Thursday, September 28, 2017


It is refreshing to take a look at ancient Jewish history through any lens that is not that of a historical Jesus scholar. We all too often forget that Jews have a history that is independent of Christian theology. Take a look from time to time at Jewish history as it stands on its own and you will be surprised at what can be seen.

It is a commonplace among historical Jesus scholars that Jewish leaders cooperated with Rome in the arrest and trial of Jesus. They base this on their preconceived, fixed idea about the Jewish priests and other authorities that one of their duties was to help Rome deal with Jewish rebels and troublemakers. In both my books, I have gone over much of the evidence that contradicts this. Jewish leaders helping Rome is a false picture of Jewish history. But I had completely forgotten that if you read a scholar on Josephus who has nothing to do with historical Jesus scholarship and has no Christian interest in Josephus, we also find information that confirms my point and gives us a picture of Josephus’s concerns which is very different from what so many historical Jesus scholars claim.

Take, for example, Tessa Rajak’s Josephus: The Historian and His Society (second edition). She reminds us how much Josephus hated the Jewish rebels. He blames them for getting the Jewish state into a war with Rome. More important, he also blamed Jewish leaders for not doing enough to restrain them and keep them in line. In short, he accuses Jewish authorities either of weakness or recalcitrance in dealing with Jewish troublemakers. If Jewish leaders had taken any actions to work with Rome to get rid of these upstarts, Josephus would have reported this, and gladly reported it. He was a man of the upper classes. He had no axe to grind against his own leadership. He would have been happy to see them finally, or at least on occasion, doing their job, if it really was their job (the whole point of course is that it was not their job to aid Rome in its police or military work). More of this kind of strong action, Josephus would have argued, could have saved the Jewish nation from destruction.

But that’s not what Josephus gives us. What Josephus does report is that Jewish leaders did nothing to quell rebellious activity until it was too late. Nipping a problem in the bud (like a small-time rabble rouser) was decidedly not in their make-up. They never did anything like that. One could say they avoided it with every bone in their bodies.

According to Rajak, Josephus thought of Jewish leaders as weak in relation to Jewish rebels. I have described them as being unconcerned with Rome’s problems with Jewish rebels because taking action against the rebels would have made them unpopular. For the priests, Jewish unrest was Rome’s deal and not something Jewish authorities wanted to get involved with. Either way (weak or indifferent), the end result was that they would not help Rome constrain these troublesome young men. There was nothing about the historical Jesus that would have changed the leaders’ usual response of doing nothing to assist Rome. That is the real history.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

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