Tuesday, February 25, 2020


In a recent interview in the NY Times Book Review (Feb. 9), novelist Gish Jen said that what moves her most in writing are “people guarding some small flame against considerable winds.” Whether she was referring to characters in fiction or the authors of such books, either way, it is a beautiful understanding of what it means to stand up for the truth in any social context that makes it difficult to hold on to that truth. And if it is a beautiful insight about fictional characters, it becomes even more poignant when you realize how much it applies to people in history and to people studying history.

“Guarding a small flame” is a good way to describe what I have been talking about here for the last few months. It is a fundamental truth that you cannot use an accusation to prove the truth of the accusation. That is reasoning in a circle, it is assuming your conclusion. You cannot use a conclusion as evidence to prove the conclusion. Conclusions are not evidence. This fundamental truth, this small flame, is violated almost every day in historical Jesus studies. Scroll down and you can see in my recent posts (the first one was in Aug. 2019) how I explored this in the ways scholars build a false case against Judas.

I recently came across another example of this kind of false logic in the slave rescue cases that took place in Massachusetts in the mid-19th century. These were cases where people were put on trial for interfering with enforcement of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 or other relevant laws. Slave catchers from a southern state would grab a person of color in a northern state whom they claimed was an escaped slave and attempted to return them to the slave state. In some cases, a mob would successfully help the alleged slave escape from custody, and then they made their way to Canada. The mob did not always succeed. Successful or not, some of these rescuers would then be charged with violating the law.

One of the issues that might come up at their trials was whether the person seized by the slave catchers was actually a slave. If he or she was not a slave, then they were not a fugitive slave and there was no violation of the 1850 Act (which was an amended and harsher version of the original 1793 Act). In at least one case, the judge instructed the jury that evidence that the person had been bought and sold and otherwise treated as a slave was evidence that the person was indeed a slave, even though there was case law that this was inadequate evidence.

That is exactly the kind of false reasoning I have been objecting to these past few months. Evidence that someone has been treated as a slave only proves they were treated as a slave, nothing more. It does not prove that the person was in fact a slave. The attorneys for the rescuers argued in vain against the judge’s false logic. The judge’s reasoning on this point was “small and second rate,” the lead defense attorney, Richard Dana, noted in his diary. He was trying to guard a small flame against an ill wind.

This was the famous case of the rescue of Shadrach Minkins, and I should note that the prosecution was unsuccessful in these cases. There were two acquittals, three hung juries, and one mistrial. But the judge’s instructions still stand, though I do not believe any judge or legal scholar today would endorse the circular reasoning of this particular instruction. Judge Judy and Judge Marilyn Milian certainly would not.

In historical Jesus scholarship, this sort of bad logic is still being used. That is a tragedy by any measure.

© 2020 Leon Zitzer

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