Thursday, December 28, 2017


With all the scandals that have been happening recently, there is one comment that stands out in my mind. It was made a few weeks ago by a woman being interviewed on WNYC radio. She said that men in power (or one could say anyone in power, male or female) are usually lacking in self-awareness and the more power they have, the less self-aware they are. That is very true. It is perhaps the chief way that power corrupts. Power is bent on achieving a result, often an unjust result, and it cannot allow anything or anyone to get in its way—which very much includes self-awareness as the main obstacle to getting what they want.

This is certainly true in academia as well. Academics do not like to admit this, but they are people in power. Their words inform public opinion. Yes, even the ivory tower is not as aloof from the general public as we think. When I have engaged people in conversation about the historical Jesus (which does not happen often), one of the first things they tell me is that there is too much confusion in the evidence and too much disagreement among scholars, so that we will probably never know what happened 2,000 years ago. But that is a scholarly idea and it is precisely what most scholars want the public to believe: The historical Jesus is forever unknowable. Scholars have been pushing this idea for almost 200 years now and it has had the desired effect.

In their comment on John 18:24, the editors of The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2011) declare, “which, if any of the Gospel trial accounts is historical, is not possible to determine” (their punctuation). That is a self-serving statement. Most scholars would probably agree with their comment, but they all know very well that this does not promote general skepticism, nor do they intend it to promote such skepticism. In fact, it rather promotes or reinforces the traditional theological interpretation of Jesus’s death which puts Jewish leaders at the forefront of a conspiracy to kill him. They know that by denying any possibility of discovering the truth, they are leaving the traditional explanation in full force. Their supposed skeptical approach is meant to uphold tradition by default.

The scholars of power have no self-awareness of their biased reading of the Gospels. That’s what power does. That is what it is intended to do. Even without knowing the full historical truth, it is possible to demonstrate beyond any reasonable historical doubt that a Jewish hostile procedure against Jesus did not occur. The bulk of the evidence, which I go over in excruciating detail in both my books, contradicts that. There is no rational case to be made for the allegation that Jewish leaders persecuted Jesus. Way too much evidence goes against that idea.

But to see that evidence—to really see it and take a good hard look at it—requires some self-awareness on the part of scholars to see their own biases. That is the hard part. Analyzing the evidence is relatively easy. Getting scholars to face their biased approach is the impossible task.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


This month just a short note to report that my historical Jesus website is back. I cancelled it several years ago, but now, thanks to the efforts of an admirer, it is back. He was able to retrieve it from whatever elephants’ graveyard websites go to when they are deleted. I put in a link to the revived website at right.

I left all the essays exactly as they were when the site originally went up in 2003. I only added an update on the home page to explain that nothing ever changes in historical Jesus scholarship, so all the essays still make valid points. I expect that a hundred years from now, these essays will still be relevant because there has been no movement. Bear in mind that there has never been a quest for the historical Jesus, if by “quest for” you mean “to reveal”.  The quest has always been to conceal the historical, Jewish Jesus. And it’s been a very successful quest. Concealment is what we have. Revealing is still in the distant future, even if much of that revealing has been accomplished in my two books, links also at right.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Whenever anyone in history is falsely accused of something, or misrepresented in some serious way, it is useful to compare their plight to that of innocent people convicted of a crime they did not commit. The same mentality that leads to wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system also creates bad history, with the same stick-to-itiveness from which historians and prosecutors alike will not budge, no matter the amount of contrary evidence that piles up.

A lot has been written about wrongful convictions. The most recent book on the subject is Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions by Mark Godsey, who used to a federal prosecutor in New York and now is a professor of law and cofounder of the Ohio Innocence Project. He had reluctantly taken over supervision of the Innocence Project at another law school (this was when he first retired from his federal job), because the original supervisor had taken a sabbatical. He thought that the law students involved in Innocence Projects were all bleeding hearts. The first case these students presented to him did not impress otherwise until the DNA evidence came back which established the man’s innocence. Thus began his new career.

Early in the book, Godsey lists the many factors which can lead to false convictions: “confirmation bias, memory malleability, eyewitness misperception, tunnel vision, credibility-determining errors, administrative evil, bureaucratic denial, dehumanization, and the system’s internal political pressures.” Not only leading to false convictions, but equally to the stubborn denial, years later, by prosecutors who will not admit that their office made a mistake. The rest of the book goes into detail for each of these factors. Godsey does an excellent job, but be forewarned that the book can read like a long string of horror stories of innocent people (usually but not always men) spending decades in jail, with prosecutors resisting giving them their freedom despite the mounting evidence of their innocence. The book will give you chills.

