Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Whenever anyone in history is falsely accused of something, or misrepresented in some serious way, it is useful to compare their plight to that of innocent people convicted of a crime they did not commit. The same mentality that leads to wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system also creates bad history, with the same stick-to-itiveness from which historians and prosecutors alike will not budge, no matter the amount of contrary evidence that piles up.

A lot has been written about wrongful convictions. The most recent book on the subject is Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions by Mark Godsey, who used to a federal prosecutor in New York and now is a professor of law and cofounder of the Ohio Innocence Project. He had reluctantly taken over supervision of the Innocence Project at another law school (this was when he first retired from his federal job), because the original supervisor had taken a sabbatical. He thought that the law students involved in Innocence Projects were all bleeding hearts. The first case these students presented to him did not impress otherwise until the DNA evidence came back which established the man’s innocence. Thus began his new career.

Early in the book, Godsey lists the many factors which can lead to false convictions: “confirmation bias, memory malleability, eyewitness misperception, tunnel vision, credibility-determining errors, administrative evil, bureaucratic denial, dehumanization, and the system’s internal political pressures.” Not only leading to false convictions, but equally to the stubborn denial, years later, by prosecutors who will not admit that their office made a mistake. The rest of the book goes into detail for each of these factors. Godsey does an excellent job, but be forewarned that the book can read like a long string of horror stories of innocent people (usually but not always men) spending decades in jail, with prosecutors resisting giving them their freedom despite the mounting evidence of their innocence. The book will give you chills.

With the exception of two or three of the above factors, they basically all apply to the study of history. Once historians create villains and heroes in the past, they are reluctant to admit they have made any mistakes. Even if it is a case of inheriting mistakes made by previous historians, current historians are unwilling to admit that anything went wrong. Mounting exonerating evidence means nothing to them. Once a villain, always a villain. This certainly applies to the way scholars have studied Judas and Jewish leaders and blamed them for the execution of Jesus.

Confirmation bias and tunnel vision are probably the two most popular problems leading to false charges against Jesus’s so-called Jewish enemies. Just as prosecutors do, exonerating evidence is either suppressed or twisted to appear incriminating, so that the original bias (Jesus was persecuted and prosecuted by his Jewish enemies) is always confirmed. There is not a single example in Josephus’s writings that Jewish leaders ever cooperated with the Romans to prosecute a Jewish troublemaker. In fact, there is evidence that they would resist such cooperation, if pushed in that direction. That does not seem to bother anyone who is already convinced of their guilt. Such scholars either use their tunnel vision to eliminate this evidence or they manipulate the evidence in Josephus to make it falsely appear that Jewish leaders would cooperate with Rome.

Here is a perfect example of what I mean. Mark and Matthew provide the information that the high priest tore his robe when questioning Jesus. We know from several examples in Josephus that this was an act of mourning (sometimes accompanied by pouring ashes over their heads) which was used by the priests to persuade, not condemn, someone of something, usually to try to convince them to desist from some action that might provoke the Romans. In effect, they were arguing that if you do not stop doing whatever it is that was being done, the Romans will respond by killing more Jews for whom we will have to mourn. Thus, in Josephus, the chief priests will tear their robes before a rioting mob to convince them to go home instead of continuing to antagonize the Romans.

If the high priest tore his mantle before Jesus, this goes against the interpretation that this was a hostile judicial procedure bent on condemning Jesus. He was rather trying to persuade Jesus to do or stop doing something. That is just one piece of evidence exonerating Jewish leaders of complicity in the death of Jesus.

What do scholars do with this information? Almost all of them simply ignore what we learn from Josephus. It does not help to prove the hypothesis that the high priest wanted to condemn Jesus. One scholar has acknowledged that this was an act of mourning used to persuade, but then goes on to assert that the high priest was trying to persuade his fellow councilors to condemn Jesus. But there are no examples in Josephus, not one, that this act of mourning was ever used this way! This scholar has spun the evidence so that he can appear to be faithful to what Josephus says about persuasion, and yet not violate the biased theory that Jewish leaders were trying to prosecute Jesus.

