Tuesday, September 30, 2003


9/28 -- A follow-up to post below on Jesus' existence.

9/19 -- A specific demonstration of what is wrong with the argument of some atheists that Jesus is an invented character; special attention to Judas' role in Jesus' story; how "fiction" and "myth" function as new varieties of superstition; a comparison to how religious people and scholars are equally oblivious to the evidence in the Gospels.

9/10 -- A Bit of Context for Mel Gibson's film; a brief review of how even very liberal, progressive films about Jesus blame Jews for Jesus' death; the most historically accurate film was Nicholas Ray's 1961 "King of Kings" which did not blame Jewish leaders at all; Jews should study the Gospels more.

9/6 -- Mel's grab for authenticity; some of the things Gibson has put into his film in order to gain historical credibility.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

(Table of contents for each month published at the end of that month.)


In the post immediately below, I gave an argument, based on specifics, for what is wrong with the claim that Jesus is nothing but an invention. There is also a more general problem with this assertion of fiction that is worth going over.

To have made up Jesus, someone who never existed, would have been an incredible con job. The perpetrator(s) would have had to deceive not just generations to come (relatively easy to do), but more difficultly, their own generation in the 1st century, who would have been familiar with the events and personalities of the times. Could one person get away with such a fraud? Wouldn't he need back up confirmation for his false tale? I think it takes more than one to pull this kind of thing off. How many? Ten? Twenty? Just how big a conspiracy would it take?

And wouldn't someone at the time have noticed that they were being swindled? Wouldn't there be at least one pagan or Jewish source who said that he knew for a fact that there had been no Jesus of Nazareth who went to Jerusalem, etc., etc.? (E.g., my father or grandfather lived in Jerusalem at that time and he doesn't remember these events.) How did the conspirators so successfully suppress all rumors about the truth?

The slander that disciples stole and hid Jesus' body in order to fake the resurrection survived and made it into Matthew's Gospel (27:64). But we are supposed to believe that the "truth" of Jesus as a fabrication was completely covered up? It is such a fantastic assertion that Jesus never existed, that it is difficult to believe anyone could make it and seriously think they do not have to explain -- with hard evidence -- how such a deception succeeded.

Understand that I have no problem in principle with the idea that Jesus is an invention. If there was good evidence for it, I would be happy to go where it leads. Same goes for Moses. What I have a problem with is junk science -- the arrogant belief that you can just make assertions and proudly proclaim, "We don't need no stinking evidence!" (By the way, that is not the exact line from the Humphrey Bogart movie, though everyone quotes it this way. It goes more like this: "We don't got badges. Who needs badges? We don't got to show you no stinking badges." That's not exactly it either, but the last two lines are right, I believe.)

By comparison, in my own work, I claim that I can prove something that flies in the face of 2,000 years of tradition, but I have evidence. I can prove that Jewish leaders actually tried to save Jesus' life, that Judas never betrayed him, and more. Blaming Jewish leaders for his death is a false accusation. I can explain how that false charge came to have the status of fact. I can explain how western civilization came to believe such a preposterously false idea. I can explain where it started, how it grew, and how everyone blinded themselves to the original, true story. I can lay out the evidence for the true story and explain how it survived without anyone noticing.

I do not just assert that the traditional story is false. I prove it based on solid evidence. That's what genuine science is about. The assertion that Jesus is pure myth is pseudo-science. Real science demonstrates the truth of a theory by showing how it accounts for the evidence. In the end, it must be simple and obvious -- so obvious and so simple that it makes you exclaim, "How the hell did we miss that?"

Friday, September 19, 2003

(Table of Contents for each month published on the last day of that month; Mel Gibson in the two posts immediately below this one.)


I was recently shocked to discover some atheists on the Internet arguing that Jesus is a complete fiction and so is the entire Bible. There may be bits of history there, they said, but it is mostly pure mythology. I was surprised to hear anybody attempt to argue for this. I thought it was a dead issue and silly to boot.

I asked them to supply evidence for their assertion. They said they did not need evidence. They didn't have to prove a thing. It was up to me to prove that Jesus did exist. Which I could easily do. But I was jolted by their inability to grasp a basic point. Every proposition in a genuine scientific endeavor needs evidence. The claim of fiction is no exception. You cannot just assert it.

These atheists (I cannot say if this is true for all atheists) practice their own brand of superstition -- i.e., they hold a worldview which disregards evidence and logic. For them, "Fiction" and "Myth" are superstitious entities which explain everything and which do not require evidence. I am still appalled that anyone could believe this and call themselves rational.

I do not claim that the Gospels are completely true. There are too many inconsistencies to maintain that. But I do think it is fairly obvious that most of their details are true, with little bits of fiction in some places to slant the story in a different direction from the original history. This is the most rational way to read the Gospels because it resolves the known contradictions and other problems.

Since I hate general arguments, I brought it down to particulars. I proposed the following to these atheists. Jesus' story has many components to it. Let's take it feature by feature. And the first one to look at might be Judas, the alleged traitor. I demonstrated that the story of Judas could not possibly be complete fiction (partly fictional, yes; completely, no). To assert that his story is pure invention leads to too many contradictions and to evidence unaccounted for.

I have discussed this many times before (a more complete discussion is in "Blaming Jewish Leaders" on my Web site), so to sum up briefly here: As is well-known by now (thanks largely to William Klassen), the Greek Gospels do not say that Judas betrayed Jesus. It is a mistranslation of a neutral word, having no connotation of treachery. Except for Luke 6:16, nowhere do any of the Gospels use the word for betray to tell about Judas' action. This is a bizarre way to tell the story of a traitor.

In addition, there are other things the Gospels do not give us which you would expect in a story of betrayal (this lack is especially evident in Mark): No motive for the act (except a paltry one hinted at in Matthew), no conflict between Judas and Jesus to make sense of it (only John tries to make up for this in a flimsy way), and no recriminations against Judas afterwards.

This is no way to tell the story of a traitor. As fiction, this makes no sense at all. No Greek speaking person in the 1st century could possibly figure out from Mark's version that Judas is supposed to have committed a treacherous act. Mark's story is mostly innocuous and sometimes ambiguous, lacking anything overt to accuse Judas of wrong-doing.

The most rational conclusion is that Judas was a real person and quite innocent. (There is more to Judas' story which I discuss in my book.) I asked these atheists to provide some evidence that the Gospel account of Judas fits a pattern that fictional stories would be told in. So far they have not responded.

It is possible in this way to demonstrate that all the stories in Jesus' life are more likely historically grounded than not.

Religious people have their own set of problems. They are no less emotional than atheists who can be quite fanatical. Religious people are devoted to tradition and do not like it when you point out that, in a number of important places, tradition departs from what the Gospels actually say. I give them the same information about Judas and they get upset. I will sometimes point out that I am not trying to gain full acceptance for my points. After all, I present the full case only in my unpublished book. All I want to find out now is whether anyone is excited to learn what the original Gospels say and whether they think these problems (like the mistranslation) are worth pondering. I do not often get a resounding yes.

The religious will usually say something like "So what? It doesn't make a difference. It doesn't matter if a word was mistranslated and if Mark or any other Gospel does not really explain the betrayal. Judas was still a traitor. We know he was a traitor because ... we know it." Like atheists knowing that everything is myth. There is a strong emotional attachment to the idea of Judas as a traitor. But who will admit this? Who will talk about it?

Often, the faithful will latch onto one verse or one word and say, "Doesn't this point to Judas being a traitor?" Well, yes, it might, if you take it out of context. But look at how much you are tossing aside. The pattern of evidence I presented above is powerful. You don't dismiss that in favor of one piece of evidence. Not if you claim to be rational.

I never feel compelled to explain 100% of the evidence. If I can, in a very simple way, without contortions, account for 90%, I think I'm doing pretty good. People who claim that explaining 10% or less of the evidence is a valid approach ... well, we're just not playing in the same band.

John 13:27 and Luke 22:3 say the devil made Judas do it. That's an emotional charge. To this day, religious people are still influenced by these emotions. They read the Gospels through a screen of assumptions and emotions that were created long ago. As Krister Stendahl has written, "What has happened to Christianity is that instead of having free access to the original, we have lived in a sort of chain reaction ... moving away from the original" ("Paul Among Jews and Gentiles", p. 72). He concludes this passage by saying, "The original is there, and to return to it is to be a true son or daughter of the Reformation."

This moving away from the original because of an emotional attachment (to tradition and other factors) is no different in the official world of scholarship. Most scholars, if not all, admit that William Klassen is right about that mistranslation, but they refuse to look at the possible significance of it.

Raymond Brown, a very conservative, Catholic scholar, insists (his word) that betray is indeed a mistranslation ("The Death of the Messiah", p. 1399; see pp. 211-13 for his basic discussion), but he still treats Judas as a traitor, as if the mistranslation did not exist. John Meier also acknowledges the mistranslation, but says that "for the sake of convenience and convention" he will sometimes still use the terminology of betrayal ("A Marginal Jew", Vol. 3, p. 178, n. 67). This is rational scholarship?

(Meier switches back and forth between "hand over" and "betray". At one point [p. 208], he says that we know only two basic facts about Judas: 1) he was one of the twelve, and 2) he handed Jesus over to the authorities. He later states that "his real motives are forever lost to us" [p. 630]. In other words, Meier is admitting that the neutral "hand over" [I would prefer "convey"] tells us nothing about the why of the act, and if it tells us nothing, that means it could just as well have been positive in nature. But by continuing to use "betray", Meier is injecting a third item of "knowledge" -- he is making it a matter of assumption instead of proving it based on the evidence. I, of course, do not agree that Judas' motives are forever lost. With careful analysis of the evidence, it is possible to recover exactly what happened and prove Judas' innocence. But Meier, Brown, and the majority of scholars make it impossible to see the evidence, let alone analyze it, by prejudicing our perceptions with the continued use of "betray".)

I could go on and on with plenty of examples like this of scholars inserting something into the Gospels that is not there. That's partly what my book is for. Here is just one more. E.P. Sanders admits that all the information in the Gospels shows that Jesus had a very positive relationship to the Temple: "The few passages in the synoptics that deal with the Temple and priestly prerogatives are favourable ... " ("The Historical Figure of Jesus", p. 256). A couple of pages later, Sanders turns around and writes , "I shall assume that he threateningly predicted the destruction of the Temple" (p. 258; "threateningly predicted" is in italics, which I cannot do on this blog). Where does that whopping big assumption, in contradiction to the evidence, come from? I can only guess that it comes from a traditional need to see Jesus in opposition to something Jewish.

You see this need all the time in writings on the Gospels. For example, I discussed how badly scholars misuse the Good Samaritan parable in my post for Aug. 26 ("Chutzpah, Love, and Humility"). When Jesus tells this story, Donald Spoto writes, "Jesus' listeners were surprised at the turn the story then took, for the Samaritan traveler ... enemy of everything Jewish ,,, then became the hero of the parable" ("The Hidden Jesus", p. 129). There is not even a hint in Luke's passage that anyone was shocked or surprised at Jesus' lesson, or obsessed with enemies of Jews. But Spoto's kind of rewriting of the Gospels is so popular, and so little protest is made against it, that I fear that most Christians are very comfortable and happy with it. Telling the truth about what the Gospels really say does not make anyone happy.

And to get back to the Temple: How many scholars will tell us that the altercation with the vendors and moneychangers at the Temple is what really got Jesus in trouble and neglect to even consider that it is never brought up as a charge against him at the so-called trial? How many scholars will place this incident in the context of Jewish history where other Pharisees and rabbis made far more severe criticisms of some Temple practices and no one ever persecuted them as a result? (Actually, a very few do this last one and some even realize that Jesus did not get into trouble for his mild criticism, but most scholars still avoid looking at the historical context.)

You could die of thirst if you wait for someone in Gospel scholarship to come up with a rational argument for anything concerning how Jesus came to die. There is no one to make the rational music of scientific investigation with. There is just a constant reassertion of old emotional prejudices and attachments. Jesus must be surrounded by Jewish enemies and traitors, he must be religiously offensive to Jews, he must be a religious martyr. God forbid that he was exclusively a victim of Rome. We don't need evidence that Jesus was done in by Jewish leaders and Jewish religious issues. The knowledge that comes from a worldview/theology always trumps evidence.

Without evidence and without the love to rediscover Jesus' love for his own Jewish religion and fellow Jews and Jewish institutions, you will never make the most truthful music about his life -- a music that responds to the evidence as recorded in the Gospels. Seek that music and you form a band of one.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

(A table of contents for the month is published on the last entry of each month.)


People seem to forget that "The Passion" is not the first Jesus film. They forget that other films have portrayed Jesus among his fellow Jews (though you would not know there is any fellow feeling in most of these films). On the issue of Jewish responsibilty for Jesus' death, no film (with one exception which I will get to) has done a good job. They all tend to blame Jews -- either the crowd or leaders, or both -- far more than Rome. Gibson's "The Passion" is just the new kid on the block.

