Tuesday, July 29, 2014
There is a scholarly and popular conception of the Gospels that the evidence is a mess, that nothing is clearly told, that there are contradictions galore, and that the upshot of it all is that we will never recover the history with any accuracy. That is a scholarly construction of the documents, intended to prevent us from seeing what is obviously there. The fear of recovering the historical, Jewish Jesus is so great that no one is willing to see how much of the evidence is startlingly clear. The mess is in our heads, not in the Gospels.
I will give two examples here. One concerns Judas, and for the other, I will step outside the Gospels to see what is in Josephus.
About Judas: There is not one piece of unambiguous, relevant evidence that Judas was a malicious guy who did something bad to Jesus. By ‘relevant’, I mean relevant to the charge of being a traitor. If there was unambiguous evidence that Judas was six feet tall and had red hair, that would be interesting, but it is not evidence that Judas betrayed Jesus.
There is only one piece of Gospel evidence concerning Judas that could be called unambiguous for his bad character and that is the statement in John that he stole money from the box used to collect for the poor. But it is not relevant to the charge of betrayal. It has nothing to do with being a traitor and sounds more like an attempt to cast aspersions on Judas. Not to mention that John, the last Gospel, is the only one to mention it and that it is a statement made by the Gospel author without saying where this information comes from. We don’t know who originally made this accusation. Despite its being an unambiguous allegation, it is a very weak piece of evidence.
Everything else about Judas is highly ambiguous. Each piece could be given a negative spin or a positive spin in regard to his character. One could argue there is an attempt to convict Judas by innuendo, but it is tradition that has gotten us used to seeing only the negative spin. We don’t see how all this evidence is given in such a way that it could just as easily be viewed in a positive way.
We have come to call it the kiss of betrayal, but the text does not say that. The kiss could have been given out of genuine affection, concern for what was happening, and a need for comfort in circumstances that Judas had nothing to do with. The alleged suicide we interpret as being out of guilt, but if it did happen, it also could have been out of frustration that he was being falsely accused of betrayal. The text in Matthew does not make it clear what the motivation for the supposed suicide was. Someone recently informed me that the Greek verb used for ‘to hang’ himself can also mean choked up with emotion. I have not checked out this information yet, but if correct, then the suicide could be quite an exaggeration. Judas could have been overwhelmed that Jesus was unexpectedly arrested and executed. Too choked up to deal with it.
The one solid piece of information we have—that Judas left the table and returned with authorities—is also one of the most ambiguous. There are a lot of things that could explain that. He could have been going out to get more food, as John reports that some believed, and then was dragged back by soldiers who spotted and recognized him as a member of Jesus’ group. There is an even better explanation which I give in my books. My point here is that the Gospel authors refrain from spelling it out in a way that would clearly make it an act of betrayal.
Some will object that ambiguous though this may be, when you add it all up, Judas must have been doing something bad. And that is where so many make a major logical mistake. Too many scholars believe that if we have a lot of ambiguous evidence, it makes for a better case. In fact, just the opposite is true. The more ambiguous evidence we have, the worse the case is because it becomes pretty obvious that no one had anything unambiguously evil to report about Judas. And that is significant.
The solid pattern of evidence we have about Judas is that all the evidence (except for the late remark about stealing money intended for the poor) is ambiguous. That is very suspicious. The question scholars avoid asking is: What is the best rational explanation for why there is all this ambiguous evidence? Betrayal is not the answer. If Judas really had betrayed Jesus, we would expect there to have been some clear statement of motive or conflict with Jesus, or at the very least some clear accusation at the time from someone who knew him (whatever negative attitude there is in the Gospels towards Judas, it comes from the Gospel authors Luke and John, and not from recorded statements of his fellow disciples).
Judas not betraying Jesus is a better explanation of the ambiguities and I get more specific than that in my books.
I will be briefer concerning Josephus. The solid information that emerges from the histories of Josephus is that Jewish leaders never cooperated with Rome in the arrest and prosecution of Jews. There is not one piece of information in Josephus that Jewish leaders ever did such a thing. No scholar has ever presented any evidence that Jewish authorities helped Rome arrest or prosecute Jewish troublemakers. Many have claimed that such was the case, but they have asserted this without a stitch of evidence to back it up.
Scholars have done something even worse: They have suppressed the information in Josephus that Jewish leaders would refuse such help and, in general, avoided dealing with the Romans in their attempts to suppress Jewish riots or trouble of any kind. In one case, a Roman procurator asked Jewish authorities to turn over some Jewish men and they would not do it. The picture that the overwhelming majority of scholars give us, portraying Jewish leaders working with Rome, is absolutely false. We have an exceptionally clear pattern of evidence in Josephus of these leaders keeping aloof from Rome, never helping them to get Jews. The historical record is clear. It is scholars who obfuscate.
Use this information wisely and the Gospel story of Jesus’ death lights up with unexpected clarity. The truth about how Jesus died is not a threat to Christianity, but it may well be to those scholars who wish to hold on to a dishonest account of the evidence.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer