Tuesday, August 25, 2015


I have not done this in a while, so I think it is about time to repeat my appeal to writers of TV police and detective dramas: Read my book True Jew, or even the earlier The Ghost in the Gospels, and see if I have not truly solved the problem of how Jesus ended up on a Roman cross. (Links to both books are at right.)
Hints: Jewish leaders did not arrest or prosecute Jesus and turn him over to Rome, and Judas never betrayed him. But those are just the negative parts of the solution; there is a positive answer buried here. Solving historical problems, even with respect to events in the Bible, is exactly like trying to solve a crime and is highly doable, if you have enough evidence.
I make this appeal because no one has a better understanding of the rules of good scientific thinking than writers of TV crime dramas. In fact, they occasionally produce an episode in which they give a demonstration of bad scientific reasoning. What is so interesting about crime dramas, especially tales of homicide, is that they illustrate both why we love science and how (and when) we still misuse it.
In general, we love science when it gives us practical results. We are great at science when we want bridges that won’t collapse, cellphones that won’t drop calls, computers that won’t malfunction, a/c that will continue to pump out cold air, medicines that will heal. We know exactly what it means to pay attention to the evidence, and we do it well because we value inventions that actually work.
Another thing that we usually value (but not always) is solving crimes and bringing culprits to justice. So we are pretty good at employing scientific reasoning to find out the truth: Who really did it and why? For example, we know that one scientific rule is that if a theory is not explaining the evidence very well, then we should try another theory. In homicide investigations, a theory is “So-and-so is the murderer.” They usually have some evidence pointing in one person’s direction.
But in these fictional dramas, the detectives are always running into evidence that their working theory cannot explain. That means the suspect they have in custody is probably the wrong person. So they keep going back to the evidence to see what they are missing. This is science at its best—where evidence always comes first and theories second, ready to be abandoned when they do not account for the evidence.
But unlike the case of technological problems (bridges, cellphones, etc.) where evidence always rules because we need good stuff that works right, in homicides, there is a catch: Sometimes, prejudices and emotions rule (in other words, ideological bias intrudes), and a bad detective will latch onto a suspect regardless of what the evidence says. Even though it is the wrong person, our technology and society will continue to work very well. Nothing will collapse, even if the wrong person is executed.
That’s where the good detective comes in. He or she often runs into flak for questioning the motivations of the bad cop. They have to endure a lot of hostility, sometimes even from their boss, for challenging the way another detective has conducted a case. In the end, good old science will solve the problem and everyone acknowledges that the crime has been solved, but only after the good cop has endured risking his or her career and a lot of other bad shit as well.
This is the same problem in all study of history (a homicide investigation is just an example in miniature of larger historical problems). A bridge will collapse if we don’t do the science right, but what will happen if history is falsified? The general feeling is that nothing bad happens if lies are told about history; society will go on functioning very well. If anyone suffers from history badly told, it is usually minority groups. The majority or people in power often benefit from historical lies, so there is not much incentive to change it (whereas nobody benefits from a bridge that collapses). Any good historical detective who comes along will be maligned until she has to run into a corner and hide.
These TV writers know all this. And I am telling you that New Testament or historical Jesus scholarship is exactly the same. There is enough evidence in the record to solve the problem of how Jesus really came to meet his end, but right now the field is permeated by ideological biases. The basic one is that Jesus is surrounded by Jewish enemies who seek to do him in or at least cooperate with Rome to this end. The evidence for this is paltry at best. Many odd pieces of evidence are left unexplained. This field is a classic case of refusing to consider another theory no matter what the evidence is telling us. Ancient Jewish leaders and Judas are in jail and no one is inclined to let them out.
There is a much better theory that will explain it all. All that is needed is that some people come to the aid of the good cop who is trying so hard to introduce reason and fairness into a field that is sadly lacking in both.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer

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