Monday, April 27, 2015
When I was a kid, sometime in high school, I think, I bought a paperback book called “30 Days To A More Powerful Vocabulary”, or maybe it was a better vocabulary. I think I still have it, buried in a box somewhere. I got my money’s worth with that book. It did its job and I did feel my word power grow. It made learning an entertaining exercise. I remember it had single-panel cartoons throughout the book. The one that stuck with me was of a young boy who had just returned home from school and says to his mother, “I learned a new word in school today, Mom. Try and surmise what it is.” It still gets a laugh out of me.
A couple of weeks ago, I learned a new term from a journalist on NPR: Epistemic closure. He described it as a condition in which a person is so sure of his own position that he will not hear any evidence to the contrary. I have been talking about that for years and never knew there was an expression for it. I was kind of delighted that there is now a name for it, but then I immediately had doubts about its usefulness. Is it good to have a name for something, and a fancy one at that? Sometimes naming something can help bring attention to a problem, but with something like this, the condition has been described for a long time and where has it gotten us?
And would a simpler term or description be more useful?
For a very long time now, I have frequently quoted Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haitian historian among other things, who wrote, “Worldview wins over the facts.” (I recently checked on Amazon and found that his incredibly enlightening book Silencing the Past has recently been reissued in an anniversary edition.) Trouillot’s simple sentence is a more powerful description of what epistemic closure points to. You could also say ideology wins over the facts. He used it to describe how Europeans could not accept that there was a slave rebellion going on in Haiti which was defeating European armies. So they explained the facts away to fit their worldview that, on the one hand, slaves were too docile to desire much less fight for freedom, and on the other hand, they were not skilled enough to defeat European might.
If “Worldview wins over the facts” does not hit your over the head like a ton of bricks, I don’t see why epistemic closure would be any more instructive. In True Jew, I described the same condition this way: The less we see, the more we know. That captures what scholars in many fields do. All these expressions do. Usually what happens is that tradition has handed them a certain point of view, and while scholars are fond of spinning it in ways that sound like something new is being said, nothing new happens at all. The same tale gets told over and over again, and everybody is convinced, “We don’t need no stinking evidence” because our worldview or ideology tells us everything we need to know. Our knowledge is closed down. It closed a long time ago. It would be too much trouble to open it up now.
Let’s face it: It’s all about telling lies and getting away with it. Lying is its own reward. What is shocking is that the lies can be bold-faced and still they get away with it. You know it’s a closed discussion when everybody is content with the lies that are being told.
Look at what happens in historical Jesus scholarship. We are repeatedly told that it was one of the duties of high priests to work with Romans to identify, arrest, and prosecute Jewish troublemakers. Supposedly, they shared a common concern. It does not trouble any scholar that there is not one stitch of evidence to justify this and that there are several pieces of evidence to contradict it. Their worldview tells them all they need to know about Jewish leadership, or ancient Jewish culture for that matter, and that makes evidence completely beside the point.
What historical Jesus scholar does not love to sum up ancient Judaism as being about Temple, rituals, and purity concerns, or some such combination? A highly inaccurate description of Jewish culture in Jesus’ time. Closer to the mark would be this: the fight for constitutional government, justice, and peace. But no scholar will tell you that because it will make ancient Jews look too good and they will no longer be able to serve as a foil for an idealistic Jesus. But whatever ideals Jesus had came directly from his own culture. That’s a secret, don’t tell anyone, or the wrath of scholars will come down on you.
These days, New Testament scholars shy away from declaring that Jesus was subjected to a hostile trial by Jewish leaders (for one thing, everyone knows that the details in the Gospels do not fit what ancient Jewish trials looked like), so they try to spin it in a softer way by calling it a hearing. It does not trouble them that there is no evidence that ancient Judaism knew anything about hearings. The truth is that ancient Jews held a judicial procedure to determine guilt or innocence on some matter, or not. The evidence in the Gospels says they held no such judicial procedure for Jesus. But scholars cannot face that simple conclusion, so they try to spin it in ways that will maintain the traditional story, while they only appear to say something different.
You can plead and plead with scholars until you are blue in the face that it is possible to reach a better understanding of ancient Jewish culture and Jesus’ happy place within it, that ancient Jewish leaders did not persecute him or help Rome to execute him, because neither the evidence in the Gospels or from other sources on ancient Judaism support such a misguided hypothesis, and all that will happen is that scholars will sneer at you and say, We don’t need any more evidence, thank you very much, we have all our knowledge wrapped up with a bow, and the evidence can take a hike. We have our epistemic closure. Hasn’t anyone ever told you that the less we see, the more we know? How dare anyone dispute that! What more is there to research?
Research is for discovering facts and shaking up our worldviews. Historical Jesus scholars will have none of that. Those who are not busy being shook up everyday are busy dying (that’s what epistemic closure means), and that’s just the way most scholars want it. Spinning in a circle, never going anywhere, never moving from that fixed spot, that center that never changes, spinning the evidence until it says nothing we do not want to hear. Whatever you call it, it is the end of learning anything.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer
Thursday, March 26, 2015
In the introduction to his book, Rabbi Jesus, Bruce Chilton says it is wrong to blame Jews for the death of Jesus, when the blame should go to Rome. I am sure he meant every word of that. But as you turn the pages and get into his book, he says nary a word about Rome. He lays it all on the Jews—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests, and even a Jewish mob. The Pharisees stalk Jesus and together with the priests, they whip up a mob against him. When Pilate does come into it, Chilton says that he was reluctant to take action against Jesus and that the high priest had to manipulate and pressure Pilate into it. All Chilton does in the body of his book is blame Jews over and over again for what happened to Jesus.
I am sure that Chilton was very sincere when he built a case exclusively against Jewish leaders. So which sincere Chilton are we supposed to believe? Even if both are sincere, which one is more sincere? The one who blames Rome or the one who blames Jews? I would go with the latter. That’s where his real beliefs lie. The problem with the former is that it is just a general statement, very easy to say especially in an era of political correctness, whereas the Chilton who accuses Jews gives so much more detail. He obviously believes it a lot more. He certainly relishes it.
The problem extends to just about every New Testament or historical Jesus scholar. They all give lip service—and just because it is lip service, does not mean it is insincere; in fact, superficial assent is often very sincere because it slips off the tongue so easily—to the proposition that Jews were not the primary culprits in the death of Jesus. And then they all proceed to analyze all the reasons Jews wanted him dead.
Modern scholars are probably at their most sincere when they tell us that the Jewish people must not be blamed for his death, let’s limit this to Jewish leaders and not blame a whole people or culture, and then they are just as sincere when they proclaim that Jesus was offensive to a wide segment of the Jewish people and that this is what got him in trouble. E.P. Sanders does it. So does Chilton who describes Jesus as exposed and alone amongst his own people.
Equally sincere are all those scholars who claim that the evidence is a mess, that the Gospel authors cannot be trusted because they were writing from ulterior motives, and therefore, we will never be able to figure out what happened. Ignorance is asserted as the best policy. Besides the fact that nobody ever actually sticks to this position—because everyone wants to claim we can know some things, but this doesn’t mean that they weren’t most sincere, when they said it’s all up in the air—the result of the we’ll-never-know approach is that the traditional theory of how Jesus died wins by default. That’s an unavoidable consequence of professing ignorance.
Anyone who denies that they are upholding the traditional story by saying we’ll never know is very insincere, and this is the only time I am sure that disingenuousness is at play. If you argue that we will never know the truth, then it is obvious that the popular story will remain firmly in place, and that means Jews will go on being blamed till the end of time. That seems to be just fine with everyone, just don’t say it too loudly. A low-key approach is deemed best; it’s a good, quiet way to be sincere.
You can see where all this is leading. On the one hand, sincerity counts for nothing because one and the same author can be equally sincere about contradictory positions. And on the other hand, all roads lead to blaming the Jews—and that is mighty suspicious, no matter how many people find it easy to repeat, even as they deny that this is what they want to promote.
Everybody is so busy being sincere that they’ve forgotten what good scholarship is all about. It’s about looking for the evidence and letting yourself be shook up when the evidence warrants it. You don’t just repeat whatever makes you comfortable. If you are not startled awake every day of your studies, you are not doing your job as a scholar, you are not paying attention to the evidence.
When I started my research many years ago, I assumed that scholars were right when they claimed some Jewish leaders were complicit in the death of Jesus. I thought I might help to establish that more firmly so that the Jewish people would not be unfairly accused. But too many pieces of evidence just don’t make sense under the theory that Jewish leaders played a role. The Gospels tell us in a number of places that Jesus had a wide popularity. The priests had too little to gain by helping Rome and too much to lose by going against their own people. Helping Rome prosecute Jesus would have been a very foolish thing to do. It is a questionable solution to the evidence.
Many other details back that up. Just to give one here: At Acts 5:28, the high priest says to some of Jesus’ followers: “You intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” It means: You intend [i.e., you are trying] to get us blamed for his death. That is a very odd thing for the high priest to say if he and other Jewish leaders had really done what tradition has accused them of doing. He should have said something like, We did our duty, or, He was a criminal and deserved to be treated like one. Instead, he says, or rather complains, that you are trying get us blamed for spilling his blood. It sounds like a heartfelt cry that this is a false accusation. There are many more bits like this which speak to the innocence of Jewish leaders. They form a very strong pattern that no one pays attention to. That is the evidence speaking and my sincerity has nothing to do with it.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Honestly, I don’t think there has ever been a quest for the historical Jesus. Not if by quest, you mean what any genuine science is about—an effort to discover, uncover, reveal. The so-called search for the historical Jesus has always been about concealing, covering, covering up, burying out of sight. When scholars in the 19th century first started this academic discipline, they were frightened that a historical, Jewish Jesus might actually be found. That could not be allowed to happen.
Antisemitism was percolating to fever pitch in the 19th century. A Jewish Jesus was the last thing anyone could stomach. That’s why Albert Schweitzer would remove Jesus from history entirely. Jesus had no historical, Jewish context, according to Schweitzer. He was outside history. He had a totally unique persona and perspective. That is really a religious point of view disguised as faux or pseudo-historical study.
Schweitzer could actually declare that to compare Jesus to his contemporary Jewish (or rabbinic) culture was lacking in common sense. Now that is the very opposite of good historical research. It was a blatant attempt to block historical study. It worked and it has worked ever since. “Historical” study of Jesus has always been about spinning religious or ideological views in new ways, not about searching for clues that will reveal.
And, of course, the perfect decoy system is the one in which you’ve convinced yourself and everyone else that you’re looking, when every look has been nothing but shutting down avenues of sight.
How many scholars have read Josephus? A lot, right? Probably all of them. But does anyone pay attention to what they read? Do they see what Josephus reported? Do they look for the clues that will reveal? It seems rather that concealment is all they’re interested in.
Josephus gives no examples of Jewish leaders helping Rome to arrest and prosecute Jewish troublemakers. But he does give one example of Jewish leaders refusing such help and several other clues implying they would never cooperate with Rome like that. How hard is it to see that, if you are really looking? No, really, how hard is that? No scholar sees this, yet they claim to be looking and searching.
Josephus gives a few examples of high priests tearing their robes and/or pouring ashes on their heads as they plead with a mob to change their course of action. It was an act of begging, not condemnation, something to be borne in mind when considering what happened between the high priest and Jesus. It certainly would not be used at a trial. Show me the scholars that see this and accurately report it. They prefer to spin the same old traditional story of Jewish leaders persecuting and condemning Jesus. They call this spinning looking. And they’re serious.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
You’re the chief detective on a case and you’re on the hunt for clues. You’ve got to find the culprit who committed the crime. One of your detectives thinks Mr. X did it and another holds out for Mr. Y. You have competing theories. What do you do?
One simple technique is to assume by turns that each theory is true and ask, If true, what sort of evidence would we expect to find? The one that nails it with the most evidence is the right theory. It’s not that hard to do. Assuming that you the chief do not have prejudices or an emotional involvement in the case or are not being bribed, it should not be that hard to get rid of the theory that explains nothing and is supported by even less.
Was Jesus a Zealot? Is that a good theory? If it were, you would expect that the Romans executed a number of his followers because that is how the Romans handled all rebels. You would also expect that all or most of Jesus’ disciples carried weapons. Do we have such evidence? No, we do not. The evidence says rather the opposite. Jesus was the only one whom the Romans disposed of. As for his followers, two swords are mentioned. What are two swords in a group that is supposed to be about rebellion?
When you are missing the best evidence you need to establish a theory, that is a pretty good sign that it is not true. You can go on insisting that Zealot is the culprit you have fixed on to solve a problem in the life of Jesus, but it does not work. Insistence without evidence is all you have.
Did Judas betray Jesus? Not a very difficult problem to solve. If that theory were true, you would expect to find some evidence for a motive or conflict he had with Jesus—something substantial, that is, something believable, and not a trivial item like a small amount of money. You would also expect that there would be a record of someone at the time accusing Judas of having betrayed Jesus. We don’t have that either.
Once again, the best evidence you would need to prove this theory is not there. So give it up. But of course, people won’t drop it. There is an emotional attachment here that would not be tolerated in a chief of detectives.
What about another theory? And I will only give the bare bones of it here (the full explanation is in my book True Jew). Suppose that Jesus sent Judas to the authorities to come and arrest him. You would expect that he had some secret or mysterious conversation with Judas beforehand. Indeed, there is a piece of evidence for that at John 13:27-29. Someone remembered that Jesus appeared to be sending Judas to do something. You might also expect that Jesus would thank him afterwards or say something positive. We have evidence for that too at Matt 26:50, although it has not been translated correctly into English. The Greek of what Jesus says to Judas is literally, “Friend, that for which you are here.” The same words appear on a Greek drinking cup which bears the inscription, “Drink, that for which you are here,” which seems to mean, “Drink, that’s what you’re here for.” Without artificially giving the words in Matthew a negative spin by reading sarcasm into it, these words on their face seem to be a record of Jesus commending Judas.
The point is that another theory does yield a couple of pieces of evidence that the theory would lead us to expect. That is just the kind of thing a detective would be looking for. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. It should be enough to arouse our curiosity. A good chief of detectives would have no trouble following this up to see what else there might be.
But then, to be a good detective is not the goal of most New Testament scholars. They have been bribed, in a sense, by theology to stick it on a different culprit. The future of scholarship in any area belongs to those who have the courage to reject the “bribes” offered by the prevailing intellectual atmosphere.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Concerning the so-called Jewish trial of Jesus, at Matt 26:57-68 and Mark 14:53-65, the editors comment that the historicity of the trial is highly questionable (see their note at Matt 26:57-68). Another way to say it is that the trial is highly improbable. But they will undermine this insight when they get to John, as I will explain in just a bit.
They make two mistakes with respect to Matt (likewise with Mark; the accounts in the first two Gospels are very close to each other). Because they follow the NRSV translation, they have the high priest asking his fellow priests at Matt 26:66, “What is your verdict?” They offer no clarification in their notes and, indeed, use the term ‘verdict’ again. That is not a correct translation of the Greek. Raymond Brown, who was a very conservative commentator, translates this as “What does it seem to you?” William Tyndale, the first and probably the greatest of New Testament translators, had it, “What think ye?”
The point is that it is not specifically a judicial verdict the high priest is asking for. The phraseology is consistent with asking for some sort of general decision or thoughts on the matter, but not a judicial response. Something other than a matter of Jewish law could have been at stake here. To hide that is to be untruthful about the evidence. Theology has dictated the translation choice of Levine and Brettler.
The second thing the editors miss is that they quote the decision “He deserves death” (Matt 26:66) without pointing out that neither Matthew nor Mark say according to whom. It is possible that the Gospel authors wanted their readers to assume it was according to Jewish law, but the significant thing is that they did not say that. The evidence as they present it is consistent with a decision “according to Roman law.” Jewish leaders may have been trying to save Jesus from a Roman execution and came to the realization that they could not do that. He deserves death according to Rome, not Jews. (I fully prove all this in both my books True Jew and The Ghost in the Gospels, links to them on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, at right.)
The really peculiar thing the editors do is in their comment at John 18:24, when Jesus is taken to Annas, a retired high priest. They say, “In contrast to Matthew, John depicts no trial before Caiaphas, which, if any of the Gospel trial accounts is historical, is not possible to determine.” That is a very odd comment. First, they have already admitted with respect to Matthew and Mark that a Jewish trial is highly questionable. One implication is that an informal meeting might be more probable, which they avoid saying.
Second, they sound like they are trying to appear neutral, but in fact, their defeatist statement “not possible to determine” can only have a non-neutral result. If you fail to investigate other possibilities, you are letting the traditional account win by default. It would be disingenuous of them to deny it. They are actually reinforcing the traditional image of Jesus being prosecuted and persecuted by Jewish authorities, despite their own recognition that this is highly questionable. They have taken their stand in favor of the well-known accusation, even as they implicitly acknowledge its improbability. Third, they never discuss the evidence in Josephus which indicates that Jewish leaders would never have put any Jew on trial like this and then turn him over to Rome.
There is another reason why this is so odd. Imagine a homicide detective assigned to a case. They have plenty of evidence (DNA, skin under the fingernails of the victim, blood, fingerprints, email and phone records, etc.). Just as we have a lot of evidence from the Gospels (the fact that we have four Gospel accounts with varying details is a plus!). The detective reports to his superiors that it is not possible to solve this case. What!? With all this evidence!? You would seriously suspect that someone has bribed the detective to bury the investigation.
The same is true here. When scholars fail to discuss all the evidence accurately and then cavalierly state that it is not possible to determine what happened, we can seriously suspect that they have been “bribed”. In this case, the bribe comes from theology, which aims to support the traditional theory of how Jesus died at the instigation of Jewish leaders. Why this theology should be in a book that is supposed to be a Jewish annotated version is beyond my comprehension. There is nothing Jewish about it.
The editors are trying to play both sides. They want to appear rational by declaring that the trial of Jesus is historically questionable, but they won’t follow that up more rigorously. Instead, they try to reassure the traditionalists that nothing can be known for sure. That leaves the traditional belief in a trial intact. They let an unjust accusation against ancient Jewish culture stand firmly in place. Merely stating that it is questionable accomplishes absolutely nothing. I suspect they know that.
© 2014 L. Zitzer
Monday, November 24, 2014
Last month, in the post immediately below this, I recounted an episode of It Takes A Thief from around 1970, which made a very good point about scientific method. This time, I will go back ten years earlier to circa 1959 for an episode of Fathers Knows Best that shared another great insight about the way science works.
Jim Anderson is an insurance salesman and he proudly announces one day to his family that he is going to be interviewed by a reporter for a feature article in the monthly insurance magazine. They are not particularly impressed. Not his wife, nor his children. The kids moreover are annoyed that they will have to stay home on Saturday to meet the reporter who wants to interview them all.
If I recall, when the reporter arrives, he explains to Jim that he has a theory that in order to be a good insurance salesman, the man must have a family that is very supportive and organized. As it turns out, everything soon goes south. The two older kids, Betty and Bud, have prior commitments and are running off to see their friends. Even wife Margaret who hardly ever leaves the house has to see a neighbor about something. Jim gets a call which reminds him that he had a golf date right now with a client. The reporter is left alone with little Kathy and soon she has to leave to take care of the cat.
Here is the part that gets me: The reporter returns to his hotel room and calls his editor. He tells him that the theory he was hoping to justify is all wrong. There is nothing organized, unified, or very supporting about this family. The editor says they will just have to cancel the article and tells the reporter to return to the office. Then the reporter says something like this: Wait a second. Not so fast. So my original theory is wrong. But what do we know? Let’s go back to the facts. We know Jim Anderson is a good salesman. There still might be something that will explain why he is so good, and if I go back and observe more carefully, I just might see it.
