Tuesday, December 30, 2003


I've only posted twice in December. (A part-time job is eating up a lot of my time.) The one immediately below is on human rights and historical justice for Jews (something the left has absolutely no interest in). The one for Dec. 8 is on the Jesus Seminar and their extremely poor knowledge of Judaism and Jesus' context.

Happy New Year to one and all, even to all the leftists.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003


A good sign of how deeply insecure European Jews felt in the last decade of the 19th century comes from Ahad Ha'Am, one of the early Zionists. In the essay "Two Domains", written in 1894, he expressed the thought that while humanitarian ideals would spread their protection over all peoples on earth, including criminals, Jews would be left out. He repeated it in another essay, "Progress and Anti-Semitism: (1898), written after the Dreyfus Affair had exploded onto the scene, besmirching the reputation of the entire 19th century as he would say. I like the later formulation (which is not that much different from the first), so here it is:

"It is not impossible that in course of time humanitarianism may really come to embrace the whole human family, and there will be justice and mercy for everybody -- except the Jews. If that happens, somebody may ask how such glaring inconsistency is possible; and men who are wise will reply: When we are occupied with humanitarian ideas we forget about the Jews, and when we are occupied with the Jews we forget about humanitarianism."

In the earlier essay, he added this sentence: "But simple men will give a simple answer: 'That is an old objection.'" Perhaps in the first essay Ahad Ha'Am retained a bit of hope that some people might protest this contradictory situation, but after Dreyfus, even this little bit of hope was gone. Jews would always be excluded from progress in human rights and no one would complain.

It should be remembered that while Ahad Ha'Am, Leo Pinsker, and other Zionists saw the Jewish State as the only way for Jews to get respect from other people, some Zionists, like Ahad Ha'Am and Pinsker, were not completely confident that the State of Israel would accomplish this goal. They thought it was the best shot for Jews to take their place as a human people among other peoples, but they were not sure that anything could work. Pinsker thought that antisemitism had been around such a long time, it had become innate, like a fear of ghosts. Maybe nothing could cure it.

Ghosts. It's a fear of historical ghosts (like Jesus the Jew) more than anything else. And the fear creates the terrifying ghosts, not the other way around. Without the fear, these "ghosts" would be there but not frightening; they wouldn't even be ghosts anymore.

For me, human rights are intimately bound up with historical justice. Telling lies about a people's past and culture (e.g., religious Jews found Jesus offensive and were at odds with him) is one of the chief causes of maintaining the potential for violence against that people. There are many ways of fighting for human rights. One of them is working to correct not just the previous injustices that have been committed against that people, but the continuing injustice of misrepresenting important parts of that people's history. That is what I mean by historical injustice.

Tell lies about history and violence will always recur. Milan Kundera wrote in the novel "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" (at the end of Chapter 17), "The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past." But being a master (or, in power) always implies some violence.

In the case of Jews, the most important injustice is the ongoing myth of Jewish participation in the death of Jesus. That never happened. Judas did not betray him and Jewish leaders did not persecute him; in fact, they tried to save his life. As long as we do not get this history right and as long as Christians do not see that historical truth does not threaten Christian faith in Jesus (who did not have the Jewish enemies Christian tradition has falsely imagined), Jews are in deep trouble in the world. So is the State of Israel. And so is every other people, including Christians themselves. Because a terrible injustice for one people has consequences for all peoples.

I know most people do not see it this way. They do not agree with either of the two points I am making. One, they believe the past, especially ancient history, can be buried and forgotten -- we can even pretend it never happened and get on with our lives in the present -- and two, they believe that we can fight for human rights for one people and ignore other peoples -- that we are not all bound together and that some people can be passed over in the quest for justice without affecting anyone else. Justice can be partitioned, so to speak.

I think both these opinions are demented, but I am not absolutely sure about that. Maybe they have a point. What I am more sure of is that most Americans believe in these two points and that when I argue for the opposite, my words fall on unwilling ears.

I wish we could forget the past. If it were possible, it would be a great way to solve our problems. I would heartily endorse it. I think what the majority of Christians and Jews would most like is to pretend that we do not have a shared history. We'd like to relate to each other as two completely different religions. How I wish that were possible.

Louis Malle, French filmmaker, once said that America is a country with no past and no future, just a continual present. Americans believe in the myth of the continual present and in the eternal progress that goes along with it. We believe that we have found the keys to the kingdom of everlasting economic health and happiness (with occasional minor setbacks) and civil peace. All we have to do is cling to this vision. The past never has to haunt us or retard our infinite progress.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian historian, has another opinion. He has written that we are never so steeped in history as when we pretend not to be. We are surrounded by it all the time. It is certainly true for Christians and Jews. Christians relive the past, if not every Sunday, certainly at least every Easter Sunday. We are always being taught a version of the events of Jesus' death that never happened. Jews are reminded of it whenever popular films about Jesus are made or whenever Judas' name is used as a synonym for traitor or when Pharisaical is used as a synonym for hypocritical.

The past hasn't left us. It's not dead. It's not even past, as William Faulkner said. It is always there ahead of us, more ahead of us than the future. We are born into a world that is already a given. And some people will throw it in your face when you least expect it. (Who would have thought that Mel Gibson would make his film?) What people will not do is study the past in a way that will help us regain it or reconquer it for our present lives.

So how do you fight for human rights based on historical justice when no one is interested in history? The left is as little concerned with human rights for Jews as the right is. So many people who embrace all sorts of leftist issues think that Jews are the one people on earth who are not entitled to national aspirations. They think justice for Jews can be denied without detriment to any other people. Jews are the only people whose hopes for a Jewish nation are branded as colonialism by the left. Every other nationalist cause on the planet is embraced by the left except the Jewish one. And it's painful for me to have to write this because I lean way to the left on most issues; I just do not exclude Jews and Judaism from my vision of humanitarian ideals.

If someone writes a book about misrepresentations of American Indian history and culture, it will get published and trumpeted -- and rightly so (I have learned a lot about what happened to Jews in history by understanding what Indians have been subjected to). But historical justice for Jews if it challenges some Christian traditions? I am frankly told by people on the left that no one cares.

Even many Jews don't care about this historical justice. It frightens them to think about pursuing it. Digging too deeply into the past will stir up trouble and more injustice, it is believed. That's the impression I get from others. I am told we live in a better world now, we've made a lot of progress.

What we never talk about is this: We ride in the comfort zone created by the Holocaust and no one knows what will happen when the Holocaust passes into history, when the survivors and the children of survivors are gone. Right now, there is this tremendous pressure from our consciousness of the Holocaust that helps keep Christian-Jewish relations on a better level. But Christian and Jewish leaders have not done that much, except to take credit for what the deaths of so many during the Holocaust accomplished. The State of Israel was born at a bizarre moment in history when the world felt a little bit guilty about Jews. As the Holocaust floats away from us, it looks like it could get much worse again for Jews.

Nobody knows the future. I'm not making any predictions. The best we can hope to do is understand our present I think we take for granted what the Holocaust did for us. That is our present. One rabbi said that it did not matter whether we live in a better world because of the Holocaust or other factors, the point is that we live in a more blessed state and we should just be happy about that. Another rabbi said that he did not care if Christians are intolerant as long as it is at a low level and violence is avoided. Has anyone stopped to think that future generations may pay a terrible price because we were too self-satisfied to ask questions that might trouble people and to look more deeply into the past than has been done so far?

I feel like I am at odds with everyone else around me. Americans. Jews. Christians. Leftists. The greatest conflict we have yet to resolve in our society is the contest between someone who believes historical truth is liberating and those who believe knowledge of history is a drag on our lives. The second are clearly in the majority.

I think it would be a great idea to solve our problems on a deep, historical level. Everyone else says that stirring up the past is stirring up trouble. Just live in the continual progress of the present and you will find happiness. Why can't you do that? Why can't you live in the present? Because I think the past really does haunt us and makes trouble for us if we do not confront it.

You know, I want to be happy too. I too think: How can I just sing and dance and be happy all the time? That is all I want. To sing and dance. Not to mention some good loving (talk about singing!). Can that be done when you dig up depressing parts of the past? YES! Because when we see the whole story of the past combined with the whole story of the present, in that allness of every part linked up, we can see our way into a future where we are free to love each other -- or, at least, have respect for each other.

When Bob Dylan was asked why he sings such depressing songs on stage, he said, "they're nothin but the unwindin of my happiness." He meant, I think (God only knows), it's like "watchin the nite unwind". Here are his own words from the original insert, "11 Outlined Epitaphs", from the album "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (nobody says it better than Bob; this is a few lines after someone first brings up the subject of his depressing songs):

"cause I'm calmly lookin outside an watchin
the nite unwind"
"what'd yuh mean 'unwind'?"
"I mean somethin like there's no end t it
an its so big
that everytime I see it it's like seein
for the first time"
"so what?"
"so anything that ain't got no end's
just gotta be poetry in one
way or another"
"yeah but ..."
"an poetry makes me feel good"
"but ..."
"an it makes me feel happy"
"ok but ..."
"for lack of a better word"
"but what about the songs you sing on stage?"
"they're nothin but the unwindin of
my happiness"

(All spellings and punctuation are Dylan's.)

Unhappiness, happiness -- it's all a part of the one big unwinding whole -- the whole takes it all in, like watching the big night unwind.

It is such a tragedy that we do not know how to embrace it all -- or we do not want to, or we're afraid to. We always have to exclude somebody from pursuits for justice, and it is usually the Jews. We have to exclude the past too. It cannot be embraced in the present. It has to be shunned. But you can bet the past does not shun us. The past wraps itself around us, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we hug it back or not.

If we seek historical justice, we can be free. If we do not face the past, we will remain trapped in it. Perhaps that is what Cicero meant when he said that not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.

Monday, December 08, 2003

(Table of Contents for each month posted last day of month.)


There is only one criterion in any historical research. Get to know the facts of the time and culture you are studying and use your common sense. That's how historians study George Washington or Mahatma Gandhi or Geronimo or Tolstoy or medieval serfs or Chinese peasants or any other personality plucked from the pages of the past.

There is, however, one historical figure who is not studied this way. It is not permitted to study him this way .... You guessed it. Jesus. Joshua, a rabbi from Galilee. Instead, for Jesus, scholars have invented a host of criteria, categories, special terminology. This accomplishes two things. It buries the historical Jesus beneath a mountain of confusion and it creates an illusory substitute with smoke and mirrors. The first principle is that the historical Jesus must never be discovered.

The Jesus Seminar is one of the worst offenders here. They are not unique. Other scholars do it too. Lynn (see the link at right) talks about the Jesus Seminar from time to time (see her post for Nov. 25). She is not particularly fond of them, but she finds them useful for discussion. I never talk about them in the main body of my work. In fact, this blog is the first (and probably last) time I will mention them. I don't see why their shenanigans should control the discussion. But I thought I would take this opportunity to explain why two of their criteria, which other scholars have also promoted, are the work of con artists and not genuine historical scholars: Multiple attestation and dissimilarity.

The first one states that the more sources a saying or an event is found in, the more likely it is to be historically authentic. That is outright nonsense. In the first place, the whole idea of sources is speculative. We really cannot be sure when two narratives come from different sources or the same. We do not know if it all goes back to one source. But assuming there is some legitimacy to the idea of multiple sources, there is an even deeper problem with this criterion.

All multiple attestation would tell you, for example, is that a saying became popular. Lies or mistakes are just as capable of becoming popular as truth. So this scholarly principle says that if a lie became very well-known and was testified to in many different sources, then we will believe it, but if the truth was told by only one source, we will discount it.

Try following that principle in a court of law and you would be thrown out of court. If a judge ever instructed a jury that the side that has the most witnesses wins, he would be immediately reversed on appeal. It is so utterly ridiculous that nobody who professes this principle actually follows it. They all throw it to the winds when they feel like it. Their real criterion is: If we like a saying of Jesus, it is authentic; if we don't like it, it is not.

No scholar gives much credence to the literal truth of miracle stories, no matter how many "sources" they appear in. And there are many examples of items that are referred to in only one source and yet have the ring of truth. John 18:3 is the only one that mentions Roman soldiers at Jesus' arrest. For a lot reasons I will not go into here, it is very believable.

Independent sources (assuming there is such a thing) does not necessarily mean independent observers. It could mean one source telling a lie (or making a mistake) and the other sources simply following and repeating it because they liked it. If you reduce the search for truth to a popularity contest, you are degrading historical scholarship.

As in a court of law, we should assess evidence by its quality and not by quantity. I do not believe that anyone judges the authenticity of a saying of Abraham Lincoln based on multiple attestation. It is a criterion that was invented just for Jesus. Its only purpose is to con people. It has nothing to do with historical research. You won't find it used in any other field.

The criterion of dissimilarity judges the authenticity of a teaching of Jesus based on how different it is from Jewish culture. Does anyone use this to study anyone else in history? Who says that we find a saying of Geronimo believable only if it varies from Apache culture? Has it occurred to anyone what a racist principle this is? No one proposes that only sayings of Jesus which are dissimilar from Buddhism may be deemed authentic. In fact, many scholars (e.g., Marcus Borg, John Crossan) approve of finding similarities between Jesus and Buddhism. They don't think it makes him less unique. It is only comparisons to rabbinic Judaism that are considered objectionable.

I am less shocked that there are scholars who indulge in this sort of thing than I am by the fact that very few in the scholarly world find it inappropriate. It is not only tolerated, it is actually encouraged. Because it fits their preconceived principle: Jesus in opposition to things Jewish.

But once again, I will assume for a moment that this idea makes some sense -- in which case, in order to make use of it, you would have to know something about the Jewish culture of Jesus' time. You cannot say whether Jesus is similar or dissimilar to anything in Judaism unless you know something about the Judaism of his time. And here is where the knowledge of the Jesus Seminar is truly appallingly bad, and smoke and mirrors come into play. They know next to nothing about Judaism. Instead, they have invented a figment of their own imagination and use that to create their own equally imaginary Jesus.

I will focus on five items from their product "The Complete Gospels" (1992), edited by Robert J. Miller. (This is, in part, an updated version of their previous work "The Five Gospels".) But I will start by mentioning one thing they get right. On p. 29, in their comment on Matt 7:13, they correctly point out that the policy, which Jesus criticizes, of relieving oneself of the obligation to support one's parents by dedicating one's possessions (korban) to the Temple is not known in rabbinic texts. Rabbinic custom allowed vows to the Temple to be broken to fulfill duty to parents. The Jesus Seminar thus implies, but does not emphasize as Jewish scholars do, that Jesus' teaching is the same as the rabbinic, and probably the Pharisaic.

Now for what the Jesus Seminar gets wrong in "The Complete Gospels":

1) pp. 111, 146 -- They say that Barabbas means "son of the father" and that an ancient lost Gospel (in Aramaic or Hebrew) was in error in saying this means son of their teacher. But that Gospel was essentially right (even if this source confused "Abba" with "Rabban", still an Abba was a highly respected person). "Abba" was a title like "Rabbi", except perhaps slightly higher in dignity. Barabbas means the son of someone with the title of Abba. There are many Abbas in the Talmud, with two from the 1st century. Also, a 1st century archaeological discovery has revealed another Abba. Gamaliel (who is mentioned in Acts 5) was the first to be given the title Rabban, which is a combination of Rabbi and Abba. Needless to say, there are many Bar-Abba in the Talmud. For a sound scholarly discussion of the name Barabbas, read Raymond Brown, "The Death of the Messiah", Vol. 1, pp. 799-800, 812-14.

