Thursday, March 27, 2014


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


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


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


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

Friday, November 29, 2013


This is perhaps the only post I have ever put up which is an explicit call to action.
I have some very simple beliefs, which I think are pretty obvious, though I have a hard time convincing anyone else. One is this:  It would be a whole lot happier world for Jews if no more lies were told about ancient Jewish culture.  I don’t think this is such a difficult thing to grasp, but apparently it is for many people.  Although this should be of interest to both Jews and Christians, for fairly obvious reasons, it is more in the self-interest of Jews to take a careful look at this.
What follows are some of the lies I am talking about. Bear in mind that these lies are told by historical Jesus scholars, not just by theologians (I have some reason for thinking that many Christian theologians do a better job by ancient Judaism than historical scholars). I am going to state these lies in the negative (that is, in denial of the lies) as I do not like repeating them, not even for hypothetical purposes. The best way to put lies on the run is to deny them from the get-go. These are just a few of the lies that still have wide currency:
1) Ancient Jewish culture was not primarily about Temple, rituals, and purity concerns, as the overwhelming majority of historical Jesus scholars present it. It was not an inferior religion concerned with superficialities. It was not a foil for scholars' imaginary provocative Jesus. The central feature of Jewish culture was an extraordinary dedication to government by Constitution (the Torah), including the principle of due process. I hate to be immodest about this, but my books, especially the more recent True Jew, might be the only source from which you will learn this.
2) Ancient Jews did not promote a handful of dogmatic concepts that everyone had to mindlessly obey. What they did instead was promote an atmosphere of open and free debate. The point was to understand the constitutional principles embodied in the Torah. This could only be achieved through active debate. They believed God enjoyed this debate. Jesus was a part of that world of healthy disputes and did not oppose it.
3) Josephus does not anywhere describe Jewish leaders as being in cahoots with Romans in the arrest and prosecution of Jewish troublemakers. Shocking as this is, in order to justify the traditional story of Jesus’s death, it is again the position of most historical Jesus scholars that Josephus tells us Jews helped Rome take action against Jewish rebels. Scholars have no evidence for this. Either they boldly allege this without evidence or they deliberately misstate the evidence in Josephus. Jewish leaders never arrested Jews and turned them over to Rome and never even threatened to do such a thing. Not only that, they never went after rebels on their own. It was in no way part of the duties of the priests to suppress Jewish rebels. Any Jews who were a pain in the Roman ass were left to Rome. Jewish leaders wanted nothing to do with it.
4) Here is a lie by omission. Scholars never tell their readers that Josephus provides us with information that Jewish authorities would never step over the line of keeping their distance from Rome. They would refuse such cooperation with Romans even if a Roman governor demanded it. Scholars just carefully omit any such evidence from their worldview, which is frankly an anti-Jewish worldview as it always portrays ancient Jewish culture in the most negative light.
5) Summing up the last few points, there is absolutely no information in the historical context that would justify the allegation that Jewish leaders worked with Rome to get rid of Jesus. Everything we know—that is, everything we should know, if we were paying accurate attention to the evidence—tells us that Jewish leaders could not possibly have persecuted or prosecuted Jesus.
6) Is then the story in the Gospels a total myth? Not exactly. Here then is one more extraordinary lie scholars tell by omission: The Gospels do not support the traditional allegations made against Jewish leaders; they actually contain a lot of details which contradict the traditional story of Jesus’s death. That story came out of early Christian theology and was imposed on the Gospels. The Gospel details, if you pay close attention, do not justify the charges made against Jewish authorities. No one ever tells you this. Both my books go over this with devastating accuracy.
7) And by the way, Jesus never threatened the Temple or Temple authorities. The total information in the Gospels about this, with a little help from the Jewish context, tells us that he completely supported the Temple and loved it as every other Jew of his time did. The case of Jesus versus the Temple or even the Temple authorities as scholars present it is a manufactured one by selecting a few pieces out of context from the rest.
Below this post is my review of Bill O’Reilly’s book, which I also put up on Amazon. If that review impresses any Jews at all, then take action. My message is simple: When lies (or misrepresentations or misinformation, or whatever else you might wish to call them) are told, do not take it lying down. Stand up. Protest. Loud and clear.  Take a lesson from the black civil rights movement. Stand tall, be proud, and don’t take any guff from anyone. Don’t let people like O’Reilly or his supporters intimidate you into silence. Respond to the kind of crap history he purveys and don’t be intimidated by the fact that many reputable scholars repeat the same lies.
The problem with many Jews is that they get a little worked up when a controversial book like O’Reilly’s appears, but after a few months, they forget all about it. Jewish history and culture belong to Jews in the first place. Too many Jews have grown comfortable with the inaccurate information about 1st century Judaism. These statements about how ancient Jews operated are provably false, yet Jews have turned their backs on this for too long. Stop doing that. Insist that scholars get it right or get out of the field altogether. Ancient Jewish culture accomplished a lot of great things. Keep the accurate memories alive or you will lose them.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Friday, October 18, 2013


