Thursday, November 27, 2008


In the battle between recovering the historical and very Jewish Jesus and covering him up so that he never sees the light of day, the use of language is crucial. The battle takes place primarily in language. We use it to encourage bad ideas and discourage good ideas. Archaeological discoveries are rare and usually not to the point. Research is mainly reading and re-reading the New Testament until a cloud lifts from your eyes. Or not. And whichever happens β€” the cloud lifts or it is forcibly kept in place β€” language is used to report the result and, more importantly, to fix the result in our consciousness and discourage any contrary thinking.

The poet John Berger wrote in an essay on Victor Serge, "Institutions can be defended by lies, revolutions never." Every act of genuine seeing is a revolution. Historical Jesus scholars make sure this never happens.

There's a myth about how Jesus died. Well, let's not call it a myth yet. Let's call it a story. There's a story about how the historical Jesus died. In a nutshell (and that's all you can do on a blog), he was betrayed and done in by Jewish enemies. What is so amazing is how casually everyone repeats this without any serious reflection or investigation of the evidence. Just the most casual recitation. The very casualness is a way of affirming that there is no other way to see this, that this can never be challenged. Scholars have tomes to fill, not just blogs, and all they can do is endlessly repeat this story with little or no analysis.

Language makes us believe it. Language encourages it. No evidence, just the language that it must be so and that it's good to believe it. Of course, we could use language to question and say, "Hey look!" We could open things up by saying, "There's something we've missed. Look!" But we never do. It ain't cool.

Maybe the Gospels don't say Judas betrayed Jesus. Maybe Jewish leaders didn't put Jesus on trial and hand him over to the Romans. Maybe the evidence points to something else. And maybe ancient Judaism was not obsessed with rituals and purity concerns. It just might be that the real obsession is in scholars who are consumed with these things and crucify Judaism with their own obsessive fantasies about rituals and the like.

It ain't cool to suggest these things, I know. It ain't cool to be me. So what is cool?

Raymond Brown has written that any evidence (or interpretation of evidence) which convicts Jewish leaders of complicity in the death of Jesus is more helpful than evidence which doesn't (or tends to exonerate them). He has also written that evidence which puts Jewish leaders in a more favorable light should be eliminated from the discussion. E.P. Sanders has made the same point by describing as laudable any attempt to draw a connection between Jesus' teachings and his death. Even if a scholar misrepresents Judaism (which is regrettable) to give a false picture of how Jesus might have been in conflict with his religious culture, Sanders would still call such an effort laudable.

Brown and Sanders have not fixed the case against ancient Jewish leaders too much, have they? But then that is the whole point of their language. They mean to discourage anyone from thinking about this in another way. Only one line of thinking is allowed, only one is praised β€”the one that everyone is comfortable repeating.

So too Elaine Pagels can casually say the same thing. Twice in The Origin of Satan, she has it that Jesus' teachings "angered and alarmed certain Jewish leaders, especially the Temple authorities, who probably facilitated his capture and arrest" (p. xxii; cf. p. 105). It's just the cool thing to tell everyone. How is this any different from a Passion play, old or new? And Pagels is equally obligated to repeat all the other bits to go along with this. The Passion play of a prejudiced telling of Jesus' story never ends.

In the same book, Pagels states that ritual precepts defined Jewish identity (p. 85). This is quite wrong but it is what every scholar says in one form or another. Closer to the truth would be that justice, peace, and concern for due process formed ancient Jewish identity. But no historical Jesus scholar will tell you that. It's not cool and no one will summon up the language to remind everyone of these important truths about Jewish culture.

In Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, which she wrote with Karen L. King, Pagels has written that the Gospel of Mark gives us "the bare fact of the betrayal" (p. 17). Completely false. Mark only gives us the bare fact of Judas leaving the table and returning with authorities in tow. Betrayal is an interpretation, a theory, but not a fact. Some people will ask, "But what else could Judas' act have been?" A lot of things, actually. It does not take much of an imagination to think of other possibilities. But scholars will not allow this. It is forbidden to ask whether another interpretation might not offer a better explanation of the evidence. They forbid it in the most ingenious way: By lying about this and convincing everyone that the betrayal is a fact and therefore cannot be questioned. To believe in false facts and never to question them is so cool in the scholarly world.

The problem is not that you can find certain lies in the writings of Elaine Pagels. The problem is that these are the standard lies in the world of scholarship. Pagels is merely repeating them. The lies were created a long time ago and then a system of scholarship was put in place so that they could be retold as casual truths which all imbibe from childhood on. It's institutional to think this way, and as Berger said, institutions are defended with lies, but revolutions never. To see is to be a revolutionary.

I am sure that anyone who happens on this blog will fully agree with Brown, Sanders, Pagels and the rest. This is cool to tell Jesus' story this way. If it's all a lie, even cooler. That makes me very uncool. To raise these thoughts is uncool. To suggest that this is all such a tragedy is an unwanted insight. Unwanted, uncool, unloved. What other destiny can you have when the public is so uncaring about correcting any of these lies? To die uncool and unwanted and opposed to the constant repetition of historical lies β€” isn't that cool a death? Nothing cooler. Just ask Socrates.

Leon Zitzer

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