Sunday, August 31, 2003


It's the end of the month again. I have not posted a lot in August, but here is a wrap-up of what I did post.


8/26 -- Luke & Jesus' Jewishness; Luke on the Pharisees; Good Samaritan parable; Jesus' parables of chutzpah.

8/13 -- Mel Gibson's "The Passion"; two questions; religious versus political martyr; how do you cinematically convey that everyone is responsible for Jesus' death?

8/5 -- Some points about the so-called trial of Jesus; the historical context from Josephus; Pharisees in Acts and Josephus; Christian faith does not need a Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies.

8/1 -- Is it antisemitic to blame Jewish leaders for Jesus' death?

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

(Comments on Mel Gibson immediately beneath this post.)


Why is it that, whenever I see a French film, I'm happy? Why am I as happy as a lark in an acting class and even occasionally at an audition? But whenever I read almost anything (with some rare exceptions) about the historical Jesus, I want to blow my brains out. Can someone explain this mystery to me?

Actually, it's not that much of a mystery. The mystery is located elsewhere. Upon reflection, it's pretty obvious what upsets me. It's all the hatred and fear in studies of the historical Jesus that is so unnerving, so stomach turning. There's no mystery in why encounters with fear and hatred should be so unsettling.

It's even in scholars. Especially in scholars. It may often be sublimated in their case, but sublimated hatred and fear is still hatred and fear. They cannot seem to let go of it -- their fear of Jews and Judaism which they project onto ancient Judaism and into the Gospels. The mystery is that scholars cling to these ugly misperceptions and claim to be studying the historical Jesus/Joshua who knew no fear and no hatred when it came to his own religion and his own people; he knew only love, but you'd never know that from the way scholars write about him.

Why do they think that hatred and fear give them access to Jesus? They seem to think that a Jesus who is too in love with Judaism (his Judaism, Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism) will mean the end of the Christian religion. "It's all over for us, if Jesus is too Jewish," they proclaim. So scholars use their "historical criticism" (which is really theology) like a hammer to smash the Gospels into another shape. (Not unlike certain "religious" people who use God like a hammer to beat people into submission to their own twisted ideas.)

They smash away anything that reeks of too much Jewishness, of any too friendly encounters Jesus has with other Jews (don't worry, a couple of examples are coming up). They rewrite and rewrite the Gospels until they get something more to their liking -- to their disliking, actually. Jesus' love, his life with his fellow Jews, his celebration of Jewish insights into God -- it's all written out of the Gospels by the scholarly world.

Ah, life. What we so badly need in Gospel studies. You cannot see a film by Francois Truffaut without falling in love with life all over again. He's not so far off from Moses who told us "therefore choose life" (Deut 30:19). Truffaut's autobiographical character Antoine Doinel goes bumbling through life, determined to find his own way, falling down, picking himself up again, even though he is an orphan and never had anyone to teach him that love will always pick you up again. You feel uplifted when you watch Truffaut. You know life is good.

But everything is so dark and negative when you read scholars on the Gospels: A severe, solemn Jesus rebuking Jews and Judaism. Occasionally, scholars will make some generic remarks about Jesus' teachings on God's generosity, but they squeeze so much of the Jewish life out of the Gospels, I have to wonder how sincere they are.

I once read somewhere that Luke is the only Gospel writer who frequently uses the Hebrew for Jerusalem instead of the Greek name. All of the other Gospels refer to Jerusalem exclusively by the Greek "Hierosolyma". But not Luke. It makes you think of someone who constantly pronounces Paris as "Paree". You'd guess he is a lover of things French. So too, you'd guess that Luke is a lover of things Jewish and was not ashamed to announce his love (and did not feel his Christianity was threatened by his Jewish love).

I have not been able to verify Luke's usage of the Hebrew "Yerushalayim". My copy of the Greek Gospels has Luke using only "Hierosolyma". Perhaps the author I read was speaking of some ancient, variant version of Luke. If anyone has any information on this, I'd love to know about it.

