Wednesday, August 28, 2019


The following is a little longer than I usually post because I am thinking of making this the new introduction to my book True Jew. This will be a new Chapter One. My hope is that it will make things crystal clear. I am repeating some thoughts I posted in my June blogpost. The first line below, or something like it, will be the chapter title.

Some necessary thoughts (14 to be exact) to bring clarity to a very confused field:

Thought #1: The rules of scientific thinking are the same wherever you go. It doesn’t matter what field of study you are involved in. No field gets to make up its own unique rules, and when scholars or scientists do such a thing, it is usually because they want to reach preconceived conclusions. Unique rules lead to prejudiced outcomes. Historical Jesus scholarship in particular cannot invent its own rules and dismiss scientific method. There is one goal for all sciences: To be clear in the first place about what the evidence is, and then to be just as clear about what the evidence says or means, and what it doesn’t say or mean. Clarifying the evidence and the various theories explaining the evidence is the whole point and the only point of science.

Thought #2: Here are two examples of scientific rules. First, separate the facts from the conclusions or theories. Do not try to pass off a conclusion or accusation or theory as a fact. Judas betraying Jesus is a theory, not a fact. So too is Jewish leaders plotting against Jesus. These are conclusions or accusations that someone reached once upon a time (see Thought #11 below), but they are not data. To put it another way, you cannot use an accusation to prove the truth of the accusation. For proof, you need to see if there is any real evidence to support the accusation. I will get back to this distinction numerous times in this book.

Second, if a theory is not doing a good job at explaining a set of facts—that is, if the facts are still left in considerable confusion—TRY ANOTHER THEORY. (Hello? Is anybody listening?) Historical Jesus scholars keep spinning various versions of the one theory that Jewish leaders persecuted Jesus—they took the lead going after him, or they played a subordinate role in cooperating with Rome, or they held a full-blown trial to condemn him, or they held a preliminary hearing—all being versions of Jewish leaders taking hostile action against Jesus, and the evidence still does not add up. Maybe we should try another way to look at this.

Thought #3: There is a lot of evidence in the Gospels and Acts, and some in the letters of Paul. There is a mix of facts and conclusions, but there are enough facts that it would be surprising if we could not find some clear answers. The Gospel authors were not con artists and were not obsessed with promoting faith. They were trying to remember, based on oral storytelling, events that really happened. The original story is there in the details, if we care to look for it.

Let’s assume that the Gospel authors were decent historians (I will gladly admit this is an assumption), not perfect but decent, and we might even allow that they made some mistakes, but succeeded in being accurate about the majority of details. If we make this assumption, does a clear, sensible story, explaining almost all of the evidence, begin to emerge from the Gospels? The answer is yes.

Thought #4: Judge Judy. The People’s Court with Judge Marilyn Milian. Watch these shows. You could learn a lot about the search for truth. Hard, objective truth. You say you don’t like TV and the personalities that bloom on TV? I didn’t ask you to like them. I asked you to pay attention. Like them, don’t like them, as long as you’re paying attention. It used to bother me when these judges got hot under the collar and made their dislike of certain litigants obvious. But with their emotions also comes clear thinking. They are capable of separating conclusions from facts, which is what any good historian should do. (Examples from their shows coming up in Thought # 9.)

Thought #5: Passion is good. Without it, there is no discovery of objective truth. Truth demands passion, not neutrality. We need emotions to see things accurately and to assess the value of each piece of data. A totally detached point of view, if there is even such a thing, cannot assess anything. If you are not passionate in your search and passionate about your beliefs, you’re not on to anything. Without emotions, you will discover zilch. And if you do manage to discover a little something, it won’t be objective. Without emotions, you will not see the importance or lack of importance of anything. Instead, under the false guise of cool detachment, your subjective biases will surreptitiously guide every step you take.

Thought #6: Of course, passions can also screw up the search for truth. Some people use emotions to inflame prejudices, hatred, and fear. But emotions can also be used to inspire goodness, equality, and justice. How do we distinguish which emotions are helping and which are hurting us? In any field of scholarship, there is a fairly easy answer to this. When emotions reveal more facts and more hypotheses, they are good. When emotions are used to cover up facts and hypotheses, they are bad. There is no such thing as a cool pose which will deliver the truth. Coolness is a lie and a way to disguise the emotions rumbling beneath the surface. We need more light, always more light. Bring everything to light, more light on the facts, on the conclusions, and on the emotions too and how they operate. Emotions can give us light because they pick out what is significant, but they can also be used to bury things. Emotions serve two purposes:  They give us light or they can give us darkness. The emotions that give us more light are good.

Thought #7: The basic purpose of seeking more light is to make all deception, including self-deception, impossible or at least very difficult. The more light we shine on the evidence—all the evidence and all the possible explanations—the more unlikely it is we will deceive ourselves. This is what good scholarship requires. This is the ultimate goal of all science: Make deception impossible. The more honest we are about how the search for truth proceeds, the more we will be able to expose deception. It is that simple.

Thought #8: Do not deny any emotions you have when you’re trying to find the truth. Don’t push them away. Lay them bare, wrestle with them, and you will come a lot closer to objectivity than if you pretend to coolness and neutrality.

