Friday, September 27, 2013


I said at the end of last month’s post that I would take some time to consider whether it is possible to confront scholars with the prejudices that operate in historical Jesus studies. Frankly, after so many years doing this, I don’t think it is possible. As luck would have it, a couple of weeks after that post, I came across something that at least makes it clearer why it is impossible.
Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész’s memoir, Dossier K, in the form of an interview he conducts with himself, was recently published here. He spent part of his early years in a concentration camp and his adult life under successive Hungarian dictatorships. He is a writer in a totalitarian society, trying to portray the human condition under totalitarianism, and poses this question at one point: “If power is totalitarian, and the accommodation to it is total, then for whom is one to portray man dominated by totalitarianism? … Who would be left and be in a position to judge outside of the totality?” (his emphasis).
One can ask the same question about New Testament scholarship. How do you explain the total dogmatism of a field to all the people in that field and all the readers who have an interest in this, but are totally committed to shutting out any other point of view? To whom are you explaining that something is wrong? How do you get anyone to stand outside the dogmatism and see what is going on? It’s a puzzlement.
An example is in order. Virtually every scholar in this field declares that Josephus, the ancient Jewish-Roman historian, gives us a Jewish context for Jesus in which Jewish authorities cooperated with Rome in putting down Jewish troublemakers. Josephus says no such thing. He provides no evidence to justify this ridiculous idea. In fact, Josephus provides evidence that Jewish leaders would never turn Jews over to Rome and would never even threaten to do that. It was anathema to them to work with Romans in the arrest and prosecution of Jews (I am deducing this from a small but solid array of evidence).
How do you get scholars, students, and all interested readers to see how badly mistaken they have been about this? It is only prejudice that upholds the scholarly view of Jewish leaders.
I could go on and on and explain very carefully how similar errors appear in academic work on Judas, Barabbas, the Temple, and so much else. Most importantly, I could explain how scholars incorrectly minimize Jesus’ Jewishness, as if they were afraid of what the full truth might be. Hardly anyone is willing to see the true colors of Pharisaic Judaism and that Jesus was a perfect fit within it. I could do all this, but what would be the point of setting the record straight?  I’ve already done it in True Jew and in my previous book, Ghost. One can lay out the evidence so precisely and do it until you are blue in the face. Nothing makes any difference if people will not face the biases and preconceived ideas that have made a mess of this history and the clues in the Gospels, which are more pro-Jewish than people realize.
After all, the idea that Josephus in any way justifies the notion that Jewish leaders were in cahoots with Rome in keeping order is so absurd it staggers the imagination. And that is another thing that New Testament or historical Jesus scholarship has in common with totalitarianism: Both depend heavily on promoting absurdity.
So how does a totalitarian state ever fall? When cracks appear. The first ones are ruthlessly suppressed. When enough accumulate, maybe something will begin to change. I cannot see that it would be any different with New Testament studies. Certainly a number of cracks have appeared over the years. To say that the majority of Christian scholars have been ruthlessly hostile towards each one would be an understatement.
In the mid-19th century, Abraham Geiger wrote about Jesus’ Jewishness. A crack had appeared. The reaction from Christian scholars was extreme hostility. A hundred years later, in the 1960s, Paul Winter stated that Jesus was essentially a Pharisee and once again the wrath of many Christian scholars was provoked (not that Jews felt any easier about this sort of investigation). More recently, Hyam Maccoby has been ridiculed or dismissed for his efforts in this direction. Hostility, overt or covert, remains the most effective tool to suppress good work.
Shortly after Winter’s book, Haim Cohn proved that the theory of Jewish leaders putting Jesus on trial and working with Rome does not hold up. Jewish leaders holding an informal meeting to try to save Jesus from a Roman execution makes much better sense. This was huge crack in the edifice of New Testament scholarship. Cohn’s work was never paid sufficient attention and the little that it got was decidedly negative. No one carefully discussed the evidence he presented. They just blithely dismissed him.
My own work confirms Cohn’s conclusion from an independent route and I bring more evidence to bear. As for Judas, any attempt to free him from the prison he has been put in meets with hostility and a recommitment on almost everyone’s part to continue the false allegation that he betrayed Jesus.
How many cracks does it take to topple the totalitarian state of New Testament scholarship? To put it another way: How many cracks are needed to overwhelm the inevitable antagonism towards a completely fresh look at the evidence? I really have no idea. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was close to a million.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

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