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Friday, July 26, 2019

GOOD HISTORICAL REASONING 


Keeping up a blog is a lot like being stuck on a deserted island, writing notes, sticking them in a bottle, and tossing them out to sea. God knows if they will land somewhere where conscious, intelligent forms of life dwell. This is especially true if you are devoted to solving longstanding historical problems in a rational way. In human affairs, reason is still the most feared quality.

The point I made in last month’s blogpost is very simple. Good scientific reasoning, which is often applied in legal cases, requires that we carefully distinguish between facts, or bits of data, and the conclusions (or accusations or theories) that we draw from those facts. A conclusion should never be confused with a fact or offered as a fact.

Thus, as in the example I gave from a Judge Judy case in my last post, when a witness in court testifies that some people were approaching in a hostile manner, that is not a valid piece of evidence. That is the witness’s conclusion. Hostility is not observable. What can be observed are the details that make up the so-called hostile action, but you cannot actually observe hostility. You can observe someone shaking their fists or empty beer bottles at you, you can observe (hear) certain words being shouted at you, and more besides. These are the things that may or may not add up to hostility, but a judge or a jury will have to determine that. It is not for the witness to say.

The same sort of reasoning applies to history. We have to separate the facts or data, what is potentially observable (had we been on the scene) from the conclusions or accusations that we find in historical documents. The Gospels call Judas a traitor only once, at Luke 6:16. It is a fact that this is recorded in Luke. But betrayal itself is not a fact. It is a conclusion that someone drew once upon a time. The question that has to be asked, for the sake of pure, clear thinking, is: What gave rise to this conclusion? Or, were any facts recorded to support this? It is a question that has always been avoided because most scholars have falsely assumed that betrayal is an observable piece of data.

The truth is rather like the Judge Judy case where the witness testified about hostility. You cannot observe hostility. The same is true of betrayal. You cannot see someone betraying. You can only see the facts that make up a betrayal (sneaking around, whispering in someone’s ear, making deals, promising to do something for a favor or money, etc.). If these facts are not clearly presented, that raises the possibility that Judas was an innocent person falsely accused of being a traitor.

In a court of law, someone claiming “he is a traitor” or “he betrayed this person” would not be admissible evidence. The judge would strike it, dismissing it as a conclusion and ordering the witness to confine him- or herself to what they saw and heard.

So what did anyone see or hear to justify the conclusion that Judas was a traitor? Luke never says. He just reports the bold conclusion without any supporting evidence. That means we have to think about the facts that may or may not lie behind the conclusion of betrayal. There are roughly three broad possibilities here: 1) there were a series of facts, actions by Judas and perhaps others, that add up to a betrayal, or 2) there were a series of actions that were misperceived as betrayal, or 3) there were no actions to justify the label of betrayal, and so it was offered as a false accusation. And, of course, what happened in history could be a combination of (2) and (3).

There are facts concerning Judas reported in the Gospels, but almost all of it is ambiguous—which means, by the way, that misperceiving facts that contributed to a wrong conclusion of betrayal is a distinct possibility. Judas leaving the table is a potentially observable fact, if we traveled back in time. Returning with soldiers in tow is another one. But these are highly ambiguous. By a fact, I am not saying they are true (though I believe they are). I only mean they are observable phenomena, if they did happen. Traitor is a conclusion later tradition stamped on this data. Other conclusions are logically possible, when you have ambiguous data. If Jesus was surrendering to the Romans and sent Judas as his agent to them so they could arrest him, that would also explain these facts. Or, if Judas went out to get more food for the seder and he was followed by spies, that is another possibility. The ultimate question is whether the Gospels recorded enough facts, not conclusions, that could help us decide among all the logical possibilities.

Clarity of thinking, which includes separating facts and conclusions, will reveal just how much ambiguous evidence is in the Gospels (concerning Jewish leaders as well). And why is all that ambiguity there? The full story is in my books, with True Jew being the more recent and shorter one.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer



Friday, June 28, 2019

APPLYING LEGAL REASONING TO HISTORY 





[My books on the historical Jesus, True Jew being the more recent and shorter one, are linked at the right to Amazon and Barnes & Noble.]

There is no such thing as a type of reasoning that is unique to a particular field. Good reasoning is the same wherever you go. The goal is always to think so clearly that all deception becomes impossible. That’s the essence of scientific thinking. The lessons learned in one field about how not to deceive yourself or anyone else are easily transferred to other fields. Courts of law provide some of the best examples of how to reason well. Historians could learn a lot from them.

I can give two examples from TV small claims shows. On an episode of Judge Judy, a litigant was relating an incident when he and his friends were attacked by some rowdy drunks. He began by saying that this group approached him and his friends in a hostile manner. Judge Judy said this was a conclusion. She wanted evidence. He tried again and said something like, “Well, they were very aggressive.” No, she said, you’re offering a conclusion again. Tell me what you saw and what you heard.

He was frustrated and could only say they were threatening him and his friends. Judge Judy would not accept that either. Finally, she helped him out by asking him, “Were they saying anything, were they making any gestures?” Now his expression lit up and he was able to offer more proper testimony. “Yes,” he said, “they were cursing at us and saying we’re going to get you, and they were waving their fists and empty liquor bottles at us.” Now you’re telling me something, Judge Judy said.

The second example is a little more subtle and comes from The People’s Court with Judge Marilyn Milian. The plaintiff, a doctor, had not been paid by a lawyer, the defendant, for his expert testimony in another court case. The lawyer’s secretary testified that at one point, the doctor had called their office to complain about not getting paid. She said the doctor was not happy about not getting his money. Judge Milian pointed out that this was a conclusion, not a fact, a hard piece of evidence. Like the litigant in the Judge Judy case, the secretary was frustrated and did not know how to explain it. Judge Milian made it simple for her. “Tell me exactly what the doctor said to you on the phone.” The secretary answered, “He said, ‘I’m unhappy that I did not get paid yet for my testimony.’” Now that was a fact that Judge Milian could evaluate.

To many people, the difference between the two portions of the secretary’s testimony is so slight and so subtle that it is hardly worth dwelling on. But from the point of view of logic, the difference is huge. Consider these two propositions. #1: “The doctor was unhappy that he had not been paid.” #2: “The doctor said to me, ‘I am unhappy that I have not been paid.’” To a careless thinker, they are basically the same, but #1 and #2 are not at all the same thing. The first is a conclusion. We have no idea how the secretary arrived at this conclusion. It is inadmissible in a court of law because it does not give us any concrete facts to go on. The second is a fact that we can then investigate by cross-examining the doctor, the secretary, and possibly others.

Examples like these from TV court shows should encourage historians to be more precise thinkers. We have many examples in history of conclusions, or people leaving us their conclusions about what they thought of persons and events in their time, but we don’t always have the facts their conclusions were based on. And by a fact, I do not mean something that is necessarily true, but merely a piece of evidence, something potentially observable, something that could have been seen or heard, if it actually happened, and then we can think about whether it is a true fact or a false fact.

Suppose we had the diary of a colonist from America or Australia or anywhere else. In the diary, we find this statement: “The other day, a group of natives approached us in a hostile manner.” (There may also be follow-up statements like “So we engaged them in battle and slaughtered them all,” but I am only concerned with the initial statement.) Too many scholars would assume the statement in the diary must be true and proceed from there—as if only one hypothesis could explain that statement.

In fact, there are three hypotheses that could explain the diarist’s statement. But the first thing to pay attention to is that “hostile manner” is not a fact. It is a conclusion. Or we could say that it is a fact that the diarist drew this conclusion, but the conclusion is not a fact in itself. The three hypotheses to explain the appearance of this conclusion in the diary are as follows: Number one is that it is true, the natives really were hostile (making certain gestures and shouting specific words in one language or another, which would be the facts we really need). Number 2 is that “hostile” resulted from a misperception of the colonist as to the meaning of the natives’ gestures, etc. And number 3 is that the colonist outright lied in his diary in order to cover up a wanton massacre.

All three of these hypotheses have to be considered. Assuming only the first is possible is simply bad reasoning and it would be bad in any field of study. What we have in historical studies is a situation where 1) scholars often confuse conclusions and facts, and 2) they fail to see that different hypotheses could explain what are really conclusions. Both conditions are common to so many fields of historical study. Tell this to scholars and they get as frustrated as the people testifying in those small claim cases. They don’t want to hear that they have been presenting conclusions, not hard evidence.

