Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Actually, I am not going to go over this in detail or offer the profoundest reasons. On previous posts, I have spelled out how anti-historical everyone is when they discuss Judas or any Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus. Blaming some Jews is a theological point with scholars and not the result of paying attention to the details in the Gospels.

What I want to offer here are 4 compelling signs (just signs) that historical Jesus studies is mired in theology and has little to no interest in genuine historical discovery:

1) Probably the most interesting historical discovery in recent decades was made by Shlomo Pines in 1971. He discovered another version of Josephus' passage on Jesus. It was preserved by a Chrisitian author, Agapius, writing in Arabic in the 10th century. It is one century older than our oldest Greek copies of Josephus' testimony about Jesus. The Greek version has long been suspected of being tampered with by Christian clerics. It has things in it that Josephus would never have said, like calling Jesus the Messiah and saying he rose from the dead. The Agapius version is missing these later Christian emendations. Thus, in the Arabic, Josephus only says that Jesus' followers reported they saw him 3 days after his crucifixion. A much more believable statement coming from Josephus.

Here is the really interesting thing. In the Greek, Josephus blames Jewish leaders in part for the death of Jesus, but in the Arabic, he says no such thing. He lays the blame solely on Pontius Pilate. Yet there are still so many scholars who never even mention the Agapius Josephus, though it is a century older than the Greek. To name a few, Paula Fredriksen, John Crossan, and E.P. Sanders discuss only the Greek and never even mention the existence of another version. That is because the Arabic version does not fit their theology of blaming Jewish leaders.

Such a thing could not happen in any other field. It is impossible to imagine that American historians would not discuss a never-before-seen draft of the Declaration of Independence, if such a document were ever discovered. But this is exactly the kind of thing that happens in New Testament scholarship, if anything is found that would help overturn the theological idea that Jesus was surrounded and done in by Jewish enemies. Scholars today may promote this myth with politeness and smiles, but it is still a myth (i.e., the evidence does not support it).

2) From the 14th century, we have a Hebrew version of Matthew, preserved by Shem Tob ben- Isaac ben Shaprut. George Howard has done the most work on this and provides the Hebrew with an English translation and comments in Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (1995). Howard gives excellent reasons in follow-up articles why this likely stems from an original version of Matthew and not from a translation into Hebrew from the Greek. One of the most interesting things about it are all the Hebrew word games which Jesus plays, a favorite activity of the rabbis. I cannot find any mainstream historical Jesus scholar who acknowledges the existence of this document. That is because their theology is to stay as far as possible from the Jewish Jesus.

3) If a book as prejudiced as William Arnal's The Symbolic Jesus (2005) were published in any other field, like, say, anthropology, there would be a huge outcry. Some would defend Arnal, but many more would strongly object. But in historical Jesus studies, there is not even a whimper of protest. Examples of his prejudice: He uses words like "rigid" and "obsessively" to characterize what he calls traditional Judaism, but he never uses any negative words for Greek culture; he makes it clear that he prefers a Jesus closer to Greek culture than to Jewish culture: he complains about those who would make Jesus an "honorary Jew", his euphemism for too Jewish or too rabbinic; he makes one disparaging reference to Jesus as rabbi; otherwise, he is completely silent about Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism (they do not exist in Arnal's book); he harps on Temple, rituals, purity concerns (or various such assortments) as the identity markers of 1st century Judaism; he never considers spirituality, peace, justice as the main elements of ancient Jewish culture; he gives only a depleted and prejudiced picture of Judaism. It is an outrageously prejudiced book. His goal is to make sure prejudiced scholarship remains firmly in place. Yet everyone is silent because it more or less fits the theology of every scholar.

In general, NT scholars are obsessed with making ancient Judaism revolve around rituals, Temple, purity, etc. They pick only the most superficial things and avoid ancient Jewish culture's deep commitment to peace, justice, due process, and more. As I have pointed out in my book The Ghost in the Gospels, it is impossible to walk away from any book by a historical Jesus scholar and come away with a positive impression of ancient Judaism. Arnal's book is no exception. It is filled with a negative theological approach towards Judaism and no one will say a word about it.

4) So many scholars still talk of "Law" and "observance of the Law" as one of the themes of historical Jesus research. "Law" (still used by scholars who should know better!) is of course a mistranslation of Torah, but it is still in use. "Observance" is another category to prejudice scholars in the direction of legalism as the burning issue. "Law" and "Observance" are Christian theological categories that have nothing to do with Jewish history or culture and nothing to do with the Gospels. Historical Jesus scholars are virtually clueless about the place of Torah in ancient Jewish life and what the word really means. Jewish culture is inadmissible in their theology.

Leon Zitzer

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