With the exception of two or three of the above factors, they basically all apply to the study of history. Once historians create villains and heroes in the past, they are reluctant to admit they have made any mistakes. Even if it is a case of inheriting mistakes made by previous historians, current historians are unwilling to admit that anything went wrong. Mounting exonerating evidence means nothing to them. Once a villain, always a villain. This certainly applies to the way scholars have studied Judas and Jewish leaders and blamed them for the execution of Jesus.

Confirmation bias and tunnel vision are probably the two most popular problems leading to false charges against Jesus’s so-called Jewish enemies. Just as prosecutors do, exonerating evidence is either suppressed or twisted to appear incriminating, so that the original bias (Jesus was persecuted and prosecuted by his Jewish enemies) is always confirmed. There is not a single example in Josephus’s writings that Jewish leaders ever cooperated with the Romans to prosecute a Jewish troublemaker. In fact, there is evidence that they would resist such cooperation, if pushed in that direction. That does not seem to bother anyone who is already convinced of their guilt. Such scholars either use their tunnel vision to eliminate this evidence or they manipulate the evidence in Josephus to make it falsely appear that Jewish leaders would cooperate with Rome.

Here is a perfect example of what I mean. Mark and Matthew provide the information that the high priest tore his robe when questioning Jesus. We know from several examples in Josephus that this was an act of mourning (sometimes accompanied by pouring ashes over their heads) which was used by the priests to persuade, not condemn, someone of something, usually to try to convince them to desist from some action that might provoke the Romans. In effect, they were arguing that if you do not stop doing whatever it is that was being done, the Romans will respond by killing more Jews for whom we will have to mourn. Thus, in Josephus, the chief priests will tear their robes before a rioting mob to convince them to go home instead of continuing to antagonize the Romans.

If the high priest tore his mantle before Jesus, this goes against the interpretation that this was a hostile judicial procedure bent on condemning Jesus. He was rather trying to persuade Jesus to do or stop doing something. That is just one piece of evidence exonerating Jewish leaders of complicity in the death of Jesus.

What do scholars do with this information? Almost all of them simply ignore what we learn from Josephus. It does not help to prove the hypothesis that the high priest wanted to condemn Jesus. One scholar has acknowledged that this was an act of mourning used to persuade, but then goes on to assert that the high priest was trying to persuade his fellow councilors to condemn Jesus. But there are no examples in Josephus, not one, that this act of mourning was ever used this way! This scholar has spun the evidence so that he can appear to be faithful to what Josephus says about persuasion, and yet not violate the biased theory that Jewish leaders were trying to prosecute Jesus.

Godsey’s description of what went on in his office when he was a federal prosecutor is a good summary of historical Jesus scholarship:

“Building a case and making each piece of new evidence fit our preexisting theory was often a group activity. We had fun picking each other’s brains and brainstorming on how to spin evidence to fit our original hypothesis. It was a game. There was no sense of objectivity about the process whatsoever. There was never an attempt to disprove our original hypothesis. Rather, the point of the game was to see how clever you could be in making all new evidence fit your original hypothesis, thus making the case stronger.”

The same sort of thing applies to the way scholars manipulate the evidence to make Judas look guilty of betraying Jesus. Everyone knows how ambiguously Judas’s action is described in the Gospels. There is no clear-cut story of betrayal. The best pieces of evidence to prove such a story are missing. There is no clearly stated motive or any definite conflict between Jesus and Judas. Even after the supposed deed of betrayal is done, there is no condemnation of Judas by his fellow disciples. Every piece of evidence is mired in ambiguity—that is, each piece is equally consistent with a hypothesis and an opposed, or nearly opposed, hypothesis. Judas betraying Jesus could explain the evidence, but so could the hypothesis that Judas was an innocent man falsely accused of betraying Jesus.

The most the evidence proves is that, as time passed, Judas came to acquire a bad reputation, but none of it establishes that he really and originally was a traitor. What a peculiar way to tell the story of someone whom everyone knew to be a traitor. I used to think that there were a few pieces of evidence against Judas, but now I see how wrong I was. I too was affected by tunnel vision.

