Wednesday, July 14, 2010


This is a continuation of the blog post immediately below where I wrote about self-censorship in historical Jesus studies. After I posted that, I started reading Frederic Spotts' book, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation. Self-censorship plays a crucial role in the story he tells. He makes many of the same points I made.

Spotts observes that it was not German or Vichy officials who were the most effective in suppressing undesirable art. It was right-wing art critics. "They could not outlaw the art they hated, so they tried to suppress it by intimidation" (151). The ultra-conservatives, as he also calls them, "kept up such a screeching chorus of vilification that untold numbers of intellectuals were reduced to silence" (28). "[T]he pre-emptive cringe and the self-censorship" were, he says, "... central traits of cultural life during the Occupation" (ibid.)

He is very critical of historians who claim that cultural life blossomed under the Occupation. Not only was the quality of much of the permitted work mediocre, but, he notes, you have to look at all the stuff that did not get produced: "Any number of plays never got to the stage and any number of films were never made ..." (24). Pre-emptive self-censorship played a key role, resulting in works that had "an artificial quality about them" (ibid.). "So artificiality was also a product of silence — the silence of books and films and plays never born" (ibid.).

The end result of the screeching chorus of vilification is that "If you know a thought is dangerous, you do not write it down and even begin to stop thinking it" (86). That is exactly the situation I described in historical Jesus studies in the post below.

The dangerous thought in historical Jesus studies is an understanding of Jesus' full Jewishness and his harmony with other Jews. What else is William Arnal's The Symbolic Jesus, but one long screeching condemnation of anyone who would make Jesus too Jewish, too rabbinic or traditionally Jewish, "an honorary Jew", as he euphemistically puts it? What else was Ellis Rivkin's 1971 review of Haim Cohn's The Trial and Death of Jesus, but a shriek of outrage against anyone who dared to suggest that Jewish leaders might have tried to save Jesus from a Roman execution? Rivkin could not even bring himself to cite any of the evidence that Cohn brought to bear. He just condemned the thesis outright. He declared it an unthinkable thought.

Everyone in historical Jesus studies essentially performs the function of a right-wing critic, no matter how liberal or even pro-Jewish they seem to be. From the left to the right, they all — every single one of them — blame a wide circle of Jews for the death of Jesus. The Jewish religion killed Jesus, even for writers like John Crossan, E.P. Sanders, and Garry Wills. And they all steadfastly avoid taking a close look at what makes Jesus so deeply Jewish. They repeatedly use the word "offensive" to describe how Jesus appeared to his fellow Jews.

This unanimous shriek has made sure that any number of books do not get written, let alone published, if they attempt to challenge this with another viewpoint entirely. Jesus as a normal fit in his Jewish culture cannot even be allowed as a thought. Historical Jesus studies has always been under theological Occupation. "Jesus versus Jewish enemies" is theology, not history. And the theological Occupation ensures that self-censorship will continue.

Leon Zitzer

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