Wednesday, January 27, 2016


This may get boring to people and somewhat humiliating for myself (what would my life be without a lot of humiliation?), but every so often I have to repeat my appeal to TV writers of crime dramas. They understand scientific method better than anyone else. They know what it means to speak truth to power which is what their detective creations are often called upon to do. Could we please pay attention to the evidence and not go after someone for ideological reasons or emotional reasons? That is scientific method in a nutshell.

All the TV detectives I have seen know that a fundamental rule of science is that if a theory is not explaining the evidence very well, then for pity’s sake, TRY ANOTHER THEORY!

In historical Jesus studies, no one does that. Everyone knows that “Jewish leaders prosecuting Jesus or helping Rome to prosecute Jesus” does not explain the evidence in the Gospels. Never mind that it also doe not fit the Jewish historical context. Nothing in the Gospel accounts (of what happened on Jesus’ last night) resembles a Jewish trial. But instead of trying a different theory, scholars just try spinning the old theory in new ways. So they will try: Well, maybe Jewish leaders held a hearing, not a trial, and maybe it was a preliminary hearing for the Roman trial. But this is the same old idea of a Jewish procedure hostile to Jesus, dressed up to sound new. This does not explain the evidence any better BECAUSE IT IS JUST THE SAME THEORY of hostility and persecution by Jewish leaders. It does not work any better than the previous spin on this ancient idea. 

Never mind that ancient Jewish culture did not hold hearings and never, ever helped Rome prosecute Jews. It seems to be too much to ask scholars to pay very close to Jewish context.

Maybe try a truly different theory. Like: Jewish leaders trying to help Jesus and save him from a Roman execution. That would explain why the details in the Gospels resemble an informal hearing more than a trial. And it explains a whole lot more, like the details concerning Judas. His story is so ambiguous. No one would tell the story of a traitor that way. The ambiguities can more easily be explained if he was helping Jesus.

I realize I am laying down only broad hints here.  The full case for everything is presented in my two books. True Jew is more recent and shorter. Think of me as Brenda Leigh Johnson or Adrian Monk or any of the CSI detectives or the new Sherlock Holmes. I am just going after the most reasonable theory that will explain all the evidence without mental acrobatics.

There is another way to look at this. And I am hoping that some TV writer will be intrigued enough to take a look at either one of my books.  Links are at the right.

Thanks so much, and have a lovely, crime-free day.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

Monday, December 28, 2015


In the post below, I called the Catholic Church’s 1974 “Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews” the best document it has ever produced on this subject. It is so good that it is most often ignored. But there is one thing missing from it. It implies this at certain points but it never comes straight out and says what has needed to be said for a long time: Jews have a different, and more original, relationship to Hebrew scripture than we do, and this must be respected.

It does say, “Dialogue demands respect for the other as he is; above all, respect for his faith and his religious convictions.” As a general statement, that is certainly fine. But this would have been an opportune moment to comment on the fact that for Christians, both the people at large and leading theologians and intellectuals, this has been difficult to do in their understanding of Jews precisely because Jews read the Hebrew scriptures differently than Christians do. The document should have entreated Catholics to specifically respect the Jewish relationship with scripture.

Further on, “Guidelines” refers to the Old Testament as retaining something of “its own perpetual value” but then implies that some parts of the old scripture have been “cancelled by the later interpretation of the New Testament.” It tries not to stress this, but it clearly cannot let go of proclaiming that the New Testament fulfills promises made in the previous scripture. It does go on to correct the false idea that Hebrew scripture and the Jewish tradition founded on it have been wrongly accused of being “a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor.”

On the other hand, “Guidelines” tries to straddle two positions by proclaiming that Jesus’ teaching had “a profoundly new character” and yet he “took his stand on the teaching of the Old Testament.” The best thing about “Guidelines” is that it teaches that Jews have a valid religion in its own right; their traditions and values must not be mocked. It overthrows old Church teaching that Judaism ended with the destruction of the Temple. It just never confronts the conflict between the ideas that Jews will always have their own relationship to Hebrew scripture and that Christians believe Hebrew scripture has been superseded. Perhaps the conflict can never be resolved. What is needed is a clear statement that the conflict is there and has been used in the past to promote disrespect for Jews.

This reminds me of the problems that would come with later European imperialism. At first, meeting new peoples meant that imperial powers like Britain had to respect the laws and customs of indigenous people. But when Britain realized it had the power to impose itself, it abandoned the idea of two jurisdictions existing side by side. It declared that there would be one jurisdiction for Aborigines and white colonists alike. Even in the case of disputes between Aborigines, only British law would be followed. The Other and his ways had to be erased, not respected. In practice, this almost always meant that Aborigines would be subjected to the punishments meted out by British law, but they would never get the benefits of the law.

I point this out so that we don’t forget that ancient problems never go away. The relationship that the Catholic Church long ago established between Jews and Christians would have repercussions in the colonial era. We are still struggling to recognize it and get over it.

© 2105 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, November 29, 2015


Last month was the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s Nostra Aetate. Only a small part of it was about relations with Jews. I discussed its inadequacies in the post below. I mentioned there that the best document the Church produced on this subject appeared in 1974, nine years after Nostra Aetate. “Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews” was entirely devoted to improving Christian attitudes towards Judaism. It went much further than Nostra Aetate and deserves a separate discussion.

Where Nostra Aetate praised the religious value in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but was silent on the religious worth of Judaism, it now made up for this in “Guidelines”.

The single best statement in that document was this: “The history of Judaism did not end with the destruction of Jerusalem, but rather went on to develop a religious tradition.” To fully appreciate what a revolution lies buried in this statement, you have to know that from the oldest Church Fathers to the present (1974 and even after), Catholic teaching was that Judaism had effectively come to an end with the destruction of the Temple—which destruction signaled that Christianity had taken over. Judaism had become frozen in time for Christians, and now here was the Church in 1974 overturning that in one fell swoop.

Judaism’s religious tradition, according to “Guidelines”, is “rich in religious values.” Jewish scripture and tradition “must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor.” The Jewish soul is “rightly imbued with an extremely high, pure notion of the divine transcendence.” The document encourages Christians “to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of the religious tradition of Judaism; they must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.” It even affirms that there is value in Jewish scripture “that has not been cancelled by the later interpretation of the New Testament.”

“Guidelines” condemns “all forms of anti-semitism and discrimination” both because they harm “the dignity of the human person” and because they harm and ignore “the spiritual bonds and historical links binding the Church to Judaism.” In a footnote, “Guidelines” criticizes the pejorative use of ‘Pharisee’ and ‘Pharisaism’, but I have to wonder how much has been done to actually correct this.

Of course, there are some comments that would be objectionable to Jews (such as to the effect that the New Testament brings out the full meaning of Jewish scripture), but the remarks I have quoted are more abundant and more representative of what “Guidelines” stands for.

One of the most curious things in “Guidelines” is that it does not quite correctly quote Nostra Aetate’s statement about not blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. It leaves out the part where it is said that “Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ.” There are two things that can be said about this interesting omission. One is that the authors of “Guidelines” possibly wanted to make Nostra Aetate’s confession grander and purer than it was (Jews were not to blame, period! No ifs, ands, or buts about it!, which is what many of us wish Nostra Aetate had said). The other is that “Guidelines” seems to have implicitly recognized that blaming Jewish leaders and some wide contingent around them for the death of Jesus is still an offensive remark to make about Jewish culture; hence, they left it out. It is also historically untrue, but I doubt that the authors of “Guidelines” had that in mind.

Besides that, my other criticism of this best of all Catholic documents on Christian relations with Jews is the early reference to the fact that “the gap dividing them [Christianity and Judaism] was deepened more and more, to such an extent that Christian and Jew hardly knew each other.” There is a similar reference to a gap 24 years later in the Church’s 1998 “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”. What neither document does is give any thought to who and what was responsible for creating that gap. One major contribution was made, and is still made, by the Church’s failure to explore and present Jesus’s full Jewishness. It is a frightening subject to many people (both Christians and Jews) and it helps to create that gap between Jew and Christian. Nothing has changed on that score.

One can wonder how much has been done to fulfill the best parts of the “Guidelines” but there is no denying that it set a high ideal to live up to.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate. NPR remembered it as a revolutionary document that radically changed Jewish-Christian relations. NPR also said this proclamation absolved Jews of the charge of killing Jesus. Nostra Aetate actually did not use the language of absolution and quite right that it did not. It would be absurd to absolve a people or an individual of something they never did. It is also not quite right to say that it exonerated Jews, as I will explain below.

Nostra Aetate was actually a very weak statement and not very revolutionary, unless you regard going from doing absolutely nothing to a tiny, tiny effort at improvement as a revolution. This is not a judgment in hindsight. Complaints were made at the time by liberal Catholics that it did not go far enough. In particular, they lamented that a previous draft had said Jews cannot be accused of having committed deicide, but that word was removed from the final version. Conservatives had objected that such a statement could be read as implying that Jesus was not the son of God.

There were two main things that were seriously wrong with this Catholic effort at reconciliation between Jews and Christians. It has to be remembered that the part having to do with Jews was a small part of its purpose. The full title of the document was “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”. Jews were not the main issue. In correcting its relations to other religions, Nostra Aetate sang the praises of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. They may not be Christians, but they have wonderful ideas about God and life.

And what did Nostra Aetate have to say about the goodness of Judaism? Absolutely nothing. Not one word of praise. That is the first thing that made this declaration so weak regarding Jews. The contrast to how it treated other religions is startling. There must have been complaints about this because nine years later in “Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews” (Dec. 1, 1974), the Catholic Church made up for the deficiency in Nostra Aetate. Here, Judaism is praised and respect is shown for Judaism’s independent relationship with God.

Between the two, the 1974 “Guidelines” is far more revolutionary than Nostra Aetate, yet it hardly ever receives attention. That just goes to show that true revolutions are often ignored, while inferior efforts are exaggerated out of all proportion to what was actually accomplished. I don’t deny that 1965 marked a change, but it was not because of Nostra Aetate, it was rather because liberal Catholics and liberal Jews incorrectly promoted Nostra Aeatate as doing more that it did and made it out to be some sort of full scale apology which it was not.

The second thing that was deeply wrong with Nostra Aetate concerns what it actually said about Jews and the death of Jesus. It is typically misquoted by quoting it out of context. Even the “Guidelines” misquoted the document on this point. Nostra Aetate does say that Jews today and all Jews in the time of Jesus cannot be blamed for “the crimes committed during his passion.” But it introduces this by firmly declaring, “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ …” In other words, the Church was affirming its right to blame some Jews for Jesus’s execution, and not just some, but apparently a wide contingent (how wide is left vague) who followed the leaders.

That is the part that most people, including those who authored the 1974 “Guidelines”, leave out when they quote Nostra Aetate. And since in most societies we regard the leaders as representing the culture, then ancient Jewish culture, or some important aspect of it, is still being blamed in Nostra Aetate. That’s not much of an exoneration. And it ignores how much Gospel evidence there is that makes the case against Jewish leaders or any other Jews for complicity in the death of Jesus a very bad case.

What Nostra Aetate stands for is the idea that Church officials will never let go of the traditional story of Jesus’s death; the only thing it will do is not extend the blame to all Jews. The Church would have done a lot better to have retracted all the false things it has said over the centuries about ancient Jewish culture, taken responsibility for having created these stereotypes about Jews and Judaism and for having fomented bad feelings about Jesus’s people and culture, and perhaps above all, encouraged continued study of the New Testament to get to the bottom of what happened to Jesus. It should have admitted that there is no consistent pattern of evidence in the Gospels blaming any Jews for his demise. Therein lies the beginning of a real revolution.

© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Friday, September 25, 2015


[This month I am posting the same brief essay on my other blog on Darwin's racism.]

One of the worst things we ever did was invent the word religion. There is no such thing as religion. There are only cultures, which is a broader and looser term, much less loaded with preconceptions than religion is. By inventing this word, we have set up a bogus conflict between religion and science, and we have prevented ourselves from facing the real issues.
Call something a religion and we make assumptions about its beliefs about God and life. We automatically assume that it teaches God is all-knowing and all-powerful. We assume all religions believe God dictates and man’s duty is to obey; and when he doesn’t, God punishes. But anyone who reads the Torah honestly would have to admit that none of this accurately captures its depictions of God and human beings. There, the relationship between man and God is hardly ever straightforward.
I would not call the frequent debates, for example between God and Moses or God and Abraham, a simple matter of God proclaiming and man obeying. Sometimes God learns from them. He agrees to debating what truth is instead of proclaiming it. He accepts Moses confronting him about an appropriate punishment for Miriam and, in fact, reduces a lifetime of leprosy for Miriam to seven days. There is an implication that God makes or is capable of making mistakes. He agrees to reason with Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. He practically begs Abraham to teach him. None of this fits what religious dogma is supposed to say about who God is and what he wants.
A better description of ancient Jewish culture, like other cultures, is that it wrestles with the existential problems of life. Existential problems never change. They are there in so-called religious culture and they are there in scientific culture. That’s what we should pay attention to, that’s what ails us, and not the manufactured, bogus conflict between religion and the secular. Existential dilemmas, often the exact same ones, remain in every culture, and calling them secular or religious does not change a thing. Verbal gamesmanship never solves anything.
The existential themes of life have been around forever. The ancients were as much concerned with them as we are. They were just as sophisticated, just as rational, just as historical, just as sensible and foolish as we are in attempting to figure out what is what. We are not superior. We have nothing over them. They too struggled to understand human nature, where we fit in the scheme of things, where we come from, and whether we can tolerate diversity or do we have to force everything into one mold. Their answers are comparable to our answers and as good as ours. Their mistakes were just like our mistakes. The grammar of their wrestling with these questions may have been different than ours, but I can assure you that they were no less rational than we were.
It is arrogance to think we secularists or scientists are superior in any way. We are still not sure if we can accept the diversity of human life on this planet or does everyone have to fit the mold of western civilization with all its devotion to technology and consumerism. We have our gods too. We have our Towers of Babel.
Just to switch over to Greek culture for a moment: In the play Ajax by the very ancient Greek writer Sophocles, Ajax enters the scene completely mad. The goddess Athena, visible to the audience but invisible to the human characters on stage, mocks him and enjoys her act of having driven him crazy. But if we pay attention, we realize that Ajax has gone mad because he had always considered himself to be the number one warrior in the world and now he has just lost a contest with Odysseus. For the first time in his life, he is now the second best fighter in the world. His self-image has been shattered. He cannot adjust or bend, so he breaks. He goes mad and then commits suicide. Ajax could not accept that he could be more than one thing.
When Odysseus appears later on, he tries to convince the authorities to give Ajax an honorable burial despite the shame of his suicide. Odysseus, we realize, has the flexibility that Ajax lacked. The rules of tradition are pliable for him. He would rather bend (including bending his attachment to tradition) than break. (I owe this interpretation of Ajax to a great philosophy teacher I had at Queens College in New York, Professor Henry Wolz—one of the great teachers who become more unforgettable as time passes.)
It reminds me that the Talmud points out that copies of Torah are made with the pliable reed, and not a more rigid implement, to teach us that to study and learn Torah you have to be as bendable as that reed (Taanith 20b). Torah in each verse is more than one thing. Only the man or woman who bends can fully appreciate what Torah has to tell us.
I am not here to proclaim that this is the central message of Torah or that love of the stranger and immigrant (alluded to so often in Torah) is the central message. There is no one final lesson. The Bible, like the writings of Darwin or the essays of Wallace or the varied output of Constantine Rafinesque or the plays of Shakespeare or the plays of the Greeks, has no one theme. Any great work has multiple threads running through it. ‘God don’t like empire or oneness’ is one theme of Torah, not the ultimate theme.
The problem of one versus many, autocratic rule (in personal or social life) versus the flexibility of diversity, goes back for ages. We are just as capable as the ancients of letting irrationality intrude into our system of knowledge (science) and they were just as sophisticated as we are in finding rational answers. We are not superior, better, wiser. If Darwin came up short in some respects (in his anthropological opinions of the inferiority of native peoples), it is a far more serious problem that we have come up short in discussing what he said. It is nothing but arrogance to misrepresent his complete views. It is arrogance to treat him or any modern figure as superior to previous accomplishments. If we are serious about defeating arrogance and if we truly (as opposed to hypocritically) believe that this is one of the purposes of science, then we had better learn this—learn it well and learn it fast—that our “advances” are just travels in a circle.
© 2105 Leon Zitzer

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


I have not done this in a while, so I think it is about time to repeat my appeal to writers of TV police and detective dramas: Read my book True Jew, or even the earlier The Ghost in the Gospels, and see if I have not truly solved the problem of how Jesus ended up on a Roman cross. (Links to both books are at right.)
Hints: Jewish leaders did not arrest or prosecute Jesus and turn him over to Rome, and Judas never betrayed him. But those are just the negative parts of the solution; there is a positive answer buried here. Solving historical problems, even with respect to events in the Bible, is exactly like trying to solve a crime and is highly doable, if you have enough evidence.
I make this appeal because no one has a better understanding of the rules of good scientific thinking than writers of TV crime dramas. In fact, they occasionally produce an episode in which they give a demonstration of bad scientific reasoning. What is so interesting about crime dramas, especially tales of homicide, is that they illustrate both why we love science and how (and when) we still misuse it.
In general, we love science when it gives us practical results. We are great at science when we want bridges that won’t collapse, cellphones that won’t drop calls, computers that won’t malfunction, a/c that will continue to pump out cold air, medicines that will heal. We know exactly what it means to pay attention to the evidence, and we do it well because we value inventions that actually work.
Another thing that we usually value (but not always) is solving crimes and bringing culprits to justice. So we are pretty good at employing scientific reasoning to find out the truth: Who really did it and why? For example, we know that one scientific rule is that if a theory is not explaining the evidence very well, then we should try another theory. In homicide investigations, a theory is “So-and-so is the murderer.” They usually have some evidence pointing in one person’s direction.
But in these fictional dramas, the detectives are always running into evidence that their working theory cannot explain. That means the suspect they have in custody is probably the wrong person. So they keep going back to the evidence to see what they are missing. This is science at its best—where evidence always comes first and theories second, ready to be abandoned when they do not account for the evidence.
But unlike the case of technological problems (bridges, cellphones, etc.) where evidence always rules because we need good stuff that works right, in homicides, there is a catch: Sometimes, prejudices and emotions rule (in other words, ideological bias intrudes), and a bad detective will latch onto a suspect regardless of what the evidence says. Even though it is the wrong person, our technology and society will continue to work very well. Nothing will collapse, even if the wrong person is executed.
That’s where the good detective comes in. He or she often runs into flak for questioning the motivations of the bad cop. They have to endure a lot of hostility, sometimes even from their boss, for challenging the way another detective has conducted a case. In the end, good old science will solve the problem and everyone acknowledges that the crime has been solved, but only after the good cop has endured risking his or her career and a lot of other bad shit as well.
This is the same problem in all study of history (a homicide investigation is just an example in miniature of larger historical problems). A bridge will collapse if we don’t do the science right, but what will happen if history is falsified? The general feeling is that nothing bad happens if lies are told about history; society will go on functioning very well. If anyone suffers from history badly told, it is usually minority groups. The majority or people in power often benefit from historical lies, so there is not much incentive to change it (whereas nobody benefits from a bridge that collapses). Any good historical detective who comes along will be maligned until she has to run into a corner and hide.
These TV writers know all this. And I am telling you that New Testament or historical Jesus scholarship is exactly the same. There is enough evidence in the record to solve the problem of how Jesus really came to meet his end, but right now the field is permeated by ideological biases. The basic one is that Jesus is surrounded by Jewish enemies who seek to do him in or at least cooperate with Rome to this end. The evidence for this is paltry at best. Many odd pieces of evidence are left unexplained. This field is a classic case of refusing to consider another theory no matter what the evidence is telling us. Ancient Jewish leaders and Judas are in jail and no one is inclined to let them out.
There is a much better theory that will explain it all. All that is needed is that some people come to the aid of the good cop who is trying so hard to introduce reason and fairness into a field that is sadly lacking in both.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer

Monday, July 13, 2015


[Links to my books on the historical, Jewish Jesus are at the right.]

As I won’t have access to the Internet for about a month, I probably won’t be able to post again until the end of August.  In the meantime, I want to make one additional comment on the post below. As I said there, the Talmud (actually, all of rabbinic lit) is usually presented as a dry, pedantic debate over rules and rituals, while its poetic glories are ignored. There are scholarly tomes that do this, and that creates one kind of harm. But equally harmful, in my view, are the tossed off comments about the Talmud we find in popular writing. It may be mentioned only in passing, but sure enough, it is always the stereotypical Talmud we get. It becomes the accepted and acceptable assumption that no one wants to challenge.
Why is that the prevailing view and why is it so hard to break free from it? I think Agnes Arber gave the best answer and she wasn’t even writing about the Talmud. Arber was a British botanist, in the 1930’s and 40s, I believe. After a lifetime of experiments in plant morphology, she spent her later years as a philosopher of science. At one point, she had this to say:
“[T]he general intellectual atmosphere of any given moment has an effect upon this history [of science] which is compulsive to a humiliating degree. In every period certain classes of beliefs and ideas have been actively distasteful, and even workers of some independence of mind are found to have shrunk from them as if they were tabooed.” But it isn't only in the history of science. The general intellectual atmosphere in any field is compulsive to a humiliating degree.
She went on to say that anyone who glimpsed a fresh point of view has “too often proceeded to turn his back upon it, reverting to the familiar beaten paths, where he could absorb confidence from the reassuring society of his fellow-workers.” We are, she said, “too much bedazzled” by the pressure, or the Zeitgeist, of contemporary scholarship.
She got it so right. The general intellectual atmosphere is compulsive, everybody wants to fit in and belong to the prevailing stream, but only an Agnes Arber would point out that this is so humiliating for anyone who strives for fresh insights. University education is an exercise in humiliation—an exercise in restraining yourself from doing the right thing—and if you accept it and kowtow, you will be honored. But deep inside, you will be ashamed of yourself for abandoning the search for truth.

The humiliation comes from the facts that you have censored yourself, you have agreed to censor yourself, and all this without a gun being pointed to your head. You have succumbed to a system of hidden signals and unspoken commands which created an atmosphere of self-censorship. They got you to do it to yourself, and so more brutal means did not have to be employed. Self-censorship is the most effective form of censorship in the world. It is humiliating to realize that you helped it along and that it led to a more comfortable life.

I remember a guy I once knew who worked in theatrical make-up. I used to ask him a lot questions. One day, he saw me coming and told me, “I hate you. I hate it whenever you come around.” Why?, I asked. He answered, “Because you make me think and I hate thinking.” I wasn’t trying to make him feel bad. I asked questions because I was just curious. Then he smiled, and said maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all. We got along somehow. Maybe what made him so mad was that I reminded him he was restricting his own thinking and no one had forced him to do that, not overtly anyway.

In academia, it is worse. They really hate thinking about the evidence. It is easier to just repeat what everyone knows. To give a fresh look at the evidence can really be such a headache. Why do it, when it is so much easier to give in and stop thinking? Humiliation is not that hard to bear after all. You get used to it.
© 2105 Leon Zitzer

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