Sunday, August 28, 2016


The tide I am referring to is the tide of unconscious forces. Any swimmer who has been caught in a riptide can tell you how exhausting it is to fight it. The tide always wins. That is even more true of the unconscious forces that run under every argument, under every attempt to take a fresh look at the evidence. I am not sure how much longer I can last. My strength is giving out.

I once heard a writer being interviewed, who addressed this in the most pessimistic way, though I am sure he saw it as being realistic. He apparently had not been very successful at anything until he started writing a book to teach others how to be successful. That’s America. I will never forget the first rule he laid down. If you want to reach a huge number of people, do not challenge the worldview of your audience. In fact, in general, just don’t challenge worldviews. Leave them alone. It will get you anything but success.

But if your search for truth leads down that path, what are you supposed to do? The most dedicated truth seekers are the fictional detectives you see on television. They are always getting into trouble with their supervisors, and since this is fantasy, they always survive and live to solve another case. In real life, their ass would be fired so fast. They would not last a week on the job.

There is an early episode of The Closer where Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) apologizes to her crew of detectives. She thinks she is about to be fired and worries about the effect this will have on her division. She explains that in this job, you have to make a choice between two paths. You can be political or you can conduct a pure investigation to find the truth. You cannot do both. She made her choice long ago and she is sorry if her choice ends up damaging their department. Since this is fiction, she does not lose her job and her investigations will go on.

I wish it worked that way for the historical Jesus. But this is real life, and a pure search for the truth about him inevitably leads to being fired, or remaining unpublished, or getting shot down in some way or other. Bang, bang. That’s how it goes. People have pre-formed ideas not only about the historical Jesus but about the nature of religion and whether it is even possible to find history in so-called religious texts.

Of course it’s possible. But that frightens people. It’s a challenge to the worldview of those who shove anything “religious” into the realm of myth. If you tell anyone that even “religious” documents are human documents and can be studied for historical context and content, they get upset. No, no, it can’t be, they say. Tell them that in any scientific investigation, the rational thing to do is to pay very careful attention to the evidence, don’t read your own assumptions into the evidence, and then ask what is the most rational explanation for this pattern of evidence.

Tell people anything like that and you are swimming against the tide. They will wear you out and knock you down. They will win. Just tell people that 99% of the evidence concerning Judas is ambiguous—it is not a string of negative characterizations of him—and they are flabbergasted when you say that the next question is what best explains all these ambiguities. Their worldview is that Judas is a traitor, or that the whole thing is myth-making. When I point out that this is an irrational solution of the evidence, their worldview comes back to drown me out.

A Judas betraying Jesus is a lousy theory to explain all the ambiguous evidence concerning him and Jesus. There is a much better, more rational theory. But that’s swimming against the tide, I know, and I am about to go under for the last time.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Friday, July 29, 2016


Some of these distances are quite long. Consider humanitarianism. You can go all the way back to the Hebrew Bible for the idea of equality before the law. The Bible demands that there be one law for the immigrant and for the native-born. Everyone gets the protection of the same laws. We still struggle to achieve this. Not to mention the Bible’s commands not to oppress or wrong the immigrant and even to love the immigrant. Lo these many thousands of years later, hatred and fear of the immigrant is still the easiest thing to whip up.

In the first century, the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus told his readers of a due process rule that Jews follow. No one may be put to death for a crime unless he has first had a trial by the Sanhedrin. We have more or less achieved that, but we don’t always follow it and sometimes when we do, it’s not exactly a fair trial that is being followed. If we did honor due process as much as we say we do, there would not be any need for an innocence project which seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted persons.

But we don’t have to go as far back as ancient Judaism to see how hard it is to advance humanitarian ideals. Let’s just go back to the 17th century and John Locke. Locke challenged the idea that state sovereignty is a sacrosanct idea. For Locke, the foundation of society was human rights, liberty, and equality. No claim to government power could be legitimate unless it honored and protected human rights. We claim to believe that, but state sovereignty has a powerful hold on us. We are reluctant to interfere with it, no matter how badly human rights are being violated by a state. John Locke pushed for the idea that force can never validate what is not right. It has been over three hundred years since Locke promoted his ideas and we are still catching up.