The story of Judas in the Gospels is a good example. When you examine the verses very closely, we can see that there are a lot of conclusions being offered and precious little in the way of facts. Traitor (which accusation appears only once and it’s in the Gospel of Luke) is a conclusion or accusation, not a fact. The facts, if any, would be the details that support the accusation. Those details are absent in Judas’s case.

Once upon a time, somebody wanted to stick the conclusion of traitor on Judas and there it has remained. But when you sort out the few facts we do have (e.g., Judas leaves the table and returns with soldiers, no one at the time levels the accusation of traitor at him, and a few more), it is surprising to see that they are consistent with the hypothesis that Judas was an innocent man falsely accused of being a traitor; even the conclusions we have in the Gospels are consistent with that hypothesis. My books on the historical Jesus go into more detail.

Historical Jesus scholars do not examine the Gospel verses concerning Judas with any great degree of care. They simply take the conclusion of traitor that was presented once upon a time and refuse to look at other hypotheses, especially any that point towards Judas’s innocence. An innocent man falsely accused of betrayal is a legitimate hypothesis that has been erased from consideration.

Scholars of Charles Darwin are another good example of indulging in bad reasoning. It may be a little more subtle here, but in essence, we get a lot of conclusions and little in the way of facts. The facts here are primarily what did Darwin actually say in his published works. We are given the impression that his work is a great example of objective science, but this results from a careless reading of what he created.

Is On the Origin of Species an objective work of science? Did Charles Darwin inject racism into his study of evolution? Are there notions of superior and inferior in his writings? Most scholars present Darwin as a great humanitarian, a conclusion that they will not permit any challenge to. They slant the facts of what Darwin’s work is like so that it appears he was a calm, reasonable scientist who had no ax to grind. That he spoke often of the extermination of lower races is something they would rather not pay attention to.

In their view, Darwin was a modest man who proceeded very slowly. One of the myths about Darwin’s Origin is that he does not address the matter of human evolution in it. They say he spoke of human beings only once in a cryptic remark in the last chapter—in some future time, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” In fact, Darwin addresses the human condition many times throughout Origin, including an earlier statement that light will be thrown on the racial differences among humans (though he does not explore this any further here). While Origin is in part a work of science, it is equally a work to advance the cause of European imperialism and to put each organic group, including human beings, in their place, “groups subordinate to groups,” as he frequently says. My books on Darwin clearly demonstrate the truth of that.

When you collect the facts of what he actually wrote—how often he spoke of superior and inferior, higher and lower, groups subordinate to groups, domination of the weak, let the dominant become ever more dominant, and more—his work certainly seems to have a lot of racism and genocide in it, and much of it appears to be composed to justify European imperialism. Those are conclusions I am offering, or you could also call them alternative hypotheses, but there is a plethora of facts to support them. Learn to think like Judge Judy or Judge Marilyn Milian and you can make great discoveries.

The lesson here is to remain humble. Lessons from a TV show can take you far. Never reject anything as a potential source of knowledge. Even TV shows may be a source of profound wisdom, if you’re paying close attention.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer



Tuesday, May 28, 2019

CONQUERING THE WORLD—WITH BIAS TOWARDS ALL AND OBJECTIVITY FOR NONE 


There is a myth which the western intellectual tradition perpetuates about itself: We love the search for objective truth. The practical reality is that westerners want to conquer (the world, nature, other cultures). You cannot have both. If you are interested in conquering, winning, dominating, then you are not really interested in objectivity. Western thinkers cherry pick the evidence that comprises the entire world and favor only that which will help them achieve victory over others. This is true even of the hard sciences. We have our biases and we use them to win at any cost.

I can put this another way. If there is one basic bias underlying western tradition, it is that we believe life is arranged in a hierarchy. There is higher and lower, superior and inferior (all four of these terms appear frequently throughout Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species), and we further believe that those at the upper end have a right, maybe even a duty, to conquer and dominate those at the lower end. We deem it the law of life. Live by it and you gain respect in the world. Defy or ignore it and you deserve disrespect. Darwin, most scientists, the Mafia, big religions, all sorts of politicians, and more subscribe to this vision.

It is not just other people and cultures we treat this way. It is all of nature. Do we study nature to achieve objective results? I don’t think so. We look for facts that will help us dominate and control nature. When we find them, we pay close attention. If we come across anything that does not help our quest for power, we blind ourselves to it. We simply do not see anything that does not serve the goal of complete domination.