Godsey’s description of what went on in his office when he was a federal prosecutor is a good summary of historical Jesus scholarship:

“Building a case and making each piece of new evidence fit our preexisting theory was often a group activity. We had fun picking each other’s brains and brainstorming on how to spin evidence to fit our original hypothesis. It was a game. There was no sense of objectivity about the process whatsoever. There was never an attempt to disprove our original hypothesis. Rather, the point of the game was to see how clever you could be in making all new evidence fit your original hypothesis, thus making the case stronger.”

The same sort of thing applies to the way scholars manipulate the evidence to make Judas look guilty of betraying Jesus. Everyone knows how ambiguously Judas’s action is described in the Gospels. There is no clear-cut story of betrayal. The best pieces of evidence to prove such a story are missing. There is no clearly stated motive or any definite conflict between Jesus and Judas. Even after the supposed deed of betrayal is done, there is no condemnation of Judas by his fellow disciples. Every piece of evidence is mired in ambiguity—that is, each piece is equally consistent with a hypothesis and an opposed, or nearly opposed, hypothesis. Judas betraying Jesus could explain the evidence, but so could the hypothesis that Judas was an innocent man falsely accused of betraying Jesus.

The most the evidence proves is that, as time passed, Judas came to acquire a bad reputation, but none of it establishes that he really and originally was a traitor. What a peculiar way to tell the story of someone whom everyone knew to be a traitor. I used to think that there were a few pieces of evidence against Judas, but now I see how wrong I was. I too was affected by tunnel vision.

Most scholars will take the statement (found only in Luke and John) that the devil entered Judas as a damning piece of evidence, as I once did. (Not that they believe there was an actual devil in Judas, but that they take this accusation as evidence that some people  at the time believed Judas did something bad.) Now I realize that such a demonizing accusation is like pelting a man with eggs. It could not possibly serve as evidence of guilt. A man falsely accused is just as likely to be pelted that way. In fact, if anything, the devil charge is a sign of Judas’s innocence, not his guilt. It is practically a confession that they had no definite evidence to pin on Judas (like some conflict he had with Jesus), so they pinned the devil on him because that’s all they had.

And if anyone wants to understand just how much any hard “DNA-type” evidence is lacking to prove Judas betrayed Jesus, consider this: The Gospel authors could not even bring themselves to use the Greek verb for betray, prodidomi, to apply to Judas. Instead, they used a neutral word, paradidomi, which means convey without any sense of betrayal. Even if betray were a secondary meaning of paradidomi, as a few scholars claim, you would need good evidence, not ambiguous evidence, to justify why we should choose that meaning and not its ordinary meaning—and that evidence just isn’t there.

Only a handful of scholars are bothered by this total lack of a solid evidentiary argument for the proposition that the Gospel authors were describing Judas as a traitor. The overwhelming majority of scholars insist that they know this was an act of betrayal. They are stuck in their tunnel vision and will not allow any evidence to open up their view.

In my book True Jew (the title refers to Jesus, not Judas), I demonstrate that it is possible not only to prove Judas’s innocence beyond reasonable doubt, but even more, to show what actually did happen 2,000 years ago. Yet try telling this to scholars who are stuck in the bias and tunnel vision that Judas must have been a traitor and that Jewish leaders were no better. Evidence to establish their guilt is not necessary.

In the last chapter of his book, Godsey has a number of concrete suggestions to defeat or at least reduce the biases that operate among prosecutors and police. His first one is an attitudinal change: We need more humility, we need to understand how our common human frailties lead us to adopt biases and ignore evidence that contradicts our bias. Historical Jesus scholarship needs that advice more than any other field I can think of. But the most heartfelt sentence to me in Godsey’s  book is this one: “… constantly fighting a system that refuses to admit mistakes, dehumanizes our clients, and fights to keep innocents in prison is exceptionally draining and demoralizing.” Every word of that applies to what scholars have done and still do to Judas and ancient Jewish leaders.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

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