad reasoning is applied to, but the very nature of the reasoning: 1) it promotes false facts about these Jewish leaders; 2) it defames an important part of the culture of the time; and 3) it is part of a pattern depicting Jews as uncomprehending of and violent towards Jesus (the pattern may have grown smaller, although not really as I have already said). Something went wrong, phenomenally wrong, in Christian-Jewish history a long time ago. It is still in operation and it has the power to make us blind to evidence that is right under our noses. That is what we have to grapple with. That is the thing that is so hard to accept—so hard to say and to see. We want to diminish what went wrong and think it is something easily patched up. It is not.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer



Thursday, July 27, 2017

WHAT IS SCARIER THAN CRAZY? NOTHING 

How do you write rationally about the irrational? How do you clearly explain and describe the irrational thinking that we prefer not to know about it? And what do you do when the irrational becomes normalized? How do you make people see what is going on? When crazy ideas are taken as normal and acceptable, the deck is stacked against anyone who tries to expose that. If you criticize the normalized crazy, you are accused of being crazy yourself because you are objecting to the normal.

We will acknowledge crazy people and crazy things happening beyond the borders of our world and our thinking, but when some of that craziness seeps into our world and intertwines itself with the rational, we are less likely to pay attention. In order to write rationally about the irrational, to expose it and defeat it, you first have to identify and describe it. You have to explain how it uses bits of reason as a cover to make the crazy appear sensible. That’s a hard pill for many to swallow.

A case in point is the way historical Jesus scholars have treated Josephus’s passage on Jesus.  Most scholars realize that the Greek version which has come down to us could not have been written by Josephus, not in the way it currently appears. Josephus would never have categorically proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah and that he rose from the dead, which is what the Greek text says. That much is a rational assessment. Thus, it follows that someone altered what Josephus wrote.

But were these sentences slightly altered from whatever Josephus originally wrote, or are they entirely later insertions? Many scholars opt for the second. Here is where a little bit of irrationality starts to creep in. They never consider that Josephus might have said something about the Messiah and the resurrection which was then slightly altered. For example, he could have said that Jesus’s followers believed he was the Messiah and that they reported that he rose from the dead. That kind of thing is plausible as coming from Josephus.

Is there any evidence that this is what Josephus originally wrote? Actually, yes. There is some support from Jerome who has Josephus saying Jesus “was believed to be the Messiah.” It makes plenty of sense that Josephus could have written that. But there is an even more important source from Agapius, an Arab Christian in the 10th century. He preserved in Arabic what Josephus wrote about Jesus. (My discussion of Agapius is based on the work of scholar Shlomo Pines.) The Church was keeping a close eye on anything written in Greek or Latin, but it was probably not paying much attention to Arabic writings. It is very believable that something displeasing to the Church could have slipped through in Arabic.

The Agapius version says that Jesus was perhaps the Messiah, but since his Arabic text was based on a prior Syriac text, he may have slightly mistranslated the Syriac “He was thought to be the Messiah” or “it seemed he was the Messiah.” Whatever it was exactly, whether “perhaps” or “thought to be” or “seemed”, in this version Josephus clearly does not categorically affirm Jesus as the Messiah. That makes sense. On the resurrection, the Agapius text has Jesus’s followers reporting this. This too makes sense.

Here is where the irrational creeps into scholarly analysis big time. Most scholars never discuss the Agapius text, despite the fact that it is clearly something Josephus could have written and does not have the problems we all see in the Greek text. Why do they ignore it? It is because of another major difference between the Greek and the Arabic versions. In the Greek, the text says that Pilate crucified Jesus at the instigation of, or upon an accusation of, Jewish leaders. Josephus could not possibly have written that, but scholars refuse to admit this. Josephus gives no other examples of Jewish leaders cooperating with Rome to prosecute a Jewish troublemaker.  If Josephus had written such a sentence, he would have commented on how unusual this was and made some attempt to explain it. The Greek version offers nothing but silence on this.

