Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hector Avalos vs. Jesus, Round IV

Sigh.  It's Bambi vs. Godzilla, all over again. 

Hector Avalos wants to step back in the ring with Jesus of Nazareth. 
Never mind what happened when he tried to insist that against all the evidence, "Jesus commands hate."  Never mind his false insinuation that the early Christians murdered Anania and Saphira in Acts 5.  And let's forget how he distorted the speech by Pope Urban that helped launched the First Crusade.

See the source image
Bambi vs. Godzilla: First smelling a skunk. 
Hector wants to go toe-to-toe with The Champ again!  This time to make the case that Jesus, if he ever lived, might have been -- can you guess?  -- some sort of a bigot against Jews.

"I will argue . . . that anti-Judaism can be traced back to Jesus himself, at least as he is portrayed in the Gospels."

Logicians among you will recognize what I did in those first three paragraphs: it's called "poisoning the well."  I've been deliberately trying to prejudice you against Dr. Avalos' thesis, before we even look at the evidence that it's based upon.

Which need not be irrational, because in historical inquiries, evidence isn't everything.  For every historical claim, warrant for that claim combines not only the evidence one finds for or agaSee the source imageinst it, but also prior probability, factors that mitigate in favor of or against it even before we look at the evidence.  For instance, if I say, "Yesterday I had lunch with my boss," you would probably not be too astounded.  But if I said, "Yesterday I had lunch with an alien from a galaxy far, far away" before we even discussed evidence, most of you would rationally look askance at my claim.  (I have my own prior reasons for thinking this of you: few readers here, so far as I can tell, subscribe to scientifically-naïve New Age notions about easy astral travel.)

To determine if Jesus really was an anti-Semite, in the end I suppose we should probably look at the evidence.  But before we do, I see it as rational to take the claim with at least seven big grains of salt:

(1) Jesus was himself Jewish.  Of course it is possible for a Jew (like Karl Marx) to despise his own race, but in the context of the First Century, when the Jews were struggling to survive against Hellenic, then Roman domination, it is highly unlikely that a Jewish rabbi would gain a following boisterous enough to get him killed by the Romans, on a platform of national self-loathing.  Imagine a Korean preacher under Japanese occupation whipping Koreans up to a passion of warm support by thumbing his nose at Korean culture and all his neighbors.  That's a long-shot.  It is far more credible to see him as getting in trouble with a portion of the Jewish, then Roman leadership, as the gospels generally depict.

(2) Most of Jesus' earliest followers were also Jews, which increases the force of (1).  This "anti-
Semite" Jesus, Stark argues, somehow won Jews to faith in him, including intensely Hebraic Jews like Matthew, Paul and the author of Hebrews, not just in that first generation, but for centuries.  

(3) Jewish prophets had been laying into Israel's political leaders, religious leaders, and common people, for centuries, in a vigorous internal debate that might sound like loathing of their own nation to outsiders, but was actually predicated on love and desire for Israel's well-being.  So if Jesus were the last such prophet, and come to "fulfill the Law and the Prophets," his lively rebukes of Jewish leaders and commoners might sound "anti-Semitic" to outsiders, but would be understood internally from within that tradition, and make perfect sense.

(4) It is tempting to anachronistically read the New Testament from the modern perspective, as people who have witnessed the Holocaust, or at least the pogroms.  That temptation must be resisted.  The New Testament must be read in the context of its own time and cultures.

(5) One does not need genuine anti-Semitism in the Bible to explain its occurrence later in European history.  As Exodus, Esther and Daniel reveal, the notion of genocide against the Jews had been floated more than once, hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.  There was persecution of Jews in the Roman Empire, and it has occurred outside of Christendom since then as well.  Stark explains the phenomena, as does Girard with a different twist.  In times of stress, people often seek scapegoats, and vulnerable minorities of a different race and religion scattered around a civilization under pressure from outside, often are the unlucky targets of violence at times like that.  Stark points out that anti-Semitic pogroms thus occur in Europe and the Islamic world at just such points of international stress.  Other races have been victims at other places and times, such as China, America, or Rwanda.  It is no coincidence or even surprise, sociologically, that some early Crusaders attacked Jews on their way to defend "Christendom" against Islamic incursion, for instance.

