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Saturday, January 25, 2020

LOOKING FOR EVIDENCE, NOT CONCLUSIONS 


For the past few months, I have been dwelling on one point: The statement at Luke 6:16, that Judas became a traitor, cannot be used as a piece of evidence against him. It is part of the historical record, that is true, but it is only a record that this accusation was made (the only place in the entire New Testament where Judas is called a traitor) and you can never use an accusation to prove the truth of the accusation. It is a conclusion someone drew, but a conclusion is not evidence of the truth of the conclusion. What a historian wants to know is what is the evidence that supports the conclusion. Luke never tells us. Nor do any of the Gospels.

I have focused on this because it seems like so many scholars, almost all of them, ignore this obvious point and merely assert that Luke 6:16 is one piece of evidence that Judas did something bad. It has a negative ring to it and that’s good enough for them. They have abandoned good, fundamental, scientific reasoning in favor of asserting a prejudiced argument. It is a sign of how biased this field is.

I don’t just mean biased against Jews, I mean biased against ancient peoples. There is a modern assumption that ancient peoples are inferior to us, they are like children compared to us, and therefore different standards of reasoning have to be applied to their inferior mentality. That assumption is so wrong. The ancients were just as rational as we are. They knew the difference between accusations and proving an accusation. Keep that in mind.

There is another way to put this. Being a traitor is not something one can observe (by observe, I mean see or hear). It is exactly like the claim that someone behaved in a hostile manner. Hostility is not an observable phenomenon. You can observe the details that make up the accusation of hostility—e.g., nasty words that were said, shaking a fist, pointing a weapon, throwing a punch, etc.—and hostility would be a conclusion that summarizes this evidence. But without that underlying evidence, hostility is just an empty charge.

The same is true for the charge of traitor. You cannot observe it. You can observe the details that make up betrayal, if it happened, but betrayal itself is a conclusion that sums up the observable evidence. Observable evidence for betrayal would be things like sneaking around, uttering words like “I’ll tell you where he is hiding if you pay me something”, arguments that occurred between the traitor and other members of the group before the alleged betrayal, and even signs of animosity after the event, such as other members of the group cursing out the traitor. All this is missing from the Gospels. Just to give one example: If anyone who knew Judas ever said a bad word about him, all four Gospel authors failed to record it. The negative remarks about Judas come from the Gospel authors, not from any of the persons within the story.

Does this mean that nothing in the Gospels counts as evidence concerning Judas? Not at all. So far I have been dwelling on the negative point that the Gospels give us no evidence for Judas’s betrayal. I have been doing this because distinguishing between conclusions and evidence is such a vital thing to do in any rational discipline and the fact that no one is willing to do it in historical Jesus studies is stunning. It still takes my breath away. If we do not face up to this catastrophic failure of Gospel scholarship, we will get nowhere.

Here are some of the things in the Gospels which can be considered as evidence because they are potentially observable, that is, if they happened and if we traveled back in time: Judas kissing Jesus, Judas leaving the Passover table, Judas returning, Roman soldiers in tow (from John 18:3), Judas and Jesus communicating before Judas leaves.

The peculiar thing about all this evidence is how ambiguous it is. None of it necessarily points in a negative direction. Each piece could have an innocent explanation. I present the true solution in my books (True Jew is the more recent one and much shorter), but here I will present another hypothesis, which is ultimately incorrect, but it shows how constricted has been scholarly thinking in its failure to consider all the possibilities.

Suppose Judas left the table to buy more food for the seder or to give to the poor. John 13:29 reports that is what some of the disciples thought was going on. On his very innocent mission, someone recognizes Judas as a member of Jesus’s group, or perhaps Judas runs into Roman soldiers looking for Jesus. Maybe some of these people followed Judas back to the group’s lodging or they dragged him back. Frightened by what is transpiring, Judas embraces Jesus out of concern for his safety.

I will not here go into any detailed explanation of why this is ultimately wrong and how an even better theory does work. That’s for my books. What I will say here is that this simple theory explains all the evidence I listed above. Of course, so does the theory of betrayal. That is what I mean by the ambiguity of the evidence. The evidence is ambiguous precisely because two opposed, or nearly opposed, theories can explain the same evidence. That is what is so fascinating about the evidence concerning Judas—the potentially observable stuff, not the conclusions. The fact is that none of it points in a definite direction.

It is amazing that when it came to evidence, they had only ambiguous things to report. It also easily explains how some of these things, originally quite innocent, came to be perceived in a negative way for Judas. Perhaps nothing malicious was intended towards Judas. It may have been a case of misperceptions.  I will leave things there for the moment.

© 2020 Leon Zitzer


Saturday, December 28, 2019

ACCUSATION IS NOT PROOF 


Is it wrong to belabor a point? Some things are worth obsessing over, some not so much. I am stupefied that so many scholars consider that a piece of evidence which shows someone was once accused of doing something is also evidence that he actually did it. With the swiftness of a bullet, they leap from one to the other. Such a mindboggling leap makes it hard not to write about it over and over again.

Of course, I am talking about Judas once more. The reason why scholars treat the accusation of traitor at Luke 6:16 as a piece of evidence against Judas is because they know there is so little evidence against him (indeed, none) that if this verse were excluded, there is either nothing else or so little against him that the case falls apart, and not just falls apart, but entirely so. All the logicians in the land could not put this case back together again.

If all the good rules of logic and law and science, and yes, morality, undermine your case, what else is there to fall back on but immoral rules? And what is more immoral than to use an accusation to prove the truth of an accusation?

Putting a man in handcuffs is not evidence he is guilty. Reading the charges against him is not evidence of guilt. Nor is pelting him with eggs or pelting him with epithets. You can no more prove a man is guilty of betrayal by calling him a traitor than you can prove guilt of murder by calling him a murderer. If it is a good rule of evidence to follow in a court of law, it is a good rule in historical study. Name calling is not evidence let alone proof.

An accusation standing alone is more likely to be the result of malice or honest misperception. Accusations need facts to back them up, details to put meat on the bare bones. Without backup evidence, accusations are worthless for proving anything other than that the accusation was made.

Some will argue that it is different for historical problems. All the records of history are evidence. But history is not an exceptional subject demanding exceptional rules. The same logic and morality apply as are applied in other fields. An accusation recorded in a historical document tells us that once upon a time, such accusation was made. That is all it proves. It does not prove the accusation was correct. The accusation all by itself does not prove whether someone based this on observable details or whether he misperceived certain events or whether someone just maliciously lied. Clear thinking requires that all these possibilities be evaluated.

Rather than fight for this clarity of thought, New Testament scholars fight for the principle that an accusation once made and maintained for thousands of years shall not be overthrown.  Is that how we want to live as human beings? Is this any way to learn about the past?

© 2019 Leon Zitzer



Saturday, October 26, 2019

THINKING CAREFULLY AIN’T EASY—WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES 


At the risk of belaboring a point, I am going to return to one small piece of what I have been talking about for the last two posts, but from a slightly different angle.

Luke 6:16 is the only place in all the Gospels where the word traitor is used to describe Judas. If you asked most people, including scholars, whether this is a piece of evidence for the theory that Judas betrayed Jesus, they would automatically say yes. If I then asked whether it could be evidence for any other hypothesis, most people, including scholars, would be puzzled. They would scratch their heads and ask, what else could it be evidence for? Luke 6:16 may not be proof positive of Judas’s guilt, but it is a piece of evidence in that direction. The use of ‘traitor’ points to the fact of his betrayal, and that’s all there is to it.

But there’s always so much more when studying history. I can think of two other hypotheses that ‘traitor’ could be evidence for. One is that Judas was falsely (i.e., maliciously) accused of betraying Jesus. That hypothesis would certainly explain how he came to be tagged with the label of traitor. The other hypothesis is that he was mistakenly accused of betrayal, based on misperceptions of the meaning of some of these events. For example, he embraced Jesus not as a way to identify him, but out of genuine love and fear for his safety when Roman soldiers unexpectedly showed up. And maybe he left the table to get more food for the feast (see John 13:29), and had no knowledge of what the authorities were doing, it was just a bad coincidence that these things happened at the same time. It would be easy to misperceive these actions as evil and would also explain how the label of traitor came to be applied.

