Tuesday, March 28, 2017


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

Sunday, February 26, 2017


There is one piece of evidence more than any other that reveals how biased historical Jesus scholars are. It is the passage on Jesus in Josephus’s Antiquities (18.3.3). In the Greek version that has come down to us, Josephus says that Jesus “was the Messiah” and on the third day after he died, he was “restored to life.” Most scholars realize that Josephus would not have written about Jesus like this. But every bit of reasoning they employ after that correct insight is way off the mark.

In the first place, scholars simply assert that an ancient Christian cleric must have inserted these remarks. Making stuff up wholesale is not generally how ancient writers operated. Rather than outright invention, they more usually worked with what was given them and tweaked it to suit whatever purpose they had. So, for example, it is more likely that Josephus might have written that his followers believed or reported Jesus was the Messiah, and someone later altered this to turn it into a statement about Josephus’s own belief. Same goes for the statement about the resurrection.

Do we have any evidence that Josephus originally wrote something about what Jesus's followers were claiming about him? Yes, we do, but the scholarly world ignores it. This Josephus passage was preserved in the 10th century in Arabic by a Christian cleric named Agapius. Shlomo Pines published a monograph on it in 1971. In this version, Josephus says that Jesus “was perhaps the Messiah.” Pines gives reasons why he thinks Agapius made a slight error here. Agapius was likely working from an original Syriac text which said that “He was thought to be the Messiah” (by his followers), or possibly “it seemed [to his followers] he was the Messiah”; the Syriac for “it seemed” could have become “perhaps” in Arabic. In this version, Josephus also says his followers “reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion,” but he of course does not judge whether they were right or not.

All this is quite plausible as something Josephus could have written. It is certainly more believable than the Greek. So why don’t scholars consider it or even acknowledge it? The majority never mention it. In my opinion, it is because of another feature of the Agapius text which scholars find unforgiveable, though they would never admit this.

In the Greek version, Josephus says that Pilate condemned Jesus “upon hearing him accused” by Jewish leaders. Scholars never express doubts about this part. Even though they know that the Greek text of Josephus has been altered in some ways, they never extend this doubt to the line about Jewish leaders accusing (or indicting) Jesus. This is rather amazing as there is nothing else in Josephus like this. If Josephus had ever written such a preposterous sentence, he would have acknowledged how unusual it was for Jewish leaders to help Rome prosecute a Jew and he would have offered some explanation as to why such an unusual thing happened this time. But nothing like this is in the Greek text and yet scholars totally accept it.

And what does the Agapius version say? He simply has “Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die.” That’s it. Jewish leaders do not appear at all in Agapius. That actually makes some sense, because nowhere else in Josephus do Jewish leaders help Rome prosecute or execute Jewish troublemakers.

Now it gets more complicated, as it turns out there is yet another version by Michael the Syrian in which Jewish leaders are mentioned but not as bringing charges against Jesus; rather they testify to something, but what exactly is not made clear. It would make this post too long to go into it in more detail. The general point is that we have other texts which give us plenty of reason to doubt that Jewish leaders sought to accuse Jesus of anything, not to mention that Josephus never gives any other examples of Jewish leaders behaving like this. The original Josephus text probably did say something about Jewish leaders, but did not blame them for what happened to Jesus.

This is the real sticking point for most scholars. In a genuinely fair system of scholarship, the Agapius text of Josephus would get plenty of attention. But it gets virtually none in historical Jesus studies because this field is committed to the principle that Jewish leaders must be blamed for Jesus’s death. Any sources that contradict this are considered out of the question. The ideology of surrounding Jesus with Jewish enemies wins out over the evidence. How is that a decent thing to do?

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, January 29, 2017


I have brought this up a million times. Two million and one would not be overdoing it, as far as I am concerned. Why are we so afraid of applying rational thinking to controversial subjects and yet we fantasize all the time about doing it through our favorite TV crime fighters? No one understands scientific thinking better than the writers of TV crime dramas. But I often wonder how they feel about using reason in real life subjects. Would they be as dedicated to seeking truth when they feel the hostility of the entire academic world breathing down their necks?

I was once telling a friend about one of my favorite TV detectives, Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, played by Kyra Sedgwick, on The Closer. I was describing her fierce commitment to solving murders, sometimes in the face of opposition from her superiors or from politically important people. He snorted and said to me that in real life, a person like that would be fired so fast, they would not last a week on the job. I agreed but added that it’s still fun to pretend that such a person could exist. He did not think so. Fantasy like that just makes the real world more painful.

I find myself wondering more and more how writers of these TV shows would react to a real search for truth in any subject that prompts academics to crush anyone who disagrees with their ideological positions, and worse yet, who dares to expose their ideology as entirely unfounded on any evidence. Would they think this daring application of reason is cool, or would they kowtow to the academics and agree this person must be silenced?

I honestly don’t know the answer to my question. I only know that it is extremely difficult to get anyone to pay attention to the evidence in the Gospels concerning any part of the story of Jesus’s death. It ought to be exciting to realize that, with only one possible exception, all the evidence about Judas is ambiguous. By ambiguous, I mean something precise: A piece of evidence is ambiguous if it is equally consistent with two opposed, or nearly opposed, hypotheses. Almost everything in connection with Judas is like that (which I demonstrate in the first chapter of True Jew). His suicide, assuming it really happened, could be explained by his shame over his betraying Jesus, but it could also be explained by shame over being falsely accused of betrayal. The Gospels are simply not specific enough. The saying “It were better for that man if he had not been born” can also be interpreted both ways. Actually, I am not so sure it would be used by ancient Jews about a man who had done something bad. It would more likely be used about someone who had something bad happen to him (like a false accusation of betrayal). But if the saying could be interpreted either way, then at best, it is an ambiguous saying.

It is like that with just about every detail of Judas’s story. Why so much ambiguity? Deputy Chief Johnson would feel the tiny hairs on her arm rising. She would sense something was up. The more ambiguous evidence we have, the more reason to doubt the traditional explanation. She would seek to find out what really explains all this ambiguity. She would quickly realize that the betrayal is not a rational explanation for this. Her chief would rail at her that she must not mess with the story of Judas, but she would bulldoze her way ahead, and she would get all her assistant detectives excited about it as well. They would solve the case and everyone would have to accept the fact that an injustice has now been finally exposed.

But in real life, this would never happen. She would be fired. Or if she was a professor at a university, she might not be fired, but she would find that her papers are no longer published and her presence no longer welcome at conferences. And how would the TV writers, and directors and the actor, who created her, feel about this? Would they stand by her? Or would they slink away? I wish I knew.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, December 29, 2016


I have long thought that a Jewish annotated New Testament, or at least for the Gospels, is badly needed. What is currently out there does not measure up. After all, the historical context for these texts is ancient Jewish society. The Gospel authors took it for granted that their audience would know certain things, or if they did not assume this, they were still writing from a base of knowledge. It is exceptionally enlightening to see what they knew, even if they did not spell it out. Here are just a few suggestions for these annotations.

Jesus/Joshua – His name is obviously one thing we need reminding about. It was Yehoshua in Hebrew and this had become shortened to Yeshua in his time. It was a common name. “Jesus is coming to town” did not have any special ring to it. It was like saying “Joe is coming to town.” To his contemporaries, this would have caused people to say “Who is Joe?” or “Which Joe are you talking about?” The name Jesus has a lot of assumptions built into it, which falsify history. “Did Jesus threaten the Temple?” is a biased question because the answer is already in the name Jesus. “Did Joshua threaten the Temple?” allows for clearer thinking.

Mark14:63 –The high priest tears his robes – Josephus gives a couple examples of the high priest doing this and/or pouring ashes over his head. These were acts of mourning and they were used to persuade someone in an argument. They were not acts of condemnation. It is just one sign that Jewish leaders were not putting Jesus on trial. Something a lot more informal and friendly was going on.

Mark 14:59 – Their testimony did not agree; and in preceding verses, false witness is mentioned – This seems to be a reference to a Jewish trial rule that if witness testimony conflicted, this evidence should be dismissed. This would provide an opportunity to discuss the Mishnah trial rules. Perhaps not all were in effect in the 1st century, but at least some of them were. They were profoundly humane rules, many of them favoring the defendant, and none of them (except this one on testimony not agreeing) have anything to do with this meeting between Jesus and Jewish leaders. It is another sign that this was an informal meeting and not a trial.

Matt 5:9 –Blessed are the peacemakers – A note on this verse should provide information on how important peace was to Jews, especially to the Pharisees. In Jewish folklore, Aaron, brother of Moses, had the reputation of being a peacemaker. Shemaiah and Avtalyon, two Pharisaic teachers, who preceded Hillel, spoke about peace as a supreme Jewish value. These are the things that would have been going through the minds of the audience members when Jesus was speaking.

Matt 20:16 –The first and the last – I found a similar saying in rabbinic literature, only the rabbi spoke of the near and the far. Every verse in the Gospels which has a rabbinic counterpart should be noted. Only by such means can Jesus’s full Jewishness be appreciated. The reason why no one has explored all this is that they are afraid Jesus will become too Jewish, as if being Jewish were an inferior way of being. I have sometimes found people are very disturbed to hear that Jesus spoke about chutzpah, which was an Aramaic word (it was adopted into Yiddish from Aramaic). The Gospels are richer with Jewishness than anyone realizes.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Monday, November 28, 2016


I reprint here an email I recently sent to a radio show.  It is highly unlikely they will use it.  It simply repeats points I have made all along here, but perhaps I do it more succinctly in this email, so it's worth presenting:

You will probably think this is going beyond the question you asked, but the problem you identified—products that are suboptimal but are ubiquitous—is really part of a larger problem of tradition or ideology preventing us from seeing an obvious solution to something.  It happens all the time in historical studies, and in a way, history is a product that is used every day, often to ill effect.

My example concerns Judas.  His name is a synonym for traitor. We use it that way all the time. It is frequently so used to great harm. It is an understatement to say this is a suboptimal solution to the evidence we have. Almost all the evidence we have concerning Judas is ambiguous. (Only one piece is unequivocally negative which is the allegation that he stole from the poor; the Gospels do not even use the Greek word for betray to describe his action.) By ambiguous, I mean that the evidence is equally consistent with a hypothesis and the opposite, or nearly opposite, hypothesis. In Judas’s case, all the evidence is consistent both with the hypothesis that he betrayed Jesus and the hypothesis that he was an innocent man falsely accused of betraying Jesus. Actually, some of it tips ever so slightly towards the second hypothesis, none of it tips towards the first.

I won’t go through the evidence here. I will just say this: Too many scholars think that 3 pieces of ambiguous evidence may not make a good case, but 20 pieces is much better. That is false.  The more ambiguous evidence you have, the worse your case is because it is a good sign that there is no unambiguous evidence for your theory. The rational question to ask is: Why is the story of Judas told with so much ambiguity? There is a rational, optimal answer to that.

I know I have gone beyond what you asked, but history as a practical product is a huge issue.

That was the end of the email. I will just add that it is a strange sort of life, when the only people who understand what you are doing are fictional. I am referring to the detectives we see on TV cop shows. They are brilliant at understanding not only how to solve a homicide, but also at understanding how preconceptions get in the way of solving the case.  I could sit down with any of these detectives and they would immediately get what I was doing.

