Monday, June 27, 2016


If I were putting up a new description of my book True Jew on the back cover, it would be this:

There is only one thing that stands between us and an accurate view of what happened in history—and that is ideology. Nowhere else is this more true than in historical Jesus studies. A Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies is the only lens that scholars will allow to study the evidence. It has given us only confusion and contradictions and yet scholars stick with it. Their chant goes up—“The less we see, the more we know”—and one distorted lens blocks every fresh look at the evidence in the Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul. Why does Paul say that Jewish leaders found “nothing deserving death” in Jesus (Acts 13:28)? Why would the high priest use the Jewish act of persuasion (tearing his robes) and not an act of condemnation when talking with him (Mk 14:63)? Why is 99% of the evidence about Judas so ambiguous and why is he called a traitor only once in all of the Gospels (Lk 6:16)? A Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies is not the rational answer we’ve all been holding our breaths for. A better, truly rational answer is just begging to be told.

There is not just one clue that would lead to a new vision of Jesus’s relationship with his own people, leaders, and culture. There is a whole pattern of clues. And that means that any one of them could shake you up and make you see this in a whole new light. There are so many pieces of evidence (some of which I mentioned in the last post just below this one) that could stimulate a more objective look into history, if only we were not stuck with the rigid ideology of Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies. Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that they have rejected every single clue that has the potential to wake them up from their doldrums. They did not turn their backs one time. They did it over and over again. One example will suffice.

Most scholars do not realize that a high priest tearing his robes was not an act of condemnation. They simply refuse to see ancient Jewish culture for what it was. They don’t want to see it because they will not allow any new information to interfere with their idea that there could only have been hostility between Jesus and Jewish leaders. But E.P. Sanders had a more clever way to get around what he saw and maintain a corrupt system of thinking.

Sanders was a rare scholar for understanding that the tearing of robes was an act of mourning used in an attempt to persuade someone that they should change their course of action. What he did not emphasize was that the dangerous action was usually something which was threatening to the Romans and thus might lead to the deaths of more Jews for whom we would all have to mourn. Despite his insight that this was about persuasion, Sanders could not let go of the idea that has bedazzled everyone: The idea that the high priest could only have been condemning Jesus.

So what did Sanders do? He convinced himself that the high priest tore his robes to persuade his fellow priests to join him in condemning Jesus. But this is completely wrong. The high priest never did this to persuade fellow counselors. Sanders just made up a false fact so he could stick to the idea of condemnation. In historical, Jewish reality, the high priest aimed his act of mourning at the person or persons he was pleading with to stop antagonizing the Romans. In this case, it was Jesus. Sanders is a perfect example of the danger that Huang Po pointed to (discussed in the post below): Fools reject what they see, so they can maintain what everyone has long thought, but a truly wise person will reject the standard thinking and let what they see guide them to a new understanding. Reject what you think, not what you see. Never let preconceived thinking lead you to reject evidence.

Agnes Arber, British botanist, once put it this way: The intellectual atmosphere of any given age is compulsive to a humiliating degree and causes scientists to abandon fresh ways of thinking (which always means fresh seeing). In no field has this been more true than in historical Jesus studies.

© 2016 Leon Zitzer

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