Assuming your own conclusions is not a good way to study history. Assuming only one hypothesis is possible, when there are other legitimate possibilities is a way to railroad the study of history in one direction only. The label ‘traitor’ could be evidence for Judas betraying Jesus, but it is not evidence exclusively for that hypothesis. That is the fundamental mistake people make.

The mistake comes from our prejudices. You know what prejudices do for us? They make obvious the things that conform to our prejudices and they hide the obvious quality of whatever defies our biases. So if I say the word traitor at Luke 6:16 is evidence for Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, that is obvious to everyone. But if I say it is also evidence that Judas could have been wrongly accused, that stuns people. That does not seem obvious at all, and yet it is as obvious as the first proposition I stated. It is only our prejudices or preconceptions that say it isn’t so.


The goal of science is to reveal the obvious, especially when the truly obvious is being kept hidden by prejudice.

Strictly speaking, Luke 6:16 calling Judas a traitor is not a piece of evidence at all for what Judas did. It is evidence, I will grant you, but what is it evidence for? It is evidence for what some people thought about him, but we have no idea if they got to their conclusion (a conclusion, not a fact) because there were facts to support it, or because someone made a false charge about him, or because some people jumped to a wrong conclusion based on ambiguous facts.

That people are puzzled when you ask what other hypotheses could explain a piece of evidence is a sign of how limited our thinking is. It is not easy to think clearly and carefully precisely because we let our preconceived conclusions guide us at every step of the way. And when we encounter ambiguous evidence in history, we really ought to stop and think about alternative hypotheses.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer



Tuesday, September 24, 2019

CONCLUSIONS AND FACTS, AGAIN 


I realize now what a common problem it is in all sciences—how often everyone confuses facts and conclusions. They used to do it in anthropology all the time, taking their conclusions about the inferiority of certain peoples and passing them off as facts. It still goes on today. Also, consider how many people today argue that evolution is a fact. A theory can never be a fact. A theory is a conclusion, but not a fact. It can be well-established, maybe the most well-established theory ever devised, but that does not convert it into a fact.

A theory or conclusion is a kind of window onto the world of facts, but the window must never be taken as a fact itself. It is merely a vantage point for viewing the facts. The possibility must always remain open that one day, someone will come up with a better vantage point.

Because of the importance of this, I will let stand my last post in August as my post for this month as well. I might even use it, as I indicated, as a new introduction for my book True Jew. See below for the August post. But I will offer here a summary of what the previous post was about:

To sum up where we are thus far: If a defendant is brought into the courtroom in handcuffs, that is not evidence of his guilt. If he is covered in eggs, having been pelted with them by a crowd outside, that too is not evidence he is guilty. If the crowd is heard chanting “Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!”, that cannot count as evidence either. If the prosecutor repeatedly shouts “Traitor!” in his opening or closing statements, that also proves nothing. All these things are evidence as to the mindset of the jailers, the crowd, the prosecutor, the scholars, the theologians, and anyone else who inflicts damage with epithets, but none of it is evidence for the guilt of the accused. And if the chant is kept up for 2,000 years, it still has no probative value. Using the accusation of traitor to prove a betrayal happened reveals much about scholars but tells us nothing about the original events that took place two millennia ago.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

SEPARATING FACTS FROM CONCLUSIONS 


The following is a little longer than I usually post because I am thinking of making this the new introduction to my book True Jew. This will be a new Chapter One. My hope is that it will make things crystal clear. I am repeating some thoughts I posted in my June blogpost. The first line below, or something like it, will be the chapter title.

Some necessary thoughts (14 to be exact) to bring clarity to a very confused field:

Thought #1: The rules of scientific thinking are the same wherever you go. It doesn’t matter what field of study you are involved in. No field gets to make up its own unique rules, and when scholars or scientists do such a thing, it is usually because they want to reach preconceived conclusions. Unique rules lead to prejudiced outcomes. Historical Jesus scholarship in particular cannot invent its own rules and dismiss scientific method. There is one goal for all sciences: To be clear in the first place about what the evidence is, and then to be just as clear about what the evidence says or means, and what it doesn’t say or mean. Clarifying the evidence and the various theories explaining the evidence is the whole point and the only point of science.

Thought #2: Here are two examples of scientific rules. First, separate the facts from the conclusions or theories. Do not try to pass off a conclusion or accusation or theory as a fact. Judas betraying Jesus is a theory, not a fact. So too is Jewish leaders plotting against Jesus. These are conclusions or accusations that someone reached once upon a time (see Thought #11 below), but they are not data. To put it another way, you cannot use an accusation to prove the truth of the accusation. For proof, you need to see if there is any real evidence to support the accusation. I will get back to this distinction numerous times in this book.

Second, if a theory is not doing a good job at explaining a set of facts—that is, if the facts are still left in considerable confusion—TRY ANOTHER THEORY. (Hello? Is anybody listening?) Historical Jesus scholars keep spinning various versions of the one theory that Jewish leaders persecuted Jesus—they took the lead going after him, or they played a subordinate role in cooperating with Rome, or they held a full-blown trial to condemn him, or they held a preliminary hearing—all being versions of Jewish leaders taking hostile action against Jesus, and the evidence still does not add up. Maybe we should try another way to look at this.

Thought #3: There is a lot of evidence in the Gospels and Acts, and some in the letters of Paul. There is a mix of facts and conclusions, but there are enough facts that it would be surprising if we could not find some clear answers. The Gospel authors were not con artists and were not obsessed with promoting faith. They were trying to remember, based on oral storytelling, events that really happened. The original story is there in the details, if we care to look for it.

Let’s assume that the Gospel authors were decent historians (I will gladly admit this is an assumption), not perfect but decent, and we might even allow that they made some mistakes, but succeeded in being accurate about the majority of details. If we make this assumption, does a clear, sensible story, explaining almost all of the evidence, begin to emerge from the Gospels? The answer is yes.

Thought #4: Judge Judy. The People’s Court with Judge Marilyn Milian. Watch these shows. You could learn a lot about the search for truth. Hard, objective truth. You say you don’t like TV and the personalities that bloom on TV? I didn’t ask you to like them. I asked you to pay attention. Like them, don’t like them, as long as you’re paying attention. It used to bother me when these judges got hot under the collar and made their dislike of certain litigants obvious. But with their emotions also comes clear thinking. They are capable of separating conclusions from facts, which is what any good historian should do. (Examples from their shows coming up in Thought # 9.)

Thought #5: Passion is good. Without it, there is no discovery of objective truth. Truth demands passion, not neutrality. We need emotions to see things accurately and to assess the value of each piece of data. A totally detached point of view, if there is even such a thing, cannot assess anything. If you are not passionate in your search and passionate about your beliefs, you’re not on to anything. Without emotions, you will discover zilch. And if you do manage to discover a little something, it won’t be objective. Without emotions, you will not see the importance or lack of importance of anything. Instead, under the false guise of cool detachment, your subjective biases will surreptitiously guide every step you take.

Thought #6: Of course, passions can also screw up the search for truth. Some people use emotions to inflame prejudices, hatred, and fear. But emotions can also be used to inspire goodness, equality, and justice. How do we distinguish which emotions are helping and which are hurting us? In any field of scholarship, there is a fairly easy answer to this. When emotions reveal more facts and more hypotheses, they are good. When emotions are used to cover up facts and hypotheses, they are bad. There is no such thing as a cool pose which will deliver the truth. Coolness is a lie and a way to disguise the emotions rumbling beneath the surface. We need more light, always more light. Bring everything to light, more light on the facts, on the conclusions, and on the emotions too and how they operate. Emotions can give us light because they pick out what is significant, but they can also be used to bury things. Emotions serve two purposes:  They give us light or they can give us darkness. The emotions that give us more light are good.

Thought #7: The basic purpose of seeking more light is to make all deception, including self-deception, impossible or at least very difficult. The more light we shine on the evidence—all the evidence and all the possible explanations—the more unlikely it is we will deceive ourselves. This is what good scholarship requires. This is the ultimate goal of all science: Make deception impossible. The more honest we are about how the search for truth proceeds, the more we will be able to expose deception. It is that simple.

Thought #8: Do not deny any emotions you have when you’re trying to find the truth. Don’t push them away. Lay them bare, wrestle with them, and you will come a lot closer to objectivity than if you pretend to coolness and neutrality.

Thought #9: When it comes to those TV judges, their best gift to us is that they bring clarity to confused testimony. They separate conclusions (offered by litigants and witnesses) from the facts. Emotions can help in that process.

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. (I’m recounting all this from memory, so I won’t swear these are all verbatim quotes.) 

He was frustrated and could only say they were threatening him and his friends. Judge Judy would not accept that either. I was getting frustrated too. I could not understand what she wanted. He told you they were hostile, why isn’t that a fact he is relating? Finally, she took pity on him (and me) and helped him out by asking, “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, not 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. 

A fact is something offered as a piece of data. By fact, I don’t mean that it is necessarily true. I only mean it is potentially observable. You cannot observe someone being hostile. What is observable are the details making up the accusation or conclusion of hostility. That is the evidence we want to home in on. If the conclusion of hostility is taken as a fact, that only messes up the search for what really happened. We don’t know specifically how the witness came to that conclusion. It becomes a premature conclusion. In Judge Milian’s case, we will never get to the conversation that occurred on the phone if we just accept the secretary’s conclusion as a fact. 

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. Maybe she got it from a third party. We will never know unless we force the witness to be specific. “The doctor was unhappy” is inadmissible in a court of law because it does not give us any concrete facts to go on. The second proposition 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 or data their conclusions were based on. Unfortunately, many scholars try to make up for our lack of knowledge by taking the conclusions as facts, so it looks like we have something solid to go on.

Thought #10: 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. If they don’t assume it is true, at least they assume the diarist has offered us a fact. In reality, it is a conclusion the diarist has recorded and we ought to pause to wonder what happened to the facts that could support or refute this conclusion. 

There are three hypotheses that could explain the diarist’s statement. But the first thing to pay attention to and that cannot be emphasized enough is that “hostile manner” is not a fact. It is a conclusion or even an accusation. We could say that it is a fact that the diarist drew this conclusion, but the conclusion is not a fact in itself. Certain things need to be said again and again because we need to be ultra-clear about this. The distinction between conclusions and facts is one of those things that need to be drilled in, so that we can begin to see what it means to think clearly and carefully about history. Treating a conclusion as if it were a fact is a misdirection and it is used to promote deception. It’s a magic tragic that works far too often. 

The three hypotheses to explain the appearance of this conclusion in the colonist’s diary are as follows. Number 1 is that it is true, the Natives really were hostile and that means they made certain gestures and shouted specific words in one language or another, which would be the facts we really need to understand what happened. Number 2 is that “hostile” resulted from the colonist misperceiving the meaning of the Natives’ gestures, etc. And number 3 is that the colonist outright lied in his diary, for example, in order to cover up a wanton massacre. 

The possibility of a misperception may have some nuances. It may have been an honest and unfortunate misperception. Or it may have been fueled by greed; the colonist may have preprogrammed himself to misperceive the Natives’ actions in order to justify the massacre and stealing all the Indigenous land. But the mere conclusion of hostility recorded in the diary is not a fact and is of no help whatsoever in figuring out what happened. We need the real facts. Conclusions do not help us get there. Using a conclusion or accusation to prove the truth of the conclusion or accusation is circular reasoning, it is illogical, it is very confused thinking and serves to confuse us by offering us a misdirection, and it is immoral to boot. 

