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Sunday, May 5, 2024

"It doesn't matter what’s true," continued.

The Allure of Certainty (Kathryn Schulz)

The trouble began, as it so often does, with taxes. In AD 6, the Roman Empire, ramping up its policy of territorial expansion and control, decided to impose a tariff on the Jews of the province of Judaea, in what is now Israel and the West Bank. By then, the local Jews had been living under a capricious and often cruel Roman rule for seventy years, so the tax issue was hardly their only grievance. Still, it rankled, and the question of what to do about it caused a schism in the community. The majority heeded the counsel of the high priest Joazar and reluctantly agreed to pay up in the interest of keeping the peace. But a handful, led by one Judas of Galilee, rebelled. Disgusted by what he saw as Joazar’s complicity with Roman rule, Judas vowed to establish a new sect of Jews whose members, in the words of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, “have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.”

That sounds like an honorable attitude. And a courageous one: Judas and his followers, a small and marginalized minority, took on one of history’s most formidable imperial states. As such, they seem like good candidates for hero status in the eyes of their fellow Jews, ancient and modern—and some people view them that way. But to Josephus, and to many others before and since, they were little better than villains and murderers. Judas’s sect practiced a scorched-earth policy (including against other Jews, to deprive them of food and shelter and thereby force them to join the sectarian fight), advocated the outright murder not only of Romans but also of Jewish “collaborators” (essentially, anyone with less single-minded politics than their own), and contributed to the destruction of Jerusalem and the ferocity of Roman reprisals through their own extreme violence and unwillingness to negotiate. Josephus records a characteristic raid—the sacking of the Jewish enclave of Ein-Gedi, where the able-bodied men apparently fled, and, “As for such that could not run away, being women and children, they slew of them above seven hundred.” The historian sums up the sect and its legacy this way:

All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree; one violent war came upon us after another, and we lost our friends which used to alleviate our pains; there were also very great rob beries and murder of our principal men…. Such a change was made, as added a mighty weight toward bringing all to destruction, which these men occasioned by their thus conspiring together; for Judas and Sadduc [another leader of the rebellion], who excited a fourth philosophic sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries.

Who were the members of this “fourth philosophic sect,” in all their unphilosophical brutality? These were the original, capital-Z Zealots. History doesn’t record the fate of Judas, but most of the other Zealots perished in the first Jewish-Roman war, which began in AD 66 and ended four years later, with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the defeat of the Jews. A small band of survivors retreated to a fort at Masada, near the Dead Sea, where they held off a Roman siege for three years. When the Romans finally breached the fort, they discovered that its 960 inhabitants had organized a mass self-slaughter, murdering one another (suicide being forbidden in Hebrew law) rather than letting themselves be captured or killed by the RomansAs the generic use of their name suggests, the legacy of the Zealots was not ideological but methodological. Murdering in the name of faith, religious or otherwise, was hardly unheard of before they came along, but they clarified and epitomized it as a practice. In the two millennia since the last of Judas of Galilee’s Zealots perished, a thousand lowercase zealots have kept that legacy alive—meaning, they have killed in its name. These latter-day zealots have hailed from many different backgrounds and held many different beliefs. At heart, though, and paradoxically, they have all shared a single conviction: that they and they alone are in possession of the truth. (The very word “zealot” comes from a Greek root meaning to be jealous of the truth—to guard it as your own.) What zealots have in common, then, is the absolute conviction that they are right. In fact, of all the symbolic ones and zeros that extremists use to write their ideological binary codes—us/them, same/different, good/evil—the fundamental one is right/wrong. Zealotry demands a complete rejection of the possibility of error.

The conviction that we cannot possibly be wrong: this is certainty. We’ve seen a lot of this conviction already, in the form of people who are sure they can see, or sure of what they do see (mountain chains, pregnant women), or sure of what they believe or predict or recall. Most of the time, this garden-variety certainty seems far removed from zealotry—and in a sense, it is. There’s a very big difference between, say, insisting that you are right about Orion and, say, murdering the Protestants, Muslims, Jews, bigamists, blasphemers, sodomites, and witches who are defiling your country. Not everyone who is filled with passionate certitude is Torquemada…

Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error Chapter 8 (pp. 159-162). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Kathryn published those thoughts in 2010. Still reads much like yesterday (arguably moreso). Being Wrong is one of my favorite books. Do yourselves a favor. Get it. Study it closely.

I bought the book in hardcover when it first came out, then later also bought the Kindle edition, for ease of further study and citation. I've long read her work in The New Yorker. She is a fabulous writer and thinker. This post is intended to continue the riff begun in the prior post. No timely "Zealotry" flying around these days, right? Hmmm... let us not forget today's Christian Nationalist Warriors, either.

"Two Cheers for Uncertainty"

Yeah, that always gets 'em going.


I diverged into downloading and reading Kathryn Schulz's memoir. Hit 'pause' on the world while I finished it.

I am rarely at a loss for apt words, but, this is one of those times.

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