But I do not need it to make my point about Luke. He gives enough other information to reveal the positive place he is coming from. Scholars rarely take the time to look closely at all the good information Luke gives us about the Pharisees. They help Jesus escape Herod (Lk 13:31). They invite him to dinner (Lk 7:36; 11:37; 14:1) and Pharisees did not invite just anyone to dinner. They had to have felt comfortable with him. In Acts, also written by Luke, Rabban Gamaliel, the leading Pharisee of the day, comes to the aid of Peter and others (Acts 5:34-40), and Pharisees help Paul out (23:6-9).

(There was a time when some Christians used to honor Gamaliel by naming their children after him. President Warren Gamaliel Harding got his middle name after a Methodist uncle, I believe.)

If all other Jewish historical documents were lost, we could still get an accurate, positive picture of what the Pharisees were like from Luke -- or, at least, one side of them.

Of course, Luke occasionally has to say something negative, as when he weirdly says that Pharisees were lovers of money (Lk 16:14). It was really the Sadducees who had this reputation. Sadducees even ridiculed Pharisees for their poverty and for expecting their reward in the next world -- a world Sadducees did not believe in, so they gathered it all in this world.

Sometimes Luke gives in to popular misconceptions, but, on the whole, this is not what he does. He knows, as Martha Beck learned from her Down syndrome child Adam, that "Love is the only thing on this earth that lets us see each other with the remotest accuracy" (Beck, "Expecting Adam", p. 220). When Luke's love gets the better of him, which is pretty often, he has a lot of accurate things to say about the Pharisees and Jesus' Jewishness.

(It happens sometimes too for Christian scholars that he or she sees ancient Judaisn more truthfully. R. Travers Herford and George F. Moore were two such scholars from a couple of generations back. Charlotte Klein was a Christian from Germany, after World War II, who also had a better understanding. Most recently, there are Philip Culbertson and Bernard Lee. Their works are listed in the Bibliography on my Web site. Both of these authors understand that Jesus was essentially a Pharisee and participated in the Pharisaic, creative approach to Torah. So the world of scholarship is not all bleak, but the mainstrean variety has avoided what Culbertson and Lee have learned.)

You can see it in other places in Luke -- how the real Luke is so different from scholarly misinterpretations of him. Look at the Good Samaritan Parable and the setting in which it is told (Lk 10:25-37). It's a pretty friendly dialogue, as I will explain in a moment, but that's not what you hear from scholars who tell us that Jesus told this parable to reprimand his Jewish audience for their ethnicity and to shock them into a higher morality. What a load of ...

Donald Spoto says that it was told for shock effect and that picking a Samaritan as an example of one who did a virtuous act is like holding up a child molester or a Nazi as a model of good behaviour ("The Hidden Jesus", p. 130). Nonsense, but typical. Ben Witherington III refers to the shock value of the parable at least seven times in his discussion, commenting at one point that Jesus' parable is "a vision of a counter-order exceeding the bounds of usual Jewish thinking on this subject" ("Jesus the Sage", p. 193).

John Crossan, like many scholars of the Jesus Seminar, has the mystical ability to see behind the Gospels and create a more authentic version. He believes the original context in which this parable was told is lost, and then, with confidence, he asserts that hostility gives us a better sense of what it was originally about. He has to come up with the most convoluted casuistry to take everything out of the Lucan narrative that makes it appear too friendly and finally concludes, like most scholars, that Jesus' purpose was to make his Jewish listeners feel "their world turned upside down" ("In Parables", p. 64).

(I have not even discussed those who change the dialogue in Luke to make Jesus appear more critical of his fellow Jew or more superior. For one such example, see the essay "Zeffirelli" on my Web site. For another, see my letter to the Editor in "Bible Review", Oct. 1998, p. 10.)

Ah, but read Luke, and you breathe in a different air. As Krister Stendahl has written (about studying Paul), to be a true son or daughter of the Reformation is to go back to the original and there very definitely is an original there, waiting for our return ("Paul Among Jews and Gentiles", p. 72).

