Friday, October 31, 2003


10/29 -- Some examples of how emotions influence what facts we see; conservative Christians on not blaming Jews for Jesus' death; Michel-Rolph Trouillot; Elaine Pagels' "Beyond Belief"; why I was sarcastic on the previous post.

10/17 -- Trivial and annoying facts in the Gospels; i.e., facts which exonerate Judas and Jewish leaders; Elaine Pagels on Judas.

10/13 -- Thinking, emotions, and power; Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; Michel-Rolph Trouillot on power and historical study; English colonists, the Bible, and the Promised Land.

10/9 -- Emotions and reason; the emotions in this history; the injustice of erasing people from history; the song "Ghost Dance"; Antonio Damasio; the goal is exposing emotions, rather than a battle of emotions, and achieving a battle of evidence.

10/4 -- Unhappiness with some parts of tradition makes you seek the truth; the silenced voices of history.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

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


When someone is emotionally on your side, it is very easy to convince them of the facts. Once upon a time, only a bare generation ago, it was extremely difficult to convince Christians that the Jewish people were not responsible for the death of Jesus. Now it is easy. Even very conservative Christians are happy to acknowledge this "new" truth because the false accusation against Jews in general has become an embarrassment to Christianity. Conservative Christians are with me on this point even before I finish the sentence. I will return to this a little further on.

Reach people emotionally and you're more than halfway there. We have all had this experience. This brings me full circle back to the point I made four posts back (on Oct. 4) when I started this tour of how emotions and reason work together.

Consider two almost completely opposite experiences I had in discussing the Gospels with people. Several years ago, I met a woman in my neighborhood drugstore where I go to photocopy my writings (the copy machine made beautiful, perfect copies when it was new and that lasted about a year). She asked me what I was copying. I said it was a book I am writing. What's it about?, she asked. History, I said. What kind of history?, she wanted to know. She was not going to stop pulling information out of me until I gave her the goods.

Finally, I told her it was about the historical Jesus and how he died. She got very excited and wanted to know more. Usually I'm reluctant to get into detailed conversations because I have to explain everything from the ground up. But she was a church-going woman, so I gathered. She knew the Bible, at least the traditional accounts of Barabbas, Judas, and other figures. She had just been next door at the hairdresser's talking about Jesus with another woman.

I told her the original Barabbas story (which I have not explained here on this blog or on my Web site, as I am saving it for my book, but it is a key point in resolving some of the problems in understanding how Jesus ended up on a Roman cross). My account varies from the traditional one, but she was very happy to hear it. I think this was because she was black and what I had to say corresponded with something in her experience as a black person in America. Untraditional as it was, my argument made sense to her -- emotionally first and then logically.

I moved on to Judas and the mistranslation of "paradidomi" which does not mean betray. Judas was no traitor. This she did not want to hear. "I know he was betrayed!" If her eyes and voice could have become hands, I think she would have ripped my head off. She was ablaze when she stormed out of the store. She wasn't going to give up the betrayal story. I never even got to tell her about all the other evidence concerning Judas.

I don't think she was attached to Judas as traitor so much as she was attached to a Jesus who is betrayed by someone close to him. She needed to believe in this Jesus. It goes very deep into what she believes about his sufferings. Perhaps she felt Jesus too needs healing and needs her love.

I had the opposite experience with another woman who loved what I had to say about Judas but was initially averse to my ideas about Barabbas. An Episcopalian priest and a professor of religion, she maintained a correspondence with me for many months. Almost instantly, it seemed, she responded very positively to my revelations about an innocent Judas. That was because she already empathized with him. She thought that perhaps he had gotten a raw deal, perhaps he had been too vilified.

On the other hand, she was not too happy with my Barabbas story and that surprised me. It seemed to violate her sense of Jesus as the Innocent Lamb of God. Without going into details, I will just say that I think she eventually accepted my argument, but it took a lot of convincing on my part. And if she had not been prepared ahead of time to regard Judas in a sympathetic light, I'd probably still be arguing with her, assuming she was even willing to continue the conversation.

If people are not there emotionally first, you will never get them on your side in any intellectual discourse, no matter how rational both of you think you are. People are not willing to see any facts unless they are happy to, or, at least, unless they are emotionally secure about it. If there is any threat whatsoever, seeing facts is automatically shut down. Emotions rule. Worldviews, based on emotions, rule. They win over the facts, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot, whom I've quoted in earlier posts, has said ("Silencing the Past", p. 93).

I've had some recent experiences on the Internet with very conservative Christians, which bears out this point. When I tell them that Jewish leaders did not persecute Jesus and, in fact, tried to save his life, they naturally are not too happy to hear this (and they are equally incensed by the suggestion that Judas did not betray Jesus). They tell me that what I'm saying is illogical; it defies the plain, common sense reading of the Gospels. It is so obvious to them that the Gospels say Jewish leaders conspired to kill Jesus. I'm rewriting the Gospels, they say. When I tell them that it is they who are rewriting the Gospels -- that the traditional story depends on selecting bits and pieces from the Gospels and erasing a wealth of other Gospel information -- they are aghast.

Their arguments against me are exactly the same that Christians used only a generation ago to insist that the Gospels say that the Jews -- the Jewish people, not just leaders -- killed Jesus. Just a generation back, an overwhelming majority of Christians believed that the Jewish people should be blamed for Jesus' death. Before World War II, it was impossible to make any headway on this issue. And after the war, it still took ten to twenty years for things to only begin to change.