If this approach to nature sounds like racism, that’s because it is. Westerners relate to nature in the same way we relate to human groups. Consider how Jews have traditionally been fit into the western, Christian world. They have always been regarded as wandering Aborigines, exiled from their aboriginal home. Like Aborigines everywhere, they are seen as an obstacle to the progress of empire. Jews are small, a nuisance, and will never truly assimilate.

Jews have never dreamed of conquering the world, neither its souls or its territories. The biblical dream of Jewish culture was to have a relatively small homeland with well-defined borders. No empire for Jews. In the Torah, God does not especially like the state, let alone an empire. Even the biggest Zionist dream (which most Jews are not in favor of) is ludicrously small, compared to the dream of many (not all) Christians and Moslems to conquer the world, or if not the entire world, at least a large portion of it.

It is because the Jewish dream is so small that Jews have been considered inferior. Smallness is a sin in western culture. All Aborigines are disrespected because their cultures stand, or are perceived to stand, in the way of greatness and progress. That bin Laden guy was fond of calling Israel “that puny little state.” For many Christians, it has always been “that puny little religion.”

What about the historical, Jewish Jesus? In his time, there was a Jewish tradition, which he too embraced, that chutzpah (an Aramaic word) towards fellow human beings was bad, but chutzpah towards God, especially a grandiose God, was a good thing. God encouraged Jews to challenge abuse of power by human beings (like western Europe’s empires) by respecting them when they challenged abuse of power by God. If you can say no to God, you can say no to human political leaders.

So Abraham will challenge God at Sodom and Gomorrah and request him to give these people due process before he judges them. Moses does the same when God inflicts Miriam with leprosy. Moses demands a reconsideration of her case because here too God failed to follow due process. This is what Jewish civilization was heading towards.

The idea of western civilization has been to flip this and teach instead a phony reverence for God while practicing chutzpah towards other human beings. And since Jewish culture has never joined or endorsed this western tradition, it is considered inferior and possibly worthy of extermination. That has been the logic of western civilization towards all cultures that do not bow down and obey the western imperative of total domination.

Aboriginal cultures have usually been content with the small. That has long been the key Jewish sin and failing in the eyes of the west. The U.S. Constitution at its best also embraces smallness—the humblest and the highest class in theory stand equal before the law. The rule of law means to defend the smallest. I would trace this idea at least as far back as John Locke who was a keen reader of Torah, the Jewish Constitution. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has not understood the U.S. Constitution this way. It has followed western imperialism and has generally had more regard for the powerful than for the powerless. With only a few exceptions, the Court has never been that interested in defending the small.

Objectively speaking, the small have played as great a role in evolution as the powerful and dominant. Nature produced both and without favoritism. The small and weak are not one of nature’s mistakes. Like the U.S. Constitution, again at its best, nature has regard for all. Everything that comes into existence is, in a sense, loved by nature. There are no defects. The judgment that some forms of life are defective is exactly that. It is a subjective judgment. Success, failure, superior, inferior—these are all subjective ideas which serve western empires but little else.

If we want to reach objectivity in our knowledge of the world, we might have to knock down our pretentious systems of knowledge and start all over again, Go back to the beginning and discover our true human origins.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer



Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A DISEASE WITHOUT A CAUSE 


A new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt, has been published. I have not read it yet, but have read the NY Times review by Brett Stephens (Feb. 3, 2019). The subtitle of her book tells us what her focus will be and apparently she is not interested in historical origins. That certainly is confirmed by Stephens’s review. They can focus on whatever they choose to, but I find it disappointing that every time I come across something about antisemitism, there is a terrific effort made to avoid confronting Christianity’s role in this.

What we get instead is an endless discussion of the various symptoms of racism against Jews, but no search for the cause. For all we know from these many forums, antisemitism is all symptoms, but no cause. It is a unique phenomenon in the annals of medicine, if we understand medical problems to include all social dysfunctions. Antisemitism seems to be the only disease which consists entirely of symptoms, but has no main cause.

Many years ago, I went to a Jewish meeting, about 100 people present, in connection with the anniversary date of some aspect of the Dreyfus Affair in late 19th century France. There was a wide-ranging, lively discussion of all aspects of antisemitism, especially in the here and now, except for one thing. No one ever mentioned Christian antisemitism. I did not even realize what was going on until near the end of this almost hour long meeting. When I did, I raised my hand a few times, but was never called on. It is just as well because now I can report that for the entire meeting no one ever brought up Christianity.

I cannot imagine a group of African-Americans having a meeting about racism and no one ever bringing up white racism. It would be impossible. Only Jews can talk about racism against Jews and never get to the main issue.

It was not always like this. In the 1960s, after the initial shock of the Holocaust had worn off a little, there was plenty of concern over Christianity’s contribution. You can open at random almost any Christian scholarly journal from that time period and you will find an article on Christianity and antisemitism. Attempts were made to dig into this and then the moment passed.

Antisemitism became this disease that free floats in the air, attached to no particular cause, and is simply known by its symptoms, by the various charges made against Jews. In his review of Lipstadt’s book, Stephens concludes that in the main, antisemitism is anti-liberalism. Jews, it seems, are hated for their liberal views on truth, freedom, morality, the law, and more. For certain purposes, that might be helpful, but it is not nearly the whole story. And it is valuable to remind people, as Stephens and Lipstadt do, that it isn’t always the most openly bigoted people who continue the disease of racism in all its forms.

But this almost perfect avoidance of discussing the old charges made by Christians tells me that Jews are afraid of Christians. They are afraid that any direct confrontation with Christians about this will only make antisemitism worse. They are afraid that Christians too easily feel threatened even by something as relatively benign as understanding what makes Jesus Jewish. Jews are somehow a threat to the Christian faith. It leads Jews to be content with letting Christians misrepresent ancient Jewish culture any way they want because Jews don’t want to disturb any aspect of Christian faith. Jesus must have Jewish enemies and Jewish villains are fashioned by Christians to fit that purpose.

Jews do not want to challenge any of this. Remember that the first false conspiracy charge made against Jews was the false claim that Jewish leaders conspired to kill Jesus. It is not a charge that is supported by the Gospels (the accusation comes more from later Christian tradition than from the Gospels), but Jews try to avoid this with all their might. Many Christians, not all, seem to need Jesus to have Jewish enemies, so why disturb that belief? But if this is the source that continues to feed antisemitism—if this is the original virus—then leaving it undisturbed means that antisemitism will eternally return.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer



Tuesday, February 26, 2019

BELIEVING IN SMALLNESS 


It is a relief to study the facts, in any field, whatever the facts are. In a world with so much injustice in it, so much fear and hatred, it is a huge relief to be able to say: This is what I know. Doing more, like trying to figure out what the facts mean, could be an added bonus, but only as long as we stay close to the facts and do not leap to big conclusions. A good rule to follow in all investigations is to keep it small. I don’t mean that the big issues are out of the question. I just mean we should stay focused on telling the details of the truth and not to be swayed by ideology. Don’t force meaning on the evidence. Let it come naturally.

Maybe this is a selfish way of thinking. When lies have become the standard way of studying history, it is almost a joy to be able to say, Here’s what’s wrong with that. The facts may or may not solve or rectify any injustices. But they can be an escape from the turmoil of the day and that, I admit, is selfish. It’s not all selfishness. The facts also offer some assurance that truth matters. And if you believe that truth leads to justice, then some good has been accomplished by just getting something right.

When I see politicians spewing their hatred, I feel reassured when I surround myself with solid facts. I feel even more reassurance when I see that many others also relish the truth. “We are a nation of immigrants” I hear over and over. And that is true. The fact is that this country was built on immigration. In an early pamphlet, Thomas Jefferson said that the colonies were not created by charters from the king of England, but by the universal right that people have to leave the place where they were born and seek new habitations. Travel and movement were considered basic rights. The great European experts on international law said so. Emigration was seen as natural. That is a historical fact.

That does not mean we are bound by such facts. Societies can change. We can say that what was once accepted policy is no longer what we want to do. The past cannot handcuff  us. But if we are going to change, we should be clear about it and why we want to change.

It was a sound principle in Jefferson’s time that no generation had the right to make laws which are eternally binding and a handicap to future generations. The current generation may decide that it wants to put an end to immigration. It has that right. But we should know that if we do this, we are bucking a longstanding historical trend. Why was this trend in place for such a long time? Why was emigration considered to be a God-given right of all human beings? What were the benefits? What other rights was it connected to? We should think about it before we willy-nilly change it. Or we can change it blindly and react to the fear of the moment. When we do things out of fear, does that generally lead to good results?

I like saying simple facts. I like saying: I know this, that, and the other. Who doesn’t like saying what they know? I know I like this pizza, this is good, this flavor ice cream is great, this TV show is worth watching. Some of the things I like are relatively simple, like pizza. Liking a TV show is a bit more complicated. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, it reveals something about life. Some of those revelations may not be so simple. Still, it did a good job. I felt something, it moved me. That’s all I have to know. It moved me. Explaining why may get very messy, but the fact of being moved is simple, maybe too simple. So much evil in the world comes from being moved by inane slogans. Being moved is no guarantee you’re moving in the right direction.

I recently saw an episode of a German TV show called “Crime Scene Cleaner”, which is as self-explanatory a title as you can get. It is a half-hour comedy series in each episode of which our hero shows up at an apartment or house, after someone has died, to clean up the blood, and after the police have finished collecting the evidence. He always works alone, but he also always encounters someone (a relative, a neighbor, etc.) with whom he gets caught up in the most hilarious conversations, often bordering on the philosophical. In this episode, it is a neo-Nazi he meets. The room he has to clean up is filled with Nazi memorabilia. He is astounded that anybody could still believe this crap.

At one point, our hero asks the other man, “Don’t you think it was insane to kill six million Jews?” The man answers that maybe they went a little overboard there, but so what? The French Revolution also went crazy with excessive violence, but we still can discuss the ideas of the French Revolution and take them seriously. Why can’t we do the same with Nazi ideas? Maybe we need a new modern Nazism. Our hero fantasizes punching him in the face, but does not do it. I won’t tell you the end, but he gets a small taste of justice; painting the walls pink is part of it.

My feelings about this show are very complicated. In a way, it is the opposite of what I usually spend my time doing which is digging up the plain facts. For example, I like reporting that at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, James Wilson of Pennsylvania defended the illogical nature of the three-fifths compromise (southern states would be able to count three-fifths of their slave population towards how much representation they would get in Congress)—illogical because each slave was considered as something between a person and a piece of property, and arbitrarily given the status of three-fifths of a person—illogical but necessary, Wilson argued, for reaching a compromise with the southern slave states. But at his state’s ratification debates over whether to approve the new Constitution, Wilson was convinced that the new Congress would have the power to emancipate all the slaves throughout the country. He called this a “delightful prospect” and the power to tax the import of slaves he called a “lovely feature in the Constitution.”

When you go carefully through the evidence of the Constitutional Convention, a clear pattern emerges with respect to slavery. Varieties of James Wilson’s sentiments were expressed. Another delegate believed, “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our Country.” So they were in no rush to push the issue now. The people that opposed slavery turned out to be mildly antislavery. These antislavery advocates put off their hopes for an end to slavery to an indefinite future. In the meantime, they conceded the strength of slave owners and gained few concessions from them. It was like a game of poker in which one side held all the good cards. The slaveholding states got much of what they wanted. There is a satisfaction in understanding what happened in history. So this is how we got to where we are today and this is why racism is so strong today.

There is a very different satisfaction in watching something like “Crime Scene Cleaner”—or maybe not very different at all, it just feels different. We can feel poetic justice at work in the episode I saw. Given the crimes of the Nazis, that is trivial, very trivial in fact. It is almost nothing. But we, or at least I, need the trivial to go on living. Sometimes just the smallest thing is enough to give us reason to go on. A flower, a fact, a punch in the nose against the right person at the right time, even if only in our dreams or on a TV show. The smallness of gathering facts is like that. It is such a little thing to do, but it is a relief against the assault of lies and hatred.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer



Saturday, January 26, 2019

FOOTHOLD IN IMMUNITY 


In 1864, Charles Sumner, abolitionist and Senator from Massachusetts, gave a speech in the Senate to support a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. He addressed the way prejudice is often used to read a text. Here is what he had to say about that:

“People naturally find in texts of Scripture the support of their own religious opinions or prejudices; and, in the same way, they naturally find in texts of the Constitution the support of their own political opinions or prejudices. And this may not be in either case because Scripture or Constitution, when truly interpreted, support these opinions or prejudices; but because people are apt to find in texts simply a reflection of themselves … whoever finds any support of slavery in the Constitution of the United States has first found such support in himself … he has already conceded to it [slavery] a certain traditional foothold of immunity, which he straightway transfers from himself to the Constitution … it is not the Constitution, so much as human nature itself, which has been at fault. Let the people change, and the Constitution will change also.”

These words, these insights, are perfect. It is not necessary to change a word to apply them to biblical studies and in particular to historical Jesus studies. The Gospel texts are most often read as presenting Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies; in other words, in the eyes of scholars, the Gospels have a definite anti-Jewish slant, which they take to reflect a historical reality. While I would grant there is some anti-Jewishness in the Gospels, it has been exaggerated way out of proportion to what is actually there. To borrow from Sumner, scholars have conceded to the anti-Jewish angle a certain foothold of immunity, which they straightway transfer from themselves to the Gospels. It is not the Gospels which are at fault, so much as human nature itself.

The most obvious example of this is the story of Judas. Almost every scholar declares that Mark and the other Gospels make Judas out to be a traitor. Judas as traitor has that foothold of immunity in scholars. The truth is that almost every piece of evidence concerning Judas is ambiguous; in Mark, it is a perfectly ambiguous story. The evidence could be consistent with the theory of Judas as a traitor, but each piece of evidence is equally consistent with the theory that Judas was an innocent man falsely accused of being a traitor.

The slant in the direction of traitor comes from the human nature of scholars, not from the Gospel texts. It is so bad that most scholars will not even concede that traitor Judas is a theory and therefore debatable. They have turned him into a fact and have thereby exempted their fact from debate. The correctness of this fact cannot be questioned. It has immunity, as Sumner would put it.

The facts are not the main issue in historical Jesus studies. Prejudice is the issue. That topic does not get discussed very much. It is an old human truth: We will investigate anything except ourselves. Socrates found that hilarious.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer



Thursday, November 29, 2018

FEARS AND HISTORICAL STUDIES 


The following is my letter to the editor of New York Times Book Review, for November 18.  I was responding to a review of five recent books on the search for Jewish identity:

I like the fact that Gal Beckerman included her own search for Jewish meaning in her review of 5 books on the current state of Judaism (Nov. 18), but there is something odd about using the Pittsburgh shooting to frame the discussion. I think she knows that, as she says there is “something sad about identity flaring just in these moments of defensiveness and grief.” In any search for identity, sometimes what is omitted can be telling. The one thing Jews do not like to discuss at all is Christian antisemitism and their fear of Christians. For one thing, they are afraid that such talk will only make antisemitism worse. I have heard many people speak about Pittsburgh and no one brings up Christian racism against Jews, in particular what is its source. I had a similar experience many years ago, at a large gathering of Jews discussing antisemitism, and not once did anyone bring up Christianity, much less how it affects Jewish identity.

Beckerman poses Amos Oz’s question: “Does our past belong to us, or we to it?” There is one part of our past that we have entirely given up to Christianity, and that is first century Jewish culture. The popular understanding (both among Christians and Jews) of this part of Jewish history is that Jewish leaders were corrupt, totally in service to the Romans (Josephus gives the lie to this, but religious Jews avoid Josephus like poison), and thus were easily hoodwinked into persecuting Jesus (the Gospels do not support this as much as people think). Most Christians think ancient Jewish culture was too ethnic, too tribal, too ritualistic, too legalistic, too obsessed with purity. Jewish scholars have done a poor job combating this. They rightly deny all these things, and Christians will nod their heads and say they understand, but among themselves, when they tell the story of Jesus, Christians are convinced that Jesus opposed a Judaism that was too tribal, too legalistic, and all the rest. That popular story holds sway and the result is that most Jews are ashamed of their ancient past, not to mention that the persistent belief that some Jews helped to kill Jesus adds to the shame.

Jews do not like talking about any of this, out of fear that any discoveries about how Jewish Jesus was will only make Christians feel threatened and make them more racist towards Jews. So Christians continue to own ancient Jewish history and Jews go on believing that their ancestors were the equivalent of jungle bunnies. I am not saying that a truer understanding of how great ancient Jewish culture was is the cure-all for what ails Judaism today, but to quote an old Jewish joke, it wouldn’t hurt.

That's the end of the letter, which I realize won't get printed.  Fears are the hardest thing to talk about, especially the ones that get suppressed.  We just hope they will go away without our talking about them. They won't, and that's the dilemma.


© 2018 Leon Zitzer



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