Tuesday, May 26, 2015
The best defense is often a good offense. That is how historical Jesus scholars have treated their subject. Think about it. If you wanted to make sure the historical Jesus, the very Jewish Jesus, is never discovered, what would you do? How would you go about it? Answer: Mess up historical research so badly that no one will see the truth, even if someone stumbles across it.
One way to do this is the “I’m Spartacus” approach. In the Kirk Douglas film (the direction of which was taken over by Stanley Kubrick in mid-filming), when the slave army is defeated, the Roman general announces that he wants Spartacus to reveal himself. If I recall, as he stands up, first his friend (Tony Curtis) stands up and shouts “I’m Spartacus” and then others follow suit. It seems like everyone is declaring “I’m Spartacus” and the real Spartacus is safe for the time being.
Back in the 19th century when historical Jesus studies began or took off, I think they realized right away that this would be the best way to keep the real historical, Jewish Jesus concealed. A plethora of Jesuses appeared and that has remained true to this day. There have been books that will review various approaches to the historical Jesus, and while the author may disparage a couple of them, it is clear that his main purpose is to make it appear that many of them are appealing, and therefore we will never know the full truth.
Another way is to abuse the one version of the historical Jesus that scholars find most objectionable. But that cannot be overdone, otherwise you end up bringing too much attention to the thing you fear most and you raise suspicions that maybe all this hostility is because this one Jesus is the right one. The best tone to adopt is to be dismissive and in as few words as possible. Everyone gets the message that this cannot be taken seriously. So it has been with the historical, Jewish, Rabbi Jesus/Joshua. Albert Schweitzer got rid of that Jesus in just a few sentences. It continues today with the way Rabbi Jesus is treated. He is not even one category among many that will get serious consideration. It comes down to a subtle form of mockery.
A third way is simply to mess up rational historical procedure, so that scientific method is turned topsy-turvy. For example, you need more than ambiguous evidence to prove a case, but you would never know that from the way scholars handle the story of Judas.
All the evidence concerning Judas (except for one slight piece) is ambiguous. Ambiguity cannot even establish a remotely possible case that Judas betrayed Jesus. But scholars act as if the more ambiguous evidence we have, the better the case. Three pieces may not prove anything, but twenty pieces of ambiguous evidence certainly amount to something. The exact opposite is true. The more ambiguous material you have, the worse your case is because it becomes just too obvious that there is no unambiguous evidence and that should be troubling. Of course, some scholars will outright misrepresent the situation and claim that some of the evidence is unambiguously negative, but that is not true for Judas.
One thing most scholars agree on is that when it comes to Jesus’ death, there seems to be a lot of confusion in the evidence. Actually, for most, it is not a case of it seems to be, but rather the evidence is indeed a mess. In genuine science, you are supposed to ask yourself whether the mess is really in the evidence, or is it rather in the way we are approaching the evidence. In other words, if one theory is not making sense of the evidence, then, for pity’s sake, TRY ANOTHER THEORY! before you decide something is wrong with the evidence. I cannot shout that too loudly.
In historical Jesus studies, this is absolutely forbidden. In the relationship between Jesus and Jewish leaders, there is only one theory that is allowed: Jewish authorities were his enemies and subjected him to some sort of hostile procedure. It does not matter that this does not explain the totality of evidence very well. It has become a sacrosanct ideology that must be accepted regardless of its inability to explain the evidence. This is precisely what a good scientist would never do.
Scholars will spin the meeting between Jewish leaders and Jesus in different ways: There was a trial or it was a hearing, or the issue was a religious one, or maybe it was political, or maybe the priests had some legitimate concerns about Roman repression, but it is always something hostile towards Jesus. That is the only theory that is ever tried—Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies—and no one stops to think that it is possibly this theory that is making a mess of the evidence. The first thing a scientist would do is put that theory aside and try another approach. Maybe a Jesus more in harmony with Jewish leaders would make much better sense of things.
Scholars seem to be promoting a variety of Jesuses here—Jesus the healer, Jesus the Zealot, Jesus the charismatic, Jesus the magician, Jesus the social revolutionary, Jesus the opponent of rituals—but really, they all come down to one Jesus, the Jesus who was offensive to other Jews (‘offensive’ is in fact the most common word used by scholars to describe him). The purpose of all the phony variety is to make sure that one Jesus never makes it to the list—Jesus the one who was a perfect fit in his society, including his relations with his fellow Jewish authorities.
Championing a multitude of ways to approach a subject in most academic fields would be a sign of liberalism, tolerance, maybe even love for difference. In historical Jesus studies, it is just the opposite. It is a way of enforcing a highly conservative approach, especially when one possible way—a thoroughly Jewish Jesus—is given short shrift and never treated as equal to the others. Their point is not to tolerate difference, but to use difference to ensure intolerance of one idea. It is an exceptionally neat rhetorical trick.
The main conservative thrust behind all this apparent variety is simply to create so much confusion that the historical truth will forever be concealed. Conservatives might prefer that one false idea reigned over all, but they are so afraid of the Jewish Jesus, who embraced Pharisaic ideas about the Torah as a living Constitution, approaching God with chutzpah (originally an Aramaic word), humility, and more, that they will settle for a system in which one sensible pattern of evidence can never emerge. That negative result is all they hope for. A thousand voices with one rock steady purpose in mind—to suppress the Jesus who was a Jew to the max.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer