Sunday, June 30, 2013
It is good to remember people who have been forgotten by history—that is, by historians who dishonor their profession— or worse yet, have been incorrectly remembered. It is worse because while they are ostensibly remembered, their actual accomplishments have been falsified, and thus, their true nature has been buried and forgotten just as surely as if they had been totally erased. It is for such people that we should keep in mind what Olive Schreiner, 19th century South African writer-activist-feminist, wrote: “All that is buried is not dead.” I love that thought.
Such has been the fate of Richard Husband, a professor of the Latin and Greek classics, who wrote a book in 1916, The Prosecution of Jesus: Its Date, History and Legality. As an outsider to the study of the historical Jesus, he had a refreshing approach to the evidence which has been forgotten today. When he is remembered at all, it is for his suggestion that Jesus was not put on trial by Jewish leaders, but instead subjected to a preliminary hearing. I believe some Jewish scholars before Husband advanced this idea, but he was the one who put it on the map.
At the time, no one was really interested. Christian scholars did not take up his approach until after the Holocaust. The idea served them very well at that point. They wanted to continue to blame Jewish authorities for the death of Jesus, but in a kinder way. Before World War II and even for a time afterwards, scholars were fond of using terms like judicial murder and lynching to describe what Jewish leaders had done. The idea of a hearing gave them a softer way to say the same thing. They could use it to reinforce the myth of how Jesus died either at Jewish instigation or with Jews lending a significant helping hand.
But here is the irony. While modern scholars have used the concept of a hearing to promote the same old prejudices against ancient Jewish leaders, Husband had come up with, or responded to, this idea for exactly the opposite reason: He used the idea of a hearing to combat prejudice against Jewish culture and leaders. He clearly saw that the Gospel evidence did not support a trial (or, what he did not see so clearly, that it did not support any judicial procedure), and besides that, the idea of Jewish leaders contravening their own procedures and rules of evidence just to get Jesus seemed to him incomprehensible and quite unfair to these leaders.
He actually had the temerity to say (and this was in 1916!!): “It is hard to avoid the belief that the majority of modern investigators are just as much prejudiced against the Sanhedrin as they themselves claim the Sanhedrin was prejudiced against Jesus.” He also said that these academic investigators were afflicted with zeal and bias. Husband did not follow this up with any detailed discussion of particular scholars and the ways they employed prejudice to misrepresent the evidence, but he was shockingly honest in at least stating the problem. His remark is just as true today. No one was paying attention then and they are certainly not paying attention now.
He also reviewed the way Jewish trial rules of the time “seemed to favor the defendant to a remarkable degree” and refused to believe without solid evidence that a Jewish court “could conduct such a travesty of its own legal system … provided it is held that the court was actually conducting a criminal prosecution of Jesus.” Husband extended the same courtesy to Jewish culture that he would extend to any culture. The evidence, as he clearly explained, did not support that there was a criminal prosecution of Jesus.
Husband got a lot right, but he was not perfect. He did not pay attention to the fact that nowhere is there evidence that ancient Jews had a concept of a preliminary hearing much less that they would conduct one for Rome. A much more rational solution of the evidence is that this was an informal meeting intended to save Jesus from a Roman prosecution and execution. That is fully explored in my book True Jew.
But Husband was on the right track. He saw the humanitarianism in ancient Jewish culture and knew that this was relevant to the study of what happened to Jesus. He was not just trying to tell the same old prejudiced story in a new way as current scholars are. He was genuinely trying to find a new path. You cannot say that of anyone today, especially those who are misusing his basic premise of a hearing to reinforce rather than combat prejudice. They have misappropriated one of his points in order to bury his other insights which were grand—and they were grand indeed.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer