Monday, February 22, 2010


First, my litany again, and the reason being that unless people outside the field of NT scholarship take an interest in this, nothing will ever change. So here we go: Jesus Sarah Vowell blog Francine Prose Rachel Donadio Laura Miller. Sooner or later, right?

In the post below this, I picked out some quotations from Chalmers Johnson's discussion of imperialism in Nemesis (2006) and applied them to the way NT scholars operate in historical Jesus studies. It's too juicy a topic to let go of that quickly, so here are a few more thoughts. Some of this was inspired by Sven Lindqvist's 1995 study The Skull Measurer's Mistake: And Other Portraits of Men and Women Who Spoke Out Against Racism. (All the people he discusses are from the 18th and 19th centuries. He ends at 1899.)

What is the underlying premise of imperialism? It is that the world is a free for all, in both senses of this expression, it's up for grabs, and the spoils go to the victor, i.e., the stronger in arms. Nobody owns anything. Whoever can move in, grab the land and develop it, gets to keep it or at least gets to suck all the resources out of it, the natives be damned.

Of course, it's a lot more than land that is taken. Imperialists get to take over the culture and a people's history and reinterpret it, even misinterpret it. Imperialists dictate what is civilization and who belongs to that exclusive club.

New Testament scholars have the same view of Jewish history of the 1st century. Whoever can move in and put it to their own use, that's who owns it. They get to say what 1st century Jewish history and culture is, sheerly because a large number of Christian scholars have written about it and took control when Jewish scholars were looking the other way and, besides, had no impact on the general public anyway.

When Jews did acquire some civil liberties and participated in the wider culture, Jewish scholars with few exceptions still looked the other way when it came to Christian writing on Jewish history. They spoke more on matters concerning the Jewish religion generally, but the history of the 1st century was seen as a Christian subject and the terms of their study were generally accepted even by Jews.

History like territory belongs to those who use it, for good or ill, and since NT scholars have used 1st century Jewish history more than Jews have, it belongs to them.

One result is that the study of Josephus is almost completely messed up. Too many scholars, Jewish ones included, will write that he says Jewish leaders cooperated with the Romans in the arrest and prosecution of troublemakers accused of a capital crime. Josephus does not offer a single word to justify this. He rather gives a fair amount of information that Jewish authorities would never do such a thing. That is easy for NT scholars to erase when you own Jewish history as they think they do.

Imperialists also have a peculiar view of international law. Laws were made to bind the weak. The strong, on the other hand, can break them with impunity. (Think of all the broken treaties with the Indians.) So too, NT scholars do not feel bound by any laws of reason or rules of evidence. Such rules are for the weak-minded. NT scholars have the power to violate reason and evidence as they will. They make up their own rules which are essentially no rules at all. If no evidence supports a theory and some evidence contradicts it, NT scholars feel it is their right to assert the theory into existence. Jesus must be at odds with Judaism and Jewish leaders, surrounded by Jewish enemies, no matter what the evidence says.

Judas' betrayal is one such theory. The Jewish trial of Jesus is another. NT scholars treat them as facts, not theories. Such is their power. It is a game to get around the proper rules of evidence. Very much like imperialists, they merely impose their views on history, even if they have to rewrite much of the evidence and erase the rest of it.

What if Jesus' Jewish enemies are a misinterpretation of the evidence, a fantasy with no basis in evidentiary reality? No one wants to investigate that possibility because NT imperialists have fixed it so that enemies are all anyone can see. We are still waiting for the birth of genuine historical study of the Gospels and 1st century Jewish history.

Leon Zitzer

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