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Sunday, June 29, 2014

FALSE FACTS VERSUS FALSE THEORIES 


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

Thursday, May 29, 2014

HUMANITARIANISM LOST AND FOUND 


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

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A SMALL THOUGHT 


Doing research on Charles Darwin and his historical context has made me realize that there are many humanitarians who have been neglected by academia and, further, that, as far as I know, there are no university courses on the history of humanitarianism. That’s a shame.
 
This got me to wondering what a course on humanitarianism would look like. There would probably have to be multiple courses, broken into time periods or countries or cultures. There is a lot to cover. No one class could do it all. And, of course, attention would have to be paid to why this has never been done before. Why are humanitarians (known as philanthropists in the 19th century) so troubling to us that their existence has to be erased?
 
Naturally, I also found myself wondering what should be presented as the Jewish contribution to this history. There is so much to choose from in ancient Jewish culture. It would be hard to limit oneself. If there was a class covering a wide range of examples from many cultures and only one or two examples could be given from each, I think I would choose to focus on the Mishnah trial rules and that statement in Josephus that our law requires that no man may be condemned to death without a trial by the Sanhedrin (in other words, everyone gets due process).
 
My favorite rule and another part of this Jewish due process was the requirement that death penalty verdicts could not be unanimous. That means at least one judge had to argue for the defendant, thus giving him, in effect, the right to an attorney.
 
But a particular reason why I picked the trial rules as an example of humanitarianism is because at one point, in the midst of discussing the importance of carefully questioning witnesses in murder cases (after all, a man is on trial for his life, and if he is found guilty, not only will he atone with his life, but all future generations that would have come from him are also forfeiting their lives), the rabbis break off and discuss why God began human creation with a single individual. Several reasons are given. One is that it was to remind us that if you destroy one person, you destroy a whole world. Another is so that each person will say to himself that on my account was the world created. Also, no one would be able to say that my father is greater than your father, since we all come from the same ancestor, and this would hopefully help to promote peace between people.
 
The last reason reminds me that the British Aborigines’ Protection Society, founded in 1836, formulated a motto which expresses the same thought: Ab Uno Sanguine (Of One Blood). It was a thought that found a hard time finding a place in the world.
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, March 27, 2014

REZA ASLAN AND THE CULT OF FORGETFULNESS 


In 1968, Australian anthropologist W.E.H Stanner gave a lecture on the radio. The lecture was called “The Great Australian Silence”. It was about the academic and popular failure to confront what colonialism had done to the Aborigines. It was primarily a failure of memory and an inability to deal with the significance of the dispossession of the Aborigines.
 
In his lecture, he said, “Inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent-mindedness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape.” He called this “a cult of forgetfulness” and continued, “We have been able for so long to disremember the aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.”
 
These words are uncannily just as true for Jews or, more precisely, for ancient Jewish culture and the way it is treated in Christian scholarship. New Testament scholars leave out quite a lot about ancient Jewish culture. This cannot be explained by mere absent-mindedness. Misrepresenting ancient Judaism has become a structural matter. Even when scholars say they want to do right by the history of Jewish culture, it has become impossible to remember clearly because theology has structurally altered the landscape of Jewish history. There is an ingrained cult of forgetfulness that is hard to escape.
 
The recent book Zealot by Reza Aslan is no exception. In the post below this, I briefly explained why the theory of Jesus as a Zealot does not hold up. What bothers me even more about Aslan’s book is the sub-title: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. There is precious little of the times—Jesus’s Jewish context—in this book. This makes it like almost every other book on the subject. Aslan does make an effort to be more fair to ancient Jews. He describes the Pharisees as friendly and doubts there was a Jewish trial of Jesus. But it is a minimal effort. He never sees all the evidence in Josephus that Jewish leaders would never cooperate with Romans to get rid of Jews troublesome to Rome.
 
Just as bad, he relies on the usual stereotypes of Judaism. He gives us far too much of the typical trivialization of Jewish culture into a religion of picayune rituals and observances. There are constant references to ‘strict adherence to Torah or the Law,’ as if this were the greatest concern of Jews, as if they measured each other by strictness and literal devotion to the rules. At one point, he calls circumcision and dietary restrictions “basic matters” in Judaism (179).Was there nothing more basic than that? I am sick of this kind of writing about Jewish society. It’s the product of the cult of forgetfulness.
 