Most scholars will take the statement (found only in Luke and John) that the devil entered Judas as a damning piece of evidence, as I once did. (Not that they believe there was an actual devil in Judas, but that they take this accusation as evidence that some people  at the time believed Judas did something bad.) Now I realize that such a demonizing accusation is like pelting a man with eggs. It could not possibly serve as evidence of guilt. A man falsely accused is just as likely to be pelted that way. In fact, if anything, the devil charge is a sign of Judas’s innocence, not his guilt. It is practically a confession that they had no definite evidence to pin on Judas (like some conflict he had with Jesus), so they pinned the devil on him because that’s all they had.

And if anyone wants to understand just how much any hard “DNA-type” evidence is lacking to prove Judas betrayed Jesus, consider this: The Gospel authors could not even bring themselves to use the Greek verb for betray, prodidomi, to apply to Judas. Instead, they used a neutral word, paradidomi, which means convey without any sense of betrayal. Even if betray were a secondary meaning of paradidomi, as a few scholars claim, you would need good evidence, not ambiguous evidence, to justify why we should choose that meaning and not its ordinary meaning—and that evidence just isn’t there.

Only a handful of scholars are bothered by this total lack of a solid evidentiary argument for the proposition that the Gospel authors were describing Judas as a traitor. The overwhelming majority of scholars insist that they know this was an act of betrayal. They are stuck in their tunnel vision and will not allow any evidence to open up their view.

In my book True Jew (the title refers to Jesus, not Judas), I demonstrate that it is possible not only to prove Judas’s innocence beyond reasonable doubt, but even more, to show what actually did happen 2,000 years ago. Yet try telling this to scholars who are stuck in the bias and tunnel vision that Judas must have been a traitor and that Jewish leaders were no better. Evidence to establish their guilt is not necessary.

In the last chapter of his book, Godsey has a number of concrete suggestions to defeat or at least reduce the biases that operate among prosecutors and police. His first one is an attitudinal change: We need more humility, we need to understand how our common human frailties lead us to adopt biases and ignore evidence that contradicts our bias. Historical Jesus scholarship needs that advice more than any other field I can think of. But the most heartfelt sentence to me in Godsey’s  book is this one: “… constantly fighting a system that refuses to admit mistakes, dehumanizes our clients, and fights to keep innocents in prison is exceptionally draining and demoralizing.” Every word of that applies to what scholars have done and still do to Judas and ancient Jewish leaders.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, September 28, 2017


It is refreshing to take a look at ancient Jewish history through any lens that is not that of a historical Jesus scholar. We all too often forget that Jews have a history that is independent of Christian theology. Take a look from time to time at Jewish history as it stands on its own and you will be surprised at what can be seen.

It is a commonplace among historical Jesus scholars that Jewish leaders cooperated with Rome in the arrest and trial of Jesus. They base this on their preconceived, fixed idea about the Jewish priests and other authorities that one of their duties was to help Rome deal with Jewish rebels and troublemakers. In both my books, I have gone over much of the evidence that contradicts this. Jewish leaders helping Rome is a false picture of Jewish history. But I had completely forgotten that if you read a scholar on Josephus who has nothing to do with historical Jesus scholarship and has no Christian interest in Josephus, we also find information that confirms my point and gives us a picture of Josephus’s concerns which is very different from what so many historical Jesus scholars claim.

Take, for example, Tessa Rajak’s Josephus: The Historian and His Society (second edition). She reminds us how much Josephus hated the Jewish rebels. He blames them for getting the Jewish state into a war with Rome. More important, he also blamed Jewish leaders for not doing enough to restrain them and keep them in line. In short, he accuses Jewish authorities either of weakness or recalcitrance in dealing with Jewish troublemakers. If Jewish leaders had taken any actions to work with Rome to get rid of these upstarts, Josephus would have reported this, and gladly reported it. He was a man of the upper classes. He had no axe to grind against his own leadership. He would have been happy to see them finally, or at least on occasion, doing their job, if it really was their job (the whole point of course is that it was not their job to aid Rome in its police or military work). More of this kind of strong action, Josephus would have argued, could have saved the Jewish nation from destruction.

But that’s not what Josephus gives us. What Josephus does report is that Jewish leaders did nothing to quell rebellious activity until it was too late. Nipping a problem in the bud (like a small-time rabble rouser) was decidedly not in their make-up. They never did anything like that. One could say they avoided it with every bone in their bodies.

According to Rajak, Josephus thought of Jewish leaders as weak in relation to Jewish rebels. I have described them as being unconcerned with Rome’s problems with Jewish rebels because taking action against the rebels would have made them unpopular. For the priests, Jewish unrest was Rome’s deal and not something Jewish authorities wanted to get involved with. Either way (weak or indifferent), the end result was that they would not help Rome constrain these troublesome young men. There was nothing about the historical Jesus that would have changed the leaders’ usual response of doing nothing to assist Rome. That is the real history.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Monday, August 28, 2017


Scholars generally do not spell out all their reasons for upholding the view that the Jewish people as a whole (in Jesus’s time, that is) cannot be blamed for the Roman execution of Jesus. (How well they stick to this view is another issue, as most scholars claim Jesus was offensive to many Jews, but I will return to this another time.) If they had to give reasons for not blaming Jews generally, I think the following three would be the ones they would fasten on:

First, there is no historical context for it; Jews never called on Roman governors to execute one of their own. Second, there are contradictions to this in the Gospels which show popular support for Jesus (e.g., Mark 11:18; 12:12, 37; 14:2); such support is more historically believable. Third, a good case can be made that blaming all Jews was done out of anger by Jesus’ followers (because most Jews did not accept Jesus as Messiah) and a desire to deflect blame from Rome in order to avoid Roman persecution.

The odd thing is that these same scholars who exonerate the Jewish people will continue to blame the Jewish leadership of the time, despite the fact that the same three reasons exonerate the leaders as well. Jewish authorities never called on Rome to get rid of Jewish troublemakers, and they certainly never arrested and prosecuted Jews for the sake of Rome. There is no historical context for what they supposedly did to Jesus. The anger that was projected onto Jews as a whole could equally well have been projected onto Jewish leaders and distorted their role in this; the desire to deflect blame from Rome also operates here. Moreover, there are considerable clues in the Gospels to corroborate all this and vindicate ancient Jewish leaders which I go over in detail in both my books. The reasoning, or rather lack of it, which convicts any Jews of complicity in Jesus’ death is as anti-Jewish as it ever was. It is only being applied now to a smaller group of Jews, the Jewish leadership, particularly the priests. (Actually, as mentioned above, the reasoning has not really grown smaller, as most scholars still think Jesus offended a large body of Jews, not just Jewish leaders.)

If it is recognized that this was anti-Jewish reasoning when it was applied to the whole Jewish people, then it is just as anti-Jewish when applied to a smaller group. What makes it anti-Jewish is not the size of the group that the bad reasoning is applied to, but the very nature of the reasoning: 1) it promotes false facts about these Jewish leaders; 2) it defames an important part of the culture of the time; and 3) it is part of a pattern depicting Jews as uncomprehending of and violent towards Jesus (the pattern may have grown smaller, although not really as I have already said). Something went wrong, phenomenally wrong, in Christian-Jewish history a long time ago. It is still in operation and it has the power to make us blind to evidence that is right under our noses. That is what we have to grapple with. That is the thing that is so hard to accept—so hard to say and to see. We want to diminish what went wrong and think it is something easily patched up. It is not.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, July 27, 2017


How do you write rationally about the irrational? How do you clearly explain and describe the irrational thinking that we prefer not to know about it? And what do you do when the irrational becomes normalized? How do you make people see what is going on? When crazy ideas are taken as normal and acceptable, the deck is stacked against anyone who tries to expose that. If you criticize the normalized crazy, you are accused of being crazy yourself because you are objecting to the normal.

We will acknowledge crazy people and crazy things happening beyond the borders of our world and our thinking, but when some of that craziness seeps into our world and intertwines itself with the rational, we are less likely to pay attention. In order to write rationally about the irrational, to expose it and defeat it, you first have to identify and describe it. You have to explain how it uses bits of reason as a cover to make the crazy appear sensible. That’s a hard pill for many to swallow.

A case in point is the way historical Jesus scholars have treated Josephus’s passage on Jesus.  Most scholars realize that the Greek version which has come down to us could not have been written by Josephus, not in the way it currently appears. Josephus would never have categorically proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah and that he rose from the dead, which is what the Greek text says. That much is a rational assessment. Thus, it follows that someone altered what Josephus wrote.

