Monday, December 27, 2010


[It looks like my new book, True Jew: How Jesus Really Ended Up on a Roman Cross, How We Still Cover It Up, will be available in January. I will announce it when that happens.]

If we are going to have an honest historical Jesus debate -- a debate about the evidence -- then we are going to have to start paying attention. And that's not easy to do. Not because the texts are so inherently difficult (they are not), but because of what we do to the texts. The problem is much wider than the New Testament.

One thing we do is to call them scripture, religious texts. We do this to everything we identify as the Bible. This is about religion, we say and assume, and thereby prejudice the whole procedure of investigation. We assume that this was a matter of religion for the ancients. We also call them holy books and make the prejudice even more entrenched. This is as much a problem for the Hebrew "scriptures" as for the New Testament.

Were any of these books really conceived of as holy books or religious testimony by the original authors? I strongly doubt it. Look at how much sexual goings-on there is in the Hebrew documents. Or don't look. Whatever your preference may be. If the authors thought they were writing holy books, all I can say is that they had a very different idea of what holy is than we do. Nobody today would include such stories in a book purporting to be sacred. The ancients did. If they had any sense of holiness about what they were doing, then it was dramatically at odds with what we consider holy. I'm not even sure we can use the same word.

William Tyndale captured it eloquently in the prologue to his Five Books of Moses. The greatest translator of the Bible knew what he was doing. For one thing, he knew the earthiness of the Hebrew stories would cause consternation for many people. But he begged us not to look away. He is worth quoting at length (from David Daniell's modern-spelling edition):

"Neither is there any story so homely, so rude, yea or so vile (as it seemeth outward) wherein is not exceeding great comfort ... We be not holier than Noe, though he were once drunk. Neither better beloved than Jacob, though his own son defiled his bed. We be not holier than Lot, though his daughters through ignorance deceived him, nor peradventure holier than those daughters. Neither are we holier than David, though he brake wedlock, and upon the same committed abominable murder. All those men have witness of the scripture that they pleased God and were good men, both before that those things chanced them, and also after ... if ... we yet fall likewise, that we despair not, but come again to the laws of God and take better hold."

You could say that Tyndale was simply drawing a moral lesson. I think he was doing something profounder. He was saying that the Hebrew books were not providing a blueprint for perfect living: Here, this is the way to be perfect or holy! No. They were rather providing a record of human living as it really happens. And yes, you can draw the lesson that no matter what mistakes you make in life, you are not completely lost. But the deeper point is the evidence that leads to the conclusion: This is life, this is what it is to be human. It is not all up for imitation. But neither is it up for erasure. Don't erase it. Don't impose holiness on these stories. Learn to see. There is no better lesson.

We could say the same about the Gospels and everything else in the New Testament. Learn to see. Paul was not writing holy letters. He was just writing letters. Who was he writing to? What were their shared cultural experiences? Scholars like to see Paul engaged in theological battles. I don't think so. It was both simpler (less abstract and less ethereal) than that and more complicated than that. Cultural experiences can get so complicated that no one person ever captures all of it. For one excellent discussion of one angle on this for Paul, see Stanley Stowers' "A Rereading of Romans" (1994).

Is John's Gospel a theological or holy book, intended as such? Most would say it is. But there are plenty of contradictions to that scheme. John does not just make the "holy" point that a voice from heaven called Jesus a beloved son. He also tells us that some people thought it was just thunder. Is this too holy information? John may say the devil made Judas do it, but he also reminds us that, at the time, Judas was thought to be a good guy by all concerned who left the table for a very innocent purpose. Maybe he was innocent? Does John like sowing doubts about his received tradition? If so, would that we had his good sense.

If John makes Jesus out to be practically divine, he also frequently reminds us that he was a rabbi. The opening words of John are a restatement of the Jewish belief that the Torah existed at the beginning of time before the world was created and if not for Torah, the world would descend again into chaos or darkness. In other words, for all John's hostility to Jews and things Jewish, he also has some of the most Jewish features to be found in any of the Gospels.

It is as if John could not forget that there is such a thing as history and that he had a duty to record some of it. He could not get genuine history out of his mind. He reminds us, after all, that Roman soldiers were at Jesus' arrest. Perhaps he left it for us to make a rational guess as to who was in charge of this and what was really going on.

The Gospel writers, including John, were perhaps better historians than we like to believe. Perhaps better than most historical Jesus scholars today. It is something to keep thinking about. And that is both more than and less than what we usually mean by religion and holiness.

Leon Zitzer

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?