Boy, have they changed on this one point. These same conservative Christians, who censure me for arguing that Jewish leaders did not plot to kill Jesus, are very happy to agree that the Jewish people must not be blamed. I don't even have to give any evidence for exonerating Jews generally. I just have to say that the Gospels are not as anti-Jewish as they have been made out to be and that they contain a lot of evidence to show the positive relationship between Jesus and other Jews, and these highly conservative Christians are already happily agreeing -- without my giving any evidence to substantiate it!!!

Why? Because blaming all Jews has become a black mark on Christianity. The most conservative Christians can see that. It makes them very unhappy. They are tired of hearing that the Gospels are antisemitic. They want to hear that the Gospels are basically pro-Jewish. This they desire. This makes them happy. Now it does. But not a generation ago. Now it makes them very happy to remove this stain from Christian teachings. So they are willing to listen to what the Gospels really say.

Yet respecting Judas and Jewish leaders, they are still very happy to accuse them. This injustice doesn't make them miserable. They don't feel any injustice here. They are quite willing to use the same arguments that were previously used against the entire people. So they brush aside every fact that I offer.

(By the way, conservative Christians especially do not like hearing that the Gospel of John is the most anti-Jewish of the Gospels. John is a complicated story. As I noted in the post just below this, it actually contains many hints about how positively Jewish leaders treated Jesus. I would never pigeonhole John as antisemitic. But John does create an aura of demonizing Jews by frequently mentioning "Ioudaioi" (Jews) in a negative light, as if they were a people completely alien to Jesus. So what ploy do conservatives use to escape this? They have simply decided that by "Ioudaioi", John does not mean Jews generally but only Jewish leaders. That is a very odd claim because, if true, John would have been using the word "Ioudaioi" in a way that no other ancient writer did and, thus, no one of his time could possibly have understood what he meant. His own generation and those thereafter took him to mean Jews generally. Conservatives today have to rewrite him to resolve their unhappiness with this. But the really good news and accurate news that John in Chapter 18 offers quite a bit to destigmatize Jewish leaders is not something they want to hear.)

It is always emotions that propel us forward -- to honestly examine the facts (or not), to look, to see, to find. If you never become unhappy with the status quo, you are never going to look for anything else. You will never see an injustice until you feel it first. Elaine Pagels in her most recent book "Beyond Belief" (2003) provides an excellent case in point.

She recounts how, as a teenager, she joined an evangelical group (pp. 30-31). She was very happy to be part of "the right group, the true 'flock' that alone belonged to God" and to enjoy the orthodox interpretation of Christianity. It never occurred to her, she later says (p. 117), that, for example, John could be read any other way than the one way it is usually read. Only years later did she realize how successful the founding Fathers of the Catholic tradition had been in getting everyone to unconsciously accept just one point of view. Prior to that, she was content.

Then came the day that a close friend (Jewish, as it happens) was killed in an automobile accident. Her religious friends commiserated but told her that this friend was not going to heaven (p. 31). She was upset, "no longer at home in their world". Now some unhappiness started to creep in and she started seeking. That's how it always goes.

She left the group. When she went to college, her instincts were good. She studied ancient Greek because she wanted to get closer to the original Gospels. She wanted to get to the source.

But it is not enough to learn Greek to get closer to the original contents of the Gospels. You can never get close to a source until you shed the preconceptions that prevent you from reading that source as freshly as possible. That is a lesson that Pagels eventually learned, at least partially, as you will see.

Soon Pagels heard about lost writings that had been suppressed by the early Church. She discovered that there were other ways to read the Gospels. In Chapter 2, she does a good job at explaining that not only is John anti-Jewish in some ways, but in other ways, it is, in a sense, an anti-Christian Gospel (this is my description) in that John was fighting other Christian groups which had a different interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' life and death.

What Pagels is doing in "Beyond Belief" is challenging one worldview which she was raised in: "In my own case, the hardest -- and the most exciting -- thing about research into Christian beginnings has been to unlearn what I thought I knew, and to shed presuppositions I had taken for granted" (p. 181). That is the very height of what any scientist, scholar, historian can achieve. As the 9th century Chinese Zen master Huang Po said, a wise man rejects what he thinks, not what he sees (I would rather say, questions what he thinks, but I'll take Huang Po's version); the fool rejects what he sees, not what he thinks. To learn to see without thinking. Isn't that what Goethe meant when he said that thinking is more interesting than knowing, but just looking is even more interesting? And Pagels makes it very clear that emotional difficulties impelled her on her new course of looking at the facts afresh. It could not happen any other way.

But unwittingly, Pagels also makes it clear that another worldview still clings to her. There is still that need to surround Jesus with lethal Jewish enemies and to brush aside -- to not even see -- any facts that whisper a different story. As I noted in the previous post, she repeatedly calls Judas' act a betrayal, never acknowledging that, for one thing, there has been a serious mistranslation here.

She also takes it for granted that the altercation at the Temple is what got Jesus in trouble and that it belongs "at the end of Jesus' life, when it must logically have happened ..." (p. 118). There's nothing logical about it, except that a worldview tells you so. The Gospel facts do not support it as solidly as she thinks. "[T]o unlearn what I thought I knew, and to shed presuppositions I had taken for granted" is something Pagels is going to have to learn again. I am pretty sure that will not happen until something makes her unhappy with the traditional story.

What Pagels learned regarding one worldview is this: If you give up the emotional security that goes with it (or rather, if giving it up is thrust upon you), it will be replaced by another emotional security. Pagels now seems to take as much pleasure in discovering diversity in Christian origins as she once took in uniformity. There's a lesson in that.

I know very well that people are not going to give up one thing (e.g., Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies) unless they are sure that they can securely grab a hold of something else (e.g., the beauty of Jesus in harmony with fellow Jews). It is not wrong to want to feel good. We all want that. But there are some kinds of feeling good that lead to dominion over others, their culture and history, and to telling lies about that history.

I hold out to people the hope that if you lose feeling good about Jewish leaders persecuting and betraying Jesus -- or, feeling good by identifying with a Jesus who is so religiously persecuted -- you will gain feeling good about justice for Jewish leaders, for Judas, for Jewish history and culture, and for the Gospel writers who have not been read with careful attention by anyone in 2,000 years.

If you have been reading these posts and wondered why I waxed so sarcastic on the last one, I myself only belatedly realized that I probably did it for this reason: No change, no justice, no truth is ever going to come until people become unhappy with injustice and falsehood. And sarcasm is one way, just one, of trying to make that happen. The task before me is that I have to, in a very real sense, make people unhappy by stinging them with facts that prick the conscience, and then quickly offer them a new happiness. Better the unhappiness created by sarcasm than that created by the violence that inevitably comes from continuing injustice. Without some degree of unhappiness, justice just ain't a-gonna happen.

Some of us are pretty sure of what we are doing, even if we have some trepidations. I have my fears that a quest for justice can backfire if those in power are so offended and angry at the threat to their domain that they lash out at the people (Jews) who will benefit the most from this justice. I am not a hundred percent sure that my work will have beneficial results. I believe that ultimately, generations hence, it will. I am not so sure about immediately.

But I am fairly certain that my analysis of the facts is the fullest and most rational, and yields the truest picture of the historical Jesus. I am quite sure that no one has a better theory of how he came to die. Yet those who believe that there is no history in the Gospels, that it must all be read as a myth of salvation, and that the Christ of faith trumps any historical Jesus, are equally sure of themselves.

Then there is the great middle camp of people who are pulled both ways. They do not know what to choose. They will suffer the most. They don't want to lose Christ and they don't want to dishonor the historical man, Jesus, and continue any injustices that arise from that. I cannot ease their confusion. All I can offer them is the satisfaction of knowing (trusting) that they stand on the verge of a new era of justice and faith.

Friday, October 17, 2003

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


Question: When I point out, following William Klassen (and the majority of scholars who agree with him), that the Greek word "paradidomi" is mistranslated as betray, how many people regard this fact as trivial and annoying? Certainly Raymond Brown and John Meier do because though they fully admit the word does not mean betray (see Sept. 19 post), with even greater vigor, they still judge Judas to be a traitor of some sort. The mistranslation is tossed aside.

If Klassen and I further point out that Mark never presents any conflict or motive or anything else to put Judas in a bad light, how many consider this fact equally annoying and trivial? Could any facts dislodge the prior conviction that Judas did something wrong? Are all facts that contradict long-held tradition trivial and annoying?

Who has the power to decide what is trivial and annoying? That was the question posed by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, the Haitian historian whose work I presented on the last post.

There are a lot of facts in the Gospels like this. Trivial. Annoying. Everyone thinks that the Gospels as a whole say that Caiaphas, the high priest in office, questioned Jesus on that last night before he was crucified. It is said to be a trial, no less -- another fact everyone assumes.

But the Gospels as a whole do not name Caiaphas. Only Matthew does. Luke and Mark name no one. In their so-called trial scenes, they never give the identity of the high priest. But John makes it Annas, who would have been a retired high priest. So the Gospels as a whole present a 50-50 case between Caiaphas and Annas.

Is this fact also trivial and annoying? John's account makes some sense because Caiaphas, the official high priest, would more likely have been busy with his Passover duties. So assigning this to a retired high priest seems appropriate. But if an ex-high priest handled this, was this most probably an informal, not very serious matter to the Jewish leaders? Much like having an ex-President today conduct an unofficial, diplomatic mission, a retired high priest also suggests a situation requiring diplomacy rather than a hostile judicial proceeding. But this suggestion annoys the hell out of a hell of a lot of people.

We know it was a minor case to the Romans from the fact that Jesus was the only one they arrested and executed. No one else from his group was picked up. This is not how Romans handled rebel leaders who caused a significant disturbance. Or is Jesus being the only one executed also a trivial fact that gets in the way of right thinking?

These trivial facts start to form a pattern, another way to see things. No wonder they are annoying.

Not only is Jesus questioned by a retired high priest in John, John also describes an extremely mild questioning of Jesus. Jesus is not accused of anything. Apparently just some questions about what he is teaching, as if the priests hardly knew anything about him (and cared less, one might easily imagine). No parade of witnesses in John, no pronouncement of a final verdict of death (these items are missing as well from Luke's Jewish "trial" scene). This does not sound like any kind of judicial procedure anyone has ever heard of before.

Are these facts about John's narrative also trivial and annoying? Luke too? He's annoying and trivial?

Everybody "knows", or assumes, that Jewish leaders put Jesus on trial or some kind of accusatory interrogation and that this is what the Gospels as a whole say. But, as it turns out, not all the Gospels say this. Is it trivial and annoying to point this out? I guess it is, if you love the traditional story. If you are attached to it. If you are devoted to it.

And why is Jesus put through this supposed trial? Well, the Gospels are not very clear about this. (Could that be because a trial never happened?) But the all time popular, scholarly answer is that the Temple incident (overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers and vendors) is what got Jesus in trouble.

Then explain this: Mark and Matthew, who appear to relate the most vicious examination of Jesus, never bring up this incident in their "trial" scenes. Jesus is never charged with the offense that so many people say fixed his fate.

Lazy, stupid Jewish priests? I guess. Or, if they did so charge Jesus, then lazy, stupid Mark and Matthew for not remembering to report it. Anyway, it's missing. Jesus is never accused of his supposedly big crime.

Is it trivial and annoying to take note of this Gospel fact too? A lot of people react this way when I bring it up.

Not everything in the Gospels is as it is supposed to be, given what tradition has said for 2,000 years and scholars have endlessly repeated. Trivial? Annoying?

Who has the power to decide what facts are important? There is a pattern to these facts that are always dismissed. There is a system determining what gets called trivial (or worse, erased) by the keepers of tradition. This is not an accident that so many facts exonerating Jewish leaders are routinely trashed. And I am only scratching the surface here. My unpublished book tells the whole story.

Not all scholars and theologians and religious officials are equal contributors to this system of power. Some are more ruthless than others in making sure that no fact contradicting their outlook gets heard. But the real measure of success of the powers who decide what is trivial (or erased altogether) is that even well-meaning scholars who should know better are roped into it. Accepting the standard account of what is trivial and what is important becomes an unconscious part of all of us. It becomes invisible, as Trouillot has said -- like the emotions it springs from, as I would add.

Thus, as good a scholar as Elaine Pagels can repeatedly refer to Judas' act as a betrayal in her most recent book "Beyond Belief" (2003; pp. 18, 26, 39, 61, 109, 122), despite the fact that most scholars now affirm it is an incorrect translation. William Klassen's book on Judas has been around since 1996. The mistranslation was pointed out as long ago as 1881. It can take forever for annoying facts to become a firm part of our knowledge.

And Pagels does this in a book that is dedicated to demonstrating how the earliest powers of the Church tried to obliterate other ways of reading the Gospels. She notes how successful they were. Yes. Indeed. Even today. Destroying ancient documents is not nearly as amazing as getting existing information to disappear right before our eyes. Some ways of grossly misreading the Gospels remain in force, full force.

It wouldn't be hatred that declares certain facts trivial and annoying, would it? It wouldn't be a form of racism, would it? It wouldn't be a tenacious anti-Jewish worldview, would it? It wouldn't be a desire to make sure that Jesus is always surrounded by Jewish enemies, would it? It wouldn't be a need to hold onto evil Jewish leaders as the ones who martyr Jesus for religious reasons, would it? It wouldn't be a need to create lethal religious conflict where none ever existed, would it?

Nah. Those who declare facts trivial and annoying are powerful and good and right. They couldn't be motivated by anything ignoble.

And we who protest are weak and wrong. Our Gospel facts are weak and wrong . . . . . . and annoying. Our facts are emotional, too fussy, in the way of good society and good academia.

The powers that be are, of course, never emotional. Their facts are cold and hard and important. Ours are trivial and annoying and the result of emotion. You see, that's what a desire for justice gets you. It is the cry of the weak and the annoying.

Monday, October 13, 2003

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


Why have I been talking about emotions and reason on the last two posts? Because I want to undermine somebody's faith by showing how emotional it is and how it is not based on facts? No. Because I want to demonstrate that we can never know anything, that it is all emotionally subjective? No. Just the opposite.

It's not emotions that are the problem. It's hidden emotions. Emotions do not ever have to harm the search for objective truth, not if they are honestly confessed. Even fear does not have to block our gaining knowledge, if we acknowledge that fear is having an effect on how we see the evidence. It is only when emotions operate surreptitiously that we are prevented from discovering and knowing what happened in our history.

I want people to think. To use their brains and hearts together. I want people to understand how we know things -- how we gather facts, how we see facts, how we dismiss facts, and how, from what's left, we organize them into patterns. Emotions are crucial in all this. It would not happen without them.

Emotions make certain facts stand out and push others into the dark. We feel our way towards what is significant and what is trivial. Logic doesn't decide that. Significance and triviality are emotional issues.

Understanding all this means understanding how our thinking works and understanding how it works means we can improve it. How do we know things? How do we make mistakes in our knowledge? How are we guided towards selecting and ignoring facts? Who decides what is important and what is not, especially in history? Who has the power to do that?

You cannot be a genuine scientist, historian, or any kind of rational thinker unless you ask these questions and try to understand these things. Making perfectly clear the emotional part of our ability to see and assess evidence is absolutely necessary in order to become better thinkers.

And here is a major point: This is the exact opposite of seeking power. Thinking (thinking well) and power are utterly opposed. What too many scholars and too many general members of the public call thinking is nothing but an attempt to impose one tradition or one set of ideas on the rest of us. Most "thinkers" dismiss or disguise their emotions because they want their emotional outlook to prevail. They need to promote some version of the irrational; this is best accomplished when they can hide its sources.

