Thursday, March 22, 2018


If I were writing a new book on the historical, Jewish Jesus—I am not, but if I were—the first sentence would be this: The main objective of my work is to overturn the confirmation bias that is prevalent in historical Jesus studies—not to prove how Jesus really died, but simply to expose the bias that stands in the way of seeing it. I would then go on to explain that I know how painful it is for people, especially scholars, to hear this. No one wants to learn that their field is deeply infected with prejudice. No one wants to see the evidence that demonstrates they have been employing bias to rewrite history and make ideology more important than the evidence.

The ideology I am talking about is that Jesus was surrounded by Jewish enemies who were responsible for his death at Roman hands. German scholar Wolfgang Stegemann has called it the fundamental construct of scholars. The evidence in the Gospels and the evidence in the historical Jewish context do not support it, but scholars still insist there can be no other point of view. Bias convicts ancient Jews, not the evidence.

Without confronting this bias, how do you make any progress at all? Ancient Jewish leaders and Judas have been prosecuted and convicted, in the death of Jesus, by the most unfair means. Who will have a favorable reaction on hearing that or even have some mild curiosity to hear more about it? No one. And if no one wants to hear it, where do you go from there?

Just look at what happens in our time when a defendant has been wrongly convicted of some heinous crime. Look at what happens when it is demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that an injustice has been committed. How many prosecutors welcome learning this? How many make the effort to begin a process leading to release? And if a court forces the release, how many prosecutors apologize afterwards? How many resist with all their might the demonstration that there was a wrongful conviction? How many allow an exoneration of the prisoner to take place? There are a few cases where prosecutors have expressed a conscience about this, and perhaps such self-examination is slowly growing, but it is still exceptionally rare.

It is even worse when we are dealing with the wrongful conviction of historical figures. People are horrified by the suggestion that hundreds of years of scholarship could have made a mistake. The tendency to dig in is even stronger than it is with current cases of wrongful conviction. It does not matter what evidence you bring to bear. A complete shut-down takes place.

It is easy to produce a smattering of evidence that tends to exonerate ancient Jewish leaders and Judas, but who wants to rethink any of this? There is actually a wide pattern of evidence, but even mentioning a small amount does not arouse anyone’s interest. I could recite evidence until I’m blue in the face, but up against bias, it means nothing. Just try convincing a modern-day prosecutor he or she has made a mistake and you will see what I mean.

The Gospels do not use the Greek word, prodidomi, that means betray to describe what Judas did; they use a neutral word, paradidomi, meaning to convey, with no connotation of betrayal. Mark’s Gospel tells Judas’s story with entirely ambiguous details, yet everyone sees only betrayal in the ambiguity. Nowhere do the Gospels say Jewish leaders put Jesus on trial. That word does not appear in any of their accounts. They don’t even say Jesus was condemned to death according to Jewish law, but that is what everyone imagines they say. “Death according to Roman law” is another possible interpretation, for Mark and Matthew, but no one ever considers it. In fact, Luke and John do not mention a death penalty at all, and in Acts, Paul says that Jewish leaders found in Jesus nothing worthy of death. Scholars just shrug their shoulders. They wait for a magic word to convince them.

The above clues are just the tip of the tip of the iceberg, but what does all this matter, when bias is telling you to ignore all these details? I am not saying there are contradictions in the Gospel texts to make us doubt the traditional story of Jesus’s death. I am saying the contradictions are not really contradictions at all and they tell us what really happened 2,000 years ago, if only we paid attention. I am saying that 1) the contradictions are only an appearance, 2) the contradictions are the result of the wrong lens through which scholars have looked at this, and 3) these contradictions would all disappear in the most sensible way, once we adopt a different lens of Jewish leaders trying to save Jesus from a Roman execution.

Figuring out how Jesus ended up on a Roman cross is the easy part. The hard thing is to face the human tendency to impose bias on the evidence. How the hell do you do that? Everyone wants some magical utterance to cure them of what bias has done. Give us a magic trick to prove to us you are right. But I have no magic.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

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