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Monday, November 24, 2014

MORE TV, MORE GOOD SCIENCE  


[Links to my books The Ghost in the Gospels and True Jew, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, are at the right.]
 
Last month, in the post immediately below this, I recounted an episode of It Takes A Thief from around 1970, which made a very good point about scientific method. This time, I will go back ten years earlier to circa 1959 for an episode of Fathers Knows Best that shared another great insight about the way science works.
 
Jim Anderson is an insurance salesman and he proudly announces one day to his family that he is going to be interviewed by a reporter for a feature article in the monthly insurance magazine. They are not particularly impressed. Not his wife, nor his children. The kids moreover are annoyed that they will have to stay home on Saturday to meet the reporter who wants to interview them all.
 
If I recall, when the reporter arrives, he explains to Jim that he has a theory that in order to be a good insurance salesman, the man must have a family that is very supportive and organized. As it turns out, everything soon goes south. The two older kids, Betty and Bud, have prior commitments and are running off to see their friends. Even wife Margaret who hardly ever leaves the house has to see a neighbor about something. Jim gets a call which reminds him that he had a golf date right now with a client. The reporter is left alone with little Kathy and soon she has to leave to take care of the cat.
 
Here is the part that gets me: The reporter returns to his hotel room and calls his editor. He tells him that the theory he was hoping to justify is all wrong. There is nothing organized, unified, or very supporting about this family. The editor says they will just have to cancel the article and tells the reporter to return to the office. Then the reporter says something like this: Wait a second. Not so fast. So my original theory is wrong. But what do we know? Let’s go back to the facts. We know Jim Anderson is a good salesman. There still might be something that will explain why he is so good, and if I go back and observe more carefully, I just might see it.
 
I did not put that in quotation marks because I would not swear those were the exact words, but that was certainly the gist of it. If the facts contradict a theory, then let’s go back to the drawing board. Let us more carefully observe what the facts are in this situation and see if we can formulate a new theory that will better account for the observations. (By the way, when the reporter does go back, he finds that, in a crisis, this family will all pitch in together to help out whoever is in a jam.)
 
That is good science. And a TV comedy was telling us this in 1959. If the facts do not support that there was a hostile judicial procedure against Jesus, then let’s go back to the drawing board. If the Gospel evidence does not clearly tell the story of Judas as a traitor (because almost all the clues are so ambiguous), then let’s drop that theory, pay careful attention to the ambiguities, and see if a better theory will respond to this evidence.
 
This is science. It’s not rocket science, but it is science and it’s not that hard to do—provided you can take the very first step which is to acknowledge that some very deep prejudices had us all fixated on inadequate theories; the only thing going for them was that they had been asserted for a very long time. Time cannot turn a falsehood, no matter how popular, into a truth. If something makes no sense, it makes no sense no matter how often it is repeated.
 
Or as the medical examiner says on this week’s episode of NCIS: New Orleans, “When the dead have something to say, not even time will shut them up.”
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I NEVER GET TIRED OF STORIES OF SCIENTIFIC THINKING 


[Links to my books The Ghost in the Gospels and True Jew, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, are at the right.]
 
Some of the TV stations here rerun old programs, comedies and dramas, from the 1950s and 60s, and later, but it’s usually the oldest ones that interest me. A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to catch up with It Takes A Thief, starring Robert Wagner as Alexander Mundy, master thief and spy. I never saw it in its original run. It seems to me that the goal of the producers was to put up the equivalent of a James Bond film in a one hour TV show each week. They largely succeeded. The plots are terrifically entertaining and suspenseful.
 
In what I think was the last episode (in 1970?), Mundy is on board a chartered plane, with about a dozen scientists on their way to an international conference (on the environment?). His job is to protect one scientist in particular, played by Wally Cox (of Mr. Peepers fame). It turns out to be a dangerous job because someone is bumping off the scientists one by one. It won’t be long before all are dead, so they don’t have much time to solve this. Mundy sits down with Wally Cox to see if they can figure this out. Cox says, “I don’t think we have enough information.” Mundy responds, “Oh, I think we have enough information. We’re just not looking at it in the right way.” A big smile spreads across Cox’s face as if it were lit up by a beacon and he exclaims, “Now you’re talking like a scientist!” (I am quoting all this from memory, but I will swear these lines are very close to the original.)
 
I get a big kick out of this scene. Not only because it demonstrates once again what a good grasp TV writers have of scientific method, but because several years earlier, a historical Jesus scholar answered my email to haughtily tell me that I had no more information about this history than anyone else. I never claimed that of course. But if I had known about this episode of It Takes A Thief, I would have related this scene and told her that it is how you look at the information that matters.
 
Case in point: I won’t go over the details here, but it is well-known that so many of the clues in all four Gospels contradict the view that Jesus was put on trial by Jewish leaders. Many scholars try to save the essence of the traditional story by suggesting that maybe it was a hearing. They accomplish nothing with this claim. Never mind whether you use the word ‘trial’ or ‘hearing’, it boils down to whether there was a hostile Jewish procedure against Jesus, and the details say there was not.
 