Bad thinking never wants to unveil how it works. It never wants to bring emotions out into the light of day because it wants above all to maintain power. Bad thinking has an emotional addiction to seeing things a certain way, and for that emotional viewpoint to maintain itself in power, it has to remain hidden. As long as it is not exposed, it holds sway. Put it to the light and ask how precisely it justifies things and its power is diminished.

Good thinking never seeks power. I do not want to propose a theory and have everybody bow down and worship it. It is not right because I say it is right. I want people to think about the evidence I present, more than the theory. The theory is just a vehicle for encouraging thinking. Have you seen this pattern which I offer before? Look at this pattern, not the theory.

Think about it. Does it make sense to you? How complete is it? Have I accounted for most of the evidence? Have I left anything out? Where does the emphasis of each fact lie in this picture? Could you imagine and emphasize things a different way? What makes me emphasize certain facts in a way different than scholars usually do? Can you see other patterns that account for as much of the evidence as mine does? Could you give a good counter-argument for making other facts important?

Is what I say emotionally appealing to you? Is it not? What do your emotions tell you? I do not want to get to where I am going through some secret trick or hidden agenda. My agenda is always going to be right out there. This way, if I am wrong about anything, I can easily be disproven. I want to be overturned if I am wrong. Why? Because my theory is so good that any theory better than mine would be one hell of a theory, and boy, wouldn't I love to see that!

A good thinker should always be tottering and never standing firmly on anyone's head. If a theory is right and fully explains the evidence, you don't need to impose it. Thinking and power just don't go together. Most of our history of thinking, in all areas but especially in historical subjects, is a sad travesty because it is really an attempt to shore up power (usually of one culture over another) and prevent anyone from reexamining and rethinking.

So-called thinking about history usually means cultural and emotional domination. A culture dominates because it has become emotionally appealing and successful. To challenge this dominion means to upset people emotionally -- to challenge what they feel good about. They will fight tooth and nail to preserve their emotional security. (A couple of posts from now, I will return to this and suggest why this emotional unraveling is not the end of the world: Losing one form of emotional security can mean gaining another.)

In history, the importance of a fact is most often based on historical context, but our openness towards the historical context of a particular culture depends on our ability to sympathize with that culture. If you detest or have a low opinion of a culture -- and if you have built this into your own cultural tradition -- you are never going to learn anything about historical context. As a result, you are going to misjudge the importance of facts. Emotions almost entirely dictate our judgments here.

And what happens when you fight for a more accurate understanding of that culture and completely reassess what everyone has regarded as important and not important up to now? No one will admit that you are making them feel emotionally insecure. Instead, you will be accused by the powerful historians in the dominant culture of unfairly trivializing their facts and exaggerating the facts they tried to flush down the toilet. This conflict over what is trivial and what is significant is inevitable.

(The history of Jesus is obviously a very emotional subject, making it difficult to assess the evidence, but this sometimes happens in other areas too. Just think of the huge controversy over whether Thomas Jefferson had a black slave as a mistress. Especially before the DNA evidence was discovered. So many white scholars were outraged at the evidence that black scholars presented. They said it was all circumstantial, meaning it was trivial. Most interestingly, the DNA evidence does not prove that Thomas Jefferson is the ancestor of some black people today. It only proves that someone in the Jefferson family, perhaps a brother, begot all those children with Sally Hemings. What the DNA evidence actually does is help to complete an already existing pattern of evidence against Thomas -- and that is something some white historians still have difficulty acknowledging, in part because it threatens their power to declare what is trivial.)

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian historian, has written eloquently about this in "Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History" (1995), though he does not approach it from the point of view of emotions, as I do.

In Chapter 3, he writes about how difficult it has been for western historians to examine the facts of racism and colonialism -- and consequently, the facts of revolution, like the Haitian one, and how slaves communicated with one another. He speaks of "the power to define what is and what is not a serious object of research and, therefore, of mention" (p. 99).

How true that is of scholarship on the Gospels and on Josephus, the 1st century historian who recorded so many facts (systematically overlooked) about how Jewish leaders rejected cooperation with Romans when Jewish victims were potentially in jeopardy. When Trouillot writes, of French historians on Haiti, "Most historians ignored or simply skipped whatever record there was" (p. 101), he could have been writing of Gospel scholars, even those who call themselves historical critics.

(I once saw two educated gentlemen on PBS heartily agree with each other that what is great about America is that it had no founding mythology which could limit what people might want to become and accomplish here. I am happy to differ. They were erasing from our history the English colonists who came here with a Bible in hand and declared that this was the Promised Land for English Christians, given to them by God and making Indians the interlopers. Not only Indians, but basically anyone non-white and non-Christian was excluded from the Promised Land. It is also true that other ideas developed here which said this exclusivity was not to be the rule. But while the purveyors of this founding mythology did not completely succeed in drowning out other possibilities for America, they did succeed to the degree that they created immense problems which have plagued us right up to our day. How often a dominant culture seeks to erase such uncomfortable facts from history.)

