Saturday, December 27, 2014


This is basically a repeat of a post I put up last year. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, unwittingly demonstrates how theology can influence a discussion of the evidence.
Concerning the so-called Jewish trial of Jesus, at Matt 26:57-68 and Mark 14:53-65, the editors comment that the historicity of the trial is highly questionable (see their note at Matt 26:57-68). Another way to say it is that the trial is highly improbable. But they will undermine this insight when they get to John, as I will explain in just a bit.
They make two mistakes with respect to Matt (likewise with Mark; the accounts in the first two Gospels are very close to each other). Because they follow the NRSV translation, they have the high priest asking his fellow priests at Matt 26:66, “What is your verdict?” They offer no clarification in their notes and, indeed, use the term ‘verdict’ again. That is not a correct translation of the Greek. Raymond Brown, who was a very conservative commentator, translates this as “What does it seem to you?” William Tyndale, the first and probably the greatest of New Testament translators, had it, “What think ye?”
The point is that it is not specifically a judicial verdict the high priest is asking for. The phraseology is consistent with asking for some sort of general decision or thoughts on the matter, but not a judicial response. Something other than a matter of Jewish law could have been at stake here. To hide that is to be untruthful about the evidence. Theology has dictated the translation choice of Levine and Brettler.
The second thing the editors miss is that they quote the decision “He deserves death” (Matt 26:66) without pointing out that neither Matthew nor Mark say according to whom. It is possible that the Gospel authors wanted their readers to assume it was according to Jewish law, but the significant thing is that they did not say that. The evidence as they present it is consistent with a decision “according to Roman law.” Jewish leaders may have been trying to save Jesus from a Roman execution and came to the realization that they could not do that. He deserves death according to Rome, not Jews. (I fully prove all this in both my books True Jew and The Ghost in the Gospels, links to them on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, at right.)
The really peculiar thing the editors do is in their comment at John 18:24, when Jesus is taken to Annas, a retired high priest. They say, “In contrast to Matthew, John depicts no trial before Caiaphas, which, if any of the Gospel trial accounts is historical, is not possible to determine.” That is a very odd comment. First, they have already admitted with respect to Matthew and Mark that a Jewish trial is highly questionable. One implication is that an informal meeting might be more probable, which they avoid saying.
Second, they sound like they are trying to appear neutral, but in fact, their defeatist statement “not possible to determine” can only have a non-neutral result. If you fail to investigate other possibilities, you are letting the traditional account win by default. It would be disingenuous of them to deny it. They are actually reinforcing the traditional image of Jesus being prosecuted and persecuted by Jewish authorities, despite their own recognition that this is highly questionable. They have taken their stand in favor of the well-known accusation, even as they implicitly acknowledge its improbability. Third, they never discuss the evidence in Josephus which indicates that Jewish leaders would never have put any Jew on trial like this and then turn him over to Rome.
There is another reason why this is so odd. Imagine a homicide detective assigned to a case. They have plenty of evidence (DNA, skin under the fingernails of the victim, blood, fingerprints, email and phone records, etc.). Just as we have a lot of evidence from the Gospels (the fact that we have four Gospel accounts with varying details is a plus!). The detective reports to his superiors that it is not possible to solve this case. What!? With all this evidence!? You would seriously suspect that someone has bribed the detective to bury the investigation.
The same is true here. When scholars fail to discuss all the evidence accurately and then cavalierly state that it is not possible to determine what happened, we can seriously suspect that they have been “bribed”.  In this case, the bribe comes from theology, which aims to support the traditional theory of how Jesus died at the instigation of Jewish leaders. Why this theology should be in a book that is supposed to be a Jewish annotated version is beyond my comprehension. There is nothing Jewish about it.
The editors are trying to play both sides. They want to appear rational by declaring that the trial of Jesus is historically questionable, but they won’t follow that up more rigorously. Instead, they try to reassure the traditionalists that nothing can be known for sure. That leaves the traditional belief in a trial intact. They let an unjust accusation against ancient Jewish culture stand firmly in place. Merely stating that it is questionable accomplishes absolutely nothing. I suspect they know that.
© 2014 L. Zitzer

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