2) p. 18 -- Their comment on Mark 2:18-20: "Fasting (usually accompanied by prayer) was a regular practice of pious Jews as a sign of mourning, contrition, or penitence." Well, some Jews fasted a lot. But excessive fasting was also very much criticized in rabbinic literature. The editors of "The Complete Gospels" do not tell you this. One famous saying was "Where there is no meal, there is no Torah." Carrying out the teachings of God required a healthy body. Jesus and his fellow rabbis were completely in accord.

3) p. 130 -- Their comment on Luke 6:7: "Sabbath regulations forbad a physician to treat patients on the sabbath, except in emergencies." This is inaccurate by virtue of being misleading. Emergencies in that time did not mean what we mean by the term. We think of something that requires a trip to the emergency room. But in the 1st century, almost any physical problem was potentially life-threatening. The rabbis allowed almost any medical help to be performed on Shabbat.

One rabbi allowed medicine to be applied to a sore throat, which is hardly what we would call an emergency. Warm water (which required a fire, normally forbidden on Shabbat) was served to a sick person. The general principle was that you certainly did not give up caring for the sick on Shabbat; anything that helped a person to enjoy many future Shabbats was permitted. Many scholars, such as E.P. Sanders and John Meier, have recognized that Jesus' practice was not substantially different from that of other Pharisees and rabbis. Jesus did not get into trouble for healing people on Shabbat. That Shabbat was given to man and not the other way around was a rabbinic teaching -- and, consequently, it was Jesus' too (Mk 2:27).

4) p. 100 -- Their comment on Matt 23:15: They state that there is no evidence for the God-fearers (other than in the New Testament), gentiles who were attracted to Judaism and lived close to it without completely converting. That would come as a big surprise to Louis H. Feldman and other Jewish scholars. It would even surprise Christian scholars such as John Gager and Krister Stendahl. Feldman discusses the God-fearers in Chapter 10 of his book "Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World" (1993).

Judaism was a very open religion to gentiles without requiring conversion. It made Christianity possible. Without Judaism's openness to the gentile world, Christianity would never have taken off. The first converts came from the God-fearers. They are mentioned frequently in Acts. In the synagogues, Paul would address his fellow Jews and "you that fear God" (e.g., Acts 13:16), which is a reference to the gentiles who attended synagogue. This omission is one of the more shocking mistakes of the Jesus Seminar, judging by their work in "The Complete Gospels".

We also forget that the Gospels and Acts, and the New Testament generally, are essentially Jewish documents. So their evidence for God-fearers is more evidence about what 1st century Jewish society was like.

5) p. 448 -- Their explanation of why they now translate the Greek "ouai" as "Damn" instead of "Woe". They say it is more like a curse. But that is so wrong. "Ouai" is a transliteration of the Hebrew "hoy". It isn't a curse at all. William Klassen explains, "We must guard against any equation of the woe with a curse. A woe in ancient Judaism was an expression of love" (p. 83 in "Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?"). He also calls it a cry of compassion.

Isaiah uses "hoy" a lot (e.g., 5:8,11,18-22). It is interesting that the NRSV now translates it as "Ah". I think that is a great choice. It captures the poignancy of it. It is certainly closer to Jesus' tone (in the Gospels, the NRSV continues to use "woe"). But the "Damn" of the Jesus Seminar is a good example of how they put more hatred, anger, and hostility into Jesus' life than is authentic to him. They have created this "subversive" Jesus (one of their favorite expressions) -- or more accurately, their offensive Jesus (the word they use most often, as I review on my Web site) -- who exists only in their imagination, in their world of smoke and mirrors.

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