Thursday, March 26, 2015
[Links to my books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble are at the right. True Jew is the more recent and shorter one.]
In the introduction to his book, Rabbi Jesus, Bruce Chilton says it is wrong to blame Jews for the death of Jesus, when the blame should go to Rome. I am sure he meant every word of that. But as you turn the pages and get into his book, he says nary a word about Rome. He lays it all on the Jews—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests, and even a Jewish mob. The Pharisees stalk Jesus and together with the priests, they whip up a mob against him. When Pilate does come into it, Chilton says that he was reluctant to take action against Jesus and that the high priest had to manipulate and pressure Pilate into it. All Chilton does in the body of his book is blame Jews over and over again for what happened to Jesus.
I am sure that Chilton was very sincere when he built a case exclusively against Jewish leaders. So which sincere Chilton are we supposed to believe? Even if both are sincere, which one is more sincere? The one who blames Rome or the one who blames Jews? I would go with the latter. That’s where his real beliefs lie. The problem with the former is that it is just a general statement, very easy to say especially in an era of political correctness, whereas the Chilton who accuses Jews gives so much more detail. He obviously believes it a lot more. He certainly relishes it.
The problem extends to just about every New Testament or historical Jesus scholar. They all give lip service—and just because it is lip service, does not mean it is insincere; in fact, superficial assent is often very sincere because it slips off the tongue so easily—to the proposition that Jews were not the primary culprits in the death of Jesus. And then they all proceed to analyze all the reasons Jews wanted him dead.
Modern scholars are probably at their most sincere when they tell us that the Jewish people must not be blamed for his death, let’s limit this to Jewish leaders and not blame a whole people or culture, and then they are just as sincere when they proclaim that Jesus was offensive to a wide segment of the Jewish people and that this is what got him in trouble. E.P. Sanders does it. So does Chilton who describes Jesus as exposed and alone amongst his own people.
Equally sincere are all those scholars who claim that the evidence is a mess, that the Gospel authors cannot be trusted because they were writing from ulterior motives, and therefore, we will never be able to figure out what happened. Ignorance is asserted as the best policy. Besides the fact that nobody ever actually sticks to this position—because everyone wants to claim we can know some things, but this doesn’t mean that they weren’t most sincere, when they said it’s all up in the air—the result of the we’ll-never-know approach is that the traditional theory of how Jesus died wins by default. That’s an unavoidable consequence of professing ignorance.
Anyone who denies that they are upholding the traditional story by saying we’ll never know is very insincere, and this is the only time I am sure that disingenuousness is at play. If you argue that we will never know the truth, then it is obvious that the popular story will remain firmly in place, and that means Jews will go on being blamed till the end of time. That seems to be just fine with everyone, just don’t say it too loudly. A low-key approach is deemed best; it’s a good, quiet way to be sincere.
You can see where all this is leading. On the one hand, sincerity counts for nothing because one and the same author can be equally sincere about contradictory positions. And on the other hand, all roads lead to blaming the Jews—and that is mighty suspicious, no matter how many people find it easy to repeat, even as they deny that this is what they want to promote.
Everybody is so busy being sincere that they’ve forgotten what good scholarship is all about. It’s about looking for the evidence and letting yourself be shook up when the evidence warrants it. You don’t just repeat whatever makes you comfortable. If you are not startled awake every day of your studies, you are not doing your job as a scholar, you are not paying attention to the evidence.
When I started my research many years ago, I assumed that scholars were right when they claimed some Jewish leaders were complicit in the death of Jesus. I thought I might help to establish that more firmly so that the Jewish people would not be unfairly accused. But too many pieces of evidence just don’t make sense under the theory that Jewish leaders played a role. The Gospels tell us in a number of places that Jesus had a wide popularity. The priests had too little to gain by helping Rome and too much to lose by going against their own people. Helping Rome prosecute Jesus would have been a very foolish thing to do. It is a questionable solution to the evidence.
Many other details back that up. Just to give one here: At Acts 5:28, the high priest says to some of Jesus’ followers: “You intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” It means: You intend [i.e., you are trying] to get us blamed for his death. That is a very odd thing for the high priest to say if he and other Jewish leaders had really done what tradition has accused them of doing. He should have said something like, We did our duty, or, He was a criminal and deserved to be treated like one. Instead, he says, or rather complains, that you are trying get us blamed for spilling his blood. It sounds like a heartfelt cry that this is a false accusation. There are many more bits like this which speak to the innocence of Jewish leaders. They form a very strong pattern that no one pays attention to. That is the evidence speaking and my sincerity has nothing to do with it.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer