Saturday, January 26, 2019


In 1864, Charles Sumner, abolitionist and Senator from Massachusetts, gave a speech in the Senate to support a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. He addressed the way prejudice is often used to read a text. Here is what he had to say about that:

“People naturally find in texts of Scripture the support of their own religious opinions or prejudices; and, in the same way, they naturally find in texts of the Constitution the support of their own political opinions or prejudices. And this may not be in either case because Scripture or Constitution, when truly interpreted, support these opinions or prejudices; but because people are apt to find in texts simply a reflection of themselves … whoever finds any support of slavery in the Constitution of the United States has first found such support in himself … he has already conceded to it [slavery] a certain traditional foothold of immunity, which he straightway transfers from himself to the Constitution … it is not the Constitution, so much as human nature itself, which has been at fault. Let the people change, and the Constitution will change also.”

These words, these insights, are perfect. It is not necessary to change a word to apply them to biblical studies and in particular to historical Jesus studies. The Gospel texts are most often read as presenting Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies; in other words, in the eyes of scholars, the Gospels have a definite anti-Jewish slant, which they take to reflect a historical reality. While I would grant there is some anti-Jewishness in the Gospels, it has been exaggerated way out of proportion to what is actually there. To borrow from Sumner, scholars have conceded to the anti-Jewish angle a certain foothold of immunity, which they straightway transfer from themselves to the Gospels. It is not the Gospels which are at fault, so much as human nature itself.

The most obvious example of this is the story of Judas. Almost every scholar declares that Mark and the other Gospels make Judas out to be a traitor. Judas as traitor has that foothold of immunity in scholars. The truth is that almost every piece of evidence concerning Judas is ambiguous; in Mark, it is a perfectly ambiguous story. The evidence could be consistent with the theory of Judas as a traitor, but each piece of evidence is equally consistent with the theory that Judas was an innocent man falsely accused of being a traitor.

The slant in the direction of traitor comes from the human nature of scholars, not from the Gospel texts. It is so bad that most scholars will not even concede that traitor Judas is a theory and therefore debatable. They have turned him into a fact and have thereby exempted their fact from debate. The correctness of this fact cannot be questioned. It has immunity, as Sumner would put it.

The facts are not the main issue in historical Jesus studies. Prejudice is the issue. That topic does not get discussed very much. It is an old human truth: We will investigate anything except ourselves. Socrates found that hilarious.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer

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