The need for human rights as well as understanding what they are was obvious hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. But fighting for human rights is a long distance race. It is not and never will be a one hundred yard dash to the finish line.

The same is true of seeking for reason in the study of any subject. Whatever academics in all fields may boast, achieving rationality is no easy matter. We are still huffing and puffing our way there, despite the noble efforts of so many who carried the torch long before we got here. Socrates was sprinting ahead more than two millennia ago. Have we taken it any further beyond his hopes and dreams? Socrates’s Bible was the Greek language, not the entire language, just key points in it, like words about the good and the bad, truth, usefulness, justice, state power, and more. He insisted we reason carefully, building up slowly from the evidence and taking small, careful steps towards a conclusion. It’s a dream that we have reached that ideal. Abandoning reason and leaping towards ideology is still the sacrosanct way to find truth for too many academics.

But let’s move up in time from Socrates. Let’s go to 9th century China. Zen Master Huang Po advised us to reject what we think, not what we see. That’s what a wise person would do, he said. The fool, on the other hand, rejects what he sees in favor of what he already thinks. This is a very simple and effective way of saying that we must not let preconceived ideology control the reasoning process. Let’s pay attention to the evidence. Who am I going to believe, Judge Marilyn Milian is always asking litigants when she studies a piece of evidence in her courtroom, you or my lying eyes? There is one consistent thread when you follow this line of thought over the centuries. How hard is it to follow Huang Po’s wise advice? Judging by the way most academics behave, it is very difficult.

When reason or the essence of human rights first dawned on some caveman eons ago, it must have come in full bloom. Once you get it, there it is in all its flowering. He must have thought this is so obvious, everybody is going to be thrilled when I tell them about respecting human rights or about reasoning from the evidence. He was in for a very rude awakening. Did he despair when people laughed at him or stared at him like he was crazy? Did he withdraw for a while before he returned to campaign for what he believed? Or was he executed? He almost certainly was ostracized.

Most important, would he be stunned to learn that thousands of years later, we are still fighting for the same simple propositions?

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Monday, June 27, 2016


If I were putting up a new description of my book True Jew on the back cover, it would be this:

There is only one thing that stands between us and an accurate view of what happened in history—and that is ideology. Nowhere else is this more true than in historical Jesus studies. A Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies is the only lens that scholars will allow to study the evidence. It has given us only confusion and contradictions and yet scholars stick with it. Their chant goes up—“The less we see, the more we know”—and one distorted lens blocks every fresh look at the evidence in the Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul. Why does Paul say that Jewish leaders found “nothing deserving death” in Jesus (Acts 13:28)? Why would the high priest use the Jewish act of persuasion (tearing his robes) and not an act of condemnation when talking with him (Mk 14:63)? Why is 99% of the evidence about Judas so ambiguous and why is he called a traitor only once in all of the Gospels (Lk 6:16)? A Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies is not the rational answer we’ve all been holding our breaths for. A better, truly rational answer is just begging to be told.

There is not just one clue that would lead to a new vision of Jesus’s relationship with his own people, leaders, and culture. There is a whole pattern of clues. And that means that any one of them could shake you up and make you see this in a whole new light. There are so many pieces of evidence (some of which I mentioned in the last post just below this one) that could stimulate a more objective look into history, if only we were not stuck with the rigid ideology of Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies. Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that they have rejected every single clue that has the potential to wake them up from their doldrums. They did not turn their backs one time. They did it over and over again. One example will suffice.

Most scholars do not realize that a high priest tearing his robes was not an act of condemnation. They simply refuse to see ancient Jewish culture for what it was. They don’t want to see it because they will not allow any new information to interfere with their idea that there could only have been hostility between Jesus and Jewish leaders. But E.P. Sanders had a more clever way to get around what he saw and maintain a corrupt system of thinking.

Sanders was a rare scholar for understanding that the tearing of robes was an act of mourning used in an attempt to persuade someone that they should change their course of action. What he did not emphasize was that the dangerous action was usually something which was threatening to the Romans and thus might lead to the deaths of more Jews for whom we would all have to mourn. Despite his insight that this was about persuasion, Sanders could not let go of the idea that has bedazzled everyone: The idea that the high priest could only have been condemning Jesus.

So what did Sanders do? He convinced himself that the high priest tore his robes to persuade his fellow priests to join him in condemning Jesus. But this is completely wrong. The high priest never did this to persuade fellow counselors. Sanders just made up a false fact so he could stick to the idea of condemnation. In historical, Jewish reality, the high priest aimed his act of mourning at the person or persons he was pleading with to stop antagonizing the Romans. In this case, it was Jesus. Sanders is a perfect example of the danger that Huang Po pointed to (discussed in the post below): Fools reject what they see, so they can maintain what everyone has long thought, but a truly wise person will reject the standard thinking and let what they see guide them to a new understanding. Reject what you think, not what you see. Never let preconceived thinking lead you to reject evidence.

Agnes Arber, British botanist, once put it this way: The intellectual atmosphere of any given age is compulsive to a humiliating degree and causes scientists to abandon fresh ways of thinking (which always means fresh seeing). In no field has this been more true than in historical Jesus studies.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


There are so many sayings that stress the importance of paying attention to the evidence and discarding any ideas that get in the way of that. Goethe once said that thinking is more interesting than knowing, but just looking is even more interesting. Paul Cézanne proclaimed that a single carrot freshly observed would set off a revolution. Negative ways of making the same point are just as powerful. Michel-Rolph Trouillot has said that too often worldview wins over the facts. You could make that ideology winning over the facts and it would be just as true. In recent years, I have become fond of my own formulation of this: The less we see, the more we know. It is the song sung by almost every academic.

But I had completely forgotten, until someone recently reminded me of this, that in my book The Ghost in the Gospels, I had quoted another ancient piece of wisdom on this. This comes from 9th century Zen Master Huang Po:  Fools reject what they see, instead of what they think, whereas the wise man rejects what he thinks, not what he sees. And that suddenly reminds me that Robert Chambers, the evolutionist who established the probability of evolutionary theory fifteen years before Darwin did, pointed out that knowledge interferes with new ideas as much as, if not more than, ignorance.

One could say that knowledge, or presumed knowledge, is the great enemy of seeing the evidence for what it is. There are so many examples of this in historical Jesus studies.

The ancient Jewish-Roman historian Josephus gave several examples of high priests ripping their robes in an attempt to plead with Jews to change their actions which might bring brutal reprisals from Rome. Tearing his mantle was an act of mourning which was used to persuade, not condemn. But instead of seeing this clearly and applying it to the Gospels where the high priest rends his garments before Jesus, scholars presumptuously think that the high priest could only have been condemning Jesus, an outrageous misinterpretation of a Jewish custom. They banish what they see in Josephus in favor of asserting preconceived thinking.

Another example of rejecting what they see concerns the appearance of Roman soldiers at Jesus’s arrest in John’s Gospel. Most scholars see this. They know the Greek term speira (at John 18:3) stands for a Roman cohort. But instead of letting their seeing guide them, they simply reassert prior thinking which tells us that this was primarily a Jewish action against Jesus. Ironically, a very few scholars (Geza Vermes was one) see the implication of this piece of evidence—the soldiers mean this was mainly or even exclusively a Roman event—and therefore reject it accordingly! They stand firmly for that proposition that no evidence can be allowed if it contradicts what everyone “knows”, that is, that it was Jewish leaders who were out to get Jesus.

For the same reason, scholars ignore what they see in Acts 13:28 where Paul acknowledges that Jewish authorities found nothing worthy of death in Jesus, that is, no death penalty. And by the way, there is no announced Jewish death penalty in the Gospels of Luke or John. But seeing all this does not trouble anyone because no amount of evidence can be allowed to interfere with what everyone thinks is the case. Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies is the thought that rules supreme. Like Huang Po’s fools, scholars embrace it and reject what they see.

I have not even discussed here the well-known fact that the Gospel account of the meeting between Jewish leaders and Jesus does not conform to the rules of Jewish trials. There are many discrepancies between that meeting and the way a Jewish trial would have been conducted. But rather than follow what they see to the obvious conclusion (Jewish leaders did not subject Jesus to a trial or any judicial procedure), scholars keep twisting things to make it look like there could only have been a hostile procedure against Jesus. Scholarly thinking starts and stops with this preformed conclusion. The evidence is deemed irrelevant. It gets in the way of what everyone thinks.

One could carefully go through almost every other part of the Gospels and demonstrate that the scholarly drive is to get rid of any seeing that would overturn what tradition tells us to think. This applies to all the information we have about Judas, Barabbas, and Jesus’s very Jewish teachings. There is so much to see with fresh eyes. Scholars reject it all. The only thinking allowed is the preconceived kind, which if you think about it, isn’t genuine thinking at all.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


I am deeply engrossed in finishing proofreading and indexing my book, Darwin's Racism. I don't have time to do anything else this month, so no new post for now.  I hope I will have something next month. 'Till then.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


I think that one day I shall write an essay entitled “A Short History of All the Academics who Ever Lived, even though We Wish They Hadn’t”. It will be lovelier than a tree. I probably won’t write it until after I’m dead and gone, as dead writers are known to write the shortest essays. The essay will contain only one sentence: “And now it’s time to say good-bye.” This won’t prevent people from misquoting me. They will say I wrote, “It’s never time to say good-bye,” though some will dispute that and claim it was “There’s never enough time to say good-bye.” They’re both wrong. So I want it clearly on the record now that I never said “It’s never time” or “There’s never enough time.” What I actually said (or, will say, when I write it) is “And now it’s time to say good-bye.” Of course, properly speaking, it isn’t possible to quote or misquote an essay that has not yet been written. So we, or actually I, am getting ahead of myself. That doesn’t matter. It’s never too soon to set the record straight. Essays come and essays go. Misquotations live forever. And not only misquotations, but all sorts of misrepresentations. Academics know this better than anyone. That’s why they do it. None of this, however, will be in my essay, which will be only the one sentence. I won’t repeat it. A pity that this summary of my simple essay is longer than the essay itself, but that’s to be expected from a still living writer who can’t find the time to shut up.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, February 27, 2016


Renée Bergland’s The National Uncanny, which is about the ways in which Native Americans haunt the imagination of European Americans, reminds us that “Writing and ghost seeing are intimately connected.” Whenever we write about anything we are “Summoning the Invisible World”, as one chapter title has it—the intangible world of people and things that are not present and cannot be physically touched. This is especially true of historical writing. History itself is “thought of as ghostly.”

But I think Bergland would agree that it is one thing to be turned into a ghost by the natural course of life as generation succeeds generation, and it is quite another thing to be made into a ghost by people who do this to you so that you can be rendered insubstantial and without title to land, rights, or any other considerations. Some of the points Bergland makes with respect to American Indians: “the ghosting of Indians is a technique of removal”, “Ghosts are the things that we try to bury, but that refuse to stay buried”, and “ghosts often protest unlawful transfers of political power.”

Ghosts confront us with our fears and guilt. Ghosts remind us how difficult it is to get entirely rid of a people and imagine a future without them. They just won’t go away. So it has been with Aborigines around the world and so it has been for Jews.

Jews lost their land a long time ago (only to regain it in the 20th century), but the ghosting of Jews was never primarily about loss of land. Jews were denied a living future by freezing them in time. One of the many myths about Jews and Jewish culture—and one that was fostered by scholars more than by popular misconceptions—is that Judaism reached its height under Moses, then steadily declined until the 1st century, at which time Jesus came to reprimand Jews and, when they wouldn’t listen, took his message to gentiles, leaving Jews trapped in an unchanging, primitive religion of rituals and purity concerns.

If you think about it, this kind of ghostliness was applied to more than just Jews. This is what was done to all Aborigines. By calling a people inferior and uncivilized, western civilization was claiming that we Europeans have advanced, while indigenous peoples are stuck in a timeless primitivism, the result of which is that they can never fully participate in the life of the advanced culture. With respect to life in the western, civilized world, the so-called primitives can never be more than just ghosts.

This was applied not only to Aborigines, but to slaves and ex-slaves. Emancipation changed nothing. Racists have sought to undermine the continuing presence of African-Americans by promoting precisely this thought that this people is mired in a primitive past from which they can never escape to share in the fruits of modern life. Ghosts are part of a non-living culture. If you make a people ghostly in your imagination, it is that much easier to treat their real lives with callous disregard. Think it, make it acceptable in imagination and words, then do it, carry it out. That is the root of all genocidal policies.

This has been true of the history of Jews in the west. But there is another problem here for Jews, exacerbating the underlying dilemma which faces all Aboriginal peoples. It brings me back to what I said above about the myth of Jewish culture having been frozen in time.

For Christians, there is a huge fear that the discovery of the historical, very Jewish Jesus will be an end to their religion. But what is this fear really about? For Christians, Jesus is a living presence. The fear is that a too Jewish Jesus will be an inhabitant of a ghostly culture and will himself be turned into a ghost. It is the difference between life and death.

But Jews as ghosts is a myth, as it is a myth for every Aboriginal group. Jewish culture was never dead or dying, not in the time of Jesus or since. Jesus was not lecturing a dying culture. He was part of and an active participant in a culture that was very much still in bloom. Seeing Jesus as a Jew is to see a lively Jew. Jews in a sense defined themselves by how fiercely they could debate God on matters of justice and peace. God wanted them to keep seeking and refining the Constitution, the Torah. The living, flexible Torah was the lifeblood of Judaism and this was no less true for Jesus, Rabbi Joshua of Nazareth. The Gospels, even John, frequently call him rabbi, they contain this memory, which is no ghostly memory, and they do this precisely because there was so much liveliness in the activity of rabbis.

There is no contradiction between Jesus as a Jew and Jesus as a living presence for Christians. They actually reinforce each other. When the myth of Jews stuck in time, stuck in a primitive religion, loses its force, it will be much easier to see and accept the historical Jesus. 

I reach this conclusion with a fair degree of optimism which may be unwarranted. Ghosts, particularly the ghosts of a conquered culture, are really a very confusing business (as Bergland too recognizes). For some, they represent the success of the conquerors’ mission which was to displace and dispossess another culture and render it invisible. On the other hand, the existence of ghosts rebukes this accomplishment, especially if it depended heavily on injustice. Ghosts undermine the victory, or at least the satisfaction in it. Ghosts summon up fear and guilt. They are not welcome.

They are not welcome most of all because they question all triumph—and not just in theory. They implicitly threaten to return to life:  We survived after all. We’re not as gone, as disappeared, as you think. We can tell the truth about what happened, we can bring back banished events, we can expose lies and hubris. We bear witness.

And that really gets to the heart of it. Whatever ghosts mean to different people—whether they prove the conquerors were victorious or they rebuke the conquerors and induce guilt—what they ultimately do is they bear witness. They speak truth to power. That is our deepest fear. They bear witness to truth and lies. That’s a big thing to be legitimately afraid of. 

Jews have for the most part successfully fought the efforts to turn them into ghosts. Independent Jewish culture never disappeared. There were Christian attempts in the Middle Ages to burn the Talmud and even to edit it, but these attempts were limited and mostly a failure. The most seriously compromised Jewish source were the writings of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus who became Christian property. That was because Jews abandoned him, which is another story. Suffice it to say that an independent Jewish culture and connection to historical sources was always alive and well, and that means a connection to Jesus’s historical context has been maintained. Neither Jewish history nor a Jewish Jesus is a ghost, despite efforts by scholars to render them ghostlike.

Of course, many scholars tend to dream they are successful, even when they are not. For them, Jewish ghostliness is the reality. So Jesus is a ghost too, and as I said, ghosts bear witness. Jesus bears witness to age-old Jewish advice. You will find it in rabbinic literature and in the Gospels: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Ghosts teach humility. Not all victories are final or forever. Maybe no victories are. The vanquished will live again. The disappeared cultures will return. If you believe in that Jesus, then the historical, Jewish Jesus is no one to fear. He brings only the good news of a living, thriving culture returning (it never really went away), still teaching its message of government by Constitution, firmly based on being in love with justice.

© 2106 Leon Zitzer

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