In Luke, it is a very friendly conversation. Jesus answers a question with a question, as Jews do. He is very approving of the answers he gets from his fellow Jew (about what Torah says and about who proved to be a good neighbor). Jesus' tone is "I have nothing to teach you; you already know the truth; just go do it." Like any good teacher. But if you listen to scholars, you'd think Jesus said something like "Oh, you evil generation that has no ears to hear!" That does not even remotely resemble anything in Luke's passage. Even though Luke does not convey any shock here or any sense of hostility or severe rebuke, too many scholars are sure this must be read into the text.

Not to mention that scholars never tell you the real Jewish context of this parable. They never tell you that rabbis sometimes gave non-Jewish examples of virtue. One of the most famous was about a gentile who had a chance to sell a jewel for a large amount of money but didn't do it because he didn't want to disturb his father who was sleeping on a pillow that contained the jewel.

Nor do scholars tell you that a couple of generations before Jesus, Shammai and Avtalyon, the two Pharisaic teachers of Hillel, once criticized a priest for having an ethnic conception of being Jewish instead of dedicating himself to emulating the deeds of Aaron, founder of the priestly line, who had a reputation for being a peacemaker.

Jesus' Jewish audience heard him as a rabbi doing what rabbis and Pharisees did: Reminding them of the highest values and spirituality of Judaism and using even non-Jewish examples to make their point. It was not shocking to them. Shammai and Avtalyon, by the way, were descended from gentile converts to Judaism (the priest had poked fun at them for their background). They were not "pure" Jews, but they were exemplary Jews. Jesus and his Jewish audience would have shared a cultural memory of these two Pharisees and what they stood for. You have to know this when you listen in on Jesus talking to his people.

The overwhelming majority of scholars present Jesus either as if he were an alien from another culture or as if he lived in a sealed off vacuum from other Jews and spoke to them from his own private realm of spirituality, high above the Judaism of his time. But when the real historical Jesus spoke with his Jewish comrades, it was out of a common trough of memories from which they all drank. We will never know all the references they shared because they were not all recorded. However, by studying rabbinic literature very carefully, it is possible to make rational guesses about the kinds of memories which they breathed in like the air around them. It is a shame that most scholars can still not bring themselves to study the Gospels this way.

Instead, the above scholars (and so many more), who have twisted Jesus' purpose in telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, come at Jesus from this point of view and this fear: Jesus himself must shock the Jewish world and turn it upside down, otherwise we will have a Jesus too comfortable and too happy in Jewish culture, and that is a threat to us.

It is a very short step from this to: The Jewish world must be turned upside down because it threatens Christian values and Christian civilization. These scholars are right on the brink of saying this. It is a paranoia that 19th century antisemites exploited to the fullest. And it comes from a theology (because it sure isn't history) that could only see a radical break between Jesus and other Jews, especially Pharisees and rabbis. That thinking is still there in current scholarship.

I am pretty sure that these scholars do not want to take it to this logical conclusion, but they are paving a very dangerous road. Anthony J. Saldarini saw exactly where a bad theology of divorcing Jesus from his Jewish culture led to in the 19th century and then the 20th, and commented, "If Christians violently wrench Jesus out of his natural, ethnic and historical place within the people of Israel, they open the way to doing equal violence to Israel, the place and people of Jesus. This is a lesson of history that haunts us all at the end of the 20th century" ("Bible Review", June 1999, p. 17). Is anyone listening to his words?

To unwrench Jesus, so to speak, and bring back his real Jewish world, here is another example of the wide range of rabbinic thinking. One rabbi gives yet another gentile example (the prophet Balaam from Numbers 22-24) of one of the greatest things you could achieve with God: Approach him with chutzpah, keep asking him until you get what you need (Balaam asked God twice for permission to go with the king's emissaries because God had said no the first time). Be persistent, ask God to treat you like royalty and he will. In a way, it's like Antoine Doinel bumbling through life, often rejected, but assured that he has the right to bumble. In "Stolen Kisses", Antoine keeps trying and failing at so many jobs and with his girlfriend, until one day, who knows, maybe it will all come together. Maybe life will work out if he keeps trying.

Chutzpah. A very Jewish thing, but the rabbi gives a gentile example. It turns out that Luke is the only one who tells us Jesus' parables of chutzpah where Jesus makes the same point about confronting God (Lk 11:5-8; 18:1-5). In the second one, a widow repeatedly bothers an unjust judge until she gets justice, and in the other, a man knocks repeatedly on a friend's door in the middle of the night until his friend helps him. Jesus' rabbinic point is that you can approach God like that too and he will honor your request.

The rabbis were very conscious that their God was different from pagan gods, and so too, of course, was Jesus, and so too Luke. The rabbis said that gentiles were constantly anxious over their idols. They sometimes used the word "yirah" (fear) as a synonym for idol. Luke, coming from a gentile/pagan world, was, I think, very impressed by the different Jewish attitude of making bold with God, and he saw it in some of Jesus' stories. He celebrated Jesus' Jewishness in ways that scholars consistently fail to tell us about.

It's exciting to discover the Jewish Jesus, isn't it? To discover the original texts, as Stendahl said. To discover, as Martha Beck observed, that only love can help us see with any accuracy. There is so much more to say about Jesus and chutzpah -- all the places he talks about it in the Gospels. Chutzpah does not mean arrogance. Chutzpah towards God without humility isn't chutzpah at all but something very different. I just looked at my manuscript for the two chapters I wrote on this. I have 83 double-spaced pages. There is that much to say about it. One day, when I can find a publisher who has no fear ...

In the meantime, here is my prescription for scholars. Take a year or two off from your academic environment. Watch nothing but French films. Fall in love with life all over again. All kinds of life. And take that love back with you to the Gospels. See if it doesn't make a difference, all the difference in the world.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

(Reminder: Table of Contents for June and July at 7/31; previous comments on Gibson at 7/26; what the Gospels really say versus tradition, 7/16.)


At this point, a number of people have either seen a rough cut of Gibson's film or read the screenplay. A lot has been written and said by people who have some knowledge about this. I don't know how to do links yet, but for a transcript of the recent online discussion with Michael Medved who has seen the film and liked it, go to:

Surprisingly, two major questions have gone unaddressed. The first is this: Is Gibson going to portray Jesus as a religious or a political martyr at the hands of the Jewish priests? It makes a huge difference for Jews. To make Jesus a religious martyr is to allege a very serious fault against Judaism. It is a claim that the Jewish religion itself -- not just its leaders in their political capacity -- was corrupt enough and blind enough to badly misjudge a peaceful, well-meaning Jesus and condemn him to death.

It is an incredible slur against Judaism that has never been adequately answered in 2,000 years, except by Haim Cohn (see the post immediately below this one). I have indicated many times (e.g., in the two previous posts beneath this) that the bulk of evidence in the Gospels supports the view that the priests tried to save Jesus' life. No one pays attention to it because we'd rather repeat the traditional story. We use repetition as a substitute for good scholarship.

Where do scholars stand? The overwhelming majority continue to blame Jewish leaders. Most of them, in fact, make Jesus out to be a religious martyr and claim that he was religiously offensive not only to the authorities but to the majority of Jews. Despite their statements that the Jewish people must not be blamed for Jesus' death, scholars continue to insinuate that the people bore a measure of responsibility because they isolated Jesus.

This is based on extremely poor scholarship, which I discuss in THE OFFENSIVE JESUS on my Web site.

But between religious versus political martyr, the second is obviously a little better (though it is also wrong). So if Gibson depicts Jesus as a political martyr, he will actually be a little more accurate than the scholarly world. What a scandal that would be if Gibson turns out to be the better scholar on this point!

