Saturday, October 27, 2012


A couple of days ago I posted my comments on Stark's book The Triumph of Christianity on Amazon.  Here it is:

This is not a review of the whole book. I just want to comment on a couple of the early chapters which purport to give the Jewish historical context for Jesus and his followers. What Stark leaves out is more interesting than what he puts in. Like other scholars, he is creating a fictional Judaism to serve as antagonist for Jesus and his group.

Stark is fond, again like others, of referring to the “many Judaisms” of the 1st century CE. There certainly was plenty of variety. I have no problem with that, provided that you do not eliminate some of the best aspects of ancient Jewish culture in order to fabricate a picture for ideological or theological purposes. For Stark, Jewish sects were defined by devotion to rituals (which ones and how many) and the Temple, and sometimes by Messianic expectations. This is a trivialization of Judaism. He also gets the Pharisees wrong. He says all the sects kept themselves apart from other Jews and were made up mostly of the privileged and wealthy. But the Pharisees promoted education and Hillel taught: Do not separate yourself from the community. The Sadducees mocked the Pharisees for their poverty and their expectation of reward in heaven.
It never occurs to Stark or other scholars that maybe it would be a good idea to ask ancient Jews what they thought about themselves. Here’s a story Stark leaves out: Shemaiah and Avtalyon, two leading Pharisees and teachers of Hillel, had an encounter with a high priest. He insulted them by reminding them of their descent from gentile converts. They countered by pointing out that the important thing about being Jewish was not bloodline, but doing deeds of peace.

There are many more stories like this, stressing the importance of peace and justice. These stories, not rituals, defined Jewishness for many Jews. It is incredibly arrogant for any scholar to erase such narratives. These same Jews also considered the Torah as Constitution more valuable than the Temple. Stark does not tell us this. Nor does he ever mention the Jewish struggle to achieve government by Constitution rather than government by the arbitrary rule of autocratic men. In my opinion, this is one of the “many Judaisms” that is much more important for understanding ancient Jewish culture than any of the varieties Stark brings up.
He also represents that 1st century Jewish culture was characterized by Jewish factional violence. Many years ago, Raymond Brown argued that Romans were the force for peace and Jews the force for violence. Stark takes the same line. “Keep in mind,” he writes, “that this was an era of intense conflict and violence all across the spectrum of Jewish pluralism.” This is absolutely false. It is not just wrong, it is heinously wrong. The only evidence he offers is Zealot violence. Well, we know about them. Stark wants to argue by innuendo that if Zealots were capable of violence, then so were the high priests. Despite his alleged belief in pluralism, Stark lumps all Jewish groups into the same bag of wealth and aloofness and violence.
Stark gives no example of priests or Sadducees persecuting Pharisees in the 1st century CE because there are none. He gives no examples of Pharisees doing likewise because there are none. Zealots were a standout exception. Stark never acknowledges this. He has a propensity for omitting anything that speaks more favorably of Jewish culture.
While Stark relates Josephus’ story of the Golden Eagle, when Herod had a number of men executed for leading a disturbance protesting the placement of the Eagle on the Temple, he skips one of the most interesting parts of the story: Herod fired the high priest apparently for doing nothing to cool down the mob or prevent their effort to take the Eagle down. It is an example of how reluctant high priests were to get involved in incidents caused by Jewish troublemakers. There are more stories in Josephus that make this point, but you would never know it from Stark or other scholars.
A high priest going after Jesus does not fit the historical context. As for priests persecuting Jesus’ followers, there could have been some of that, but not for religious or political reasons. There is no context to justify that. Priests never did this to other groups or Messiah claimants. Why single out Jesus’ followers for special treatment? Stark admits we don’t know how extensive the persecution was. I have argued in my own work that it was limited and for a very specific reason. The high priests went after Jesus’ followers for libel—for the false accusation of complicity in Jesus’ death.
As I have demonstrated elsewhere, this is the most reasonable explanation of all the evidence we have. But even if I was wrong about it being the best explanation, it is a possibility and all possibilities should be considered. Yet thinking like this is strictly forbidden in NT scholarship, and that is indicative of tremendous bias. The outcome we get in Stark’s work and that of others has been fixed a priori, even though considerable evidence may contradict it.
Another story Stark does not tell is from Acts 5:34-40. Rabban Gamaliel comes to the aid of Peter and friends who were brought before the high priest. From Josephus, we know that Sadducee priests wanted the death penalty for libel and Pharisees objected that this was too severe; a flogging, they said, was more appropriate. And that’s what happens at Acts 5:40.
None of this matters to most scholars, Stark included. They have created their own Judaism of violence, rituals, etc. It is a fantasy. It exists only in the imagination of scholars. (There are strong parallels between the way western scientists have misinterpreted aboriginal cultures and the way Christian scholars have rewritten Jewish history.) The real historical Judaism was about justice, peace, constitutional government, and humanity.
© Leon Zitzer 2012

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