Posted by: aboutalbion | January 29, 2013

Popular history v professional history

The tension comes when a separation occurs between a historian’s professional understanding of the past and the popular understanding of the past.’

I wrote that in a post last Friday (25 January), and I have since noted an example of this kind of tension.  It’s an example that is taken from my studies of the origins of Christianity.

In all the Christian reports (in the ‘gospels’) of the last days of the character of Jesus, there is a description of Jesus being taken at Passover time to a night-time meeting of the Jewish (Sanhedrin) Council in the High Priest’s house immediately before his daytime trial under Roman law before Pontius Pilate. [Mark 14:53 onwards, and parallel accounts]

In his 1972 book, Haim Cohn refers to this episode as ‘The Jewish Trial Theory’.  He summarizes the theory as follows: “[T]hat there and then Jesus was tried under Jewish law on a charge of blasphemy; that he was convicted of that offence upon his own confession; and that he was sentenced to death.” (p97f)

The tension arises when these Christian ‘gospel’ accounts are examined by Jewish historians.  Haim Cohn (a lawyer and a member of Israel’s Supreme Court) reviews the judgements of Jewish historians and finds inconsistencies with “the following well established provisions of Jewish law:

1. No Sanhedrin was allowed to sit as a criminal court and try criminal cases outside the temple precincts, in any private house.

2. The Sanhedrin was not allowed to try criminal cases at night: criminal trials had to be commenced and completed during daytime.

3. No person could be tried on a criminal charge on festival days or the eve of a festival.

4. No person may be convicted on his own testimony or on the strength of his own confession.

5. A person may be convicted of a capital offence only upon the testimony of two lawfully qualified eyewitnesses.

6. No person may be convicted of a capital offence unless two lawfully qualified witnesses testify that they had first warned him of the criminality of the act and the penalty prescribed for it.

7. The capital offence of blasphemy consists in pronouncing the name of God, Yahweh, which may be uttered only once a year by the high priest in the innermost sanctuary of the temple; and it is irrelevant what ‘blasphemies’ are spoken so long as the divine name is not enunciated.”  (p98)

So there is a tension between popular history in ‘Christian’ countries, which has a collective memory that the Jews of the time were responsible for pronouncing a death sentence on Jesus, and professional historians, who have substantial grounds for doubting the reliability and credibility of this claim.

[Cohn, Haim (1972) The Trial and Death of Jesus.  London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.]

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