I recently posted the following review of Bill O’Reilly’s and Martin Dugard’s book on Amazon. If you are curious to read it there, just click on the one star reviews of their book and arrange it by Most Helpful First (mine is usually the second one down). I reproduce it here:
The authors claim their book is about history, not religion. Many reviews here echo that. I dispute this. The book is not attentive to the Jewish context or the Gospels. It is rather theology disguised as history. It is the traditional theology where Jesus runs afoul of Jewish authorities who then not merely help Rome get rid of him but pressure a reluctant Pilate to execute him. A lot of history is erased to make this theology appear historical.
The authors present Jesus’s overturning of the moneychangers’ tables near the Temple as an economic threat to the priests. What they don’t tell you is that other Pharisees and rabbis made far more serious criticisms of the way the priests ran the Temple and yet they were not persecuted for it. (They do briefly hint at some of this, at 230n, but understate it.) In the 1st century CE, R. Simeon ben Gamaliel was upset at the high prices poor women had to pay for sacrificial doves when they suffered a miscarriage. He issued a new ruling on sacrifices which had the intended effect of lowering prices.
Jesus’s action might have upset business for a couple of hours at best. Simeon’s ruling had a deeper, more lasting impact and he was not arrested or hounded. Why don’t O’Reilly and Dugard include such examples? Because 1) they want Jesus to appear unique in his culture, and 2) they won’t be able to explain why Jesus would have been singled out while no other Jews were mistreated for their intense criticism of the priestly aristocracy. Indeed, it is inexplicable. The idea that Jesus had done or said something offensive to Jewish leaders, so offensive as to require a lethal response, is nonsense. I have made the full case elsewhere.
The authors do not tell us that whatever abuses of power the priests were accused of, the one thing they were never accused of was cooperating with Rome in the arrest and prosecution of Jews or asking Rome to execute someone for them. They cite the work of Josephus from time to time, but they fail to mention that he provides evidence that indicates Jewish leaders would never step over this line. It was an absolute no-no. There is even one example of a procurator demanding that they hand over some Jewish men and the Jewish authorities refused.
O’Reilly and Dugard get the Pharisees wrong. They were not obsessively legalistic as the authors claim (127) and were not “arrogant, self-righteous men who love their exalted status far more than any religious belief system” (157). The Pharisees believed in Torah as Constitution and fought for constitutional government rather than arbitrary rule by kings and priests. All of Matthew 5 is pure Pharisaism. Whatever disputes Jesus had with some Pharisees were normal for the time. It was a healthy debating atmosphere. All of Jesus’s teachings are unsurprisingly Jewish.
The authors devote much space to Julius Caesar, who has nothing to do with the story of Jesus, yet there is not one word on Hillel, Shemaiah, Honi and other Jewish teachers who preceded Jesus and whom Jesus approvingly references on occasion. The authors have made themselves experts on suppressing a lot of Jewish culture. It is clear that they have read very little about this culture by Jewish authors. Why should they? They believe they have a right to fantasize a harsh, legalistic Judaism that never existed.