But doesn't that mean that the writers who created these detectives get it?  Not necessarily.  The writers are only human. I imagine that in their personal lives they don't have the single-minded devotion to truth that their creations have. Real human beings are good at using reason selectively. They might solve a crime, but be very bad at solving controversial historical problems. Emotions get in the way. Preconceptions get in the way.  People are reluctant to give up an attachment to ideas that have been around for a long time and make them feel good. Hardly anyone feels good about the pure search for truth. I am always struck at how so many people find an intellectual adventure unexciting. Life is strange. Fiction is pleasant.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, October 29, 2016


You either have a deep feeling for the past and the importance of telling the truth about it, or you don’t. I can’t prove that telling the truth is a good thing to do. Plenty of people believe it is bad. Upholding tradition, even if it promotes a false picture of the past, is considered by many to be the right thing to do, the thing that society needs more than anything else.

I believe that traditions which falsify the past do more harm than good. Others believe that tradition is always good and exposing the wrong ones does more harm than good. I don’t know that either side can prove their case.

This is not about fighting for historical justice, which is a virtual impossibility. The past that happened cannot be undone (which is one reason why so many believe it should be left alone). There is no way to correct past injustices or punish the perpetrators, if it is something that happened a long time ago. The victims in history cannot be healed or made whole. It’s too late for any of that. The only correction that can be made is to put an end now to the untruthful telling of the past. That won’t change the past itself, but it will change our attitude towards it. If the only thing it accomplishes is to expose the arrogance of those who believe they have a right to tell lies, the truth about history is a good thing to pursue.

I can talk it up until I’m blue in the face, but if you do not already believe the past needs to be told the right way, none of my words will mean a thing. It’s a religious thing. Devotion to historical truth is like a religious belief. It is fundamental. It cannot be proven. You either believe in it or you don’t, but no amount of empirical evidence will convince anyone to change their beliefs about this.

Years ago when Homicide, the police detective series, was on TV, I remember an episode in which a detective who was Catholic explained that he investigates homicides because his religion teaches him to do that. The dead cannot speak for themselves, so he has a sacred duty to seek justice for them. Of course, in this case, concerning the recent dead, there is a good possibility that the culprit can be caught and punished. With long ago history, this isn’t possible. But the sacred feeling this detective had for the dead and the need he felt to find the truth about what happened still hold. You can carry these feelings for what happened long ago and far away just as much as for what happened yesterday or last year.

Take Judas, for example. I wonder what it’s like to be falsely accused of being a traitor for 2,000 years. Do the dead have feelings? No one has produced one piece of unambiguous, relevant evidence (relevant to the charge of being a traitor) to establish even a remote possibility that he was a traitor. All the evidence (except one piece) is ambiguous. What does it feel like to be condemned on practically nothing?

By the way, the Gospel authors knew exactly what they were doing in presenting all this ambiguous evidence. They weren’t trying to tell the story of a traitor. They left a trail of clues to what really happened. In the meantime, tradition changed what they recorded to make it over into a story of betrayal. I wonder not only how Judas feels about this, but how the Gospel authors feel to see their story so misused.

Forget the dead. What about the living? Does any living person feel a sense of shame that Judas stands convicted on the basis of nothing? I think that Catholic detective would be moved to take up his cause. But that detective is fiction. No one in real life cares a dollop. What happened long ago, how careful the Gospel writers were not to invent false evidence against Judas, but to record it all as ambiguous, how lies came to be told about what is in the Gospels, how scholars still distort what the Gospels say—it’s all a bad dream. We may never wake up—except in fiction.

Consider Charles Darwin. The fictional Darwin created by so many scholars is another bad dream we may never wake up from. In his published work and in letters, the real Darwin had no trouble proclaiming that the Anglo-Saxon race would triumph throughout the world and that all the lower races would be exterminated. In one letter, he added that when the lower races are all gone, humanity as a whole will rise. Yet Darwin is most often remembered as a great humanitarian. Something is wrong with our memory of the past, no?

In another letter, concerned about a friend’s trip to North Africa, he says he has no idea what the natives there are like, but he is sure they must be bloodthirsty. As a friend worried about his friend’s safety in a strange land, that is understandable. But that a scientist should say such a thing makes me shudder.