And what does the Arabic text say? Nothing at all about Jewish leaders. It merely states that Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified. Jewish leaders are never even mentioned.  That makes much more sense and is consistent with everything else Josephus tells us about Jewish-Roman relations. This is unbearable to most scholars. They have made “Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies” their first principle.  Their second principle is that any evidence which appears to give Jesus Jewish enemies is admissible, while any evidence that tends to exonerate Jewish leaders is inadmissible. “Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies” is an insane first principle to work with—because so much evidence contradicts it and that includes evidence in the Gospels (my books go into this in great detail). The point is that scholars use their irrational point of view to erase Agapius from history. Most scholars will not even acknowledge the existence of this evidence. They have made Jewish enemies doing in Jesus appear to be a normal idea, so they don’t feel how they are distorting the historical record to make it appear true.

The Agapius text is an excellent piece of evidence. At the very least it should be debated. But if you pick up 20 books on the historical Jesus, you would be lucky if you found one that mentions Agapius let alone discusses his text at any length. Scholars have made Jewish culpability in Jesus’s death such a normal idea that any evidence to the contrary becomes offensive and must be eliminated. Isn’t this a kind of insanity? Whenever ideology rules over the evidence, we are dwelling in the land of the irrational.

Here is what is genuinely crazy about historical Jesus scholarship: Scholars pride themselves on being skeptics, yet they have forbidden everyone from being skeptical about the complicity of Jewish leaders in Jesus’s death. That is one idea that can never be challenged. When it comes to everything else in historical texts, scholars will express skepticism about it all. Almost every line in any ancient text about Jesus has been subjected to doubt and scrutiny by scholars, except for one thing. Every line in the Gospels is scrutinized. Every line in the Greek Josephus on Jesus has been doubted. Except anything that imputes guilt to Jewish leaders. That is never doubted. Doubt all, but never doubt this, that Jesus was done in by Jewish leaders.

How is it possible to be skeptical about every single thing about Jesus but nary a doubt about Jewish guilt? What kind of crazy world have scholars created here? No debate is allowed on this one point. The details of the meeting between Jewish leaders and Jesus in the Gospels are not consistent with a hostile Jewish procedure against him, but they are consistent with a friendly, informal meeting intended to help Jesus. Yet scholars will wax furious if you dare to suggest such a thing. Why is Jewish culpability so sacred to scholars? How did this irrational commitment become the standard norm? It is exceptionally difficult to fight this kind of crazy.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer



Wednesday, June 28, 2017

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE TORAH AS CONSTITUTION? 

I just want to make one brief comment in this month’s post. There is an imbalance in historical Jesus studies. When I call it an imbalance, that is an understatement. You can see it in discussions of historical Jewish culture and in views of the historical Jesus.

The most common scholarly analysis of the culture states that the three most important things to Jews were Temple, rituals, and purity concerns. That is very far from the truth. As for the historical Jesus, we are often told that the three important political issues of the day were “kingship, priesthood, Temple,” as Paula Fredriksen puts it. I would not entirely dismiss these categories, but their value and accuracy is highly overrated.

Whatever happened to the Torah as Constitution? Academics forget that Torah was the foundation of everything else in Jewish culture—not Torah as a collection of statutes, but Torah as a collection of constitutional principles.  If you really want to understand ancient Jewish culture and the teachings of the historical, Jewish Jesus, that might be the most important category of all, and yet, it receives hardly any attention from scholars. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most scholars erase it from history altogether.

All of Matthew 5 is a perfect illustration of Jesus as a constitutional lawyer. He is deeply immersed in the controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees about how liberally or narrowly the Constitution of Israel should be interpreted. Jesus takes the Pharisaic position that every verse in the Torah is a constitutional principle and should be interpreted so as to fulfill its spirit. Jesus and the Pharisees believed that God gave the Torah so that we could be creative with it and not merely follow it slavishly. A good interpretation upholds the spirit of Torah and a bad interpretation is one that abrogates it. The Torah is a living thing that must constantly be developed. I discussed this in enough detail in my book True Jew, so I won’t go over it again here.