I find it hard to imagine that Gibson's film will be worse than any of the others. It might be better. I don't know. I haven't seen it. As I said, just about every Jesus film that has ever been done blames Jews and plays down Pontius Pilate's inclinations towards Jesus. This is true even of the more liberal portraits.

Look at "Jesus Christ Superstar". Admittedly, it does not play up the Jew thing. It is about Jesus and Judas, and how his disciples feel about him, with some beautiful songs to evoke their mood. But the machinating Jewish priests look evil in their black garb. They fret over Jesus. Pilate is extremely reluctant to do the deed and seems to have quite a conscience about it and his place in history (he has bad dreams). Pilate's reluctance is always a feature of the story as it is traditionally told.

This Pilate defends Jesus when the crowd (of Jews) demands his death. Pilate sings: "He's done no wrong, no, not the slightest thing ... This man is harmless ... just misguided." It is quite a long plea. He wants to let Jesus off with a flogging but the crowd won't have it. No Jewish leader pleads for Jesus.

Or look at the exquisitely beautiful French-Canadian film "Jesus of Montreal" (1989), directed by Denys Arcand. When the actors put on their Passion Play, Pilate pronounces Jesus "Harmless" and the high priest Caiaphas responds, "He's a menace." That's how it always goes.

Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" was controversial for other reasons (wrongly so because no one noticed how Catholic it is in its theology), but the picture he paints of mutual hostility between Jesus and other Jews (leaders and ordinary Jews) is not pretty, though he did get things right in one respect.

The trial, beating, and crucifixion of Jesus in Scorcese's film are exclusively Roman. And that's about the end of historical accuracy here. Most of the crowd (presumably Jews) at the crucifixion and on the way there are laughing and enjoying themselves, with some openly mocking Jesus. Prior to this, there are several scenes of intense hostility between Jesus and other Jews, culminating in the altercation at the Temple. Most of the hostility seems to come from Jesus who is angry at the stupidity, or spiritual blindness, of these people.

In Jerusalem, he is fiercely opposed to the Temple (whereas, in the Gospels, he is fiercely in love with it). He condemns this institution as entirely too ethnic. Scorcese gives Jesus some outrageous dialogue here. Jesus deliberately provokes and offends Jews. He calls himself God ("When I say 'I', Rabbi, I'm saying 'God'") and declares, "I'm the saint of blasphemy." But most shocking of all for me is the immediately following scene where Jesus spurns those who want to be healed by him and scorns them, "Don't touch me. You're filled with hate. Get away. God won't help you." Is there anything in the Gospels like this?

Scorcese at least had the excuse that his film was based on a novel and not directly on the Gospels. He most of all could claim to be making a film about his faith -- his vision of the meaning of Jesus -- and not about history.

The only film that got it almost completely right was Nicholas Ray's 1961 "King of Kings". He is the only one who put the Romans up front and center. The priests almost disappear from the film. The Jewish "trial" isn't there. He skips the Temple incident too. Ray puts it all on Pontius Pilate.

The high priest Caiaphas appears in only four scenes. In the first, he says (referring to John the Baptist), "We have found it wiser to ignore the ravings of false prophets ..." In another scene, he tells Pilate that he is reluctant (now there's a switch!) to do anything about Jesus until he learns more about him. In his last scene, he finally calls Jesus a threat, but immediately adds "we will bide our time."

No Jewish leaders plot against Jesus in this film. Instead, it is a Roman officer who reports to Pilate on Jesus' activities. It's Romans who worry about Jewish rebellion. And it all leads up to Pilate telling Jesus, "I and I alone have the authority to sentence you to be crucified, or flogged, or to set you free."

No film has ever done this much to exonerate the Jews and correct the traditional story by placing Romans at the head of the persecution class. Nicholas Ray ought to have received a medal just for making the most unique film about Jesus, let alone for making the most historically accurate.

Well, I doubt that Mel Gibson will come up to this level. But, as I also said, I doubt that his will be worse than any other film. He is being picked on for being the newest one, and also because it comes at a time when there is increased incidents of antisemitism, especially in the Middle East and in Europe. I think we Jews are right to be concerned.

But I will also say this to my fellow Jews: It is no good to shout and scream everytime a crisis occurs, such as the cultural event that Gibson's film represents, if we do not also seek the deeper causes of what is going on before the crisis hits. If Jews really want to fight the antisemitism that comes from misuse of the Gospels, then we have to take more of an interest in the Gospels and learn what they really say. We also have to spend more time learning what is in rabbinic literature so that we can understand Jesus the Jew who appears in the pages of the Gospels.

Most Jews have no interest in studying the Gospels or learning about the Jewish history and religion of the 1st century (whether from a source like Josephus or from rabbinic literature). We have almost given up on it. Just consider the way Christians have taken over the field of the Dead Sea Scrolls -- which are Jewish documents!! Almost any book on this subject will be found in the Christian section of your bookstore, not the Jewish section.

Historically, there have always been good reasons for Jews to ignore the Gospels. The fears that someone was out to convert them were often justified. I discuss this and other fears in an essay on my Web site (with a separate essay on Christian fears). But if Jews want to get really serious about having dialogue with Christians and defeating antisemitism at the source by pointing out when the Gospels are being misused and when people are misstating what is in them and making them more anti-Jewish than they are, then we will have to devote some time to learning what the Gospels actually say. We will have to study them very slowly and very carefully.

You may be shocked at what a Jewish guy Jesus was, with Jewish jokes, chutzpah and all. And you will definitely be shocked to find out how much his fellow Jews tried to help him and tried to stop that Roman execution. When will we see a film about that? And who will object to its being made?

Saturday, September 06, 2003

(Contents for each month are publlished on the last day of the month.)


Some people are saying that "The Passion" should not be judged as a film about history, but as an expression of faith -- what Jesus' death and resurrection mean to Mel Gibson. This is not a claim that, strictly speaking, Gibson himself can make. He is taking some pains to gain historical credibility for his film.

The use of Aramaic is one sign of this. He is attempting to go behind the Greek or Latin text of the Gospels and deliver Jesus' original language -- quite a departure from any Catholic tradition.

Gibson is also going against the Gospels in another important way. Someone who has seen the rough cut of "The Passion" says that he presents a couple of Jewish leaders defending Jesus at the so-called Jewish trial. The Gospels do not give Jesus any defenders at the "trial". So why is Gibson putting them in? (At least one other film has done this; I believe it was "The Greatest Story Ever Told" [1965], directed by George Stevens; also, Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 "Jesus of Nazareth" may have done this too, but I can't recall at the moment.)

I think there are two reasons motivating Gibson: 1) he wants to do something conciliatory for Jews, and 2) he has probably learned that, under real Jewish trial rules for a capital case, there had to be at least one judge (of the 24 hearing the case) arguing for the defendant, as unanimous verdicts for guilt were not allowed (this was possibly the world's first right to a defense counsel). So Gibson is willing to correct the Gospels, if it will gain him greater historical authenticity and make a better impression on those concerned with fighting antisemitism.

Also, I believe that Gibson realizes that the spectacle of a bunch of Jews completely united in condemning Jesus would be ghastly and could have terrible consequences. It would make his film no better than the worst Passion Plays that have ever been done. He wants to do better than that.

Parts of the film will be an expression of his faith, but clearly, parts will be aimed at being historically correct. Will it be a satisfying combination? I really have no idea. But I do know that once you start playing around with historical truth, you cannot close the door after you have admitted a limited amount. Once it is opened, it is opened, and Gibson, who has opened it, will have to bear the criticism for not going all the way.

You may have noticed above that I keep saying "so-called trial" or "trial" (i.e., in quotes). I do this because there was no Jewish trial or any Jewish judicial procedure (such as an imagined hearing, as some scholars like to claim). I have established this beyond all reasonable doubt in my unpublished book. The reason why I continually and obnoxiously remind everyone of this is simply this:

Secular scholars and religious authorities have maintained the traditional story of a hostile judicial procedure against Jesus by sheer repetition. They muster no facts, no good reasoning, no historical context to justify it. They think that if they continually repeat something, it will become true. This constant repetition is one way invisible power operates and maintains itself. To defeat it, you have to expose it. In reality, this impromptu, informal meeting of Jewish leaders was an attempt to rescue Jesus from a Roman execution. A superabundance of Gospel clues supports this. Calling it a "trial" only serves to further this repetition of power. I have to put it in quotes or use "so-called" to break the spell. An attempted rescue is what it was and, one day, that is what the world will come to call it.

In the next couple of days, I will post a brief discussion setting Mel Gibson's film in the context of previous films about Jesus (it will be the post above this one). As you will see, I doubt very much that Gibson's will be worse than any other.

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