Tuesday, March 26, 2019


A new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt, has been published. I have not read it yet, but have read the NY Times review by Brett Stephens (Feb. 3, 2019). The subtitle of her book tells us what her focus will be and apparently she is not interested in historical origins. That certainly is confirmed by Stephens’s review. They can focus on whatever they choose to, but I find it disappointing that every time I come across something about antisemitism, there is a terrific effort made to avoid confronting Christianity’s role in this.

What we get instead is an endless discussion of the various symptoms of racism against Jews, but no search for the cause. For all we know from these many forums, antisemitism is all symptoms, but no cause. It is a unique phenomenon in the annals of medicine, if we understand medical problems to include all social dysfunctions. Antisemitism seems to be the only disease which consists entirely of symptoms, but has no main cause.

Many years ago, I went to a Jewish meeting, about 100 people present, in connection with the anniversary date of some aspect of the Dreyfus Affair in late 19th century France. There was a wide-ranging, lively discussion of all aspects of antisemitism, especially in the here and now, except for one thing. No one ever mentioned Christian antisemitism. I did not even realize what was going on until near the end of this almost hour long meeting. When I did, I raised my hand a few times, but was never called on. It is just as well because now I can report that for the entire meeting no one ever brought up Christianity.

I cannot imagine a group of African-Americans having a meeting about racism and no one ever bringing up white racism. It would be impossible. Only Jews can talk about racism against Jews and never get to the main issue.

It was not always like this. In the 1960s, after the initial shock of the Holocaust had worn off a little, there was plenty of concern over Christianity’s contribution. You can open at random almost any Christian scholarly journal from that time period and you will find an article on Christianity and antisemitism. Attempts were made to dig into this and then the moment passed.

Antisemitism became this disease that free floats in the air, attached to no particular cause, and is simply known by its symptoms, by the various charges made against Jews. In his review of Lipstadt’s book, Stephens concludes that in the main, antisemitism is anti-liberalism. Jews, it seems, are hated for their liberal views on truth, freedom, morality, the law, and more. For certain purposes, that might be helpful, but it is not nearly the whole story. And it is valuable to remind people, as Stephens and Lipstadt do, that it isn’t always the most openly bigoted people who continue the disease of racism in all its forms.

But this almost perfect avoidance of discussing the old charges made by Christians tells me that Jews are afraid of Christians. They are afraid that any direct confrontation with Christians about this will only make antisemitism worse. They are afraid that Christians too easily feel threatened even by something as relatively benign as understanding what makes Jesus Jewish. Jews are somehow a threat to the Christian faith. It leads Jews to be content with letting Christians misrepresent ancient Jewish culture any way they want because Jews don’t want to disturb any aspect of Christian faith. Jesus must have Jewish enemies and Jewish villains are fashioned by Christians to fit that purpose.

Jews do not want to challenge any of this. Remember that the first false conspiracy charge made against Jews was the false claim that Jewish leaders conspired to kill Jesus. It is not a charge that is supported by the Gospels (the accusation comes more from later Christian tradition than from the Gospels), but Jews try to avoid this with all their might. Many Christians, not all, seem to need Jesus to have Jewish enemies, so why disturb that belief? But if this is the source that continues to feed antisemitism—if this is the original virus—then leaving it undisturbed means that antisemitism will eternally return.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer

Tuesday, February 26, 2019


It is a relief to study the facts, in any field, whatever the facts are. In a world with so much injustice in it, so much fear and hatred, it is a huge relief to be able to say: This is what I know. Doing more, like trying to figure out what the facts mean, could be an added bonus, but only as long as we stay close to the facts and do not leap to big conclusions. A good rule to follow in all investigations is to keep it small. I don’t mean that the big issues are out of the question. I just mean we should stay focused on telling the details of the truth and not to be swayed by ideology. Don’t force meaning on the evidence. Let it come naturally.

Maybe this is a selfish way of thinking. When lies have become the standard way of studying history, it is almost a joy to be able to say, Here’s what’s wrong with that. The facts may or may not solve or rectify any injustices. But they can be an escape from the turmoil of the day and that, I admit, is selfish. It’s not all selfishness. The facts also offer some assurance that truth matters. And if you believe that truth leads to justice, then some good has been accomplished by just getting something right.

When I see politicians spewing their hatred, I feel reassured when I surround myself with solid facts. I feel even more reassurance when I see that many others also relish the truth. “We are a nation of immigrants” I hear over and over. And that is true. The fact is that this country was built on immigration. In an early pamphlet, Thomas Jefferson said that the colonies were not created by charters from the king of England, but by the universal right that people have to leave the place where they were born and seek new habitations. Travel and movement were considered basic rights. The great European experts on international law said so. Emigration was seen as natural. That is a historical fact.

That does not mean we are bound by such facts. Societies can change. We can say that what was once accepted policy is no longer what we want to do. The past cannot handcuff  us. But if we are going to change, we should be clear about it and why we want to change.

It was a sound principle in Jefferson’s time that no generation had the right to make laws which are eternally binding and a handicap to future generations. The current generation may decide that it wants to put an end to immigration. It has that right. But we should know that if we do this, we are bucking a longstanding historical trend. Why was this trend in place for such a long time? Why was emigration considered to be a God-given right of all human beings? What were the benefits? What other rights was it connected to? We should think about it before we willy-nilly change it. Or we can change it blindly and react to the fear of the moment. When we do things out of fear, does that generally lead to good results?

I like saying simple facts. I like saying: I know this, that, and the other. Who doesn’t like saying what they know? I know I like this pizza, this is good, this flavor ice cream is great, this TV show is worth watching. Some of the things I like are relatively simple, like pizza. Liking a TV show is a bit more complicated. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, it reveals something about life. Some of those revelations may not be so simple. Still, it did a good job. I felt something, it moved me. That’s all I have to know. It moved me. Explaining why may get very messy, but the fact of being moved is simple, maybe too simple. So much evil in the world comes from being moved by inane slogans. Being moved is no guarantee you’re moving in the right direction.

I recently saw an episode of a German TV show called “Crime Scene Cleaner”, which is as self-explanatory a title as you can get. It is a half-hour comedy series in each episode of which our hero shows up at an apartment or house, after someone has died, to clean up the blood, and after the police have finished collecting the evidence. He always works alone, but he also always encounters someone (a relative, a neighbor, etc.) with whom he gets caught up in the most hilarious conversations, often bordering on the philosophical. In this episode, it is a neo-Nazi he meets. The room he has to clean up is filled with Nazi memorabilia. He is astounded that anybody could still believe this crap.

At one point, our hero asks the other man, “Don’t you think it was insane to kill six million Jews?” The man answers that maybe they went a little overboard there, but so what? The French Revolution also went crazy with excessive violence, but we still can discuss the ideas of the French Revolution and take them seriously. Why can’t we do the same with Nazi ideas? Maybe we need a new modern Nazism. Our hero fantasizes punching him in the face, but does not do it. I won’t tell you the end, but he gets a small taste of justice; painting the walls pink is part of it.

My feelings about this show are very complicated. In a way, it is the opposite of what I usually spend my time doing which is digging up the plain facts. For example, I like reporting that at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, James Wilson of Pennsylvania defended the illogical nature of the three-fifths compromise (southern states would be able to count three-fifths of their slave population towards how much representation they would get in Congress)—illogical because each slave was considered as something between a person and a piece of property, and arbitrarily given the status of three-fifths of a person—illogical but necessary, Wilson argued, for reaching a compromise with the southern slave states. But at his state’s ratification debates over whether to approve the new Constitution, Wilson was convinced that the new Congress would have the power to emancipate all the slaves throughout the country. He called this a “delightful prospect” and the power to tax the import of slaves he called a “lovely feature in the Constitution.”

When you go carefully through the evidence of the Constitutional Convention, a clear pattern emerges with respect to slavery. Varieties of James Wilson’s sentiments were expressed. Another delegate believed, “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our Country.” So they were in no rush to push the issue now. The people that opposed slavery turned out to be mildly antislavery. These antislavery advocates put off their hopes for an end to slavery to an indefinite future. In the meantime, they conceded the strength of slave owners and gained few concessions from them. It was like a game of poker in which one side held all the good cards. The slaveholding states got much of what they wanted. There is a satisfaction in understanding what happened in history. So this is how we got to where we are today and this is why racism is so strong today.

There is a very different satisfaction in watching something like “Crime Scene Cleaner”—or maybe not very different at all, it just feels different. We can feel poetic justice at work in the episode I saw. Given the crimes of the Nazis, that is trivial, very trivial in fact. It is almost nothing. But we, or at least I, need the trivial to go on living. Sometimes just the smallest thing is enough to give us reason to go on. A flower, a fact, a punch in the nose against the right person at the right time, even if only in our dreams or on a TV show. The smallness of gathering facts is like that. It is such a little thing to do, but it is a relief against the assault of lies and hatred.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, January 26, 2019


In 1864, Charles Sumner, abolitionist and Senator from Massachusetts, gave a speech in the Senate to support a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. He addressed the way prejudice is often used to read a text. Here is what he had to say about that:

“People naturally find in texts of Scripture the support of their own religious opinions or prejudices; and, in the same way, they naturally find in texts of the Constitution the support of their own political opinions or prejudices. And this may not be in either case because Scripture or Constitution, when truly interpreted, support these opinions or prejudices; but because people are apt to find in texts simply a reflection of themselves … whoever finds any support of slavery in the Constitution of the United States has first found such support in himself … he has already conceded to it [slavery] a certain traditional foothold of immunity, which he straightway transfers from himself to the Constitution … it is not the Constitution, so much as human nature itself, which has been at fault. Let the people change, and the Constitution will change also.”

These words, these insights, are perfect. It is not necessary to change a word to apply them to biblical studies and in particular to historical Jesus studies. The Gospel texts are most often read as presenting Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies; in other words, in the eyes of scholars, the Gospels have a definite anti-Jewish slant, which they take to reflect a historical reality. While I would grant there is some anti-Jewishness in the Gospels, it has been exaggerated way out of proportion to what is actually there. To borrow from Sumner, scholars have conceded to the anti-Jewish angle a certain foothold of immunity, which they straightway transfer from themselves to the Gospels. It is not the Gospels which are at fault, so much as human nature itself.

The most obvious example of this is the story of Judas. Almost every scholar declares that Mark and the other Gospels make Judas out to be a traitor. Judas as traitor has that foothold of immunity in scholars. The truth is that almost every piece of evidence concerning Judas is ambiguous; in Mark, it is a perfectly ambiguous story. The evidence could be consistent with the theory of Judas as a traitor, but each piece of evidence is equally consistent with the theory that Judas was an innocent man falsely accused of being a traitor.

The slant in the direction of traitor comes from the human nature of scholars, not from the Gospel texts. It is so bad that most scholars will not even concede that traitor Judas is a theory and therefore debatable. They have turned him into a fact and have thereby exempted their fact from debate. The correctness of this fact cannot be questioned. It has immunity, as Sumner would put it.

The facts are not the main issue in historical Jesus studies. Prejudice is the issue. That topic does not get discussed very much. It is an old human truth: We will investigate anything except ourselves. Socrates found that hilarious.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer

Thursday, November 29, 2018


The following is my letter to the editor of New York Times Book Review, for November 18.  I was responding to a review of five recent books on the search for Jewish identity:

I like the fact that Gal Beckerman included her own search for Jewish meaning in her review of 5 books on the current state of Judaism (Nov. 18), but there is something odd about using the Pittsburgh shooting to frame the discussion. I think she knows that, as she says there is “something sad about identity flaring just in these moments of defensiveness and grief.” In any search for identity, sometimes what is omitted can be telling. The one thing Jews do not like to discuss at all is Christian antisemitism and their fear of Christians. For one thing, they are afraid that such talk will only make antisemitism worse. I have heard many people speak about Pittsburgh and no one brings up Christian racism against Jews, in particular what is its source. I had a similar experience many years ago, at a large gathering of Jews discussing antisemitism, and not once did anyone bring up Christianity, much less how it affects Jewish identity.

