Wednesday, May 25, 2016


There are so many sayings that stress the importance of paying attention to the evidence and discarding any ideas that get in the way of that. Goethe once said that thinking is more interesting than knowing, but just looking is even more interesting. Paul Cézanne proclaimed that a single carrot freshly observed would set off a revolution. Negative ways of making the same point are just as powerful. Michel-Rolph Trouillot has said that too often worldview wins over the facts. You could make that ideology winning over the facts and it would be just as true. In recent years, I have become fond of my own formulation of this: The less we see, the more we know. It is the song sung by almost every academic.

But I had completely forgotten, until someone recently reminded me of this, that in my book The Ghost in the Gospels, I had quoted another ancient piece of wisdom on this. This comes from 9th century Zen Master Huang Po:  Fools reject what they see, instead of what they think, whereas the wise man rejects what he thinks, not what he sees. And that suddenly reminds me that Robert Chambers, the evolutionist who established the probability of evolutionary theory fifteen years before Darwin did, pointed out that knowledge interferes with new ideas as much as, if not more than, ignorance.

One could say that knowledge, or presumed knowledge, is the great enemy of seeing the evidence for what it is. There are so many examples of this in historical Jesus studies.

The ancient Jewish-Roman historian Josephus gave several examples of high priests ripping their robes in an attempt to plead with Jews to change their actions which might bring brutal reprisals from Rome. Tearing his mantle was an act of mourning which was used to persuade, not condemn. But instead of seeing this clearly and applying it to the Gospels where the high priest rends his garments before Jesus, scholars presumptuously think that the high priest could only have been condemning Jesus, an outrageous misinterpretation of a Jewish custom. They banish what they see in Josephus in favor of asserting preconceived thinking.

Another example of rejecting what they see concerns the appearance of Roman soldiers at Jesus’s arrest in John’s Gospel. Most scholars see this. They know the Greek term speira (at John 18:3) stands for a Roman cohort. But instead of letting their seeing guide them, they simply reassert prior thinking which tells us that this was primarily a Jewish action against Jesus. Ironically, a very few scholars (Geza Vermes was one) see the implication of this piece of evidence—the soldiers mean this was mainly or even exclusively a Roman event—and therefore reject it accordingly! They stand firmly for that proposition that no evidence can be allowed if it contradicts what everyone “knows”, that is, that it was Jewish leaders who were out to get Jesus.

For the same reason, scholars ignore what they see in Acts 13:28 where Paul acknowledges that Jewish authorities found nothing worthy of death in Jesus, that is, no death penalty. And by the way, there is no announced Jewish death penalty in the Gospels of Luke or John. But seeing all this does not trouble anyone because no amount of evidence can be allowed to interfere with what everyone thinks is the case. Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies is the thought that rules supreme. Like Huang Po’s fools, scholars embrace it and reject what they see.

I have not even discussed here the well-known fact that the Gospel account of the meeting between Jewish leaders and Jesus does not conform to the rules of Jewish trials. There are many discrepancies between that meeting and the way a Jewish trial would have been conducted. But rather than follow what they see to the obvious conclusion (Jewish leaders did not subject Jesus to a trial or any judicial procedure), scholars keep twisting things to make it look like there could only have been a hostile procedure against Jesus. Scholarly thinking starts and stops with this preformed conclusion. The evidence is deemed irrelevant. It gets in the way of what everyone thinks.

One could carefully go through almost every other part of the Gospels and demonstrate that the scholarly drive is to get rid of any seeing that would overturn what tradition tells us to think. This applies to all the information we have about Judas, Barabbas, and Jesus’s very Jewish teachings. There is so much to see with fresh eyes. Scholars reject it all. The only thinking allowed is the preconceived kind, which if you think about it, isn’t genuine thinking at all.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

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