Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Here I go with my litany again, every month, as I swore I'd do: Jesus Sarah Vowell blog Francine Prose Rachel Donadio Laura Miller.

Now I ask myself, What would I say to any of these swell ladies if I had the chance? I suppose I'd say that history belongs to the people. Then I ask myself, What does that mean? It means, of course, that the study of history is open to everyone, but it cannot mean that every opinion is of equal value. Some opinions are founded on facts and some are founded on nothing but assertion and assumption.

By "history belongs to the people", I mean something more corrective than a principle in its own right. History cannot belong exclusively to a group of self-designated experts who lay claim to it. What if they are wrong? What if they make mistakes? What if they have an agenda to rewrite history — rewriting some facts and erasing others? Somebody has to stop them. Somebody has to say no. And this somebody will come from the people.

Biblical history, and in particular, the history in the New Testament, has its own peculiar problem. It has long been dominated by religious interests, even in the field of historical studies. Every historical scholar brings their beliefs about Jesus to the table. Everybody fixes historical study so that their beliefs will not be threatened.

What I would say to Mlles. Vowell, Prose, Donadio, and Miller is that we should not let the "experts" control the study of New Testament history. Let's face it. There is a general fear that any study of the history behind so-called religious texts will upset our beliefs. Maybe some beliefs will be upended and some might be reinforced. But our fears tell us we'd rather not know how it will turn out and we avoid taking a close look. We pass off this study to the "experts" and let them handle it. That's a mistake.

The study of the history behind the New Testament could be exciting. It could mean the recovery of the silenced voices of the past. The cost of letting the experts handle it means those voices will continue to be suppressed. What voices am I talking about? For starters, there are the voices of Judas and Jewish leaders. The Gospel writers preserved many details that speak to their innocence in the matter of Jesus' death. The traditional story of their guilt is based on reading things into the texts. It's circular reasoning. Scholars assume Judas and Jewish leaders had something to do with the death of Jesus and then manipulate the evidence to justify the assumption.

I've discussed this in detail in my book, so won't do it again here. But I will ask one question: Why does anyone think Jewish leaders were complicit in the Roman execution of Jesus? I'll be told because the Gospels say so. But we have to be more exact than that. The accusation that Jewish leaders plotted to kill Jesus occurs a number of times in the Gospels. Fair enough and yet not fair. The repeated accusations create an aura of guilt, but they are irrelevant as evidence of actual guilt.

It is illogical and immoral to use any accusation to prove the truth of same. Accusations prove that Jewish leaders came to be so accused. But they could just as well be the result of slander. And the constant repetition of an accusation does not improve its evidentiary value — which is and always be zero. The only serious question is: Is there a pattern of evidence outside or beyond the accusation that supports it?

That's where the case against Jewish leaders (and Judas) falls apart. I don't just mean there are a few holes in the case. I mean it falls apart completely. There is no case. What about the trial? The Gospels never say Jewish leaders put Jesus on trial. That's an assumption which scholars read into the text. What is there is some sort of meeting and the Gospel details of that meeting do not add up to a trial.

What I would say to the ladies of literary criticism and other assorted interests is this: It's the details that count and those details have recorded the lost voices of history protesting their innocence. What we have to do is face our fear of the experts who strangle those voices.

Leon Zitzer

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