Aslan has absolutely no sense of the flexible nature of Torah or its function as a Constitution that served both to battle arbitrary power and to adapt to the needs of the people. One ancient rabbi said that in order to be able to study Torah properly, you had to be as pliable as the reed used for pens to make copies of Torah. Also missing from Aslan’s work are the great constitutional battles the Pharisees fought, which is a tad more important than the friendly nature of Pharisees and perhaps two tads more important than circumcision. Whether it was insisting that a king could be compelled to testify in court or that an aristocrat (the young Herod) should be put on trial for violating an accused person’s right to due process, the Pharisees were doing this 1500 years before the British Parliament was engaged in similar battles with its kings. To neglect one of the most vital things about ancient Jewish culture in favor of the trivial—and every culture has its adornments and practices which may be colorful or not, but they don’t really tell us anything very deep—is an injustice so outrageous, it takes my breath away. We are so used to this in New Testament scholarship and historical Jesus studies that “we are now hard put to keep them [the profound aspects of Judaism] in mind even when we most want to do so,” as Stanner would have said.
 
An equally egregious act of forgetfulness in Aslan’s book comes when he tells us that ancient Jews did not include foreigners or strangers in the idea of neighbor so that they would not have applied “love your neighbor” to them (121-22). What a gross misrepresentation this is.
 
The stranger or immigrant (Hebrew: ger) is mentioned about 36 times in Torah. Jews are bidden not to forget the immigrant, to help or be kind to the immigrant, practice justice towards him, do not do him wrong, keep one law for both native and immigrant, and yes, even to love the immigrant and stranger because Jews were once strangers in a foreign land, so they know what it is like to be mistreated in a foreign country (e.g., Ex 22:21, 23:9; Lev 19:33-34; Deut 27:19). Moses even includes the stranger in the covenant with God. Love of neighbor and love of stranger are actually very near each other in Leviticus. It is a spectacular act of prejudice that anyone could see one and not the other.

Kindness to the stranger is central to the foundational consciousness of Jewish culture. Israel is not a monolithic dream of a homogenous people. It was always about diversity. Pointedly, at no point are the children of Israel commanded to convert the stranger to the single cause of Israel. Their difference is respected.
 
None of this means that native-born and foreigners were absolutely equal in Israel. No culture has achieved that. But as far as respecting the rights of strangers, immigrants, outsiders, ancient Israel did pretty well, even by modern standards.
 
There are many threads in Torah. You can also find some animosity towards foreigners, as is usual in most cultures. I would never argue that Torah is exclusively about one thing. The question for any culture is: What is the whole story? Reslan has left out quite a lot. He just so happens to have left out everything that makes ancient Jews look less provincial and less tribal. There is a method to this madness of forgetfulness. It is not Reslan’s fault. He is participating in a cult that has become standard in academia. He wants to fit right in and he does.
 
It should not be surprising that many gentiles were attracted to Judaism and that Judaism welcomed them. Gentiles could adopt some Jewish customs, without converting all the way, and became partial Jews, or God-fearers, as they were known. Paul owed his success entirely to the gentile God-fearers. They were his first audience. Early Christianity built on Judaism’s appeal to gentiles. But Aslan would have his readers believe that ancient Jewish culture was parochial and tribal, while Christianity was universal. He would have his readers join the cult of forgetfulness.
 
As Stanner said, this kind of forgetfulness is too structural to be a mere accident. While no one person or institution is orchestrating this, academia as a whole is morally responsible for this nonsense and each scholar has to take responsibility for joining this cult or opposing it. Which side are you on, boys and girls, which side are you on?
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, February 27, 2014

THE ZEALOT THEORY 


It is hard to believe that anyone could propose that Jesus might have been a Zealot. If wishes were fishes, my apartment would have one hell of a smell. The Zealot theory smells just as bad. Little to no evidence supports it and important evidence contradicts it.
 