What the Pharisees and Jesus stood for is that Jews should be governed by a humane Constitution and not by kings or priests. Even a king, even a Messiah, has to follow the Constitution, otherwise he’s out. We are ruled by this Constitution, and that means we are ruled by debate over its meaning. In Jewish society, the rule of power must always be challenged by the rule of law (constitutional law, that is). If you miss that about Jesus, you miss the most important thing about him.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer



Tuesday, May 30, 2017

DUE PROCESS 

It is fascinating to watch a scholar go through the evidence concerning Jesus’s death and not see what he is compiling. Witness Geza Vermes in his very short book The Passion (printed as a smaller size volume, the main text is still only 122 pages). His goal is to substantiate the traditional story of Jesus’ death in which Jewish leaders are the main instigators, despite the fact that so many pieces of evidence do not support this.

He himself will “stress that in the Fourth Gospel there is no Jewish trial [his emphasis], there are no witnesses, and no sentence is pronounced by Jewish judges on religious or any other grounds.” He also knows that the mention of a Roman cohort (speira in Greek) in John could be significant. “This would put a different complexion on the whole Passion story.” That is an understatement. It would  mean that the arrest of Jesus was primarily or exclusively a Roman event and that Jewish leaders had little or nothing to do with it. But Vermes’s commitment to assign blame to Jewish leaders means that he must preclude this evidence. He rejects it precisely because of what it implies. Vermes is not so much driving towards a conclusion, as starting with a conclusion and dismissing any evidence that gets in his way.

Vermes also knows how unlikely it is that Jewish authorities would hold a trial at night or on the eve of a holiday like Passover, or even that Jewish leaders would neglect their Temple and festival duties to help the Romans. None of these details in the traditional account make any historical sense. But Vermes pushes on to offer his conclusion at the end of the book that Jewish Temple police arrested Jesus and that the high priest interrogated him and charged him with sedition before Pilate. He avoids using the word ‘trial’ but that is a minor detail. He describes what is in effect a trial, even though he knows that too much evidence contradicts it.

Most startlingly of all, Vermes recounts a well-known incident related by Josephus which demonstrates Jewish devotion to due process, but again Vermes fails to see the significance of what he has presented. When Herod was very young, he and his band of men caught up with a group of Jews who were accused of highway robberies. He had them summarily executed without the benefit of a trial. This was a shock to the nation. Josephus states that our law requires that no man may be put to death without first being tried by the Sanhedrin. That is as frank a statement of due process as you are likely to find anywhere. So deep was this idea of due process that Jews demanded not that Herod be executed for his temerity but that he be put on trial to determine his guilt or innocence. Even Herod deserves due process.

Yet if the traditional account of Jesus’s death were true, his due process was violated in so many ways (being tried at night, a rush to judgment in less than 24 hours, etc.) and there were no Jewish protests—which is impossible to believe. Vermes has gone through so much evidence that a Jewish hostile procedure against Jesus could not have taken place, and yet he sticks to a conclusion that defies all this evidence.

The simplest explanation (one Vermes will not even put on the table for discussion) is that there was an informal meeting held by Jewish leaders. An informal meeting makes sense of all the evidence. And the only purpose of an informal meeting would have been to help Jesus avoid a Roman execution. They certainly would not have held a meeting to help Rome. Jews would have rioted in the streets if their leaders had done that. I go through all the evidence in both my books, with the more compact case being presented in True Jew. I won’t repeat this demonstration here.

The point is that there is another worthy hypothesis to be considered. A Jewish informal meeting in an attempt to rescue Jesus resolves all the difficulties in the evidence, and it does this in a simple way, no mental acrobatics required. What a shame that it has become a rule in historical Jesus scholarship that any approach which exonerates Jewish leaders must automatically be excluded from consideration. Have Jewish leaders received due process from scholars?