In the next chapter, Trouillot succinctly states the problem of historians slapping a label or name on something (which I discuss in "Theology in History" on my Web site): "Names set up a field of power ... it is not easy to subvert the very language describing the facts of the matter. For the power to decide what is trivial -- and annoying -- is also part of the power to decide how 'what happened' becomes 'that which is said to have happened'" (p. 115) -- i.e., the power to control the telling of history. (NOTE: With that word "annoying", Trouillot realizes there are emotional issues at stake. As for trivial and annoying Gospel facts, I will present a sampling in the next post.)

In the preface, he explains his goal: "History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots" (p. xix).

A major part of what makes power invisible are the hidden emotions it employs in order to be so effective. Its strength depends on its emotional appeal. The more unconsciously it operates, the better -- because the more difficult it is to unmask it. Make the emotions visible and you go a long way towards understanding what is happening, how power works, and how best to defeat it.

The traditional search for the historical Jesus, even to this very day and especially in our very own day, is almost completely oblivious to his Jewish context. It has been emotionally (and surreptitiously) written out of history. There is no sympathy for it, a necessary factor for good historical research which I mentioned earlier. Anybody who thinks that a story of Jewish leaders persecuting an individual Jew (and working with pagans yet [!] to accomplish this) makes sense in 1st century Jewish history has absolutely no grasp of the situation.

There are emotional reasons why we have always made Jews the prime culprit in Jesus' story and missed all the Gospel facts and Josephean facts which contradict this. There are emotional reasons why we have assigned these facts to oblivion or triviality. And there are emotional reasons why I seek to correct it.

There is a stunning paradox in all this. If I, as one who tries to be a good thinker on the historical Jesus, do not want power, then how can I get to be heard? Don't you need power to acquire a voice? Don't I want to get a book published? And how can you challenge the power of bad thinking unless you muster up some of your own power?

Well, it is a dilemma. I'll admit that. The danger is that I do need to acquire some power and that power, any power, can screw up the search for truth. I try to make it my goal to open up people's minds to seeing the possibilities and not submissively accepting one set. Test everything against your own sense and, most importantly, against your own emotions. I am not afraid of people having emotions contrary to mine, but I am afraid of people who will not admit they are guided by their own emotions.

"How does this emotionally affect me?" should be a question that every thinking person asks. If you are afraid to ask it, that's okay -- but at least try to admit that you have this fear.

I know my questions are a threat to those in power. I do not know how to resolve this paradox that I too need power and that this is going to be a battle of new power going up against old power. I don't know how to resolve my own hunger to acquire the power to be heard, yet go on giving people the option and the means to undermine me as well. If I am right about how Jesus died, I want my ideas to triumph, but I do not want to triumph over thinking and questioning and doubting and rethinking and always looking for the possibilities. I will try to keep on tottering even when I think I have something solid.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

(Table of contents for each month published on last day of that month.)


I broached a subject on the previous post (Oct. 4) that really needs more attention. I want to talk a bit more about how emotions influence our reasoning, and what can and cannot be done about it.

As I travel around the Internet, dropping in on various Web sites, blogs, discussion forums, offering comments, I find I keep avoiding the main issue. Over and over again, I get trapped in these "rational" arguments about what the evidence says (did Judas betray Jesus? did Jewish leaders betray him?). We bat the evidence back and forth. We shout at each other that you are missing such and such. But we never say the real thing that tugs at us:

"I know this is true in my gut. I don't need proof. My emotions tell me so. I don't need evidence, but I will find a couple of pieces just to satisfy you and I don't need more than a couple. As long as there is something there to justify my gut reaction, that's enough."

It's not as if I have never tried to deal with this. On my Web site, I have two essays "Jewish Fears" and "Christian Fears". I want to get these things out in the open because unless we examine our own mindset and emotional predispositions, we will never honestly examine all the evidence instead of just pieces of it.

But we all arrogantly think that we can debate the evidence without ever having to admit how our emotions control what we see, not to mention what we think and believe.

I am willing to put mine on the table. I know very well that something emotional pushes me forward. We are all pushed and pulled. But I do not know how to get anyone to confront their emotions let alone discuss them. So I just never bring it up. As obvious as the effect of our emotions are, it is the one thing we banish from "rational" arguments. But without acknowledgment of this, no argument can ever truly be rational. To think we can have a rational discussion without making plain our emotions is a self-deception we have fostered in western civilization. And it is killing the search for the historical Jesus.

This history -- of Jesus, of Jews and Christians, of Bible study and translation -- is riddled with emotions. Is there another historical subject like it? This is the one academic study where the study of emotions -- not just in the subject of Jesus but in academia itself which presumes to objectively study the subject -- is absolutely necessary, if we are to unlock the secrets of the past. Yet it is the one thing that has been written out of all academic studies.

I know where I am coming from. I admit it. A need for justice inflames me. This history is as riddled with injustice as it is with emotions. It sometimes leads to terrible violence. For me, the need to revisit the evidence is connected to a hunger to redress so much incorrect information which is still being circulated about ancient Judaism.

In the previous blog, I approached it this way, from the point of view of my emotions: If the injustice of falsely accusing Jewish leaders and Judas of conspiring to do Jesus in does not grab you viscerally -- or at least, if you have no inkling, no breath of a suspicion, that something is very, very wrong with this picture -- you will never see the evidence, and the compelling logic of that evidence, which undoes once and for all this terrible injustice.