Then again, considering that most New Testament scholarship is about promoting ideological or theological beliefs and not about paying careful attention to the evidence, it really is not all that surprising that some writers think Zealot is a good possibility for Jesus. Most recently, we have Reza Aslan’s Zealot. This is not a review of that book, as I have not read all of it, but it seems he makes the same arguments others have made.
 
Proponents of this idea like to point out that two swords are mentioned in connection with Jesus’ group and that some of his disciples had suggestive nicknames, like sons of thunder. My response to such evidence is:  Seriously!? Seriously!?  This is incredibly trivial stuff and proves nothing. It does not even tend to prove anything. Not everyone today who carries a gun is a member of gang. Not everyone back then who carried a sword was a rebel. As for names, I would bet that more than half the kids in New York City who style themselves with gangsta names are definitely not gangstas. First century Israel probably had their wannabe Zealots just as we have our wannabe gangstas. These clues in the Gospels amount to nothing, certainly nothing solid. They are too ambiguous and could point to very different realities.
 
More importantly, one major piece of evidence contradicts the thesis that Jesus was a Zealot:  He alone was arrested and executed by the Romans. There are no other cases of the Romans treating a rebel like this. In every case we have of the Romans going after a rebel leader, at the same time they also kill a number of his followers. With Jesus, they arrest only him and leave his group alone. It is impossible to believe that Jesus was a Zealot and the Romans would behave like this. Having scanned Aslan’s book very carefully, but not closely read all of it yet, I cannot see any sign that he has addressed this problem. If I am wrong about that, I apologize.
 
Exaggerate the trivial and suppress the significant, and you can prove anything. I could prove that Jesus was an alien from another planet. There is a better case for that than for Jesus as a Zealot.
 
© Leon Zitzer 2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

THE GOSPELS VERSUS TRADITION 


I was recently startled to see that some of the people leaving comments on my Amazon review of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus believe that if I challenge the traditional story of how Jesus died, I must be arguing that the Gospel authors were liars. These people are assuming that the Gospel version and the traditional version are the same. In fact, they are not. The traditional story rides roughly over the full Gospel accounts, selecting a few details to fashion its vision and erasing a lot of others that point in another direction. I believe the Gospel authors were basically truth tellers who got many of the details right, possibly most, but changed a few (a very few). Tradition made even more radical changes.
 
At this point, I think it would be a good idea to list a few of the more notable differences between the two:
 
TRADITION: Judas betrayed Jesus. No ambiguity about it.
THE GOSPELS: Almost everything about Judas in all four Gospels is ambiguous. That includes the Greek word used to describe his deed, paradidomi. The Greek word for betray is prodidomi. None of the Gospels use this. Many scholars tell us that paradidomi simply means to deliver or convey with no connotation of betrayal whatsoever. Some scholars argue that betray is a secondary meaning of paradidomi, but no scholar, not even the most conservative, will claim it is the primary meaning. That makes its use in the Gospels highly ambiguous at the very least. That goes for almost all the other details about Judas. Nothing about him is clearly negative. The negative characterization of him in later tradition is all exaggerated spin. The original story is murky.
 
TRADITION: Jewish leaders condemned Jesus to death. It is very simple with no qualifications.
THE GOSPELS:  Luke does not have this, nor does John. Luke is also the author of Acts in which Paul says that Jewish leaders found nothing worthy of death in Jesus. The only place where something like the pronouncement of capital punishment appears is in the accounts of Mark and Matthew which are almost identical. But there, the announcement that Jesus deserves death is not accompanied by any explanation of according to whom does he deserve this, nor is it described as a judicial sentence. Mark/Matthew does not tell us if this was according to Jewish law or Roman law. Paul’s statement in Acts would preclude Jewish law and a Jewish death penalty.
 
TRADITION: Pilate offers the crowd a choice of freeing either Jesus or Barabbas, a criminal.
THE GOSPELS: This is where the Gospels and tradition are closest, but even here, there are some differences. Pilate does appear to be offering the crowd a choice in all the Gospels (except possibly in Luke; the oldest copies of this Gospel do not have a verse relating that Pilate offers the crowd a choice). But only Luke and John present Barabbas as a criminal. Mark and Matthew do not identify him as such or state his crime. Also, Matthew calls this freeing of prisoners a custom (which no historical source confirms), but there are early manuscripts of Mark in which he seems to reporting this as a one-time event. The full Gospel story leaves the reason for Barabbas’ release in some ambiguity. This should make us suspicious that a Jewish crowd ever called on Pilate to crucify Jesus, a rabbi (a historically unlikely event to begin with).
 
What does all this add up to? The Gospels give us reason to doubt the traditional story. Since many people, not only Jesus’ followers, would have been discussing these events at the time they happened, the Gospel authors had to have accurately preserved many details, otherwise no one would have believed their version. But Jewish leaders persecuting Jesus and Judas betraying him are not good explanations of these details. If Judas betrayed Jesus, why not just use the right word for this? If Barabbas was a criminal, why don’t Mark and Matthew say so? If Jewish leaders tried Jesus and condemned him to death, why don’t Luke and John clearly tell it this way? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. There has to be a better theory to account for all this.
 
There must have been a Judas and a Barabbas and a meeting between Jewish leaders and Jesus, but none of these things have quite the anti-Jewish spin in the Gospels that the traditional version gives them. It is possible to draw a much better theory of the original, historical event out of the Gospel story. That’s what my books are for.
 
© 2014 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A CHALLENGE 


In a way, I feel like the post below this is the last word. Protest. What else can I say after that? Until people protest the lies that are told about this history, there is no point in saying anything else. You can uncover all the great evidence you want, but if people are content to let the traditional theory stand, unsupported by any solid pattern of evidence, further discovery is meaningless.
 
By protest, I do not mean just complaining that blaming ancient Jewish leaders for the death of Jesus is a calumny on Jewish culture. It is a calumny, that is true, but the constant repetition of this does no good. It is absolutely meaningless to keep repeating that Jewish leaders have been unfairly blamed unless you back this up with evidence. The supporters of the traditional theory of how Jesus died are not at all bothered by general protests because they know that without a presentation of evidence, the traditional theory will always win by default. It is important to protest that the evidence has been messed up by scholars and to remind everyone that the evidence in the Gospels tells us that Jewish leaders tried to save Jesus from a Roman execution.
 
I just want to add an interesting challenge, if anyone could arrange this.  Some of the best writing I have ever seen on scientific reasoning can be found on the TV detective shows.  I am thinking of shows like Monk, The Closer, The Mentalist, Elementary, Numbers, probably all the CSI shows but especially CSI NY and the original CSI, currently with Ted Danson.  The writers of these shows really get scientific method. 
 
Here is one rule of science you will occasionally see demonstrated on these shows:  If a theory does not explain the evidence well, try another theory.  New Testament scholars are stuck on one theory, no matter how many contradictions in the evidence. On these detective shows, if the evidence does not fit someone’s theory that one particular suspect committed the crime, somebody will suggest that they go over the evidence again and try another theory, look for another suspect. But NT scholars never do this. They just keep spinning the same theory of Jewish hostility towards Jesus in different ways, even though none of them explains the evidence.
 
Here is my suggestion:  If a dozen writers from these shows read my book True Jew, I am willing to bet that an overwhelming majority would fully approve.  The reason I say a majority and not all of them is because one never knows when prejudices might appear in an otherwise rational person. Not just religious prejudices, but atheistic ones too (atheists constantly deny there is any history in the Bible). Barring that, I am sure most of these writers would realize I have given an evidentiary, rational argument that is hard, if not impossible, to beat. 
 
One never knows who might be reading a blog like this one.  I don’t place high hopes on a TV writer coming across this blog, but one never knows. If more people took an interest in this, maybe we could begin to get rid of the influence of theology and ideology in historical study. Maybe it could be the beginning of the end of the obnoxious lies that are told about ancient Jewish culture. It won’t happen until enough people take an interest in the evidence and see for themselves what happened.
 
And people will discover some amazing things. Like, for example, the historical truth about how Jesus died is not a threat to Christianity, it is a great boon. And Jews don’t have to live in constant fear that Jewish culture will always be denigrated. But these are consequences. The main thing is to get back to the root of it.
 
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

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