© 2017 Leon Zitzer



Friday, April 28, 2017

LIES LOVE COMPANY 

Many people these days are saying that we now live in a culture of lies, particularly in politics. What people have not paid attention to is that there has been a culture of lies in academia for generations.  I don’t know if the academic habit of lying, especially about history, has helped to give birth to our political climate. I suspect there is a relationship—rarely is anything born on its own out of spontaneous combustion—but whether there is or not, it’s worth looking at what has long been a practice in the academic world.

The primary goal for too many scholars is to promote an ideology or worldview, regardless of what the facts tell us. Preconceived ideas are deemed to matter more than evidence. There are lies of omission and lies of commission. The key point is to distort the historical record so that only one untruthful point of view is allowed.

The reason I am so sure about this and have become so frightened by it is that I recently looked back over what I have discovered over the past 20 years, since I started to explore historical subjects, and it has shocked me that even in my relatively briefly time at this, I have found five major historical figures about whom academics are less than truthful. I could put the word ‘historical’ in front of each of the following names, but I will use it only for the first two: the historical, Jewish Jesus, the historical Charles Darwin, John Locke, Thomas Malthus, and William Tyndale.

What is significant is that it is impossible to confine the lies to just these people.  In order to maintain the misconceptions scholars promote about these individuals, the lies have to spread beyond them to other parts of their culture. Lies need more lies to back them up. We fail to remember so much and we need that failure, in order to substantiate even one lousy little lie. I will give a very short explanation for each of the ones I have named.

The fundamental construct, as one scholar has called it, of historical Jesus scholars is that Jesus was surrounded by Jewish enemies who were ultimately responsible for his demise.  But the real Jesus was more in harmony with his fellow Jews, including Jewish leaders, than in opposition. What disputes did exist between them was not lethal. It was just normal Jewish disagreement for the time. Jesus was part of the Pharisaic world of the fight for constitutional government.  The Torah was their Constitution.

That was their world and Romans had nothing to do with it.  For most Jews, the Romans were irrelevant. Certainly, no Jewish leader would have cooperated with Rome to get rid of a Jewish troublemaker. They would have been far more likely to try to save his life from a Roman execution. But in order for scholars to maintain their myths about the complete uniqueness of Jesus (this Rabbi Joshua to his fellow Jews), scholars have to tell lies about ancient Jewish culture and falsely make it appear that Jewish leaders would cooperate with Rome. Lies about Jesus spread into lies about the entire culture (e.g., exaggerating the importance of the Temple in Jewish life and downplaying the role of constitutional government).

Charles Darwin, we are often told by a majority of writers, was a great humanitarian and infused his love of humanity into his science of evolution. But the historical Charles Darwin was a very limited humanitarian. He opposed legal slavery primarily because of its cruelties, but he never championed political and economic equality. He believed in a hierarchy of life, a system of groups subordinate to groups, as he often put it. The result for him was that evolution created superior and inferior groups. The same evils practiced towards slaves (like the breakup of slave families), he could tolerate when done to Native peoples, whom he regarded as inferior.

As far as I know, Darwin did not oppose de facto slavery, as other humanitarians did, and he expressed his full support for colonialism even in its genocidal tendencies, which he presented as natural. Others opposed the genocide and often equated colonialism with slavery, but not Darwin. To maintain their fictional Darwin, scholars have to erase the genuine humanitarians of his time. They also have to erase the holistic evolutionists who preceded Darwin and were far more humane in their pursuit of science than he was. Lies are never self-limiting. They multiply.

John Locke is frequently made out to be one of the founders of British imperialism. Supposedly, he was an advocate of the idea that British superiority in agriculture and other forms of productivity gave them license to appropriate all Indigenous land because the British could put it to better use. No one pays attention to what the real John Locke actually wrote. His concern was to put limits on property ownership.  Even a just war, Locke said, could never validate a country taking all the land from the defeated enemy, leaving the women and children to starve. For Locke, everyone in the world, not just the British, had a fundamental right to inherit their father’s goods, including land. Nothing, not even a war, could take that right away.

