Saturday, October 26, 2019


At the risk of belaboring a point, I am going to return to one small piece of what I have been talking about for the last two posts, but from a slightly different angle.

Luke 6:16 is the only place in all the Gospels where the word traitor is used to describe Judas. If you asked most people, including scholars, whether this is a piece of evidence for the theory that Judas betrayed Jesus, they would automatically say yes. If I then asked whether it could be evidence for any other hypothesis, most people, including scholars, would be puzzled. They would scratch their heads and ask, what else could it be evidence for? Luke 6:16 may not be proof positive of Judas’s guilt, but it is a piece of evidence in that direction. The use of ‘traitor’ points to the fact of his betrayal, and that’s all there is to it.

But there’s always so much more when studying history. I can think of two other hypotheses that ‘traitor’ could be evidence for. One is that Judas was falsely (i.e., maliciously) accused of betraying Jesus. That hypothesis would certainly explain how he came to be tagged with the label of traitor. The other hypothesis is that he was mistakenly accused of betrayal, based on misperceptions of the meaning of some of these events. For example, he embraced Jesus not as a way to identify him, but out of genuine love and fear for his safety when Roman soldiers unexpectedly showed up. And maybe he left the table to get more food for the feast (see John 13:29), and had no knowledge of what the authorities were doing, it was just a bad coincidence that these things happened at the same time. It would be easy to misperceive these actions as evil and would also explain how the label of traitor came to be applied.

Assuming your own conclusions is not a good way to study history. Assuming only one hypothesis is possible, when there are other legitimate possibilities is a way to railroad the study of history in one direction only. The label ‘traitor’ could be evidence for Judas betraying Jesus, but it is not evidence exclusively for that hypothesis. That is the fundamental mistake people make.

The mistake comes from our prejudices. You know what prejudices do for us? They make obvious the things that conform to our prejudices and they hide the obvious quality of whatever defies our biases. So if I say the word traitor at Luke 6:16 is evidence for Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, that is obvious to everyone. But if I say it is also evidence that Judas could have been wrongly accused, that stuns people. That does not seem obvious at all, and yet it is as obvious as the first proposition I stated. It is only our prejudices or preconceptions that say it isn’t so.

The goal of science is to reveal the obvious, especially when the truly obvious is being kept hidden by prejudice.

Strictly speaking, Luke 6:16 calling Judas a traitor is not a piece of evidence at all for what Judas did. It is evidence, I will grant you, but what is it evidence for? It is evidence for what some people thought about him, but we have no idea if they got to their conclusion (a conclusion, not a fact) because there were facts to support it, or because someone made a false charge about him, or because some people jumped to a wrong conclusion based on ambiguous facts.

That people are puzzled when you ask what other hypotheses could explain a piece of evidence is a sign of how limited our thinking is. It is not easy to think clearly and carefully precisely because we let our preconceived conclusions guide us at every step of the way. And when we encounter ambiguous evidence in history, we really ought to stop and think about alternative hypotheses.

© 2019 Leon Zitzer

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