Saturday, October 30, 2004


10/24 -- Selective Remembering and Forgetting

10/16 -- John 18:3,12, David Flusser, and Prejudiced Reasoning against the Priests

10/7 -- Speculation - an example of the bad kind

Sunday, October 24, 2004


I came across this in "Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation", a memoir by John Phillip Santos (p. 5): "It sometimes seems as if Mexicans are to forgetting what the Jews are to remembering. We have made selective forgetting a sacramental obligation. Leave it all in the past, all that you were, and all that you could be."

He could be describing a lot of cultures there. Being Jewish, I think I can fairly say that Jews do their own fair share of forgetting. All peoples do. Would we be human without that quality?

I once attended a discussion program about what it is to be Jewish. I believe there were two rabbis there, one orthodox, one reform, and a professor, probably a secular Jew. The orthodox rabbi did not like the reform approach to Judaism. He was appalled at the idea that any Jew would study the Talmud with a reform rabbi. At one point, he said, "Just because there is a Talmudic statement 'It is not in heaven' does not mean we can ignore the commands in Torah which come from God." I would not guarantee that the whole sentence is an exact quote, but I am certain about his reference to the Talmudic statement "It is not in heaven."

What is so odd about that -- so selectively forgetting -- is that "It is not in heaven" is not from the Talmud. It is actually from Torah: Deut 30:12. It is from Moses' speech where he tells the people that God's command is not difficult. It is not up in heaven nor beyond the sea. "But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it" (30:14).

"It is not in heaven" is famously quoted in the Talmud by a rabbi who, along with other rabbis, is arguing against one rabbi who keeps calling on miracles and finally a voice from heaven to prove he is right. His opponent quotes Moses as a rebuke to heaven -- rebuking the voice from heaven -- as an argument that heaven must stay out of it and leave it to men to figure out the right and wrong for themselves. But the original saying comes from the Torah and not from the Talmud.

I think the orthodox rabbi conveniently forgot this because Torah has a higher authority than the Talmud. He did not want to remember that Torah itself might support that Jews are supposed to be in dialogue with another, not cutting each other off with an appeal that heaven supports only me. This rabbi wanted no dialogue with reform Jews. So he put it out of his mind that Torah could be quoted against him.

For another example: In another memoir whose title and author I cannot now remember, the Jewish author described his attempt to become more orthodox. I believe that, at the first lecture he attended in a Yeshiva in Israel, the rabbi said that we Jews believe that Moses is the only man who ever saw God's face. I was shocked to read that because the Torah says quite the opposite.

When Moses asks for more details about who God is, God says "You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live" (Ex 33:20). Moses is allowed to see only the back of God -- i.e., only some of the qualities of God. At the end of Deuteronomy, it says that God knew Moses face to face (Deut 34:10), but that is clearly a metaphor. It is explained at Num 12:6-8 where God says he speaks to Moses mouth to mouth -- i.e., he speaks clearly to Moses, not darkly through dreams as he speaks with other prophets. The ancient rabbis knew that Ex 33:20 was paramount and that other expressions such as at Deut 34:10 were only metaphors.

I once mentioned to a friend who was a Presbyterian minister that a rabbi had said that Moses had seen God's face. My friend agreed that was true. When I pointed out that this was not what Torah says, he was upset and would not agree that I was right about that.

We are all highly selective in what we want to remember. That's why there are so many people on the planet. So we can listen to each other when someone has something new to point out. We're not supposed to build a Tower of Babel of enforced unity.

Too many theologians have wrongly interpreted the dispersion and diversity of languages that followed the Tower of Babel as a curse. It was more like a blessing. I don't think it was ever intended as a curse and I don't think the writer of Torah understood it that way. The bad thing happening in that story is the attempt to force everyone to serve the building of the tower. God wants to stop this bad thing. The dispersion, which prevents it from happening, is the good thing. It is not a curse. But that is something else we have selectively chosen to forget. That God might endorse diversity is a hard thing for many so-called religious people to hear.

We are always enforcing unity on individuals and cultures. We cannot allow that multiple identities might be a valuable thing. For many people, a teacher like Jesus can have only message: Obey the will of God. When I point out that Jesus sometimes teaches that you can approach God with chutzpah and challenge him (as Abraham did, as Moses did, as so many Jewish figures did), I am often told that Jesus could not possibly have taught this. He had one message and that's it. So the very obvious parables of chutzpah at Luke 11:5-8 and 18:2-8 have to be reinterpreted to get rid of them.

It is not that hard to understand, I don't think. God is capable of recognizing that his children do not have monolithic personalities. A child can be rambunctious sometimes and well-behaved at other times. It is not a contradiction that Jesus taught both. It was part of his Jewish tradition that a child exhibits many attributes, and God generously allows their expression. This was a Jewish view of God that Jesus vigorously taught -- i.e., if you do not wish to selectively remember his words.

The past not only contains all that we were, but all that we could be. If only we would remember.

Saturday, October 16, 2004


I am an admirer of the work of David Flusser on Jesus. He has written some excellent essays on Jesus' sayings, revealing their Jewishness. He constantly points out Jesus' connection to his own people and his Jewish culture. Flusser's article comparing Jesus' sense of self to Hillel's demonstrates how Jewish, even Pharisaic, it was of Jesus to have such a heightened feeling of authority about himself.

But something goes awry when Flusser discusses the involvement of the Temple priests in the death of Jesus. That a scholar whose work is generally so good continues to employ a prejudiced kind of reasoning against ancient Jewish authorities is troubling. You can see it in particular in one chapter of the 1997 revised edition of Flusser's book "Jesus". "What was the original meaning of Ecce Homo?", Chapter 16, is an addition to the first edition of the book.

"Ecce Homo" is the Latin for "Behold the Man!", Pilate's utterance to the crowd at John 19:5 when he brings out Jesus arrayed in a purple robe and crown of thorns (placed there by the Roman soldiers). Flusser argues beautifully and convincingly that this was the culmination of the Roman humiliation of Jesus. Pilate was mocking Jesus. As Flusser says, "... Pilate had no intention of pronouncing Jesus guiltless; on the contrary, it would demonstrate that the Prefect took an active part in the parody of acclaiming Jesus as the 'King of the Jews'" (p. 216).

His argument convinces because he sets "Behold the Man!" in the context of a pattern of facts in the Gospels, Pilate's known historical character, and information from other sources about this phrase of acclamation. Flusser also notes that John was probably relying on a previous source -- a point I and many others agree with because John has so many historically probable details like this which are lacking in the other Gospels. As Flusser sums it up, this interpretation of Pilate's remark "remains the only reasonable interpretation" (p. 218). He is right.

But then, on the very next page at the end of the essay, he does almost a complete about-face by saying we should be "doubly cautious in our assessment of the story's authenticity" (p. 219). It is not on general principle that he advises caution. He does it rather because he realizes that he has caught himself in a contradiction.

The reasoning which he employs regarding "Behold the Man!" is quite good and should have led to the conclusion that the presence of Roman soldiers at Jesus' arrest (John 18:3,12), which John alone mentions, is equally historically authentic. But Flusser does the exact opposite here. He "reasons" that Roman soldiers were most likely not present. On what grounds? On no grounds, really. It is just an assertion on his part.

He claims that the prior source which John used was a highly nationalist Jewish author who was strongly anti-Roman (pp. 212-13), and it was this author who inserted the Roman soldiers. How does Flusser know this? He doesn't. He just asserts it. It is wild speculation. Flusser abandons the detailed reasoning based on fact, which he used to resolve the meaning of "Behold the Man!", and instead merely makes a claim that the Roman cohort is an inauthentic addition.

That is why he does an about-face with "Behold the Man!" at the end because he realizes that if you are going to argue that an anti-Roman source introduced Roman soldiers, then you might just as well argue that the same anti-Roman author made up Pilate mocking Jesus.

It is unfortunate that Flusser does not stick to his solid line of reasoning -- which would lead to the conclusion that Roman soldiers at Jesus' arrest is also reliable. His suggestion that a Jewish nationalist introduced it into the story is preposterous.

Why didn't John weed it out? None of the Gospel writers are married that tightly to their sources that they accept everything. They could all adapt things a bit. John's anti-Jewish bias is so prominent that it makes no sense he would repeat a bit of anti-Roman propaganda by a nationalist Jew. If that is all it was, he should have dropped it. John must have had good reason to believe it was true for him to have retained it.

Then too, the fact that Jesus was given a Roman execution for a Roman crime makes it likely that he was also arrested by Romans. There are no known cases of Jewish authorities arresting a Jew on Rome's behalf. All the facts (and there are more I will not review here) speak to the conclusion that this was a Roman affair all the way.

Most scholars accept the authenticity of Roman soldiers reported at John 18:3,12. Ironically, they don't see the implications of it. Ironically, it is they who reject the reliability of these verses who see what it means. I think Flusser could sense that the historical veracity of Roman soldiers arresting Jesus would lessen priestly responsibility considerably, perhaps even make it non-existent, and heighten Rome's. Not that Flusser does not blame Rome for Jesus' death, it is just that he seems all too happy to assign a good measure of complicity to the priests as well.

C.K. Barrett, a British scholar, seems to have adopted the same line of thought. He too rejected the Roman soldiers mentioned by John ("The Gospel According to St. John" [1967], p. 433). It seemed to him to conflict with priests taking the lead in the arrest and prosecution of Jesus.

But Barrett does raise a good question. If Roman soldiers arrested Jesus, shouldn't Jesus have been taken directly to Pilate? This is a valid inquiry. It so happens there is a very simple explanation for why Roman soldiers were there yet Jesus is first taken to the high priest's house. It was for an informal meeting, not a trial, but I won't say more about it here. All I wish to point out for the time being is that when confronted with startling evidence like the presence of Roman soldiers, a good scholar or scientist should follow where the evidence leads instead of letting prior convictions determine how the evidence is handled.

That is where Flusser got stuck. An a priori assumption that the priests bore some heavy responsibility in Jesus' death fixes the way the evidence is analyzed. Prejudice and prejudice only causes Flusser to abandon his good reasoning, which he used to explain "Behold the Man!", in order to draw a very opposite conclusion for John 18:3,12. (He makes other remarks that point to this prejudice. E.g., he calls the high priest "not exactly a gentleman" [p. 192], though I do not believe there is any information in Josephus or rabbinic literature to justify this opinion of Caiaphas.)

That is why I call the whole scholarly endeavor to blame Jewish leaders a witch trial. Evidence which tends to exonerate them of Jesus' death is dismissed quite arbitrarily. It is nothing short of a trial rigged to achieve one verdict and it has been going on for far too long.

Thursday, October 07, 2004


I don't mind when scholars speculate about the historical Jesus. It can be useful to stretch our imaginations. But in the end, everything has to be based on evidence. It is wrong, even reprehensible, I would say, to pass off pure speculation as established fact or even as very probable when other possibilities are just as probable.

About Jesus' childhood we know practically nothing. Anyone who guesses about it is doing just that. The Gospels give us the public period of Jesus' life. What happened before that is guesswork. Consider his father Joseph. All we know is that he never appears during Jesus' publicly recorded period. From that, it would be reasonable to conclude that he was not around. But why wasn't he there? He might have died or there might have been a divorce. There is no way to decide which is the better possibility. (Not to mention other possibilities, such as his simply disappearing one day.)

Some people think that divorce is the better possibility. They base this on Matt 1:19 where it says that Joseph contemplated divorcing Mary. But that evidence is too meager. It also might be an allegation that arose after Jesus died. We have no way of knowing if it reflects something genuine about the marriage of Joseph and Mary.

But I will admit it is a possibility. And you could argue that if his parents were divorced, it would help explain why Jesus, who most of the time seems to be of the same liberal spirit as Hillel, should depart from Hillel on the issue of divorce and forbid it. If other children had teased him when he was a child about his parents' separation, that would help explain why divorce was such a bad thing to him. But it's still speculation.

I have preferred the view that his father died before Jesus makes his appearance in the Gospels. But did this death occur when Jesus was a child or much later, perhaps just before Jesus' public activity? Again, there is no way to know. We are all just guessing about any of this. Jesus may well have been fatherless in one way or another from early childhood (we have no way of knowing for sure), which gives us a very interesting and personal reason for why he related to God as father. In Jewish culture, there were many metaphors for God, including some feminine ones. God the father is just one. It would be understandable why Jesus chose to focus on that one if he had been without a father from a young age.

Still, it is all speculation. So when a scholar tries to pass off his own speculation as highly probable reconstruction, I get the willies over such shoddy scholarship. Andries van Aarde's article "Jesus as Fatherless Child" is a good example of this. It appears in the collection "The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels" (2002) edited by Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce J. Malina, and Gerd Theissen. (Note: There are at least a couple of supremely good essays in this collection, particularly those by Stegemann and Annette Weissenrieder.)

Here are just a few of the conclusions which van Aarde thinks are more than merely "an inflation of historical probabilities", though he admits that he cannot prove this is the real Jesus: he was born out of wedlock; he had an altered state of consciousness experience of God; he abandoned woodworking, having previously taken it up when he was probably forced to give up farming; he became homeless; he outraged Pharisees and all Jewish leaders; the Romans crucified him, and much more.

The astounding thing is that van Aarde claims all this follows from the assumption that Jesus grew up fatherless. What a load of ... Well, I won't say it. Not to mention that we cannot know for sure if Jesus grew up fatherless.

In any other field, it would be unnecessary to point out that you cannot make gross claims for what is only speculation. But in this field, it is a sport that is engaged in so regularly that people take this stuff all too seriously. Sometimes I think there is an ulterior motive to all this. The real purpose is to confuse things so much that when something really worthwhile, accurate, and well-founded is said about the historical Jesus, no one will pay attention. How many people will take to heart Weissenrieder's magnificent article on the hemorrhaging woman? How many people will realize that she has established that the Gospel report of this case does not support a reading that Jesus was challenging the purity codes of his time? It was simply a case of healing. That and nothing more. The woman was not an outcast.

Most speculation, including van Aarde's, seems to be aimed at interpreting Jesus in an anti-Jewish way. That ought to make us very suspicious about what all this speculating is really aimed at.

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