Sunday, July 29, 2018


When we are in trouble, we look for rational solutions. When life (our own or another’s) is in danger, we need to look at all the possibilities for escape because if we leave anything out, that might just be the thing that will save us. We simply cannot afford to be irrational and remain stuck with only one way of looking at the mess we’re in.

That’s one of the things that impressed me about the recent successful effort to save those soccer boys and their coach from the cave in which they were trapped in Thailand. They considered everything. Nothing was off the table. I was surprised at first that they thought about waiting a couple of months until the rainy season was over. That seemed farfetched. It’s too risky. Then I realized that it is the way the rational mind works. Only by looking at all the possibilities could they compare and contrast and figure out which approach would have the best chance of success. They could not afford to be prejudiced against any possible solution. That kind of shutdown of the mind is not helpful.

If we want to find the best answers (those most likely to be true or to actually work), we have to have a mind that is open to everything. Nothing can be ruled out in advance.

But in historical research, especially in controversial areas, there is no sense of danger if we latch on to an irrational answer. Historical problems are simply not urgent. It was imperative that those soccer boys be saved. It is not a matter of life and death if we promote the wrong answer to how Jesus ended up on a Roman cross. We can live with irrational answers. We do it all the time.

Nobody really cares if an ancient person like Judas is falsely accused of being a traitor. Academics are more content if we promote the same old ideas over and over. What scholar opens his mind to all the possibilities? Nobody wants that because it could, and likely would, lead to a rational answer. Certain possibilities must be outlawed forever. It is considered more important to uphold traditional ideas.

Everyone knows that the meeting of Jewish leaders with Jesus does not fit what we know of Jewish trials of that time. Wouldn’t that suggest that one possibility is that there was no Jewish trial of Jesus? Instead of saying let’s consider this, what scholars do is try to spin softer versions of the traditional story (which is very different from the actual Gospel stories with all their interesting details). They try to make it out to have been a softer version of a trial, so now they want to call it a hearing. But the issue is whether a hostile judicial procedure of Jesus was held. It does not matter what other label (trial, hearing) you pin on it. The fact remains that the Gospel details do not support this. Why not at least consider the possibility that there was no Jewish judicial procedure of any kind? Why not consider the possibility that Jewish leaders held an informal meeting to help Jesus and figure out a way to prevent his Roman execution?

Looking at these possibilities would contribute to finding a rational answer. But that is exactly what most historical Jesus scholars do not want. Nobody is trapped in a cave here. The waters are not rising. Imminent danger of death is not what we are faced with, so we can afford to be as irrational as we want and insist on answers that do not respond to the actual evidence we have from the Gospels.

The same goes for Judas. The Gospel stories do not give us the details we would expect in a story of betrayal. There is no clear motive, there is no conflict between Jesus and Judas, there is not even the use of the Greek word that means ‘to betray’. Could one not conclude from all this that there was no betrayal? Why not experiment with that possibility? Why not consider that maybe Judas was helping Jesus out in some way? Why can't that be put on the table? Because that would be the rational thing to do and that is the last thing historical Jesus scholars want. I have said it many times before and will say it again: The scholarly motto is the less we see, the more we know.

The irony of all this is that proving historical Jesus scholarship is an irrational field is not only not helpful, it just causes scholars to dig their heels in deeper. The irrational is exactly what we want, so go ahead and prove it to your heart’s content, the real point is that nothing is ever going to change, which is just how we want it. (Someone recently wrote that in America, you are permitted to search for the truth as long as nothing changes.) I could entitle everything I have written on the historical Jesus, all these posts and my two books, Endless Frustration. Historical research will never be a life and death issue for anyone. We can easily afford the irrational approach which is to automatically shut down certain possible answers, and no one will suffer for it. Or so we convince ourselves.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

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