And if land was unjustly taken, future descendants had a right to demand their land back and keep demanding it until they got the land back. But no one pays attention to these most important points in Locke’s thinking. Scholars need an intellectual foundation to justify imperialism’s greed to take everything from Native peoples and so they have invented such a foundation in Locke.

I will be very brief about the last two figures, Thomas Malthus and William Tyndale. Malthus is said to have been an enemy of the poor and, as one writer recently put it, an apologist for greed. He may have been harsh about the poor, but to call him an apologist for greed is beyond the pale. Even his harshness towards the poor is overblown. The real Malthus was concerned that both extreme wealth and extreme poverty were bad for society. He criticized Adam Smith for paying too much attention to the wealthy and not enough to the poor. What Malthus thought was particularly bad was that we were creating a society in which the wealthy were getting wealthier and were leaving the working poor behind. The poor got very little benefit from so-called economic advances. Malthus was very critical of this and we have failed to pay attention.

William Tyndale usually gets some credit for making an English translation of the Bible, but his accomplishment is most often underrated. He did not just make a translation, he made the translation, the one that every good translation since has relied on. Scholars will praise the King James translation to the skies and they will offer quotations from it. What they don’t tell you is that in 4 out of 5 cases (or possibly slightly higher), those quotations from the King James are pure Tyndale, verbatim Tyndale. Tyndale has not been entirely suppressed in historical studies, but he is definitely minimized by so many writers. The original translators’ introduction to the King James Bible acknowledged that theirs was not a completely new translation, but followed previous translations. If I recall, they claimed to have made a good translation better, but they had hardly done that for most of it, as they had merely followed Tyndale almost 90% of the time.

It is hard to get scholars to set the record straight for any of these histories. They have a preconceived agenda to promote and they don’t need any evidence to justify it. This culture of lying has been around for a very long time and appears not to be self-correcting. It seems even impervious to other-correcting.


© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

NEW BOOK ON PONTIUS PILATE 

The book is Pontius Pilate by Aldo Schiavone, an Italian scholar of Roman law. I have not read the book yet, but I have read Randall Balmer’s review in The New York Times Book Review (Mar. 5). Assuming Balmer’s review accurately conveys the contents of this book, there is nothing new here, and most shockingly, it seems to avoid the Jewish historical context entirely. Balmer says Schiavone “provides a fresh perspective” and “offers new insights,” but nothing in the rest of the review confirms that. Schiavone and Balmer just give us the same old myth of Jewish leaders out to get Jesus and having to drag Pilate along with them.

The only things they get right are that there probably was no Jewish trial of Jesus and when Balmer calls this “a history still being contested all these centuries later.” That much is right, but he is wrong to claim that the Gospels suggest a trial. The accusation that Jewish leaders were the main conspirators against Jesus, with Pilate reluctantly dragged along in their plot, is a theological accusation that has little basis in any supporting evidence in either the historical context or in the Gospels.

The historical Pilate never played second fiddle to Jewish leaders, not ever, and never hesitated to kill any Jew even vaguely guilty of sedition against Rome. Moreover, ancient Jewish leaders never pressed any Roman governor to get rid of a Jewish troublemaker, nor did they ever assist Roman governors in such a task. The information on this from Josephus, the ancient Jewish-Roman historian, our main source for the historical context, is solid. Josephus even relates one case where Jewish leaders refused to comply with a Roman demand to turn over Jewish troublemakers. He also tells us that the priests would beg Jewish mobs to desist from antagonizing Rome, but they never arrested anyone nor threatened to arrest anyone. It simply was not done.

Apparently, based on Balmer’s review, none of this information is in Schiavone’s book. There is no Jewish historical context whatsoever.

The detailed evidence in the Gospels does not support the myth that the action against Jesus was primarily Jewish, but I don’t want to make this post much longer. All I will say here is that this Gospel evidence supports an informal procedure by Jewish leaders whose only purpose could have been to try to save Jesus from a Roman trial and execution. That theory makes sense of the evidence, the traditional allegation does not.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer



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