And if he has Jesus as a religious martyr, his film will be no worse than what scholars are doing, though considerably more vivid, I would guess. I suspect that the reason no one has discussed this issue in Gibson's film is that it would mean exposing the same deep flaw in academic scholarship and no one wants to get into that. When my book is published (perhaps with the help of someone who is reading this), it will be avoided no longer.

The second potential problem with Gibson's film concerns the following. A lot of people, including some Jews, have defended Gibson on the grounds that since he believes everyone is guilty in the death of Jesus who died for all mankind, then at least he is not singling out Jews for special blame.

Some Christians have always sincerely believed that it's not about Jews, but that Jesus' death is a world responsibility, and some even think that because faithful Christians are saved by Jesus, it is Christians who most bear the guilt of his death. Even Martin Luther occasionally expressed this thought, ranking Christians ahead of Jews in responsibility for Jesus' sufferings.

Or take a look at J.S. Bach's "St. John Passion", for which he wrote the lyrics as well as the music. At John 18:22, Jesus receives precisely one blow (not many, and no spitting and mocking, as in Mark and Matthew) from a Jewish questioner. Some of Bach's contemporary composers (e.g., Broches and Teleman) used this incident to castigate the Jews. Not Bach. He has his Christian congregants singing: "Who has struck you so ... I, I and my sins ... They have caused you/ the sorrow that strikes you/ and the grievous host of pain" (Chorale No. 11). (For more on this, see Michael Marissen, "Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion" [1998], with an annotated literal translation of the libretto.)

Let us assume Gibson is close to Bach. The question is how he is going to accomplish the idea of universal guilt for Jesus' death. Are we going to see any Chinese beating, mocking, and nailing Jesus? How about Norwegians? Russians? Pre-Columbian South American Indians? North Americans? You don't think any of these will be in the film? You mean, it will be just Jews and Romans? Well, tsk-tsk, will wonders never cease?

I can think of one way Gibson could communicate the idea that all share in the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus. He could give himself a cameo as someone (probably a Roman or other gentile) who helps nail Jesus to the cross and who reviles him. A century before Jesus, Johann Heerman could pen a hymn with these words in it (in "The Presbyterian Hymnal" [1990], Hymn No. 93): "Who was the guilty? Who brought this on You?/ It is my treason, Lord, that has undone You/ 'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied You/ I crucified You."

If Gibson gives himself such a cameo, I will take my hat off to him for spiritual courage. But repeating the predominant traditional story, if that's what he does, does not take any guts at all.

We all have to wait and see the film. But cynicism is hard to avoid. As James Shapiro observed about the Oberammergau Passion Play, "A seven-hour spectacle that concluded [in answer to 'Who killed Jesus?'] 'We all did, since he died for our sins' was not likely to lure a half-million paying customers" ("Oberammergau" [2000], p. 15).

Rene Girard, a French writer, is also a Christian who believes that everyone gets a bit of the blame for Jesus' execution. But, in his case, I think it is more of a cover for blaming Jews in the first place. In other words, Jews had the first opportunity to worship Jesus. By rejecting that, they became the first rejectors of Christ. The implication is that if only Jews had not done that, subsequent history would have turned out alright -- supremely Christian with no dissenters.

(I discuss Girard a bit in the essay "JEWISH VIOLENCE" on my Web site. Also, see an interview with him in "Religion", July 1997, pp. 249-54. In "Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World" [1987], pp. 203-04, 224, Girard blames Jews as the first who rejected Christ. Those who came later, including many Christians, repeated this error, according to Girard.)

I do not know which course Gibson will take in "The Passion". Is he truly going to convey the sentiment that everybody in the world is responsible for Jesus' death (and how is he going to accomplish that), or is he going to charge Jews with having had the first opportunity to worship him and, by rejecting that, they created all the rejections that followed?

I guess we all have to wait and see. But some have already seen it. Strange how silent they have been about this.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

(Reminder: Table of Contents for June and July at 7/31; comments on Mel Gibson at 7/26; what the Gospels really say versus tradition, 7/16.)