They allude to the Jewish trial rules a few times (207, 224, 229), but it’s incomplete. They take their absence in the Gospels to mean there was an illegal trial of Jesus (229-33). They never say outright that certain Jews lynched Jesus, but strongly hint at it with their illegal trial and by describing Pharisees surrounding Jesus as “a noose of sorts” (158). This is despicable nonsense.
How about more simply: There was no Jewish trial of Jesus at all, legal or otherwise. Instead of describing how garments were made or any other number of other trivial details that have nothing to do with anything (in an attempt to make their book appear historical), they might have made an effort to discuss the humanitarian rules for Jewish trials in the Mishnah (e.g., defendants in capital cases had to have at least one judge who would act as defense attorney). All of them might not have been in play in the 1st century CE but some of them must have been.
There is no mention of all the information in the Gospels which contradict that there was an antagonistic Jewish trial of Jesus. Luke and John do not have a Jewish death penalty pronounced against Jesus or a parade of witnesses. Paul in Acts says Jewish leaders could charge Jesus with nothing deserving death. The authors also leave out that John has Roman soldiers at Jesus’s arrest, which would mean that this was a Roman affair all the way, not a Jewish one where they later pull Romans into it. A friendly informal meeting with Jesus makes more sense of all the evidence. Religion had nothing to do with Jesus’s execution. It was strictly a political act on Rome’s part.
The general rule O’Reilly and Dugard follow is the same followed by many scholars: Evidence favorable to Jewish leaders is inadmissible, while anything that makes them look bad can be exaggerated. They are not even above inventing facts. They refer to “yet another illegal trial” (230). Where is there evidence that the Sanhedrin was in the habit of doing this? They say Caiaphas bonded with Pilate (101) and was “a dear friend of Rome” (169) and the high priest was “constantly on the lookout for rebels” (190). All pure invention.
Does all the evidence fairly considered tell us what actually did happen? Yes, and I have provided the full explanation in my work.
In 1916, Richard Husband argued that Jewish leaders would never have violated their own legal rules to convict Jesus and that any idea that they had done so was based on prejudice, not historical analysis. Almost 100 years later, these two writers and a host of scholars still don’t get it. A historical book? Not by a long shot.
End of Review.
I just want to add one thing here. I saw O’Reilly on “60 Minutes” and Letterman in the last two weeks. I only saw a couple of minutes on each show. It was too sickening for me to watch the whole thing. It is one thing to read lies in a book. One can calmly consider them and respond thoughtfully, as I do above. But hearing the lies spoken out loud on a TV show is another matter altogether. To see lips moving, to hear the voice and see the gestures made is quite disgusting. When O’Reilly said that Jews and Romans hated each other but worked together to get rid of Jesus, and mashes his fists together to make the point, it is revolting. Nothing in history supports that such a thing could have happened.
And think of all the attention such an awful book is getting!  Why don’t more Jews and Christians protest this kind of thing? Why do O’Reilly’s claims go unanswered? If any scholars have critically responded to O’Reilly, I apologize to them. But O’Reilly has such a lousy evidentiary case, and it seems to me that no one is pointing this out. They let him get away with it. Lies get such advertisement and the truth goes limping along with very few to stand up for it.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