All the above hypotheses have to be considered. Assuming that only the first is possible is simply bad reasoning and it would be bad in any field of study. What we have in many fields of historical study 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. 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 relying on conclusions, not hard evidence.

Thought #11: Now I can make some general observations about the story of Judas in the Gospels. When we examine the verses very closely, we can see that there are some conclusions being offered and some facts (data that could have been observed if we traveled back in time). On the whole, scholars have shown little concern to separate the two. Traitor (which accusation appears only once and it’s made by the author of the Gospel of Luke) is a conclusion or accusation, not a fact. The facts, if any, would be the details that support the accusation. We want unambiguous details, if at all possible, and it is precisely unambiguous details that are missing 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 facts we do have (e.g., Judas leaves the table and returns with soldiers, he went to see the priests, no one at the time levels the accusation of traitor at him, and a few more), they are all highly ambiguous—that is, they are consistent with more than one hypothesis, and in particular, they are consistent with the hypothesis that Judas was an innocent man falsely accused of being a traitor. I will go over this in more detail in the next chapter. 

Stating a conclusion is like charging someone with a crime. Merely charging someone is not the same thing as proving that the person committed the crime. The charge is not evidence, no matter that the charge is ancient and has been made for a very long time. Slapping the label of traitor on Judas is like slapping handcuffs on him. It proves nothing, even if the handcuffs were fashioned centuries ago. The passage of time, voices intoning the gravity of the charge, the endless repetition of it—all these things cannot make up for the failure to present evidence. A good judge will so instruct the jury and the court will be grateful if the jury remains faithful to these instructions. 

The conclusion or charge that Judas betrayed Jesus is like the case of the hostile Natives in the example of the colonist’s diary I gave above. There are three hypotheses that could explain how this conclusion came to be recorded: 1) There were a series of facts, actions by Judas and perhaps others, that add up to a betrayal; betrayal then is a correct conclusion; or 2) there were a series of actions that were misperceived as betrayal; or 3) there were no actions or facts to justify the label of betrayal, and so it was offered as a false accusation. My inclination is to believe that there were misperceptions that led to the incorrect conclusion that Judas betrayed Jesus. A similar analysis can be made for the accusation that Jewish leaders plotted against Jesus. 

It is also possible that some combination of these three, especially the last two, occurred. Perhaps someone made an honest mistake in how he viewed some of these events, and maybe someone else added one or two false facts to further the misperception that Judas betrayed Jesus. History may sometimes be messy, but the above three hypotheses are still good guideposts.

Thought #12: The important thing to remember is that betrayal, like hostility, is not a fact, it is not an observable piece of data. It is a conclusion. You cannot observe someone betraying anymore than you can observe someone approaching in a hostile manner. If the betrayal really happened, then there would have to be other pieces of data to support it, but betrayal itself is not observable. What is observable are the facts that make up betrayal, if it happened. And if Judas was innocent (also not an observable fact), there would have to be facts to support that conclusion.
           
Thought #13: Treating betrayal and Jewish leaders plotting against Jesus as if they were facts is merely a clever way to avoid studying history carefully. There are enough facts recorded in the Gospels that will allow us to figure out what happened, as long as we do not screw things up by indiscriminately lumping facts and conclusions together. 

Historical Jesus scholars do not examine the Gospel verses concerning Judas and Jewish leaders with any great degree of care. They simply take the conclusions of traitor and plotting priests that were presented so long ago, recast them as facts, and refuse to look at other hypotheses, especially any that point towards the innocence of Judas and Jewish leaders. An innocent man falsely accused of betrayal and innocent Jewish leaders accused of plotting against Jesus are legitimate hypotheses that have been erased from consideration.

Thought #14: In any study of history, separate the facts (the data, the things that could be observed) from the conclusions and ask yourself three questions: 1) how well do the facts support the conclusions (these conclusions could also be called our theories, hypotheses, or accusations); 2) what other conclusions or hypotheses are possible; and 3) which conclusions do the best job of explaining the data?

That’s 14 clarifying thoughts, which is double 7, which was Mickey Mantle’s number. I am content.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer


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



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