Lynn Gazis-Sax has an interesting discussion on her Aug. 2 post (see the link at right). This is my response to her essay.

First, I want to thank Lynn for a really excellent review. She pays attention to some important pieces of evidence more than most people do. And for someone who read Haim Cohn's book a long time ago ("The Trial and Death of Jesus", Harper & Row, 1971), her memory of some of his key points is pretty damn good. Ellis Rivkin (whom Lynn mentions in another context), a noted and exceptional Jewish scholar (his insights about Pharisees and Sadducees have always been right on target), gave a disparaging review of Cohn's book in "Saturday Review" (June 19, 1971, pp. 22, 61-62). His was a typical response to the book.

Rivkin could not even bring himself to at least recount what Cohn's case was. Lynn does a much better job. To be honest, if I had read Cohn's book at the time, I do not think I would gave gotten his point either. The only reason I understand now what Cohn accomplished is because many years later I came to the same conclusion he did (the priests tried to save Jesus' life) by a completely independent route (I had never even heard of Cohn).

Second, I want to apologize in advance (as I have apologized in previous posts) for not revealing everything I know. I apologize profusely. I do not give everything away, not even on my Web site, because I would like to sell my book where I do reveal it all. I live in an extremely precarious financial and health situation. Any given month, I could easily end up homeless. If that happens, I will not last two weeks on the streets of New York. My sister Ruth and close friend Susan keep me afloat. A Jew and a Catholic keep this Jew alive. Isn't that something?

Now for Lynn's points. My main criticism is of one of her assumptions: That, in general, occupied countries have some collaborators. In my book, I call that argument by innuendo. It happens in general, therefore the Jewish priests could be guilty of participating in Jesus' execution.

For 2,000 years of tradition and 200 years of so-called historical criticism, the priests have been accused and convicted, accused and convicted, over and over. What happened to the middle part? Isn't there supposed to be a middle part where we closely examine the evidence? There are two things to be considered: The evidence in the Gospels and the historical context. You cannot assume half your case. You have to prove it. You cannot just assume the second part: That the historical context probably supports collaboration as a possibility. Does it?

As I've said before on one of my posts, literally everything we know from Josephus, the 1st century historian, tells us that no Jew, not an ordinary Jew or a leader, would ever work with Romans to arrest, prosecute, and execute another Jew. That was a huge no-no. It was unthinkable. The priests never even threaten any Jew with such a thing. It never enters their imagination.

If you think, as Lynn does, that it is a significant piece of information that there is no evidence that a custom of releasing one prisoner at Passover ever existed, then it is also significant that no evidence exists for Jewish leaders helping Rome persecute another Jew. (By the way, the Barabbas story is one of the problems I have solved that helps explain what really happened. A crowd of Jews was there, but not to demand anybody's crucifixion. They were there for a very different purpose.)

In fact, Josephus relates one case where a Roman procurator demanded that Jewish leaders turn over some young Jewish troublemakers to him (they had insulted him) and the priests and other leaders refused to do it. They apologized for the insult, but could not turn over the men. They didn't even make an effort to look for them or plead for them to turn themselves in, despite the fact that the procurator swore vengeance if they did not comply. The Jewish leaders knew their refusal would have bad results (the procurator did slaughter more Jews the next day) and still they refused. That is the genuine historical context for Jesus. How come virtually every single scholar avoids discussing this case? (Even Cohn missed it.)

This historical context was the starting-point for Cohn (which he arrived at by other knowledge). He realized better than anyone that priests conspiring with Rome was an impossibility. As he puts it, the Jewish people would have lynched them if they had ever done such a thing.

And there's something else to note too. If the allegation against the priests were true, the Pharisees would have howled so loudly in protest that it would have been remembered somewhere in the historical record. As Lynn notes (and as too many people forget), the New Testament itself records some typical Pharisee behavior in this regard. Rabban Gamaliel helps Peter (Acts 5:34-40), Pharisees help Paul (Acts 23:6-9).

As Josephus records, there was a huge stink after the priests killed Jacob/James, the brother of Jesus, many years later (where they presumptuously acted on their own, without working with Rome, something they would never do). Prominent Jews (probably Pharisees, mostly) protested and the high priest was deposed. They would have done the same for Jesus if any priests had been involved in his death.

And the evidence in the Gospels? The Gospel writers actually preserved many of the true details. Lynn realizes that there are a lot of things that do not make any sense if you assume the truth of the traditional story of Jews going after Jesus. Just one of those things is: What the heck was the Sanhedrin doing convening, when everyone, themselves included, was busy with Passover preparations, and helping the Romans do something which Romans didn't need help to do? It would be a totally pointless risk (risking the opprobrium of the people, as Lynn observes).

As I demonstrate in my book and as Cohn demonstrated, drop that very wrong assumption of Jesus in conflict with other Jews, and it all makes sense. An informal meeting in an attempt to save Jesus is something that would have been very possible on the eve of Passover. That makes perfect sense. In my book, I explain how almost everything in the Gospels now resolves itself without difficulty.

I call this method minimal reconstruction of history. Stick close to the texts and alter as little as possible. I assume everything in the Gospels is true unless I have good reason to reject or modify it. That is the only proper scientific method.

Lynn begins and ends her essay by pointing out that no matter who killed Jesus, the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection is the same for her. Bingo! Exactly! You hit the nail right on the head! That is the point I make over and over again (e.g., in the first 10 pages of Chapter 1 of my book, which is on my Web site). Christian faith does not need a Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies, unless you consider such enemies central to his story (which obviously Lynn does not). It will not affect the faith at all if they are removed. Removing them is the historically correct thing to do, the just thing to do. So why hold onto something that only hurts Christianity and Jews?

Friday, August 01, 2003

(Reminder: Table of contents for June and July at 7/31; comments on Mel Gibson and scholars at 7/26; what the Gospels really say versus tradition, 7/16 -- and some of this is discussed on this post as well.)


It certainly is, if the accusation is false -- and it is indeed false. It is defaming Jewish culture to suggest that such a thing was possible. All the information we have from Josephus, the 1st century historian, tells us that Jewish leaders would never cooperate with Romans to arrest and prosecute, let alone execute, another Jew.

Christianity does not have ownership rights on Jewish history. Yet Christianity has often presumed to tell Jews who the priests and other groups were, and what they were capable of. (Thankfully, not all Christians do this.) But to tell derogatory lies about another people's culture and history is racism.

If it is antisemitic or racist to blame the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, it is equally racist to blame the Jewish leaders. The evidence is no better for one than for the other (I'll discuss this briefly below). A historical context to justify such a charge is just as lacking. The reasoning is just as bad. Just because the reasoning is applied to a smaller group of Jews does not make it any better.

In short, it is quite false by any measure and whenever you make false charges that are defamatory of a people's culture, I think it is fair to call that racism.

Is it antisemitic to accuse Jews of killing babies? Yes, it is. But why? Because it is about babies or because it is false? A bit of both, I would think, but more because of the latter. "Babies" just makes it uglier. The same applies to the calumny of blaming the representatives of Judaism for Jesus' death. It is an ugly falsehood.

A recent development in Gospel scholarship offers a kind of backhanded or oblique recognition of my point. There was a time not so very long ago when many Christian scholars (possibly a majority) accused Jewish leaders of lynching Jesus or committing judicial murder. Schweitzer, Renan, and so many others made this charge. It continued even after World War II and was made most recently in a 1999 London Times editorial. (On all this, see SCHWEITZER AND RENAN on my Web site.)

Today, very few Christian scholars will say this. Why? Because they realize it is a very malicious accusation. It maligns Judaism. At the very least it is borderline racist (though I think it is full-blown racism). Hence, most current scholars will say that Jewish authorities conducted some kind of proper procedure against Jesus. The accusation now is that they were misguided but judicially fair for the time.

Scholars thus attempt to soften the accusation against Jewish leaders because they intuitively sense that there is something deeply wrong and dangerous with accusing them of too much. But even their softened accusation is too much. Scholars are simply fudging the point and trying to wiggle their way out of the dilemma.

From one point of view, the "trial" scene in Mark and Matthew does read more like a lynching than a trial. It makes scholars appropriately nervous. So they brush it aside and assume some sort of rules were followed. They have no idea what the rules were (they don't like using the Mishnah rules because they [incorrectly] consider the Mishnah to be an anachronism for the 1st century); therefore, they hypothesize that there were some unknown rules to this procedure against Jesus so that they can finally drop the slur that this was a judicial murder.

There is a simpler way to solve the whole problem. There was no Jewish judicial procedure at all (plenty of facts support this, notably John 18:19-24, but I won't review it all here). It was an informal, friendly meeting, which explains why the "trial" in the Marcan/Matthean narrative has no rules to it. A Jewish trial would certainly never have taken place at night and on the eve of a holiday, as Mark and Matthew describe it. But an informal emergency meeting in an attempt to save Jesus from a Roman execution might very well have been conducted under such unusual circumstances.

Everyone fails to see that if only you drop that worldview of Jesus and Jews in conflict, so much of the evidence in the Gospels reads quite differently.

In other words, the Gospels do not support the traditional story of Jewish complicity as much people think they do. Yes, they contain the statement that priests plotted to kill Jesus (e.g., Mark 14:1), but they contain even more information to contradict this. (And as for the plotting, Mark never reports what anyone saw or heard to lead to this conclusion, so it has to be regarded as a rather weak fact.)

Similarly, the Gospels allege that a crowd of Jews chose Jesus over Barabbas to be crucified, but they contain more evidence of popular support for Jesus (e.g., Mark 11:18; 12:12,37; 14:2). The same reasoning that leads most scholars to reject the idea of Jews cheering for Jesus' crucifixion also leads to rejecting the allegation that Jewish leaders conspired in his demise.

Yet regarding the priests, everyone chooses to read the Gospels carelessly because they care more about maintaining a certain theology of Jesus' death than they do about what scripture actually says. I have reviewed some of the evidence on the 7/16 post. Just to briefly and quickly review some of it here:

1) The Gospels do not say Judas betrayed Jesus; it's a mistranslation; and once you realize that Judas did not betray Jesus to the priests, then one important allegation against the priests falls apart;

2) the Gospel of John should have presented the most vicious questioning of Jesus; instead, it presents the mildest;

3) the Gospels actually present a 50-50 case that it was Caiaphas, the high priest in office, or Annas, a retired high priest, who questioned Jesus; but if it was Annas, then it is even more likely that it was an unofficial, informal meeting;

4) there is a lot of Gospel evidence that Jesus had a positive relationship to the Temple; his disturbance of the moneychangers and vendors is never brought up as a charge against him at the so-called trial, which puts a serious kink in the idea that the incident at the Temple is what provoked lethal hostility against him; without that evidence, scholars are hard put to explain why Jesus was tried.

And that is only some of the evidence. There is even more powerful evidence which I have reserved for my book. I know it may feel annoying that I withhold it here. I hope you will forgive me for that. I do have a book I'd like to get published and I do not see why I should give everything away here.

What we get in Gospel scholarship is constant repetition of the traditional story. Everybody just repeats things like "We know Judas betrayed him" because they want it to be true. Or they will repeat that Jesus threatened the Temple. Or that there was a Jewish judicial procedure against him. As if endless repetition could establish the truth of anything. People could care less about being unjust to the Gospel writers who are made to say things they never said in Greek.

Remember: If a story is historically false, that means it can only be maintained by false facts and/or false reasoning. It is the irrational arguments that harm us immeasurably -- even more than the false story.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?