That’s one good reason to study the past: To shudder over what humanity has done to humanity. Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film director, said that he did not want to give audiences merely something to digest, but something to make them shudder. The idea that scholars can put someone in prison for thousands of years, with no unambiguous evidence to justify it, or that they can make a racist seem like a humanitarian—it all makes me tremble. And if I’m alone in feeling that way, then so it goes.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Orthodox religious people (sometimes known as fundamentalists or conservatives) and atheists deserve each other. They are cut from the same cloth. Both have an inhuman approach to religious texts. Atheism is just another form of conservative religion. It is the mirror image of fundamentalism. Left is right and right is left. Atheists believe and do everything the fundamentalist believes and does, but twisted around. I will explain.

Since I am making a comparison to conservative religion, I should say that I have in mind a hard-line atheism. But just as there is a more liberal religious mentality, so too there is a more flexible kind of atheism. Most of what follows applies only to the more dogmatic type.

Conservative religious people proclaim that the Bible is the pure word of God. Of course, God himself did not put pen to parchment. Some human beings had to do it. So the orthodox religious person presents these ancient authors as pure vehicles for the word of God. When they wrote the Bible, they weren’t really human at all, but perfect instruments of God. It is a highly inhuman approach to history and the Bible. No human being ever stops being human. Even if you believe these authors were inspired by God, they could not have been perfect. Some errors would have to appear. The fundamentalist approach means that these human errors will be worshipped as divine. It is a kind of blasphemy and many religious people eagerly embrace it.

One of the most extreme versions of this kind of thinking occurred in the 19th century. Over the more than two hundred years that the King James Bible had been reprinted and reprinted, the occasional typo would occur. Some liberals wanted to correct all the typos that had crept into the text and publish the King James as first produced. But conservatives were incensed by this and put a stop to it. In their perverted view, it was a sin to admit that there were any errors in the Bible that was used in their churches. Eventually, many decades later, they lost, but they were temporary winners in their day.

The atheist just flips this and achieves a very similar, inhuman conception of the original authors of the Bible. He has this demonic idea that the ancient biblical authors were not only imperfect, but perfectly imperfect. He makes them out to be perfect liars, pure fantasists living in a totally mythical world. But no human being is that perfect a fantasizer. It is an inhuman version of humanity. Atheists have a lot of trouble seeing biblical authors as human beings who tried telling the truth, perhaps even getting much of it right. The greatest fiction of all is the atheist idea that the biblical authors fabricated everything at will.

Both atheists and religious people refuse to read religious texts carefully to see what they actually say. All the orthodox of each group want to do is impose their own theology or ideology on the text. There is in a sense no such thing as a religious fundamentalist. They are certainly not fundamentalist about what is in the text. They don’t read the Bible literally. They actually avoid that with all their might. What they are fundamentalist about is their theology. They won’t allow anything or anyone to interfere with their theological beliefs. Even the Bible cannot be allowed to interfere. Exactly the same is true for the atheist who is in this to uphold his ideology, come hell or high water. Just like the fundamentalist religious person, the atheist will not allow any reading of the evidence in the Bible to get in the way of his ideological beliefs.

The atheist completely accepts the way conservatives read the Bible, only adding “but it’s all fiction,” as if that changes anything. They never challenge what conservatives see in the text. They affirm every bit of it. Conservative theology is fine with atheists. They want to engage in battle with it and propose their anti-theology. Abandoning theology altogether is as unthinkable to the atheist as to the fundamentalist. The atheist will never accuse anyone of using theology to misread the contents of the Bible. Atheists think the charge of fiction undermines the fundamentalist reading, but it doesn’t; it only reinforces conservative dogma. Conservatives are happy with the atheist claim of fiction because they know (and they are very right about this) that it can never be proven and this leaves everyone free to believe whatever they want to believe.

If I did not know any better, I would swear that atheists and religious people had joined forces to make sure the traditional, theological reading of the Bible never changes. The myths we have, for example, of Jewish leaders persecuting Jesus and Judas betraying him continue not because of the Gospels, but because neither atheists nor religious people will allow anyone to upset things with a fresh reading of the evidence. The human approach is still considered out of bounds.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

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