Wednesday, November 14, 2012
I hesitated, really, really I did, before putting up this post. It’s not something I’m eager to talk about and I know no one wants to hear it. Maybe it’s not the time yet, but some day the truth is going to have to be told about how our entire culture messed up the study of 1st century history, which just so happens to involve the origin of Christianity. By ‘messed up’, I simply mean we have failed to look at the evidence square in the eye. We’ve replaced looking with unwarranted assumptions.
First, Jews. Long, long ago, Jews accommodated themselves to the Christian story, even on points that relate directly to Judaism. The ancient rabbis, closest in time to the original events, never questioned the allegations concerning how Jesus died. Today, almost all Jews would insist on one important qualification: The Jewish people did not kill Jesus. At the same time, they don’t challenge the rest of the story. They are happy or content to make scapegoats out of Jewish leaders and Judas—in the hope that by focusing on them, it will deflect blame from the people.
There are two things wrong with this. For one, it means completely giving up an obligation to look closely at the evidence. We are convicting individuals without a trial, so to speak. The complicity of Judas and Jewish leaders in Jesus’ death are not facts. They are theories. No one can be held guilty just because tradition says so. Are there sufficient and unambiguous details to back it up? Are these the best theories to explain the evidence? It turns out they are not, but whatever position you take, it has to be based on paying close attention, which hardly anyone ever does. We rely too much on ‘everyone says so’ and not enough on actual evidence, which is why the traditional version is so popular.
The second point is that scapegoating does not work. It is supposed to set the Jewish people free while certain Jews pay the price. But the Jewish people, or a very wide contingent of Jews beyond the leadership, are still being blamed for the death of Jesus—and by scholars no less! E.P. Sanders, one of the most pro-Jewish of Christian scholars (e.g., he has tried to correct Christian misunderstanding of the Pharisees) has put it this way: “Jesus did come into fundamental conflict with ‘Judaism’; that is, with views, opinions and convictions which were probably shared by most … not just the priests, but most Jews, probably even those only marginally observant, would have been deeply offended [by his supposed attack on the Temple]” (Jesus and Judaism, 270).
This is typical of most scholars. Their view is that Jesus was religiously offensive to most Jews and that this is what got Jesus killed. Again, the evidence does not back it up. Who needs evidence when you have theology? It is a theology that Jews are afraid to challenge.
That brings me to the Christian failure here. For most Christians, the central point about responsibility for Jesus’ death is that it was at the instigation of Jewish leaders. Yes, there are Christians who will bring Rome into it and even more magnanimously, bring themselves into the sphere of blame, but even if there are the occasional poem, hymn, and even scene in a Passion play that try to make it a personal issue for each Christian, the constant drumbeat is always that it was Jews or Jewish leaders in the first place who bear the blame. That is theology and it is ill-supported by the facts. No one seriously questions this theology, though they may occasionally try to widen the circle of blame, as I just noted.
Look at just one piece of evidence. Mark 14:63 (with Matt 26:65 following) reports that the high priest ripped his robes before Jesus. Theology dictates this must have been an act of condemnation. But that is not what 1st century Jewish historian Josephus tells us. He gives several examples of this act and each time, it was used to beg and persuade others to change a course of action which might bring reprisals from Rome. That is not how people think of the high priest and it’s certainly not how anyone thinks of the high priest in relation to Jesus. The high priest begging Jesus? You mean, like in our culture, getting on your knees? Yes, that’s what the evidence says.
But we cannot see it that way because theology trumps the facts. If you go through the Gospels piece by piece, there are a lot of insights like this. We have failed to think with historical precision about the information in the Gospels.
Secularists have their theology too, though in their case I suppose you’d have to call it ideology. For them, it is an almost sacred idea that our civilization is far advanced in almost every respect over ancient societies. In their view, this is certainly true of our ability to understand history. We are sophisticated, they were childish. We know all about objectivity and reality, they were mythmakers and confused myth and reality all the time. Therefore, if it should turn out that in any important ancient text (the Gospels, for example), there are very good historical facts, and that we have been the mythmakers in labeling all or most of it as myth, that would not sit well with secularists. They are a priori committed to finding little, if any, historical truth in the Gospels.
Their assumption is wrong. That’s all it ever was, an assumption and not a very good one. Not just because there are many good details there that make sense in the historical, Jewish context, but because fiction or myth is an extremely poor explanation of the stories of Judas and the meeting Jewish leaders had with Jesus. Traditional Christian theology (Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies) is also a poor explanation.
Of course, I go over all the details and the theory that best explains them in both my books (Ghost and True Jew) with links at the right to their pages on Amazon and bn.com.
There is one other thing that Jews, Christians, and secularists have in common: A belief in progress (though their notions of it may vary) and, further, that accurate historical study will impede progress. They may be right about that last bit. I’m not sure. But I am pretty sure that most people believe that proper historical investigation in controversial areas will tell us things we’d rather not know, including how professional historians failed to seek the truth because they were more interested in merely spinning the official versions. It is power academia wanted, not truth.
Each group has had its concatenation of reasons for being afraid of accurate 1st century history. I am afraid that we bequeath to future generations an unjust future because we will not confront our unjust interpretations of the past. And if you seek the full, bloody truth when an official story has lasted for so long, you are bound to be ostracized. That seems to be the path I am on.
© 2012 Leon Zitzer