Wednesday, September 22, 2010


One of the most common thoughts you will find in all biblical scholarship, but especially in New Testament scholarhsip, is that ancient texts tell us more about the authors of these documents than about history itself. That claim is made for the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament as well as for rabbinic litertaure. To some extent, they even do it to Josephus. When they find any information in him they don't like, they "get rid" of it by claiming this is just Josephus' prejudice.

I don't mind this claim in and of itself so much — it has a limited usefulness. What I mind is the facile way scholars apply it and exempt themselves from this rule. They place themselves above the culture they are studying, instead of getting down into it, and never ever question their own motivations. Has it occurred to anyone that the ancients (some of them) might have been more capable of objectivity than we are? Scandalous thought there.

The Historical Jesus in Context, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, Dale Allison Jr., and John Crossan, is a collection of 29 essays (counting the introduction by Levine). In "The Galilean Charismatic and Rabbinic Piety: The Holy Man in the Talmudic Literature" (149-65), Alan J. Avery-Peck makes exactly this claim of the subjective slant of the rabbis. He applies this to his discussion of how much we can learn about Jesus' world from the rabbinic stories of Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa (both wonder-workers).

He begins by stating that the rabbis had "their own theological and social agendas" and shaped the material "to serve their own ideational purposes" (152). But he also says, "we must be clear as much about what they [the pertinent passages] teach about the interests of the later Rabbis as they teach about the holy men [Honi and Hanina] themselves" (ibid.). He seems to be willing to admit that there may be some valid things here to learn about these historical figures. But in a deeper sense, we can already see where this is headed. He is going to come to the conclusion that ancient history is hidden from us because of the rabbinic agenda in shaping or altering the material.

Indeed, that is exactly what he says at the end: "Insofar as the depictions we have analyzed are shaped by and serve the purposes of the later Rabbinic authorities, their use to portray specific details of Jewish life or attitudes in the late Second Temple period [Jesus' time] must remain conjectural" (164-65). You can almost hear him wiping the sweat from his brow and sighing, Whew, our ideas about Jesus can remain safe from historical examination.

If he is right that we cannot be certain about this information for Jewish culture, it is equally true that we cannot be certain that it does not apply. Logically, we would be entitled to test two assumptions: 1) this information is not reliable for 1st century Judaism, and 2) it is reliable. But nobody ever tests the second one. Only the first one is held plausible. And that reveals quite a bias in scholars.

I like some of the points Avery-Peck makes about Honi and Hanina. He has some good insights. But the principle he uses — of the intractable subjectivity of ancient authors — mainly serves the purpose of covering up history, not uncovering it. The fear is that we might actually learn something new about the historical Jesus. In saying this, all I am doing is undoubling the standard and applying one consistent standard for scholars as well: Maybe scholars are shaping the material they study for their own agenda.

As another example of this: In the first few pages of his essay (on 150 and 151), Avery-Peck constantly refers to the rabbis as legalists (eight times he uses expressions with "law" or "legal"). This is an age-old problem in this field. Apparently, it is not going to change anytime soon. It is a highly subjective and prejudiced view of rabbinic culture. It tells us more about Avery-Peck than about the rabbis. The rabbis in reality were constitutionalists — which is a very different thing.

So what do we do? Do we cut the ancients some slack, the same slack we give ourselves? Or do we insist on a double standard? Can we allow they had as much objectivity as we claim for ourselves? Can we admit that scholars have their prejudices that change history and historical documents? Or do we suppress all discussion about this as we have to this very day? If the unexamined life is not worth living, the value of being a historical Jesus scholar is quite questionable.

Leon Zitzer

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