Sunday, January 29, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, December 29, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Monday, November 28, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, October 29, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, August 28, 2016


The tide I am referring to is the tide of unconscious forces. Any swimmer who has been caught in a riptide can tell you how exhausting it is to fight it. The tide always wins. That is even more true of the unconscious forces that run under every argument, under every attempt to take a fresh look at the evidence. I am not sure how much longer I can last. My strength is giving out.

I once heard a writer being interviewed, who addressed this in the most pessimistic way, though I am sure he saw it as being realistic. He apparently had not been very successful at anything until he started writing a book to teach others how to be successful. That’s America. I will never forget the first rule he laid down. If you want to reach a huge number of people, do not challenge the worldview of your audience. In fact, in general, just don’t challenge worldviews. Leave them alone. It will get you anything but success.

But if your search for truth leads down that path, what are you supposed to do? The most dedicated truth seekers are the fictional detectives you see on television. They are always getting into trouble with their supervisors, and since this is fantasy, they always survive and live to solve another case. In real life, their ass would be fired so fast. They would not last a week on the job.

There is an early episode of The Closer where Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) apologizes to her crew of detectives. She thinks she is about to be fired and worries about the effect this will have on her division. She explains that in this job, you have to make a choice between two paths. You can be political or you can conduct a pure investigation to find the truth. You cannot do both. She made her choice long ago and she is sorry if her choice ends up damaging their department. Since this is fiction, she does not lose her job and her investigations will go on.

I wish it worked that way for the historical Jesus. But this is real life, and a pure search for the truth about him inevitably leads to being fired, or remaining unpublished, or getting shot down in some way or other. Bang, bang. That’s how it goes. People have pre-formed ideas not only about the historical Jesus but about the nature of religion and whether it is even possible to find history in so-called religious texts.

Of course it’s possible. But that frightens people. It’s a challenge to the worldview of those who shove anything “religious” into the realm of myth. If you tell anyone that even “religious” documents are human documents and can be studied for historical context and content, they get upset. No, no, it can’t be, they say. Tell them that in any scientific investigation, the rational thing to do is to pay very careful attention to the evidence, don’t read your own assumptions into the evidence, and then ask what is the most rational explanation for this pattern of evidence.

Tell people anything like that and you are swimming against the tide. They will wear you out and knock you down. They will win. Just tell people that 99% of the evidence concerning Judas is ambiguous—it is not a string of negative characterizations of him—and they are flabbergasted when you say that the next question is what best explains all these ambiguities. Their worldview is that Judas is a traitor, or that the whole thing is myth-making. When I point out that this is an irrational solution of the evidence, their worldview comes back to drown me out.

A Judas betraying Jesus is a lousy theory to explain all the ambiguous evidence concerning him and Jesus. There is a much better, more rational theory. But that’s swimming against the tide, I know, and I am about to go under for the last time.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Friday, July 29, 2016


Some of these distances are quite long. Consider humanitarianism. You can go all the way back to the Hebrew Bible for the idea of equality before the law. The Bible demands that there be one law for the immigrant and for the native-born. Everyone gets the protection of the same laws. We still struggle to achieve this. Not to mention the Bible’s commands not to oppress or wrong the immigrant and even to love the immigrant. Lo these many thousands of years later, hatred and fear of the immigrant is still the easiest thing to whip up.

In the first century, the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus told his readers of a due process rule that Jews follow. No one may be put to death for a crime unless he has first had a trial by the Sanhedrin. We have more or less achieved that, but we don’t always follow it and sometimes when we do, it’s not exactly a fair trial that is being followed. If we did honor due process as much as we say we do, there would not be any need for an innocence project which seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted persons.

But we don’t have to go as far back as ancient Judaism to see how hard it is to advance humanitarian ideals. Let’s just go back to the 17th century and John Locke. Locke challenged the idea that state sovereignty is a sacrosanct idea. For Locke, the foundation of society was human rights, liberty, and equality. No claim to government power could be legitimate unless it honored and protected human rights. We claim to believe that, but state sovereignty has a powerful hold on us. We are reluctant to interfere with it, no matter how badly human rights are being violated by a state. John Locke pushed for the idea that force can never validate what is not right. It has been over three hundred years since Locke promoted his ideas and we are still catching up.

The need for human rights as well as understanding what they are was obvious hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. But fighting for human rights is a long distance race. It is not and never will be a one hundred yard dash to the finish line.

The same is true of seeking for reason in the study of any subject. Whatever academics in all fields may boast, achieving rationality is no easy matter. We are still huffing and puffing our way there, despite the noble efforts of so many who carried the torch long before we got here. Socrates was sprinting ahead more than two millennia ago. Have we taken it any further beyond his hopes and dreams? Socrates’s Bible was the Greek language, not the entire language, just key points in it, like words about the good and the bad, truth, usefulness, justice, state power, and more. He insisted we reason carefully, building up slowly from the evidence and taking small, careful steps towards a conclusion. It’s a dream that we have reached that ideal. Abandoning reason and leaping towards ideology is still the sacrosanct way to find truth for too many academics.

But let’s move up in time from Socrates. Let’s go to 9th century China. Zen Master Huang Po advised us to reject what we think, not what we see. That’s what a wise person would do, he said. The fool, on the other hand, rejects what he sees in favor of what he already thinks. This is a very simple and effective way of saying that we must not let preconceived ideology control the reasoning process. Let’s pay attention to the evidence. Who am I going to believe, Judge Marilyn Milian is always asking litigants when she studies a piece of evidence in her courtroom, you or my lying eyes? There is one consistent thread when you follow this line of thought over the centuries. How hard is it to follow Huang Po’s wise advice? Judging by the way most academics behave, it is very difficult.

When reason or the essence of human rights first dawned on some caveman eons ago, it must have come in full bloom. Once you get it, there it is in all its flowering. He must have thought this is so obvious, everybody is going to be thrilled when I tell them about respecting human rights or about reasoning from the evidence. He was in for a very rude awakening. Did he despair when people laughed at him or stared at him like he was crazy? Did he withdraw for a while before he returned to campaign for what he believed? Or was he executed? He almost certainly was ostracized.

Most important, would he be stunned to learn that thousands of years later, we are still fighting for the same simple propositions?

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

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