Sunday, March 31, 2013
It is not as startling a claim as you would think. What makes it difficult to see is that we are so used to the myth that we are far advanced beyond ancient writers. We claim that we know all about objectivity and strive to attain it, while the ancients were stuck in a world of their own imagination. It just isn’t so. At least in ancient Jewish society, they were genuinely fascinated with their world and worked as hard as we do, maybe harder, to be faithful to the facts of a world that amazed them.
I wouldn’t claim they were perfect. Nobody is. They were capable of bending a point here and there. But not as much as you think. And not as much as modern scholars who occasionally take more liberties with the evidence than they did. A few examples from the Gospels, which were definitely produced in a Jewish milieu, will suffice to make my point.
At Acts 13:28, the author tells us that Jewish leaders in Jerusalem “could charge him [Jesus] with nothing deserving death.” From what we know of the traditional story of Jesus’ death, it is a shocking thing to come across. It does not sit well with the previous verse which says, or seems to say, that they condemned him. The Greek word used here is krinein which can mean a judicial condemnation but also means a more general kind of decision. It is possible to reconcile verses 27 and 28. I do that in both my books (Ghost and True Jew, links at right), but solving that particular problem is not my present concern.
All I want to bring attention to here is that the author of Acts had no problem including verse 28 in his narrative. Or maybe he did have a problem but included it anyway. He probably felt he had to because it was a fact that was retained in the oral tradition. He was concerned to preserve the facts as given to him, even if they did not make immediate sense. If he was inclined to make up facts, he could so easily have said that they did find Jesus worthy of death. He could also have omitted this inconvenient verse altogether.
Contrast this to modern scholars, most of whom do not report 13:28. For them, it contradicts their ideology or theology of Jewish leaders as judicial murderers, so they leave it out. Theology is much more important to modern academics than it allegedly was to the author of Acts who also wrote Luke’s Gospel. Be it noted that a Jewish death penalty is absent from Luke which fits “nothing deserving death” from Acts 13:28. That alleged death penalty is also absent from John. Facts mattered to the ancient authors in a Jewish society where everyone took an eager interest in what had happened.
Take a look at Matt 26:66. The assembled Jewish leaders say, “He deserves death” (at Mk 14:64, it is “they all condemned him as deserving death”). But deserves death according to whom or to what law? The Gospel authors do not say. Everyone has always assumed they meant according to Jewish law or custom. That is a big assumption. The text says nothing of the kind. It would have been so easy for the Gospel writers to ‘add according to nomos’ (the Greek word they used for Torah), but they did not do that.
Rewriting what the Gospel authors said is common practice for religionists and also for academics who claim to be objective historians. It does not matter how sensible anyone thinks it is to do this, it is rewriting just the same. It is adding specificity to where the Gospels supply none. The most likely reason why they do not supply it is because if they had done that, they would have been guilty of rewriting the oral tradition they inherited and they were reluctant to do that. That reluctance is something modern scholars do not share.
There is a very good reason why the Jewish death penalty is not there. No such thing happened. If there was an informal meeting (not a trial) held by Jewish leaders in an attempt to save Jesus from a Roman execution, that would explain the evidence we have. When they said, “He deserves death,” they meant according to Roman law. The Gospel authors do not explain that, but that would account for why we have such an ambiguous account. The full explanation is in both my books.
Perhaps one of the best examples of what the Gospels are doing is the word paradidomi which all the Gospel authors use to describe Judas’ act. It is a very ambiguous word at best. They all could easily have used the precise Greek word for betray, prodidomi, but none of them do. They could have said straight out that Judas betrayed Jesus and yet they fail to do even that simple thing. Instead, they used a word that can just mean convey without any connotation of betray.
I will grant that the Gospels try to supply the impression that Jewish leaders and Judas did something bad to Jesus. But the important thing is to take careful note of how they did it. They did not do it with specific, unambiguous evidence. They left it all highly vague. They were most likely trying to stay close to the original story without embellishing it. But embellishing has been common practice for all who have followed.
Normally what we expect is for a story to become more exaggerated as time passes. In the case of the Gospels, at least in regard to the role of Jewish leaders in the death of Jesus, each successive Gospel makes them look less, not more, guilty. The Gospel authors may have been trying to slant the story against Jews, but they were also trying to tell us something about the original set of events which they could not exaggerate too much without losing credibility with their Jewish audience which knew something about what had happened.
I wish I could say the same for modern scholars. But they do not seem to care about their credibility.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer