Thursday, September 30, 2004


9/27 - Quotations That Think About The Past

9/14 - Part 3 of Psychologically Prepared for the Historical, Jewish Jesus?

9/5 - Part 1 of Psychologically Prepared?

9/4 - Part 2 of Psychologically Prepared?

Monday, September 27, 2004


Some quotations have been on my mind, revolving in my head, some new, some old. They link up and come apart and link up again. I find it thrilling that so many people have had the same insights about the past, as if the past were a living, breathing thing that did not want to die and did not want to be separated from our future.

The two most recent (recent for me) are from Jorge Luis Borges and Victor Hugo, and both were quoted in movies. I heard the Borges quote the other night in the film "Tango" (1999), from the Argentinian director Carlos Saura. As soon as I saw it in the sub-titles, it was like someone had shot me through the heart.

"The past is indestructible. Sooner or later things turn up. One of the things that turns up is a plan to destroy the past." Of course, that plan does not just happen to turn up. There are people who put it into effect, or they try to. That's why they fight for control of the future.

"The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past." Milan Kundera wrote that. He might as well have said they want to kill the past, or at the very least to turn it into a ghost far away from the land of the living. In this way, they seek to control the telling of history, to control what gets admitted into our narratives or not. Keeping certain things out is their goal. But things have a way of turning up.

"The best years of our lives are yet to come." So said Victor Hugo, as I learned in the 1995 French film "Les Miserables", Claude Lelouch's very modern retelling of an old story. But why did Hugo say that? Because he believed we could kill the past and have a bright new future? I doubt it. I would like to believe that he knew that the future is open with golden possibilities only when we see the truth about the past: The past too was filled with possibilities. The past was not an inevitability. People made choices. Sometimes the wrong choice, sometimes the right choice, and sometimes a choice that is neither, but equally valid with other possibilities.

Things have a way of turning up from the past which show us those possibilities and those choices. To say that the past was inevitable is just another way of destroying the past and our future. But things turn up. It's just that forces in our culture have a way of erasing them as soon as they come into view.

John Howard Yoder, in his collection of essays "The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited" (2003), believes the split between the two religions did not have to occur. It wasn't there at the beginning -- that is, immediately after Jesus' death -- and not even for some centuries thereafter. The facts are there in history that neither side disowned the other, not for a very long time. So what happened? There were turning points, but overall it was a gradual process.

When historical facts turn up -- or when we see what has always been there with fresh eyes -- they impel us, if we allow it to happen, "... to put ourselves so effectively into the psychic skins of the actors of those days that we can say that the history looks open; it could have gone otherwise ... It pushes us to ask far more ambitious and complex questions about all of the forces which were at work ..." (Yoder, 44).

Somebody made a choice -- or, more accurately, many choices over a long period of time. The fact that we keep repeating those choices does not make them any the less choices. It just means we hide what we are doing. We think we can make choices disappear by calling it all inevitable. It's a very neat trick. A trick whose main purpose is merely to fool ourselves.

And that is how we cut off our future, a new future. What we create instead is a future of endless repetition of the past. We call it inevitability but we created it. We imprison ourselves by imprisoning the past. What was lost and gained in history did not have to work out just one way.

I hate it when people argue, "Well, God must have meant for it to happen because it did happen." Yes, it happened. A division between two religions did happen, though not as early as the lies would have us believe. Along with it grew the lie of an anti-Jewish Jesus, which has lasted to this day, even among scholars.

I call them lies because they are rather obvious lies. Reading the Gospels with a little common sense easily reveals how Jewish these documents are. The first gentiles who read the Gospels did not feel called to a new, completely strange, universal religion. They were called to become Jews and that is how they considered themselves. The whole story is Jewish, top to bottom.

God meant it to happen? God seems to have meant for a lot of things to happen. You might as well put God behind it all. Ancient documents hidden in caves for centuries keep turning up. They are windows into the varying possibilities of the past. Why didn't God destroy these documents? Why did he allow them to survive? And that is not all God meant to keep alive for centuries.

If God meant it all to happen (the split between Christians and Jews, the severe anti-Jewishness of later Christianity, etc.), why didn't he erase all the clues that this is not the only direction things were going in? If God meant for the Jewish Jesus to be gone forever, why didn't he erase all the clues in the Gospels that tell us how Jewish he really was?

It would have been so easy to do. Instead, God seems to have given us an abundance of clues and the ability to know that rewriting history wasn't all so inevitable.

Be wary of using God in arguments. It has a way of turning on you. Things turn up you didn't expect. As Harry Truman said (which I also learned from a movie), "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


This is a continuation of Parts 1 and 2, which appear in order below this post. You should probably read them first, but if you're like me, you're too lazy to scroll down, so I will sum them up very briefly here and get right to the point of this blog.

Just as the American revolutionary leaders could not dream of declaring independence until they reassured themselves they were not traitors to England (Part 1), just as the Protestant martyrs had to convince themselves it was possible to hold different religious beliefs and still be loyal to the State (Part 2), and just as scientists could accept what was new in the theories of Darwin and Einstein only when they gave up their attachment to previous theories (Part 1), so too the historical Jesus will not be recovered until people confront the psychological upheaval he seems to have caused ever since this search began.

The 19th century quest for the historical Jesus was doomed to fail from the start. It never had a chance. It would be accurate to say it was set up to fail. The dread these scholars felt at confronting a fully Jewish Jesus was so enormous it froze the quest in its tracks. On my Web site, in the essay "Schweitzer and Renan", I quote two such scholars, one French (Ernest Renan), one German (Franz Delitzsch), who clearly expressed their feeling that Jesus' Jewishness was more horrific than the crucifixion. (And these two were among the most liberal, progressive scholars of the day.)

Christianity had spent so many centuries teaching Judaism was an inferior religion that a Jewish Jesus could only be inferior as well. Nineteenth century antisemitism was reaching fever pitch with false allegations being made that Jews wanted to take over society and the same fears were projected into the quest -- the fear that Jewishness would overtake Jesus and destroy him.

With fears like that, could anyone seriously maintain this scholarly quest was an honest one? From the outset, one conclusion (Jesus as a complete Jew) was deemed inadmissible, out of bounds. The quest, an honest quest, was psychologically impossible. These scholars were paralyzed by their fears.

The same fears linger today, though it is rarely expressed so bluntly. But the negative feelings that current scholars have about anything deeply Jewish in Jesus (e.g., he was a rabbi) are apparent. Just see the essay on my site "Rabbi Joshua" or the first few pages of "Jewish Fears".

Some scholars still insist, in 19th century fashion, that a historical Jesus is unknowable. The Gospels are documents of faith, it is claimed, not documents of history -- a pure expression of the fear that history can be gleaned from the Gospels. If history could be obtained from the Gospels, then they would be like "documentary photographs to baffle our minds", according to John Shelby Spong ("This Hebrew Lord" [1988, 1993], p. 90). But why would a clear rendering of Jesus' history baffle our minds? The fear is that it will not match up with faith.

Yet this is only one psychological problem. Even if all prejudice about Judaism were removed, there would still be another psychological obstacle just as deep. It is comparable to what people went through during the American revolution and the Protestant reformation.

Will embracing a genuine quest for the historical, Jewish Jesus mean a betrayal of the academic tradition (not to mention religious tradition) that has failed in such a big way? If we turn our backs on all that has gone wrong in academic studies, is this a kind of treason? As long as it feels this way, we are never going to discover the historical Jesus.

Jesus is not the problem. I think he would relish a much better understanding of the real Jewish world he was a part of and the way he felt at home in it. But these scholars who stand between him and his home are going to fight this recovery tooth and nail. They will tell us that a photograph of him will only baffle us. And they are going to try to make anyone who defies them feel like a traitor.

The fully Jewish Jesus is easily recovered from the Gospels. It is easy to prove that Jewish leaders and Judas never betrayed him to the Romans. The Jewish authorities never put him on trial. They hastily convened an informal meeting to attempt to save him from a Roman execution and Judas was his loyal friend to the end. Jesus -- Rabbi Joshua -- was one of their own, not an alien. They weren't going to let the Romans mishandle him, if they could prevent it. All this is easily proved. I know because I have done it. The clues are there in abundance in the Gospels.

And if you are looking for the answer to the question "What kind of 1st century Jew was Jesus?", that too is easy to answer. Not that the answer is a simple, monolithic one. Essentially, all his teachings are Pharisaic, but it's the details that count. His Jewishness had many facets to it. Just one was his teachings about chutzpah. They are all over the place in the Gospels. You don't have to look too hard for them. You just have to fight the inclination not to look.

But to even begin to contemplate the enormity of the change in our outlook this will mean, you have to ask yourself some questions. How deeply do you need to believe that Jesus was betrayed by his own kind? How deep is the need to believe that corrupt Jewish leaders did him in? How deep the need to believe that his chief enemies and opponents were Jews, not Romans, and that because of this conflict with Jews over religious issues, Jesus was a religious martyr? Can you let go of Jesus as martyred by some Jews?

If you have to give up these ideas because they are provably false, how much will it cost you psychologically? When the cost is great, the search for truth is hobbled from the start.

It almost feels like betraying a part of yourself, doesn't it? This idea of a Jesus at odds with other Jews is so deeply ingrained. How can you let go of it? How can you turn your back on 2,000 years of tradition which has become a part of all of us in western culture? How can you turn your back on scholars and admit they have misled us?

But this is not just about the reputation of scholars who have endlessly repeated the traditional story of Jesus' death. It's about all of us. We've all been blind and missed the obvious. That's a hard thing to admit. This is about deciding whether psychological comfort with a myth is more important than truth.

No one ever discovers something new (or as Harry Truman put it, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know") until they confront the emotional problems the new insight will cause in us -- or until we want the truth so badly, it hurts, and continues to hurt until we resolve the psychological issues that gnaw at us.

The American revolution could happen only when Americans wanted independence so badly they found the mental wherewithal to free themselves from the emotional trap of self-accusations of treason.

In the hard sciences, there is a love of knowledge that overcomes our inhibitions and our stalling. Some people want to know so badly what stars are made of, or how the planets move, or what makes a rainbow, that they are willing to put that eagerness ahead of any compunctions about turning the world upside down. But not everyone. And it is not only theories of evolution and relativity that create problems. Even Newton's revelation that the rainbow is an effect of light and prisms caused problems for people who believed that this knowledge destroyed the poetry of the rainbow (see Chapter 5 of Penelope Hughes-Hallett's "The Immortal Dinner" [2002]).

Science is not easy for everyone. But when science does work, it does so because love of rational knowledge overcomes all other inhibitions. And we realize that our brains can handle scientific knowledge about something like the rainbow and still write our poetry about it. We want scientific truth very badly, so we find a way to accomodate our emotional responses.

Right now, who wants to know the historical, Jewish Jesus that badly? Not many, I think. You can probably count them on the fingers of one hand. The desire for knowledge of the historical Jesus in most people has succumbed either to the fear that Jesus' Jewishness will diminish him or to the fear of learning that tradition (religious and scholarly) has been untrustworthy.

If there is an answer here, it lies in realizing that Jesus himself might call people to better historical knowledge of him. He might tell you that to turn back to honest historical investigation is never a betrayal. The reputation of scholars and our own deepest prejudices are not more precious than truth.

The answer in science is always inside you. The historical Jesus is inside you. He is not buried in history. He is obvious in history. The same way all scientific theories are obvious in the end. The historical Jesus only awaits your being ready inside.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

(Part 2 is immediately below this post and Part 3 will appear above in a week or so.)

Psychoanalyzing figures of history has long been a popular game in academia. It is often done with too broad a stroke or it is too specific in its allegations, making many questionable assumptions and importing our modern categories into the past. As popular as it is, I believe it does not enjoy a lot of respect -- and rightly so because it is often done quite badly.

But there is one psychological question that is always appropriate to ask of any people in any time: What does it take to be ready for and even to initiate great change? How do people become psychologically or emotionally prepared to bring something new into the world? Because it ain't easy, folks, to dedicate yourself to a new truth unless you are psychologically ready to see it and bear the consequences of it.

The beauty of this question is that it does not require us to impose our standards on another time and culture. We can answer it by staying strictly within the beliefs and confines of a world not our own.

The American Revolution is a good case in point. The break from England was not possible until the leaders of this revolution convinced themselves they were not committing treason. The fear that they would be executed as traitors if they failed was the lesser part of it. I think they were prepared for that eventuality if and when the time came. The difficult part was that they could not rebel until they convinced themselves in their own minds that they were not traitors for attempting this. That was the tricky business.

How did they do it? They "simply" told themselves that the King of England was not a king anymore, he was a tyrant, and it was right to throw off the yoke of a tyrant. Otherwise, so the argument went, we are slaves of this tyrant and to be a slave is completely unacceptable. This in a country that countenanced slavery. This contradiction was actually hurled in the face of the American colonists by the British. Samuel Johnson asked, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" (And if I recall correctly, Benjamin Franklin was accosted with such questions on the streets of London.) So becoming psychologically comfortable with an existing contradiction was another factor that had to be in place.

But the main reason why I put "simply" in quotes in the above paragraph is that a paradoxical switch occurred here before the colonists could look on King George as a tyrant. In all the years leading up to the Revolution, the Americans had actually taken the opposite tack. Oh king, great king, we love you and are your most loyal subjects. It is Parliament we hate. Parliament is passing all these oppressive Acts against us. Help us, oh great king, save us from Parliament. Our charters were bestowed by you which means we are your subjects, not Parliament's.

And that was very true -- i.e., Parliament in London was the source of the problem. Of course, the appeal to the king was ridiculous because, even though his charters did establish the existence of the colonies, it was well recognized that the king could act only through Parliament. This had been true for centuries.

The more significant problem was that Parliament was a democratically elected institution (as democratic as possible for that time). How do you justify a revolt against a democracy, against the will of the people? That, I think, was almost psychologically impossible for the colonists, for most of them anyway, who wanted their own democracy. Hence, the switch to blaming the king as tyrant. That suited their mental capacities much better.

Many people in Britain knew the Americans wanted and would achieve independence before they even knew it and could admit it to themselves. Britain was their mother (one of the most popular metaphors of the time). But some British writers knew America would outgrow its mother. That is harder for the children to realize. So when the time came for revolt, not only was the king a tyrant, but, for Benjamin Franklin at least, Britain was no longer mother. She was the step-mother now. It's much easier to slap a step-mother in the face than a mother.

It's all mind games. Quite necessary mind games -- that is, if you wanted independence badly enough, which they did. And that's why they made the effort to make it palatable to themselves.

We don't think enough about all the psychological ploys and counter-ploys that go on before a revolution or any change is possible. Scientific theories -- such as Darwin's and Einstein's -- are no exception. They are obvious intellectually once you examine all the evidence and see how simply these good theories explain the facts. But new theories create immense psychological problems that must be resolved one way or another before they can be widely accepted even by scientists.

How many scientists found Einstein's ideas difficult to understand --not because they were intellectually abstruse, but because they did away with the ether, a previous hypothesis that physicists had become attached to. And I should not have to remind anyone of the emotional problems that Darwin's idea of our connection to monkeys and apes caused and still causes many people.

Emotional struggle is the key not only to political revolutions and great social changes in culture, but it is also the key to advances (or retardation) in science. Science is not above emotions. It is right smack dab in the middle of our emotional conundrums. No one just sees scientific truth. You have to be emotionally prepped for it.

All this is leading somewhere, I promise you. But there is another part of our cultural history to look at first.

(This blog was inspired by Walter A. McDougall's "Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828" [2004], Theodore Draper's "A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution" [1996], and Joseph J. Ellis' article "Editing the Declaration" in the magazine Civilization, July/August 1995.)

Saturday, September 04, 2004

(This is a continuation of Part 1 which will appear above this post in a couple of hours or perhaps tomorrow.)

Some of the leading Protestant reformers of England in the 16th century faced the same problem that American revolutionaries would face two hundred years later: How to rebel against a monarch and not consider yourself a traitor. It was Henry VIII who helped create this problem that the reformers would have to confront under Mary, his first daughter, when she took the throne years later.

(Though we call them Protestants, most of these English Protestants rejected Martin Luther's Protestantism and would have been horrified to be associated with him, though they owed him far more than they were willing to admit.)

When Henry broke with Rome, he had made himself Head of the Church in England (through Acts of Parliament, of course). Thomas More could never accept this fracturing of the universal Church and went to his death for his psychological inability to adjust to a new religious order of things in Britain. All his talk of freedom of conscience was, I believe, just a legal maneuver to keep from being executed. I can't say that I blame him. But he never deeply believed in conscience, certainly not for all those he persecuted as heretics when he was Lord Chancellor. Freedom of conscience would just create anarchy in his real opinion. But it was a nifty gimmick to use in court.

In any event, British Protestantism acknowledged the sovereign as leader of the Church in England. When Mary, a staunch Catholic, became Queen, the country was in effect ordered to become Catholic again. The country had been officially Protestant now for about twenty years, though many had remained Catholic. What would the confirmed Protestants, especially the leaders, do?

Mary Tudor is well-known for being bloody Mary. Persecution had occurred under her father too, but when hundreds were indicted under the Act to Abolish Diversity of Opinion, Henry pardoned most of them. That Act was pushed through Parliament by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, and he would become one of Mary's main advisors and her Lord Chancellor. In Mary, the overzealous Gardiner seemed to have found a willing partner.

In a little under four years, they executed 288 people as heretics (many more died in prison or under torture). The great majority were lower class. Only thirty were clergy or from the upper class. The reverse was true of those who went into exile during Mary's reign. They were overwhelmingly upper class or clergy.

When the executions started in February 1555, Mary and her coterie decided to make examples of the ecclesiastical leaders. There were ten principle soon-to-be martyrs, including Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, Hugh Latimer, formerly Bishop of Worcester, and John Rogers, who carried forward Tyndale's English Bible and who was the first to be executed.

Cranmer seems to have suffered the most psychologically (at least based on external evidence; who knows what private, internal agonies each experienced). I believe that he recanted his Protestant beliefs and then rescinded his recantation several times. He could not make up his mind where his duty lay. He had urged Thomas More to sign the Oath of Succession, reminding More that he was duty bound to obey his king in all things.

Now Mary was the sovereign and didn't Cranmer have the same duty? Following his last recantation, the Queen did not believe he was sincere and ordered his execution anyway. At the stake, Cranmer recanted this last recantation and declared that his hand had sinned in signing it. He thrust his hand into the flames where it burned to a crisp.

But how did the others reconcile their adherence to their religion while the reigning monarch decreed it should be otherwise? How did they convince themselves this was not treason? One has to guess at their innermost psychological dimensions, but we are helped by the fact that they wrote an incredible number of letters (to each other and to friends and family outside prison), many of which survive.

I think what they actually did was that, in a subtle and not quite fully formed way, they conceived of the idea of separation of Church and State. Their religion was an immaterial thing which was not a direct threat to the material State, and, in this way, they could believe it was not treason to disobey their Queen.

Of the ten imprisoned leaders, seven signed a declaration of their own making that they were obedient subjects and would gladly suffer execution rather than rebel against the Queen. They wrote to each other not to resist the magistrates. They preached no violence and never spoke of hoping for the Queen's death. They did not even engage in religious, apocalyptic talk of an era when the present regime would be swept away. They rejected any idea of overthrowing her majesty. In this way, they satisfied themselves they were not traitors.

They also had to stress that their religion was not defined by bodies or material things, but strictly by souls not bound to any one place. In effect, they were pleading for liberty to retain their beliefs and were making the case that this was not a threat to State power. Of course, they knew they would be burned at the stake. They accepted that. That willingness to die was proof they were not traitors. They probably knew that Mary and her court would never see it this way. But what mattered was that they resolved it for themselves. They had to become comfortable in their own souls.

It is too easy to just say that they stuck to their Protestant principles and beliefs. Protestantism was still a very new thing in the world. In England at least, it seems to have been mostly a young people's revolution. The entire country had been Catholic. The older generation did not give up their Catholicism on the spot just because Henry had decided the Roman Catholic Church no longer ruled in Britain. For decades to come, probably half the country would remain Catholic.

The psychology of these Catholics is easier to understand. You don't just drop 1500 hundred years of tradition. Thomas More could not do it. But those who did embrace the new and rejected the older generation's unwillingness to change had to go through complicated and subtle psychological readjustments to make the new acceptable to themselves. If the willingness of some Protestants to die proved they were not traitors, I think it also proved that religious liberty was the only sensible way out of this.

Indeed, the beginning of such liberty (it would come gradually over many generations) was in the offing. Mary Tudor would die in a few years to be succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth, Henry's second daughter. Under Elizabeth, there was a Settlement which allowed some religious liberties. She also never officially sanctioned one version of the English Bible, though she was urged to do so for the Bishops' Bible. Her action, or inaction, allowed people to find their own way through their favorite Bible. They were free to think for themselves, at least to a degree.

Wasn't that what the Protestant martyrs were longing for? I think it was. They glimpsed the possibility of it -- that one could hold religious beliefs different from the State establishment and not be a traitor. In order to achieve the peace they needed to face death, this had to be a psychological more than an intellectual leap forward.

Thomas More stood for the proposition that, as long as he kept his opinions to himself, he should suffer no harm. The Marian martyrs went further. They made no secret of the fact that they disagreed with the Queen's religion, but they believed that this should not be accounted to them as treason. If you had whispered "Let's separate Church and State" into the ears of all these victims, More probably would have been aghast, while those victimized by Mary and Gardiner would likely have smiled and said, "Yes, that's it."

I believe the psychological accomplishment of the Protestant martyrs affected the rest of society, including the new Queen Elizabeth. Something new was entering the world, and, like all new things, it could not happen until a psychological readjustment had taken place. Those martyrs helped to achieve that.

That's not the whole story, of course. The Marian martyrs were mostly from the lower classes, as I noted. They too stood up for their conscience and their love of the English Bible. (That love of the Bible also created perhaps the highest literacy rate in the world, and that in turn would have political repercussions, including the American Revolution.) The Anabaptists, who originated on the continent, also argued for religious toleration. (Four Anabaptists would be executed in Elizabeth's forty year reign; religious liberty still had a way to go.) A new idea was fought for from many quarters.

I only want to point out what is usually neglected: That a new intellectual orientation is more a matter of the heart than we like to admit. Ideas don't triumph until people are psychologically or emotionally ready -- or, prepared in their hearts, you might say. When it happens in the heart, the head will follow and only then does it follow. Without a new psychology taking root, the revolution won't happen.

What does all this have to do with the historical, Jewish Jesus? That will be the next post, Part 3, in few days or a week.

(This blog was inspired by Lacey Baldwin Smith's "Fools, Martyrs, Traitors" [1997], especially Chapter 8, and Benson Bobrick's "Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired" [2001].)

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