I did not put that in quotation marks because I would not swear those were the exact words, but that was certainly the gist of it. If the facts contradict a theory, then let’s go back to the drawing board. Let us more carefully observe what the facts are in this situation and see if we can formulate a new theory that will better account for the observations. (By the way, when the reporter does go back, he finds that, in a crisis, this family will all pitch in together to help out whoever is in a jam.)
That is good science. And a TV comedy was telling us this in 1959. If the facts do not support that there was a hostile judicial procedure against Jesus, then let’s go back to the drawing board. If the Gospel evidence does not clearly tell the story of Judas as a traitor (because almost all the clues are so ambiguous), then let’s drop that theory, pay careful attention to the ambiguities, and see if a better theory will respond to this evidence.
This is science. It’s not rocket science, but it is science and it’s not that hard to do—provided you can take the very first step which is to acknowledge that some very deep prejudices had us all fixated on inadequate theories; the only thing going for them was that they had been asserted for a very long time. Time cannot turn a falsehood, no matter how popular, into a truth. If something makes no sense, it makes no sense no matter how often it is repeated.
Or as the medical examiner says on this week’s episode of NCIS: New Orleans, “When the dead have something to say, not even time will shut them up.”
© 2014 Leon Zitzer
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Some of the TV stations here rerun old programs, comedies and dramas, from the 1950s and 60s, and later, but it’s usually the oldest ones that interest me. A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to catch up with It Takes A Thief, starring Robert Wagner as Alexander Mundy, master thief and spy. I never saw it in its original run. It seems to me that the goal of the producers was to put up the equivalent of a James Bond film in a one hour TV show each week. They largely succeeded. The plots are terrifically entertaining and suspenseful.
In what I think was the last episode (in 1970?), Mundy is on board a chartered plane, with about a dozen scientists on their way to an international conference (on the environment?). His job is to protect one scientist in particular, played by Wally Cox (of Mr. Peepers fame). It turns out to be a dangerous job because someone is bumping off the scientists one by one. It won’t be long before all are dead, so they don’t have much time to solve this. Mundy sits down with Wally Cox to see if they can figure this out. Cox says, “I don’t think we have enough information.” Mundy responds, “Oh, I think we have enough information. We’re just not looking at it in the right way.” A big smile spreads across Cox’s face as if it were lit up by a beacon and he exclaims, “Now you’re talking like a scientist!” (I am quoting all this from memory, but I will swear these lines are very close to the original.)
I get a big kick out of this scene. Not only because it demonstrates once again what a good grasp TV writers have of scientific method, but because several years earlier, a historical Jesus scholar answered my email to haughtily tell me that I had no more information about this history than anyone else. I never claimed that of course. But if I had known about this episode of It Takes A Thief, I would have related this scene and told her that it is how you look at the information that matters.
Case in point: I won’t go over the details here, but it is well-known that so many of the clues in all four Gospels contradict the view that Jesus was put on trial by Jewish leaders. Many scholars try to save the essence of the traditional story by suggesting that maybe it was a hearing. They accomplish nothing with this claim. Never mind whether you use the word ‘trial’ or ‘hearing’, it boils down to whether there was a hostile Jewish procedure against Jesus, and the details say there was not.
We all have the same information, but the ability to understand it depends on how you look at it. To try another way of looking is “talking like a scientist”, as Wally Cox said on that show almost 45 years ago. Historical Jesus scholars refuse to try any other way of looking at the Gospels, except the one involving Jewish leaders treating Jesus with antagonism. That does not explain the evidence, but failing to explain evidence has never bothered scholars obsessed with ideology. Haim Cohn and myself are the only two people I know of who have taken another look, a different look that explains the evidence much better.
So once again I appeal to writers of all the current TV cop and detective dramas to take a gander at my books (especially True Jew which presents the more compact argument). Tell me whether a purer approach to scientific method has not indeed solved the problem of how Jesus ended up on a Roman cross.
Next month, I will relate an episode of Father Knows Best, about a decade before this Thief program, which also illustrated scientific thinking at its best.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer