Wednesday, June 28, 2017


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


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


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


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

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