We all have the same information, but the ability to understand it depends on how you look at it. To try another way of looking is “talking like a scientist”, as Wally Cox said on that show almost 45 years ago. Historical Jesus scholars refuse to try any other way of looking at the Gospels, except the one involving Jewish leaders treating Jesus with antagonism. That does not explain the evidence, but failing to explain evidence has never bothered scholars obsessed with ideology. Haim Cohn and myself are the only two people I know of who have taken another look, a different look that explains the evidence much better.
 
So once again I appeal to writers of all the current TV cop and detective dramas to take a gander at my books (especially True Jew which presents the more compact argument). Tell me whether a purer approach to scientific method has not indeed solved the problem of how Jesus ended up on a Roman cross.
 
Next month, I will relate an episode of Father Knows Best, about a decade before this Thief program, which also illustrated scientific thinking at its best.
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE TEMPLE—AN OPPORTUNITY TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN GOOD SCIENCE AND IDEOLOGY 


[Links to my books The Ghost in the Gospels and True Jew, the more recent one, are at the right.]
 
In any scientific or scholarly field, it is always a good idea to think about what is the ideal evidence you would need to prove a theory or proposition. Always ask yourself: If this theory is true, what is the evidence I would expect to find to justify it?
 
With that in mind, consider the proposition held dear by most scholars: Jesus’ altercation with the vendors and moneychangers at the Temple was in insult to the Temple authorities or threatened them in some way and led to their having him arrested and tried. If this is true, here is some of the evidence we would naturally expect to see:
 
Historical context. There should be some similar examples in the history of this culture. Not that the same exact thing occurred, but something close. There should be some examples of Pharisees or others disgruntled with the ways things are handled at the Temple and who get into trouble for voicing their criticisms. That trouble could be a trial or some other action.
 
Accusation. Somebody should be telling Jesus that he just did a terrible thing, that the vendors did not deserve this treatment, and perhaps even that he was insulting the Temple authorities.
 
Prosecution. If this is an illegal or rebellious act, then he should be put on trial for it. The charge of disrupting Temple commerce, or some such charge, should be clearly stated and he is found guilty of such.
 
Symbolic act. Many scholars claim that Jesus was carrying out a symbolic act of destruction of the Temple. If so, he would have said something like ‘Let those who have ears to hear, hear.’ We would also expect that, if this is a deep-seated feeling, there would be other such criticisms or acts by Jesus against the Temple, and perhaps even by his followers after his death. We should see Jesus explaining on other occasions what he believes is wrong with the Temple.
 
In all of the above cases, no such evidence exists. It is all missing, every single bit of it. There are other examples in Jewish history of Pharisees or others severely criticizing some aspect of the way things are done at the Temple, but no one is ever punished for it. I present about 15 such examples in The Ghost in the Gospels, Ch. 8, sec. 2. One can of course always “argue” that Jesus was unique. It is more of an assertion than an argument. But those scholars who do that are taking Jesus out of history. They are proposing that all historical evidence is irrelevant in his case because his uniqueness would have no historical parallels. Those who assert this are really declaring an end to all historical study about Jesus.
 
In the Gospels, no one ever tells Jesus that overturning the tables was a bad thing to do, and at the so-called trial (in reality, it was a friendly, informal meeting, not a judicial procedure), he is never charged with this as a crime. Absolutely every other piece of information about Jesus and the Temple in the Gospels tells us how much he revered and loved the Temple. That includes his prophecy of destruction. A Jewish prophet utters his announcement as a deterrence. The whole point of Jewish prophecy is to prevent the destruction. The message is that we love this institution so much that we don’t want to see it destroyed. The prophecy is a reminder of that. There is simply no evidence whatsoever that Jesus had any deep objections to the Temple or its essential purpose.
 
The Gospels in fact never even tell us what exactly Jesus was angry about with the vendors. Something bothered him, but we are never told his specific grievance. The best rational guess is that he believed the vendors were conducting their business too near the Temple and in too loud a manner. Most Pharisees would likely have agreed with him, though they probably would have disapproved of the way he expressed himself.
 
Because the Gospels left out the specific reason for Jesus’ complaint, that left future theologians and scholars free to invent a deeper antagonism on Jesus’ part, but there is no evidence to suggest that he had any such feelings. Rather, everything else in the Gospels reinforces the fact that he held the Temple in high regard (and I go over all of this in sec. 1 of Ch. 8 of Ghost). The brief altercation with the vendors and moneychangers is an isolated incident. Precisely because it is isolated, unsupported by anything else, it tells us that this was a fairly small event at the time. No one, not even the priests, would have read larger implications into it.
 
When absolutely no evidence exists for a theory or a proposed idea, then it can truly be said to be ideology. The exaggerated importance most scholars give to the incident near the Temple is strictly a result of their general ideology that Jesus must be surrounded by Jewish enemies. Ideology is what it is because weak or no evidence supports it. In the case of this action, the evidence is totally non-existent. Being free of evidence is all too characteristic of so much historical Jesus scholarship.
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, August 28, 2014

MY PERIODIC APPEAL 


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

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


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

SOLID PATTERNS OF FACT 


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


Sunday, June 29, 2014

FALSE FACTS VERSUS FALSE THEORIES 


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

Thursday, May 29, 2014

HUMANITARIANISM LOST AND FOUND 


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

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

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