Friday, September 27, 2013


I said at the end of last month’s post that I would take some time to consider whether it is possible to confront scholars with the prejudices that operate in historical Jesus studies. Frankly, after so many years doing this, I don’t think it is possible. As luck would have it, a couple of weeks after that post, I came across something that at least makes it clearer why it is impossible.
Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész’s memoir, Dossier K, in the form of an interview he conducts with himself, was recently published here. He spent part of his early years in a concentration camp and his adult life under successive Hungarian dictatorships. He is a writer in a totalitarian society, trying to portray the human condition under totalitarianism, and poses this question at one point: “If power is totalitarian, and the accommodation to it is total, then for whom is one to portray man dominated by totalitarianism? … Who would be left and be in a position to judge outside of the totality?” (his emphasis).
One can ask the same question about New Testament scholarship. How do you explain the total dogmatism of a field to all the people in that field and all the readers who have an interest in this, but are totally committed to shutting out any other point of view? To whom are you explaining that something is wrong? How do you get anyone to stand outside the dogmatism and see what is going on? It’s a puzzlement.
An example is in order. Virtually every scholar in this field declares that Josephus, the ancient Jewish-Roman historian, gives us a Jewish context for Jesus in which Jewish authorities cooperated with Rome in putting down Jewish troublemakers. Josephus says no such thing. He provides no evidence to justify this ridiculous idea. In fact, Josephus provides evidence that Jewish leaders would never turn Jews over to Rome and would never even threaten to do that. It was anathema to them to work with Romans in the arrest and prosecution of Jews (I am deducing this from a small but solid array of evidence).
How do you get scholars, students, and all interested readers to see how badly mistaken they have been about this? It is only prejudice that upholds the scholarly view of Jewish leaders.
I could go on and on and explain very carefully how similar errors appear in academic work on Judas, Barabbas, the Temple, and so much else. Most importantly, I could explain how scholars incorrectly minimize Jesus’ Jewishness, as if they were afraid of what the full truth might be. Hardly anyone is willing to see the true colors of Pharisaic Judaism and that Jesus was a perfect fit within it. I could do all this, but what would be the point of setting the record straight?  I’ve already done it in True Jew and in my previous book, Ghost. One can lay out the evidence so precisely and do it until you are blue in the face. Nothing makes any difference if people will not face the biases and preconceived ideas that have made a mess of this history and the clues in the Gospels, which are more pro-Jewish than people realize.
After all, the idea that Josephus in any way justifies the notion that Jewish leaders were in cahoots with Rome in keeping order is so absurd it staggers the imagination. And that is another thing that New Testament or historical Jesus scholarship has in common with totalitarianism: Both depend heavily on promoting absurdity.
So how does a totalitarian state ever fall? When cracks appear. The first ones are ruthlessly suppressed. When enough accumulate, maybe something will begin to change. I cannot see that it would be any different with New Testament studies. Certainly a number of cracks have appeared over the years. To say that the majority of Christian scholars have been ruthlessly hostile towards each one would be an understatement.
In the mid-19th century, Abraham Geiger wrote about Jesus’ Jewishness. A crack had appeared. The reaction from Christian scholars was extreme hostility. A hundred years later, in the 1960s, Paul Winter stated that Jesus was essentially a Pharisee and once again the wrath of many Christian scholars was provoked (not that Jews felt any easier about this sort of investigation). More recently, Hyam Maccoby has been ridiculed or dismissed for his efforts in this direction. Hostility, overt or covert, remains the most effective tool to suppress good work.
Shortly after Winter’s book, Haim Cohn proved that the theory of Jewish leaders putting Jesus on trial and working with Rome does not hold up. Jewish leaders holding an informal meeting to try to save Jesus from a Roman execution makes much better sense. This was huge crack in the edifice of New Testament scholarship. Cohn’s work was never paid sufficient attention and the little that it got was decidedly negative. No one carefully discussed the evidence he presented. They just blithely dismissed him.
My own work confirms Cohn’s conclusion from an independent route and I bring more evidence to bear. As for Judas, any attempt to free him from the prison he has been put in meets with hostility and a recommitment on almost everyone’s part to continue the false allegation that he betrayed Jesus.
How many cracks does it take to topple the totalitarian state of New Testament scholarship? To put it another way: How many cracks are needed to overwhelm the inevitable antagonism towards a completely fresh look at the evidence? I really have no idea. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was close to a million.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

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