Thought #9: When it comes to those TV judges, their best gift to us is that they bring clarity to confused testimony. They separate conclusions (offered by litigants and witnesses) from the facts. Emotions can help in that process.

On an episode of Judge Judy, a litigant was relating an incident when he and his friends were attacked by some rowdy drunks. He began by saying that this group approached him and his friends in a hostile manner. Judge Judy said this was a conclusion. She wanted evidence. He tried again and said something like, “Well, they were very aggressive.” No, she said, you’re offering a conclusion again. Tell me what you saw and what you heard. (I’m recounting all this from memory, so I won’t swear these are all verbatim quotes.) 

He was frustrated and could only say they were threatening him and his friends. Judge Judy would not accept that either. I was getting frustrated too. I could not understand what she wanted. He told you they were hostile, why isn’t that a fact he is relating? Finally, she took pity on him (and me) and helped him out by asking, “Were they saying anything, were they making any gestures?” Now his expression lit up and he was able to offer more proper testimony. “Yes,” he said, “they were cursing at us and saying we’re going to get you, and they were waving their fists and empty liquor bottles at us.” Now you’re telling me something, Judge Judy said. 

The second example is a little more subtle and comes from The People’s Court with Judge Marilyn Milian. The plaintiff, a doctor, had not been paid by a lawyer, the defendant, for his expert testimony in another court case. The lawyer’s secretary testified that at one point, the doctor had called their office to complain about not getting paid. She said the doctor was not happy about not getting his money. Judge Milian pointed out that this was a conclusion, not a fact, not a hard piece of evidence. Like the litigant in the Judge Judy case, the secretary was frustrated and did not know how to explain it. Judge Milian made it simple for her. “Tell me exactly what the doctor said to you on the phone.” The secretary answered, “He said, ‘I’m unhappy that I did not get paid yet for my testimony.’” Now that was a fact that Judge Milian could evaluate. 

A fact is something offered as a piece of data. By fact, I don’t mean that it is necessarily true. I only mean it is potentially observable. You cannot observe someone being hostile. What is observable are the details making up the accusation or conclusion of hostility. That is the evidence we want to home in on. If the conclusion of hostility is taken as a fact, that only messes up the search for what really happened. We don’t know specifically how the witness came to that conclusion. It becomes a premature conclusion. In Judge Milian’s case, we will never get to the conversation that occurred on the phone if we just accept the secretary’s conclusion as a fact. 

To many people, the difference between the two portions of the secretary’s testimony is so slight and so subtle that it is hardly worth dwelling on. But from the point of view of logic, the difference is huge. Consider these two propositions. #1: “The doctor was unhappy that he had not been paid.” #2: “The doctor said to me, ‘I am unhappy that I have not been paid.’” To a careless thinker, they are basically the same, but #1 and #2 are not at all the same thing. The first is a conclusion. We have no idea how the secretary arrived at this conclusion. Maybe she got it from a third party. We will never know unless we force the witness to be specific. “The doctor was unhappy” is inadmissible in a court of law because it does not give us any concrete facts to go on. The second proposition is a fact that we can then investigate by cross-examining the doctor, the secretary, and possibly others. 

Examples like these from TV court shows should encourage historians to be more precise thinkers. We have many examples in history of conclusions, or people leaving us their conclusions about what they thought of persons and events in their time, but we don’t always have the facts or data their conclusions were based on. Unfortunately, many scholars try to make up for our lack of knowledge by taking the conclusions as facts, so it looks like we have something solid to go on.

Thought #10: Suppose we had the diary of a colonist from America or Australia or anywhere else. In the diary, we find this statement: “The other day, a group of Natives approached us in a hostile manner.” (There may also be follow-up statements like “So we engaged them in battle and slaughtered them all,” but I am only concerned with the initial statement.) Too many scholars would assume the statement in the diary must be true and proceed from there—as if only one hypothesis could explain that statement. If they don’t assume it is true, at least they assume the diarist has offered us a fact. In reality, it is a conclusion the diarist has recorded and we ought to pause to wonder what happened to the facts that could support or refute this conclusion. 

There are three hypotheses that could explain the diarist’s statement. But the first thing to pay attention to and that cannot be emphasized enough is that “hostile manner” is not a fact. It is a conclusion or even an accusation. We could say that it is a fact that the diarist drew this conclusion, but the conclusion is not a fact in itself. Certain things need to be said again and again because we need to be ultra-clear about this. The distinction between conclusions and facts is one of those things that need to be drilled in, so that we can begin to see what it means to think clearly and carefully about history. Treating a conclusion as if it were a fact is a misdirection and it is used to promote deception. It’s a magic tragic that works far too often. 

The three hypotheses to explain the appearance of this conclusion in the colonist’s diary are as follows. Number 1 is that it is true, the Natives really were hostile and that means they made certain gestures and shouted specific words in one language or another, which would be the facts we really need to understand what happened. Number 2 is that “hostile” resulted from the colonist misperceiving the meaning of the Natives’ gestures, etc. And number 3 is that the colonist outright lied in his diary, for example, in order to cover up a wanton massacre. 

The possibility of a misperception may have some nuances. It may have been an honest and unfortunate misperception. Or it may have been fueled by greed; the colonist may have preprogrammed himself to misperceive the Natives’ actions in order to justify the massacre and stealing all the Indigenous land. But the mere conclusion of hostility recorded in the diary is not a fact and is of no help whatsoever in figuring out what happened. We need the real facts. Conclusions do not help us get there. Using a conclusion or accusation to prove the truth of the conclusion or accusation is circular reasoning, it is illogical, it is very confused thinking and serves to confuse us by offering us a misdirection, and it is immoral to boot. 

All the above hypotheses have to be considered. Assuming that only the first is possible is simply bad reasoning and it would be bad in any field of study. What we have in many fields of historical study is a situation where 1) scholars often confuse conclusions and facts, and 2) they fail to see that different hypotheses could explain what are really conclusions. Both conditions are common to so many fields. Tell this to scholars and they get as frustrated as the people testifying in those small claim cases. They don’t want to hear that they have been relying on conclusions, not hard evidence.

Thought #11: Now I can make some general observations about the story of Judas in the Gospels. When we examine the verses very closely, we can see that there are some conclusions being offered and some facts (data that could have been observed if we traveled back in time). On the whole, scholars have shown little concern to separate the two. Traitor (which accusation appears only once and it’s made by the author of the Gospel of Luke) is a conclusion or accusation, not a fact. The facts, if any, would be the details that support the accusation. We want unambiguous details, if at all possible, and it is precisely unambiguous details that are missing in Judas’s case. 

Once upon a time, somebody wanted to stick the conclusion of traitor on Judas and there it has remained. But when you sort out the facts we do have (e.g., Judas leaves the table and returns with soldiers, he went to see the priests, no one at the time levels the accusation of traitor at him, and a few more), they are all highly ambiguous—that is, they are consistent with more than one hypothesis, and in particular, they are consistent with the hypothesis that Judas was an innocent man falsely accused of being a traitor. I will go over this in more detail in the next chapter. 

Stating a conclusion is like charging someone with a crime. Merely charging someone is not the same thing as proving that the person committed the crime. The charge is not evidence, no matter that the charge is ancient and has been made for a very long time. Slapping the label of traitor on Judas is like slapping handcuffs on him. It proves nothing, even if the handcuffs were fashioned centuries ago. The passage of time, voices intoning the gravity of the charge, the endless repetition of it—all these things cannot make up for the failure to present evidence. A good judge will so instruct the jury and the court will be grateful if the jury remains faithful to these instructions. 

The conclusion or charge that Judas betrayed Jesus is like the case of the hostile Natives in the example of the colonist’s diary I gave above. There are three hypotheses that could explain how this conclusion came to be recorded: 1) There were a series of facts, actions by Judas and perhaps others, that add up to a betrayal; betrayal then is a correct conclusion; or 2) there were a series of actions that were misperceived as betrayal; or 3) there were no actions or facts to justify the label of betrayal, and so it was offered as a false accusation. My inclination is to believe that there were misperceptions that led to the incorrect conclusion that Judas betrayed Jesus. A similar analysis can be made for the accusation that Jewish leaders plotted against Jesus. 

It is also possible that some combination of these three, especially the last two, occurred. Perhaps someone made an honest mistake in how he viewed some of these events, and maybe someone else added one or two false facts to further the misperception that Judas betrayed Jesus. History may sometimes be messy, but the above three hypotheses are still good guideposts.

Thought #12: The important thing to remember is that betrayal, like hostility, is not a fact, it is not an observable piece of data. It is a conclusion. You cannot observe someone betraying anymore than you can observe someone approaching in a hostile manner. If the betrayal really happened, then there would have to be other pieces of data to support it, but betrayal itself is not observable. What is observable are the facts that make up betrayal, if it happened. And if Judas was innocent (also not an observable fact), there would have to be facts to support that conclusion.
Thought #13: Treating betrayal and Jewish leaders plotting against Jesus as if they were facts is merely a clever way to avoid studying history carefully. There are enough facts recorded in the Gospels that will allow us to figure out what happened, as long as we do not screw things up by indiscriminately lumping facts and conclusions together. 

Historical Jesus scholars do not examine the Gospel verses concerning Judas and Jewish leaders with any great degree of care. They simply take the conclusions of traitor and plotting priests that were presented so long ago, recast them as facts, and refuse to look at other hypotheses, especially any that point towards the innocence of Judas and Jewish leaders. An innocent man falsely accused of betrayal and innocent Jewish leaders accused of plotting against Jesus are legitimate hypotheses that have been erased from consideration.

Thought #14: In any study of history, separate the facts (the data, the things that could be observed) from the conclusions and ask yourself three questions: 1) how well do the facts support the conclusions (these conclusions could also be called our theories, hypotheses, or accusations); 2) what other conclusions or hypotheses are possible; and 3) which conclusions do the best job of explaining the data?

That’s 14 clarifying thoughts, which is double 7, which was Mickey Mantle’s number. I am content.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer

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