Jesus in the Talmud

Jesus in the Talmud

Peter Schäfer
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 232
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    Jesus in the Talmud
    Book Description:

    Scattered throughout the Talmud, the founding document of rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity, can be found quite a few references to Jesus--and they're not flattering. In this lucid, richly detailed, and accessible book, Peter Schäfer examines how the rabbis of the Talmud read, understood, and used the New Testament Jesus narrative to assert, ultimately, Judaism's superiority over Christianity.

    The Talmudic stories make fun of Jesus' birth from a virgin, fervently contest his claim to be the Messiah and Son of God, and maintain that he was rightfully executed as a blasphemer and idolater. They subvert the Christian idea of Jesus' resurrection and insist he got the punishment he deserved in hell--and that a similar fate awaits his followers.

    Schäfer contends that these stories betray a remarkable familiarity with the Gospels--especially Matthew and John--and represent a deliberate and sophisticated anti-Christian polemic that parodies the New Testament narratives. He carefully distinguishes between Babylonian and Palestinian sources, arguing that the rabbis' proud and self-confident countermessage to that of the evangelists was possible only in the unique historical setting of Persian Babylonia, in a Jewish community that lived in relative freedom. The same could not be said of Roman and Byzantine Palestine, where the Christians aggressively consolidated their political power and the Jews therefore suffered.

    A departure from past scholarship, which has played down the stories as unreliable distortions of the historical Jesus,Jesus in the Talmudposits a much more deliberate agenda behind these narratives.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2761-9
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    This book is about the perception of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, in the Talmud, the foundation document of rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity. What do these two—Jesus and the Talmud—have in common? The obvious answer is: not much. There is, on the one hand, the collection of writings called the New Testament, undisputedly our major source for Jesus’ life, teaching, and death, most of it written in the second half of the first century C.E.¹ And there is “the” Talmud, on the other, the most influential literary product of rabbinic Judaism, developed over several centuries...

  6. 1. Jesus’ Family
    (pp. 15-24)

    The rabbinic literature is almost completely silent about Jesus’ lineage and his family background. The rabbis do not seem to know—or else do not care to mention—what the New Testament tells us: that he was the son of a certain Mary and her husband (or rather betrothed) Joseph, a carpenter of the city of Nazareth, and that he was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and hence of Davidic origin. It is only in the Babylonian Talmud, and there in two almost identical passages, that we do get some strange information that may be regarded as a...

  7. 2. The Son/Disciple Who Turned out Badly
    (pp. 25-33)

    The next stage in Jesus’ “career,” of which we find an echo in the Talmud, is his appearance as a quite grown-up son or disciple. To be sure, the Talmud does not convey any information about Jesus’ growing up in his family or his youth, let alone about his education and his teachers; it just mentions him, again in passing, as an example of a son or a disciple who turns out badly—the nightmare of any decent parent. Interestingly enough, the New Testament, too, does not tell us much about Jesus’ childhood: Matthew moves directly from his return from...

  8. 3. The Frivolous Disciple
    (pp. 34-40)

    Jesus’ role as a disciple and his relationship with his teacher is the subject of yet another colorful story preserved in the Bavli. This time Jesus has a teacher explicitly mentioned by name and is coupled only with Gehazi, one of the other ill-behaved disciples known from the Bible whom we encountered in the previous story. The fate of both Gehazi and Jesus is put under the rabbinic maxim: “Let the left hand push away but the right hand always draw near!”¹ Their teachers are now presented as prime examples of (bad) teachers who did not follow this maxim but...

  9. 4. The Torah Teacher
    (pp. 41-51)

    The Talmud does not relate anything about Jesus’ life until his very end, his violent death. It does have, however, some vague notion of him as a Torah teacher, and this is quite in accordance with Jesus’ portrayal in the New Testament (see in particular the so-called Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7; according to Luke 19:47, Jesus was teaching every day in the Temple, and “the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him”).¹ One story in the Bavli presents Jesus as such a Torah teacher, in...

  10. 5. Healing in the Name of Jesus
    (pp. 52-62)

    The mysterious heretic by the name of Jacob makes yet another appearance in a story preserved again in Palestinian as well as in Babylonian sources. This time he does not seduce a rabbi by his convincing Bible exegesis and expose the poor rabbi’s hidden leanings toward Christianity but introduces himself as the proverbial miraculous healer who whispers a potent magical word or phrase over a wound/illness and, through the power of the word(s) used, heals the patient.

    Rabbinic Judaism seems to be ambiguous about the custom of “whispering over a wound” for healing purposes. In the famous Mishna Sanhedrin 10:2,¹...

  11. 6. Jesus’ Execution
    (pp. 63-74)

    That Jesus was condemned to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, subsequently tortured and crucified, and on the third day after his crucifixion was resurrected and ascended to heaven is the foundation narrative of Christianity. His trial by the Roman authority and his death on the cross are described in all four Gospels, albeit with considerable variations (Mt. 27–28; Mk. 15–16; Lk. 22–24; John 18–21), and theologically interpreted by the apostle Paul. What familiarity do the rabbis, the heroes of rabbinic Judaism, show with the evangelists’ interpretations of this event, or rather, more carefully formulated:...

  12. 7. Jesus’ Disciples
    (pp. 75-81)

    One of the most characteristic features of the Gospels is the fact that Jesus gathered a circle of disciples around him. The selection of his disciples was a gradual process, which seems to have begun with four (Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James son of Zebedee and his brother John)¹ and ultimately led to the number twelve, clearly alluding to the twelve tribes of Israel.² The twelve disciples accompanied him until his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, celebrated the Last Supper with him, witnessed the betrayal of one of them (Judas) who delivered him to the authorities, and...

  13. 8. Jesus’ Punishment in Hell
    (pp. 82-94)

    According to the New Testament, Jesus was indeed resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion, as he had predicted, and appeared to his disciples. The synoptic Gospels do not relate what happened to him after his resurrection (in Luke he blesses the disciples and simply disappears),¹ and only the appendix in Mark adds that he was “taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk. 16:19). The introduction to the Acts of the Apostles, however, knows more details: There, Jesus presents himself alive after his Passion during forty days(!)² and, at his last appearance,...

  14. 9. Jesus in the Talmud
    (pp. 95-130)

    The Jesus passages in the rabbinic literature, most prominently in the Babylonian Talmud, reveal a colorful kaleidoscope of many fragments—often dismissed as figments—of Jesus’ life, teachings, and not least his death. They are not told as an independent and coherent narrative but are scattered all over the large corpus of literature left to us by the rabbis. Even worse, only very rarely do they address Jesus, the object of our inquiry, directly; in many cases the immediate subject of the rabbinic discourse has nothing to do with Jesus and his life: he is mentioned just in passing, as...

  15. Appendix: Bavli Manuscripts and Censorship
    (pp. 131-144)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 145-190)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-202)
  18. Index
    (pp. 203-210)