(6) The New Testament often flaunts its Jewishness.  Jesus tells his disciples to go first to the "lost sheep of Israel" rather than to Gentiles.  He weeps over Jerusalem, "How often I have wished to gather you under my wings, like a mother hen gathers her brood, and you would not."  Paul even offers his soul for the salvation of his people, if it will help.  And the New Testament is chock full of references to the Jewish scriptures much more positive than anything, say, Richard Dawkins has ever said about them. 

The idea that Jesus comes to "fulfill" the Old Testament is not just tacked onto Matthew, but is a central theme of all the gospels marked by places (crossing the Jordan), references to heroes (David, Abraham, Moses, etc), types, customs like Passover and blood sacrifice, woven into parables, and denoted by several verbs including "teleo" as well as "plerou" among others.  If Jesus hated his people or tradition, it is extremely bizarre that his first followers described such an intricate tapestry of affirmation and fulfillment between his life, teachings, death and resurrection, and the story of the Old Testament.

(7) Finally, we have Avalos' habit of grotesque over-statement and misrepresentation in defaming Jesus and his followers.  (Follow links above.)

So even before looking at Avalos' case, I would expect the following:

I would expect Jesus, as a prophet, to make hard-hitting comments about the Jewish leaders and ordinary Jews of his time, as earlier prophets had done.

I would expect Jesus nevertheless to make it clear that he wishes his fellow Jews well, and hopes they will turn from their sin to acts of righteousness and love.

Some of what Jesus says might no doubt be interpreted by outsiders, especially in the hyper-sensitive modern world, as anti-Semetic.   But we cannot read the ancients anachronistically.

We must not cherry-pick materials to make a simplistic case that Jesus was merely positive or merely negative towards his own culture and neighbors.  If Jesus was the greatest of the prophets, which I think is the bare minimum one can reasonably allow, one must expect him to recognize the complexity of the situation, and to call people from their sins back to God using the vigorous language typical of the prophetic tradition.  But if we are going to be fair and reason as good historians, criticism of Jewish people or leaders must be balanced and understood in the context of the good Jesus does his Jewish neighbors, and teaches his disciples to do.   (Which fill the pages of the gospels.)  

Given all these factors, if Avalos doesn't hit a home run with his first pieces of evidence for "Jesus the Anti-Jew," I don't think we need to put up with too much of it.  

As it turns out, just take a few steps, and you realize that Avalos is not inclined to give fair consideration to these prior concerns, or to the full panoply of data in the gospels that show what Jesus thought of his people and their traditions.  And while sometimes subtle, Avalos is still playing tricks with exegesis, creating a "canon within a canon" as he has put it before, that undermine his interpretation of the New Testament from the get-go.

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The Anti-Jewish Jesus:    Socio-Rhetorical Criticism as Apologetics

Hector Avalos, Iowa State University

Avalos sets the stage by describing a volume entitled Removing the Anti-Judaism from the New Testament, by Howard Clark Kee and Irvin J. Borowsky.

"The book was prompted by the belief that anti-Jewish statements in the New Testament or by later Christian interpreters have led to violence against Jews . . . People have been murdered because of these words.  Whether it be Chrysostom in the fourth century, Martin Luther in the sixteenth, or Rudolf Kittel in the twentieth, one can trace a steady stream of anti-Judaism in Christian thought and culture."

But such scholars do not wish to believe that the "anti-Judaism" in Christianity came from Jesus -- if there was such a person, Avalos hastens to add.

Borowsky proposes that the New Testament be sanitized for the public, while the original version be used by scholars in their research!  Avalos rightly finds this proposal ridiculous:

"What is being proposed here is nothing short of a paternalistic deception. Borowsky and like-minded scholars believe that parts of the New Testament endorse and promote hateful and violent speech against Jews, but instead of denouncing the ethics of Jesus and other New Testament Christian voices, they simply want to revise the ethics expressed, at least for the hoi polloi. The masses will get the sanitized Bible constructed for them by scholars, and only scholars will have the version that best corresponds to the original meaning."

t's good to see we agree on one thing, before the inevitable flood of disagreement.

Avalos also correctly places the modern debate in the rather anachronistic context of reaction to the Holocaust:

"All such efforts to address the anti-Judaism in the New Testament received new impetus because of the Nazi Holocaust."

Avalos then takes a few pages to deal with the arguments of the Catholic scholar, Luke Johnson.  Johnson surveys both Greek and Jewish philosophical schools in the ancient world and finds a lot of lively rhetorical abuse flying in every direction.  It turns out, Johnson says, that the insults in the New Testament are actually pretty tame by comparison.  Everyone does it.

Not good enough, Avalos responds.  And here Avalos tries his first dirty trick -- the kind of hostile eisegesis which I have chronicled before in his work (in fact this closely parallels his trick with Martin Luther that I debunked previously). 

Avalos offers the following two quotes to compare:

Α. ‘Existence impels the Jew to lie, and to lie perpetually just as it compels the inhabitants of the northern countries to wear warm clothing’.

 Β. ‘You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires...When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies’.

Then Avalos concludes: 

"Rhetorically, both statements center on Jews being liars by nature."

Cut!  What did you just say, Hector?

A, which Avalos is about to reveal comes from none other than Adolf Hitler, does indeed "center on Jews being liars by nature."  There is no doubt about that.

But Avalos' "read" of B tempts me to say HE is the "liar by nature" at this juncture in exegetical history.  (Though more generously, one must at least say he has focused on one side of the evidence to the exclusion of all that undermines it.)

Who is Jesus speaking to in John 8?  Is he making a generalization about "Jews?"

The chapter is admittedly a bit confusing.  At times, Jesus is debating with "the Pharisees."  At times he is directing his arguments and rebukes to "the Jews."  But a group of "Jews who believed in him," and another who sought to kill him, are also mentioned, and strangely mixed together, in the transition from 31 ("Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him") to 33 ("they answered him").   But then in 36 Jesus speaks of those whom "the son makes free" and are "free indeed," following that with "I know that you are Abraham's descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you."

So it appears that Jesus is talking to a mixed crowd.  Some in the crowd believe him, while others are hostile in the most existential and physical sense.

That some of his hearers might form a lynch mob is hardly incredible, given that Jesus was, in the end, killed.  (And more generally, that outdoor preaching has often been a hazardous sport, and must have been more so in the incendiary atmosphere of 1st Century Roman-occupied Palestine.)

In verse 40 again, Jesus refers to a sub-set of Abraham's physical descendants who "seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God.  Abraham did not do this."

And this leads up to the "you are of your father the devil . . . He was a murderer from the beginning . . . he is a liar . . . " accusations.

The term "the Jews" is used twice more in the passage, leading up to the great "I am" declaration.

The following chapter contrasts a blind Jew whom Jesus heals, and who "sees" the significance of that healing with particular clarity, with "the Pharisees" or "the Jews" who do not.   The blind man recognizes that Jesus must truly be from God.

It should be fairly obvious from this context that while John is sometimes using the term "the Jews" to refer to those of the Jewish leaders who reject Jesus and seek his harm, he also recognizes that some Jews do recognize Jesus and seek to follow him.  John could, perhaps, have used synonyms less fraught with the ominous future.  (Though one can only blame him for knowing that some day Christians were going to have the power to persecute Jews, if one assumes his Gospel is divinely-inspired, if then.  The conversion of Constantine was more than two centuries in the future when the gospel was written, and Christians were few and scattered.) 

But Avalos gives this passage an even more dubious spin:

"By Johnson’s logic, in both statements ‘the polemic signifies simply that these are opponents and such things should be said about them’.   Yet, I wonder if one would say that about Statement A once one learns it belongs to Adolf Hitler, the foremost modern practitioner of anti-Jewish rhetoric.  Indeed there is not much difference between Hitler’s statement and Statement B, which is uttered by Jesus in Jn 8.44-45."

In fact, there is a world of difference between these two statements:

(1) Jesus was a Jew engaging in internal debate within his own culture: John clearly recognized Jesus' Jewishness.  Hitler was Austrian German.

(2) Hitler was clearly talking about all Jews; in context, Jesus the Jew was most credibly addressing himself to a specific sub-group of Jews.

(3) Hitler would show what he meant by trying to murder all Jews.  Jesus showed what HE meant by healing, forgiving, teaching, and dying on the cross for the sins of all Jews.  Hitler never healed a Jew that we know of.  Jesus never so much as slapped one in the face, that we know of.  (Aside from when he drove the money-changers out of "My Father's House" with a whip, which while painful to a few Jews, was a pretty radical affirmation of Jewish tradition, at the same time.)

This may seem obvious, but elephants in small rooms should not be ignored.  That is one of Dr. Avalos' bad habits.

And here stampedes a whole thundering herd of pachyderms.

(4) Hitler was not talking about or to people who were trying to kill him: Jesus was.  The technical name for someone who kills an innocent man is "murderer."  That is not hyperbole, that is not vitriol, it is an accurate description of the audience to whom Jesus was speaking, or at least the part of it to which that comment seems to have been addressed.

(5) Jesus was, in fact, murdered.  Is it a sin to call someone who murders a murderer?  I think not.

Avalos then hops over to Matthew to make his next point:

"Jesus describes the consequences of not catering to his followers: ‘And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”. Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25.40-41).

Dr. Avalos makes it sound as if this comment expressed an ego trip on Jesus' part, as he built up his religious kingdom.  "Cater" is what you do for a feast, not what you do with a million hungry children in the Sudan, for instance.

But who are "the brethren" Jesus refers to, who appear in the guise of the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless?  Obviously not his physical brothers.  And just as obviously, he is not limiting himself to one gender.

Does he mean only Christians?  Or only Jews?  The text refers to "the nations gathered before (God)."   Again, remember that this was written when Christianity was a very minor faith among a few mostly Jews scattered in one small corner of the world.  (And Jews of the time were aware of India, Africa, Europe, southern Russia, and probably China - indeed Herodotus gives a survey of the three great continents centuries before John wrote -- so John knew that "the nations" included places where no Christians had yet arrived, most likely.)  So unless Avalos wishes to concede that Jesus already knew about the worldwide spread of Christianity in advance, it seems most likely he is telling his disciples, as indeed we have generally interpreted it, that WHOEVER comes before us in need, is in this sense our "brother" or "sister."

Or has Matthew (always so careful with his structuring) forgotten what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount?  If someone sues you for your jacket, give him your coat.  Give to whoever asks of you.  Love your enemy, and pray for the person who persecutes you.

Obviously Jesus was not just talking about catering to Christians.  This is obvious to the Jesus Seminar, for instance, which stressed Jesus' concern for those on the margins, such as Samaritans.

Consider, for instance, Jesus' famous story of the Good Samaritan in Luke.  The whole point of the story is that the Samaritan is an outsider, and that we are to learn from him by caring for our "neighbors," meaning whomever we meet, even heretics belonging to hostile cultures.

What about the warning of punishment after death for those who ignore the hungry and homeless?   Is that reminiscent of Adolf Hitler?

Don't make me laugh.

Adolf Hitler did not warn people of God's wrath if they failed to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and visit those who were in prison!  In fact he made visiting the millions he put in prison rather difficult.

Is it so hard to distinguish between a man who went to prison and death for others, and a man who sent others to prison and death by the millions?  How willfully blind are we supposed to make ourselves, to find Dr. Avalos' exegesis of Scripture plausible?

And I think we'll stop here.  Ad Hitlerum arguments tend to be bad as a general category, but accusing the most famous Jew in history of being Hitleresque, against so much evidence, is particularly lame.  We're on a train to nowhere, and we might as well get off now.  

Bambi is still no match for Godzilla, however he sharpens his horns and practices his 50 yard dashes and long jumps.  In fact, rather than growing adult-deer antlers, he seems to have turned into the skunk.


Dr. Bobb said...

Learn to use a compass and read a map.

David B Marshall said...

Few things are more ludicrous than most skeptical criticisms.

I had world and US maps hung in most the classrooms in our school. I've literally spent years on the road, and am very good with maps. Do you have a thought behind your bizarre advice?