But were these sentences slightly altered from whatever Josephus originally wrote, or are they entirely later insertions? Many scholars opt for the second. Here is where a little bit of irrationality starts to creep in. They never consider that Josephus might have said something about the Messiah and the resurrection which was then slightly altered. For example, he could have said that Jesus’s followers believed he was the Messiah and that they reported that he rose from the dead. That kind of thing is plausible as coming from Josephus.

Is there any evidence that this is what Josephus originally wrote? Actually, yes. There is some support from Jerome who has Josephus saying Jesus “was believed to be the Messiah.” It makes plenty of sense that Josephus could have written that. But there is an even more important source from Agapius, an Arab Christian in the 10th century. He preserved in Arabic what Josephus wrote about Jesus. (My discussion of Agapius is based on the work of scholar Shlomo Pines.) The Church was keeping a close eye on anything written in Greek or Latin, but it was probably not paying much attention to Arabic writings. It is very believable that something displeasing to the Church could have slipped through in Arabic.

The Agapius version says that Jesus was perhaps the Messiah, but since his Arabic text was based on a prior Syriac text, he may have slightly mistranslated the Syriac “He was thought to be the Messiah” or “it seemed he was the Messiah.” Whatever it was exactly, whether “perhaps” or “thought to be” or “seemed”, in this version Josephus clearly does not categorically affirm Jesus as the Messiah. That makes sense. On the resurrection, the Agapius text has Jesus’s followers reporting this. This too makes sense.

Here is where the irrational creeps into scholarly analysis big time. Most scholars never discuss the Agapius text, despite the fact that it is clearly something Josephus could have written and does not have the problems we all see in the Greek text. Why do they ignore it? It is because of another major difference between the Greek and the Arabic versions. In the Greek, the text says that Pilate crucified Jesus at the instigation of, or upon an accusation of, Jewish leaders. Josephus could not possibly have written that, but scholars refuse to admit this. Josephus gives no other examples of Jewish leaders cooperating with Rome to prosecute a Jewish troublemaker.  If Josephus had written such a sentence, he would have commented on how unusual this was and made some attempt to explain it. The Greek version offers nothing but silence on this.

And what does the Arabic text say? Nothing at all about Jewish leaders. It merely states that Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified. Jewish leaders are never even mentioned.  That makes much more sense and is consistent with everything else Josephus tells us about Jewish-Roman relations. This is unbearable to most scholars. They have made “Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies” their first principle.  Their second principle is that any evidence which appears to give Jesus Jewish enemies is admissible, while any evidence that tends to exonerate Jewish leaders is inadmissible. “Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies” is an insane first principle to work with—because so much evidence contradicts it and that includes evidence in the Gospels (my books go into this in great detail). The point is that scholars use their irrational point of view to erase Agapius from history. Most scholars will not even acknowledge the existence of this evidence. They have made Jewish enemies doing in Jesus appear to be a normal idea, so they don’t feel how they are distorting the historical record to make it appear true.

The Agapius text is an excellent piece of evidence. At the very least it should be debated. But if you pick up 20 books on the historical Jesus, you would be lucky if you found one that mentions Agapius let alone discusses his text at any length. Scholars have made Jewish culpability in Jesus’s death such a normal idea that any evidence to the contrary becomes offensive and must be eliminated. Isn’t this a kind of insanity? Whenever ideology rules over the evidence, we are dwelling in the land of the irrational.

Here is what is genuinely crazy about historical Jesus scholarship: Scholars pride themselves on being skeptics, yet they have forbidden everyone from being skeptical about the complicity of Jewish leaders in Jesus’s death. That is one idea that can never be challenged. When it comes to everything else in historical texts, scholars will express skepticism about it all. Almost every line in any ancient text about Jesus has been subjected to doubt and scrutiny by scholars, except for one thing. Every line in the Gospels is scrutinized. Every line in the Greek Josephus on Jesus has been doubted. Except anything that imputes guilt to Jewish leaders. That is never doubted. Doubt all, but never doubt this, that Jesus was done in by Jewish leaders.

How is it possible to be skeptical about every single thing about Jesus but nary a doubt about Jewish guilt? What kind of crazy world have scholars created here? No debate is allowed on this one point. The details of the meeting between Jewish leaders and Jesus in the Gospels are not consistent with a hostile Jewish procedure against him, but they are consistent with a friendly, informal meeting intended to help Jesus. Yet scholars will wax furious if you dare to suggest such a thing. Why is Jewish culpability so sacred to scholars? How did this irrational commitment become the standard norm? It is exceptionally difficult to fight this kind of crazy.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

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

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