Beckerman poses Amos Oz’s question: “Does our past belong to us, or we to it?” There is one part of our past that we have entirely given up to Christianity, and that is first century Jewish culture. The popular understanding (both among Christians and Jews) of this part of Jewish history is that Jewish leaders were corrupt, totally in service to the Romans (Josephus gives the lie to this, but religious Jews avoid Josephus like poison), and thus were easily hoodwinked into persecuting Jesus (the Gospels do not support this as much as people think). Most Christians think ancient Jewish culture was too ethnic, too tribal, too ritualistic, too legalistic, too obsessed with purity. Jewish scholars have done a poor job combating this. They rightly deny all these things, and Christians will nod their heads and say they understand, but among themselves, when they tell the story of Jesus, Christians are convinced that Jesus opposed a Judaism that was too tribal, too legalistic, and all the rest. That popular story holds sway and the result is that most Jews are ashamed of their ancient past, not to mention that the persistent belief that some Jews helped to kill Jesus adds to the shame.

Jews do not like talking about any of this, out of fear that any discoveries about how Jewish Jesus was will only make Christians feel threatened and make them more racist towards Jews. So Christians continue to own ancient Jewish history and Jews go on believing that their ancestors were the equivalent of jungle bunnies. I am not saying that a truer understanding of how great ancient Jewish culture was is the cure-all for what ails Judaism today, but to quote an old Jewish joke, it wouldn’t hurt.

That's the end of the letter, which I realize won't get printed.  Fears are the hardest thing to talk about, especially the ones that get suppressed.  We just hope they will go away without our talking about them. They won't, and that's the dilemma.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, October 27, 2018


I don’t think there is any historical field which uses terminology as much as historical Jesus studies. And most of these terms come from Christian theology, making it all the more odd that this field considers itself to be engaged in objective historical analysis. These names were invented at a time when Christian theology was extremely hostile to Judaism. The continued use of these terms means this hostility continues in historical study.

These names include Passion week (which primarily points to Jesus’s suffering at the hands of Jewish leaders; Passion was not only the title of Mel Gibson’s film, it also served as the title of a scholarly book), the antitheses of Matthew 5, the cleansing of the Temple or the symbolic act of destruction of the Temple, the fickleness of the crowd (when a Jewish crowd supposedly picked Barabbas over Jesus to go free), the trial of Jesus (that is a mighty big assumption, that it was a trial), and the subversive or offensive Jesus.

What all these names have in common is that Jews and Judaism do not come out looking very good. Jewish culture is put in a negative light by making it function as an antagonist for Jesus. Not only do these terms misrepresent the culture, they do not fairly represent the evidence in the Gospels. True objectivity becomes harder when the evidence is colored in a biased way. In fact, the naming serves as a kind of mock evidence, so that scholars can avoid looking at the real evidence in the Gospels.

Scholars will claim that each of these names is intended as a kind of shorthand reference to an event or series of events or sayings, but since these terms stamp a certain view on the evidence, it is disingenuous to claim that terminology is merely a reference. I don’t use terminology at all in my work, but it would be easy to introduce names that are much more faithful to history.

The cleansing, or symbolic act of destruction, of the Temple should really be called the defense of the Temple because that is precisely what Jesus is doing. Though the Gospels never tell us exactly what Jesus was upset about, it is most likely that he felt the vendors and moneychangers were too close to the Temple and too loud, upsetting the proper decorum, or maybe he thought they were charging too much for their services. (Examples of the same kind of criticism can be found in rabbinic literature.) Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus always speaks highly of the Temple and will send a leper he just cured to make a sacrifice at the Temple. Of course he would do that. One of the functions of the Temple was to act as a public health service, making sure that people who had been cured by healers like Jesus were clean. There was a clear division of duties between healers and priestly public health officials. There was absolutely no antagonism between Jesus and the Temple. Even a prediction of destruction was a sign of love. Jewish prophets made their predictions so that the potential catastrophe befalling a beloved institution could be avoided. The Gospel evidence of Jesus’s support for and veneration of the Temple is exactly what one would expect.

The so-called antitheses would be better called the elucidations. Scholars portray Jesus in Matthew 5 as defying Jewish teaching and offering his own superior ideas. That is a complete misrepresentation of history. The Torah was the Jewish Constitution. The Pharisees and rabbis encouraged debate over its meaning. Jesus is not defying anything. He is engaged in Jewish constitutional interpretations. The rabbis frequently expressed themselves this way. They would announce an older teaching and then use “and I say” or “but I say” to introduce what they thought was a better view of the meaning of the Constitution. Jesus is doing the same thing. He is elucidating the Constitution. I believe almost all of his interpretations in Matthew 5 can also be found in the Talmud.

The names that scholars have chosen to use in their work do not reveal any historical truths. They are used to obscure rather than reveal the actual evidence. If they reveal anything at all, it is scholarly biases, but they tell us nothing about the historical, Jewish Jesus or historical Jewish culture.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

Saturday, August 25, 2018


If you were watching a detective show on TV and you saw one detective repeatedly messing up the crime scene, you would be screaming at the TV to get that detective out of there. But make that same detective a historical Jesus scholar and we have a totally different reaction. Historical Jesus scholars contaminate the scenes in the New Testament with their ideology so that no one will see what the evidence says. Instead of screaming at them, we want them to remain on the scene and continue to obscure the evidence.

On the TV show, along comes another detective who sees what’s going on and fights to get that first detective removed from the scene. He is the detective the audience will root for. But in real life, in the case of historical Jesus studies, there is no hero cop who comes along to keep the crime scene sacred and uncontaminated. And if he did come around, he would immediately be dismissed. We are all still rooting for the detectives who are introducing bias into the investigation.

Why do we root for the good cops over the bad cops on TV? Because correctly solving the crime matters. We want the real guilty party caught and prosecuted. We think it is an injustice to punish the innocent for something they never did. We get itchy under our skin if we see that this is about to happen. But we don’t think that way in historical studies. We want traditional views about history upheld. We just assume that scholars would never commit an injustice and if they did, we would rather not know it.

I have brought up TV detective shows many times before. There is no other place, in either fiction or real life, where you will find such pure dedication to truthseeking. The writers of these shows understand scientific method better than anyone on the planet. I only wish some of them—how about at least one?—would use their wisdom and apply it to history.

The first rule of good historical study should be: Do not contaminate the scene; report the evidence accurately; don’t let even a little bit of ideology color the way we look at the evidence. Here are some examples:

Scholars constantly talk about Jewish leaders putting Jesus on trial or subjecting him to some kind of judicial procedure. But the Gospels do not say that. They never use the word trial when describing the meeting between Jesus and Jewish leaders. All scholarly talk of a trial or procedure is a scholarly bias which they have injected into the evidence. An informal meeting would be a more correct description of what is going on. The evidence should be described in such a way (that is, in an accurate way) as to keep our minds open.

Again, we are repeatedly told that in Mark and Matthew, Jewish leaders find Jesus guilty of some infraction of Jewish law. But the Gospels don’t say that. All they say is that Jesus was found deserving of death. Period. Deserving death under Jewish law or Roman law? The Gospels do not say. Under which law is simply omitted. If scholars want to say the Gospel authors meant Jewish law, that is their interpretation (and a bad one it is), but it is not a piece of evidence in the Gospels. The scholarly approach is aimed at shutting down any consideration of the possibility that Roman law was meant. They do not want anyone to see what the uncontaminated Gospel evidence looks like.

It should be well-known by now that the Gospels do not use the Greek word for betray, prodidomi, to describe Judas’s deed, but a neutral word, paradidomi, which has no connotation of betrayal. But an overwhelming majority of scholars still talk as if a betrayal by Judas was a fact in the Gospels, when it is really an interpretation (a bad one) of evidence in the Gospels.

Some scholars may argue that betray is a secondary meaning of paradidomi, which seems highly doubtful, but even if they are right, they would have to justify why a secondary meaning should be used to translate that word when there are no concrete details backing up that translation. There is no clear motive given for the alleged betrayal, and no conflict between Judas and Jesus or his fellow disciples. We just assume these things. All the evidence in connection with Judas (with possibly only one exception) is ambiguous. Why is there only ambiguous evidence? Scholars do not want this evidence correctly reported, so they pretend that the betrayal is not an interpretation of the evidence, but a piece of evidence itself. This is as bad as contaminating the DNA evidence at a murder scene, but no one wants to see that.

That is just a handful of examples. So once again, I appeal to any writers of detective shows who may happen upon this lonely blog, to consider looking into this. If true scientific acumen were applied to historical Jesus studies, what grand things we might discover. What other interpretation might better explain the Gospel evidence than the one that is currently imposed on the evidence?

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

Sunday, July 29, 2018


When we are in trouble, we look for rational solutions. When life (our own or another’s) is in danger, we need to look at all the possibilities for escape because if we leave anything out, that might just be the thing that will save us. We simply cannot afford to be irrational and remain stuck with only one way of looking at the mess we’re in.

That’s one of the things that impressed me about the recent successful effort to save those soccer boys and their coach from the cave in which they were trapped in Thailand. They considered everything. Nothing was off the table. I was surprised at first that they thought about waiting a couple of months until the rainy season was over. That seemed farfetched. It’s too risky. Then I realized that it is the way the rational mind works. Only by looking at all the possibilities could they compare and contrast and figure out which approach would have the best chance of success. They could not afford to be prejudiced against any possible solution. That kind of shutdown of the mind is not helpful.

If we want to find the best answers (those most likely to be true or to actually work), we have to have a mind that is open to everything. Nothing can be ruled out in advance.

But in historical research, especially in controversial areas, there is no sense of danger if we latch on to an irrational answer. Historical problems are simply not urgent. It was imperative that those soccer boys be saved. It is not a matter of life and death if we promote the wrong answer to how Jesus ended up on a Roman cross. We can live with irrational answers. We do it all the time.

Nobody really cares if an ancient person like Judas is falsely accused of being a traitor. Academics are more content if we promote the same old ideas over and over. What scholar opens his mind to all the possibilities? Nobody wants that because it could, and likely would, lead to a rational answer. Certain possibilities must be outlawed forever. It is considered more important to uphold traditional ideas.

Everyone knows that the meeting of Jewish leaders with Jesus does not fit what we know of Jewish trials of that time. Wouldn’t that suggest that one possibility is that there was no Jewish trial of Jesus? Instead of saying let’s consider this, what scholars do is try to spin softer versions of the traditional story (which is very different from the actual Gospel stories with all their interesting details). They try to make it out to have been a softer version of a trial, so now they want to call it a hearing. But the issue is whether a hostile judicial procedure of Jesus was held. It does not matter what other label (trial, hearing) you pin on it. The fact remains that the Gospel details do not support this. Why not at least consider the possibility that there was no Jewish judicial procedure of any kind? Why not consider the possibility that Jewish leaders held an informal meeting to help Jesus and figure out a way to prevent his Roman execution?

Looking at these possibilities would contribute to finding a rational answer. But that is exactly what most historical Jesus scholars do not want. Nobody is trapped in a cave here. The waters are not rising. Imminent danger of death is not what we are faced with, so we can afford to be as irrational as we want and insist on answers that do not respond to the actual evidence we have from the Gospels.

The same goes for Judas. The Gospel stories do not give us the details we would expect in a story of betrayal. There is no clear motive, there is no conflict between Jesus and Judas, there is not even the use of the Greek word that means ‘to betray’. Could one not conclude from all this that there was no betrayal? Why not experiment with that possibility? Why not consider that maybe Judas was helping Jesus out in some way? Why can't that be put on the table? Because that would be the rational thing to do and that is the last thing historical Jesus scholars want. I have said it many times before and will say it again: The scholarly motto is the less we see, the more we know.

The irony of all this is that proving historical Jesus scholarship is an irrational field is not only not helpful, it just causes scholars to dig their heels in deeper. The irrational is exactly what we want, so go ahead and prove it to your heart’s content, the real point is that nothing is ever going to change, which is just how we want it. (Someone recently wrote that in America, you are permitted to search for the truth as long as nothing changes.) I could entitle everything I have written on the historical Jesus, all these posts and my two books, Endless Frustration. Historical research will never be a life and death issue for anyone. We can easily afford the irrational approach which is to automatically shut down certain possible answers, and no one will suffer for it. Or so we convince ourselves.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

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