Friday, June 18, 2010


I think most of us would agree that in the most perfect system of censorship, you would get people to censor themselves. This way, no strong arm tactics are required. You don't have to do anything overt, like burn books or arrest people. You simply (and it's not really so simple) create an atmosphere where it will become impossible to think certain thoughts. The system will function unconsciously. It seeps into everyone's blood and brains. No one realizes what is going on and, most importantly, no one is responsible. Certain thoughts are banned and no one knows how it happened. How is this achieved?

The usual tactic is first and foremost the silent treatment. If anyone expresses the forbidden thoughts, we all just ignore it. No response means it is insignificant and not worthy to be discussed. If that is not entirely successful in getting people to shut up, then ridicule is a second weapon, sometimes alternating with downright hostile remarks or expressions of outrage that anyone could suggest such ideas.

The idea is not just to discourage the transgressor, but to send a warning to anyone who might take an interest in such thoughts: If you find this interesting and pursue this, then this is how you too will be treated! So get in line or you too will get a taste of our ridicule and outrage. In short, be as off-putting as possible and it will be a long time before anyone dare raises the outlawed thoughts again.

When this system works, you don't have to employ these methods very often. Just a little bit the first few times the unwanted thoughts rear their heads and everybody gets it. The great majority never bother to think about certain matters again -- even when evidence walks right up to them and kisses them on the nose. Self-censorship in action is fascinating. And remember: No one is at fault here. It's just the way things are. Perfect.

In 1971, Shlomo Pines rediscovered and published an alternate Arabic text of the Greek version of Josephus' passage on Jesus. It was preserved by Agapius, a 10th century Christian. There are several significant differences from the Greek, but the most interesting thing about the Agapius text is that it does not mention Jewish leaders at all in the death of Jesus, only Pontius Pilate (unlike the Greek which alleges that Jewish leaders indicted Jesus before Pilate). Pines devotes two sentences to this!! Two sentences for the most arresting feature of this Arabic version of what Josephus said.

Pines does a good job with the rest of this precious document, but as to the omission of Jewish leaders, all he can say is that perhaps it was scribal error -- or not. Well, yes, perhaps scribal error. Or it might be that Jewish leaders had no part in Jesus' death and that's why Josephus left them out. Or Josephus might have said something very positive about Jewish leaders trying to help Jesus and some Christian cleric deleted it and then others came along and changed it to a false accusation against them. There are other possibilties to be considered. Pines mentions none of them. Why? On other aspects of the Agapius, he does discuss more than one possibility, but not on this issue. Why?

Most likely, he did not want to stir up a hornet's nest. He knew how important it is to Christian scholars to blame not only some Jews for Jesus' death, but a wide circle of Jews. He decided not to get into it. He censored himself. But he deserves enormous credit for having the courage to bring up the Agapius text of Josephus in the first place. So many scholars will not even acknowledge it or deal with it at all. More self-censorship. In books by Paula Fredriksen, John Crossan, and E.P. Sanders, these authors discuss only the Greek text of Josephus and never mention that there is another version. They don't even see fit to refer to what various ancient Christian writers (such as Origen and Jerome) said they read in Josephus. The comments of these ancient writers also vary from the Greek. But so many scholars just censor that.

You can see Sanders censor himself from one page to the next in The Historical Figure of Jesus. He notes that a high priest ripping his robes was an act of mourning, used to persuade someone (271). But on the very next page (272), he has the high priest use it to condemn Jesus. How did he convince himself to make this switch? He simply says (quite incorrectly) that the high priest was trying to persuade his fellow counsellors to join him in condemning Jesus. Tearing the priestly robes was never used this way. In his first insight, Sanders is aware of this, but the traditional story of how Jesus died has to reassert itself and censor the real historical context.

At least Sanders was willing to see what the rending of priestly garments actually means. Most scholars have just disregarded this information. Sanders was also willing to recognize that the high priest Caiaphas was probably a pretty decent high priest and would have seen it as his duty to stand up for Jewish interests and customs to the Romans, but then he immediately adds that this "responsibility ... plays no role in our story" (266). Why not? Why not consider the possibility that Caiaphas might have seen it as his duty to defend a popular rabbi and healer before Roman accusers? In Sanders, we can see someone in the act of visibly censoring his own thoughts. With most scholars, it takes place invisibly.

What is happening is that any pro-Jewish approach to the Gospels is being censored. Because there is a history of attacks and hostility towards anyone who brings it up. In the 19th century, Abraham Geiger was viciously criticized for making a positive assessment of the Pharisees and Jesus as a Pharisee. One hundred years later, the same hostility was aimed at Paul Winter for similar remarks. That was in the 1960s. More recently, Hyam Maccoby has been ridiculed. And if you read William Arnal's 2005 book on Jesus, you will see the same attitude displayed towards anyone who would make Jesus too Jewish, or "an honorary Jew", as he puts it at one point.

Self-censorship does not just happen. Mainstream scholarship makes sure it happens.

Leon Zitzer

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