It is the injustice of erasing people from history. The Jewish priests who did what they could to prevent Jesus' execution and Judas who was loyal and a help to him to the very end -- they have been eliminated from our history books and replaced with false versions. On my Web site, in the essay "Ghosts", I quoted the French writer Maurice Blanchot who said that antisemitism is not just the attempt to eradicate Jews in the present but to remove them from history. To turn them into ghosts. It began long ago and has repeated itself over and over ever since.

Sometimes I can hear the ancient Jews of Jesus' time fighting this and singing the words of the song "Ghost Dance" by Jim Wilson and Robbie Robertson (a song about Indian tribes). They may be ghosts now, but they are singing to the keepers of western civilization:

You don't stand a chance
against my prayers
You don't stand a chance
against my love
They outlawed the Ghost Dance
They outlawed the Ghost Dance
We shall live again
We shall live again

There is more than one ghost in the Gospels. But you need an emotional commitment to see that. A sense of justice to recover lost life. No detached "objective" analysis could possibly give it to you.

That idea of cold, absolutely neutral objectivity is a myth anyway. Emotions are always involved. It is ultimately emotions that lead us to the truth, though we will need logic to establish that it is more than just emotions that make the case. In the end, it is always about the evidence, not emotions. The one who explains most of the evidence in the simplest way wins.

As the work of Antonio R. Damasio (see his book "Descartes' Error") and other neurologists has shown, the brain is not divided into separate compartments. It is all interwoven. The logical and the emotional parts of the brain are not completely distinct and walled off from each other. They bleed into each other. You cannot do mathematics without tapping into your emotions. This means that, without emotions, we could not think straight. We would be less capable thinkers. Emotions are a positive aid to our reason.

I would say that what emotions do is enable us to distinguish between trivial and significant evidence. Logic can analyze to a degree, but it is incapable of assigning importance to anything. Everything is equal in logic. It takes emotions to see that some evidence really stands out from the pack. It is the same thing G.K. Chesterton (whom I quoted on the last entry) had in mind when he said that you can discover the truth with logic only if you have already discovered the truth without logic.

But emotions can cut both ways. They can be used to blind us to the facts or they can light up the facts we've been missing. It is when we become unhappy with a situation that we start looking for what we've missed.

That is what I discussed on the blog below -- how unhappiness with a false part of tradition impels us to see and discover the evidence we've missed. This "new" evidence, which was always there, is what we will use to change the tradition that falsified our view. Without that sense of dissatisfaction, nobody ever discovers something new. So we can argue all we want about whether Judas betrayed Jesus or not and what the evidence points to, but the truth is some of us are unhappy with the injustice of demonizing Judas and Jewish leaders, and some of us are not. This is an emotional battle, not a logical or evidentiary battle.

As I say several times in my writings: There are no factual or logical problems (or very few, anyway) in the life of the historical Jesus, only emotional problems. Solve these and what happened 2,000 years ago lights up with uncommon clarity.

But my point is not to make this into a battle of emotions. I am trying to do the exact opposite. I want to reduce their dominance by getting us to acknowledge them.

In the first place, I am not putting emotions into this subject. They are already there. I am just exposing them. The emotional battle has always been raging. I am just a messenger announcing it.

In the second place, emotions are most tyrannical when they are hidden. The point to getting them out in the open is to reduce their rule and make this about the evidence instead of the disguised emotional sniping which is what current debates still are, even in the halls of academia.

And in the third place, no one's emotions are more righteous than anybody else's. My emotions about this are not better or worse than yours. The best you can say about emotions is that they light up a pattern of facts you have never seen before and they keep you open to seeing more facts. I will take emotions that reveal facts over emotions that shut them out ... any day.

But the emotions are what no one wants to talk about. People feel insulted when you bring them up. "You think I have no capacity to examine the evidence objectively and without emotional prejudice?" That's right. None of us have this capacity. Cold, detached objectivity is a myth. But if we admit this and bring our emotions more consciously into it, then it is possible to take a fuller look at the evidence and see if there is a pattern there that we have neglected.

I think a major reason why we get insulted and pretend there is such a thing as neutral objectivity and refuse to acknowledge the role our emotions play is precisely so that emotions can control this study. We want our emotional biases to win, so we make sure they remain hidden because that is the best way to ensure their power. Down with emotional tyranny means down with secrecy.

If anyone truly wants to make this into a battle of evidence -- which is ideally what it should be about -- then we are going to have to expose what has done the most harm to this enterprise -- not emotions per se, but hidden emotions. I do not want to expose emotions to put a dent in anyone's argument. You could do the same to me, after all. It is the evidence the emotions lead us to that is the real point. How we shape the evidence (or fail to shape it) is what emotional honesty will clarify.

The one emotion you will almost never see in the study of the historical Jesus is the joy of discovery. (That is partly because most scholars want to make sure that nothing is discovered.) In any scientific field, you will come across some scientists -- perhaps a precious few, but some -- who experience this thrill quite intensely. It is exhilarating to discover a pattern of facts that reveals a new land, a new world to us.

But with the exception of William Klassen's writings on Judas and some writing on Paul (Krister Stendahl and Stanley Stowers, for examples), I have not found any so-called historical scholars of the New Testament who express anything like joy in discovering some vital historical fact about Jesus and his Jewish context. (Theologians, yes. They often write with joy about their spiritual insights. But that's another story.) There is instead a tremor of fear that runs through all their writings. And no one will talk about it.

But what could be more joyful than bringing people and long discarded facts back to life? "We shall live again." The ultimate defeat of all fears, all secrecy, and all racism and imperialism.

In a few days, on the next post, I will get a little more specific about the fears I have encountered in this study.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

(Table of Contents for each month published on the last day of that month.)


You know when discovering the truth about anything makes you happy? When falsehood makes you unhappy. Until then, people will cling to a tradition no matter how demonstrably false it is. Nobody wants to hear the evidence. We open our ears to new clues only when something we have always been told begins to stick in our craw.

If you are unhappy with the way your church wields power, then you are very happy to learn that the Greek word "ekklesia" does not mean church, but congregation as William Tyndale translated it. It was just one of the things that got Tyndale executed by the Catholic Church in 1536. The King James translators, who were not Catholic, were not any happier with this part of Tyndale's translation. They changed it back to church, even though they otherwise kept about 83% of Tyndale's translation of the New Testament. The new Anglican Church wanted power as much as the Catholic Church did.

It goes round and round like this. When the Puritans were outcasts, they embraced the Geneva Bible which came in between Tyndale's and the King James. It had numerous marginal notes, many of which attacked kings as tyrants. It was very anti-authority, anti-those-in-power. But when Puritans became the power in their own communities, as in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they gradually gave up the Geneva Bible for the King James. A religious renegade like Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) continued to quote from Geneva while her Puritan leaders threw King James quotes at her. Challenges to authority no longer made the Puritan establishment happy, so the insights of the Geneva Bible no longer made them happy.

If you are waiting for some utopian modern times, when it will be different, you are playing a fool's game. Old times, modern times, it's always the same time. You only have to look inside yourself to see that.

If you are not pleased with the way your church treats women, you will be very pleased to discover passages in scripture that tell of a more prominent role for women in the early years of the Jesus communities. But if you think women should play a subordinate role, then you don't want to hear about anything in scripture that will subvert a long-standing tradition you are fond of. You will close your ears, erase evidence, explain troublesome verses away, and so on. Anything to shut out trouble. Trouble and truth.

G.K. Chesterton once said that you can discover truth with logic only if you have already discovered truth without logic. In other words, truth first has to appeal to you emotionally (though Chesterton would probably have put it differently and said that it comes to you through faith). Logic comes in afterwards; it does the tidying up. Logic will use the evidence you give it to make the case with rigor. But your ability to see the evidence -- what you see and what you fail to see -- does not have anything to do with logic. It depends on what draws you forward -- an emotional openness or a fear that shuts out what you don't like.

So it goes for any issue. Homosexuality, religion in public places, the Ten Commandments, abortion, contraception, etc. We open our ears, we close our ears. It all depends on what makes us happy. Hey! Did you know that they are not called the Ten Commandments in Hebrew? "Commandments" is the stamp we put on them in English, but in Hebrew, they are called the ten statements or sayings.

Does this have any significance? I have no idea. I haven't thought about it a lot. But I do know that for those who make of the Ten Commandments a bludgeon to beat people with, they will not like any discovery that could lessen their absolute status as weapons. For those who are unhappy with the way that laws are sometimes misused, they will be very happy to learn anything that could introduce more flexibility and humaneness.

I run across people all the time who are capable of challenging tradition when it suits them. They don't hold all tradition as sacrosanct (and not all tradition is wrong, but some of it is). They love rediscovering scripture when it exposes where tradition went wrong -- but only if that part of the tradition makes them unhappy in some way.

Yet when I tell these same people that Judas did not betray Jesus and that there is plenty of information in the Gospels to establish this, they get uptight. They don't want to hear it. If I point out that I can prove beyond any reasonable historical doubt that Jewish leaders tried to save Jesus' life, they want to tear to pieces any Gospel evidence I show them.

Right now, the idea that Jesus was surrounded by Jewish enemies and that he was betrayed by someone close to him makes people very happy. They are extremely comfortable with these thoughts. This tradition must not be changed, no matter what the evidence is. They sometimes have ways of interpreting it so that it's not about Jews, but about corrupt leaders everywhere -- still, however they do it, surrounded by and done in by his own kind clings to Jesus' story in a very deep way. It satisfies a majority of people.

No one wants to undo it. It sticks in no one's craw. Everybody is happy to hear this story repeated in every church sermon, every film, every theological writing, every scholarly treatise, every newspaper column, every radio and TV broadcast, every play, every piece of music. No matter how many millions of times this story, this tradition, has been trumpeted, people always look forward to the next rendition. Sheer repetition is one of the ways it establishes its power.

What is the truth? Well, nobody is prepared to hear any evidence from the Gospels that says otherwise as long as this tradition makes us happy. Unless and until you become unhappy with the images of a slithery Judas who turns on his rabbi and Jewish leaders plotting in dark corners, behind closed curtains, and Jesus as martyred by his own religion, you will never be prepared to hear what a ton of evidence in the Gospels tells a very different story.

But too many of our secular scholars and religious leaders, who do not want people to discover their unhappiness with this part of the tradition, tell us that history and this tradition are in lockstep, they cannot be at odds. How does this happen? How do historical truth and false traditions become equated? It happens for a very simple reason: What we do not want to know, we will never know. Because we will silence anyone -- including the Gospel writers -- who tries to tell us different.

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