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Jesus in the Talmud
by peter schäfer
princeton university press,
232 pages, $24.95

Rabbinic literature is surprisingly silent on Christianity—but Jesus makes a cameo appearance in the Talmud, and it isn’t an endearing one. In scattered passages, the Talmud’s sages portray him as a child born not of a virgin but of an adulterous Mary and Panthera (apparently a Roman soldier); a sorcerer whose very name magically healed sickness; a failed student, rebuked by his teacher for lewd thoughts, who was tried according to rabbinic—not Roman—law; a heretic justly hanged on the eve of Passover. For good measure, they add in passing that, not only is Jesus not resurrected, he is consigned to a gruesome fate: “Whoever mocks the words of the sages is punished” in the netherworld “with boiling excrement.” 

Not long ago, on a crowded Q train running from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I was reading about all this in a new book called Jesus in the Talmud . As I told a fellow strap-hanger peering over my shoulder with bewilderment, the book is the work not of a crackpot but of Peter Schäfer, the distinguished German-born Christian director of Judaic studies at Princeton. 

Having previously written studies of Judeophobia in the ancient world, Schäfer opens his latest book by recounting the many influential anti-Jewish polemics that quoted the Talmud against the descendants of its authors. These polemics—with titles such as “Flaming Arrows of Satan; that is, the secret and horrible books of the Jews against Christ, God, and the Christian religion” (1681)—“served as an inexhaustible source for anti-Jewish sentiment,” he says. And they sometimes ignited flames of another kind: church-ordered burnings of the Talmud.

In the last century, Schäfer adds, as the question of how rabbinic literature treats Christianity and its founders attracted academic attention, the scholarly mood dictated that “legendary” or “folkloristic” parts of the Talmud were dismissed as having no historical value. In an important book published in 1978, for instance, the scholar Johann Maier sought to prove in painstaking detail that the Talmud is an unreliable source on the historical Jesus.

The fragments that refer to Jesus—bolder in the Babylonian Talmud, which was redacted in the early seventh century under Persian rule, and more restrained in the Palestinian Talmud, edited about two hundred years earlier under Roman rule—have long been known. So have the discrepancies between them and the gospels. According to the gospels, for instance, the Sanhedrin tried Jesus at night (Mark 14:53–54, Matt. 26:57ff) and convicted him by his own testimony (Matt. 26:64–65, Mark 14:62–63, Luke 22:70). According to the Talmud, meanwhile, criminal cases cannot be tried at night, and a man may not be convicted by his own testimony.

What is impressive in Jesus in the Talmud is what Schäfer does with the familiar talmudic texts. With steady hand, he steers a middle course between hateful anti-Semitic screed and what he calls “sterile scholarly erudition.” Rather than apologetically tone down the anti-Christian elements in the talmudic passages, he argues that their significance lies in the way they illuminate not the historical Jesus but the Jewish reaction to a nascent religion.

Some scholars have long taken the view that, as E.P. Sanders has said, “the authors of the gospels were more interested in theological truth than in bare historical accuracy,” and here Schäfer applies the same logic to the rabbinic view of Jesus. “At precisely the time when Christianity rose from modest beginnings to its first triumphs, the Talmud,” Schäfer says, “would become the defining document of those who refused to accept the new covenant.”

To bring out the nuances of this refusal, Schäfer puts the talmudic fragments in sequence and reveals a coherent—if often hidden—subversion of Christian doctrine.

Two of Schäfer’s readings are worth citing at length. The Talmud records that the pious Rabbi Eliezer was arrested for heresy and then acquitted:

When he had left the tribune, he was troubled that he had been arrested for heresy. His disciples came in to comfort him, but he was inconsolable. Rabbi Akiva came in and said to him: Rabbi, I will say before you a word; perhaps you will not be so troubled.

He said to him: Say!

He said to him: Perhaps one of the heretics said something to you of heresy, and it caused you pleasure.

He said to him: By heaven, you have reminded me. Once I was walking in the marketplace of Tsippori, and I found there Yaakov, the man of the village Sikhnin, and he recounted a saying of heresy in the name of Jesus the son of Panthera, and it caused me pleasure, and I was arrested for the words of heresy, for I violated that which is written in the Torah, “Keep her ways far away from you, and don’t come near the opening of her house, for she has brought many victims down.”

Schäfer, following Daniel Boyarin, suggests that the passage shows that the rabbis were at once attracted to and repulsed by Christianity. Going a step further, he argues in some detail that, when read against other passages in which the sage appears, Rabbi Eliezer “becomes the rabbinic doppelgänger of Jesus [who] . . . combines in his person and life two major strands of the rabbinic perception of Jesus and his followers: sexual excess and magical power.”

Another story from the Babylonian Talmud—this time about Jesus’ disciples—involves a trial of a different kind:

When they brought Netzer [before the court], he said to them [the judges]: Netzer shall be executed? It is written: “An offshoot (netzer) shall grow forth out of his roots” (Isa. 11:1). They answered him: Yes, Netzer shall be executed, since it is written “You shall be cast forth away from your grave like an abhorred offshoot (netzer)” (Isa. 14:19).

When they brought Buni, he said to them: Buni shall be executed? It is written: “My son (beni), my firstborn is Israel” (Ex. 4:22). They answered him: Yes, Buni shall be executed, since it is written: “Behold I will execute your firstborn son (inkha)” (Ex. 4:23).

When they brought Todah, he said to them: Todah shall be executed? It is written: “A psalm of Thanksgiving ( todah )” (Ps. 100:1). They answered him: Yes, Todah shall be executed, since it is written: “He who sacrifices the sacrifice of Thanksgiving (todah) honors me” (Ps. 50:23).

In a fine display of wordplay, accuser and accused fling biblical verses at one another in a virtuosic duel to the death. Schäfer explains that Netzer, the first stand-in for Jesus, invokes the classic text referring to the messiah as an offshoot of the Davidic line, the son of Jesse. The judges reply with a verse that says, in effect: You are not from David’s line but “an abhorred offshoot” whose grave is empty not as a result of resurrection but because your corpse will be left unburied. And as the following verses in Isaiah declare, your sons will not arise to possess the earth. 

The second disciple, Buni (whose name means “my son”), asks to be spared because he claims to be Israel, God’s firstborn son. With great concision, the Talmud alludes to New Testament language: the heavenly voice that at Jesus’ baptism declares, “You are my son, the beloved!” and at his transfiguration on the mount says, “This is my son, the be loved!”—together with Paul’s announcement of Jesus as “the firstborn of all creation” and “the firstborn from the dead.”

The judges take their reply from a verse in Exodus referring to the doomed firstborn of Egypt, as if to say: “You fool, you are not God’s but the Pharaoh’s firstborn . . . . The self-appointed Messiah turns out to be the descendant of the worst of all of Israel’s oppressors.”

Finally, Todah plays on his name, which refers to the Thanksgiving sacrifice offered in the Temple, in order to invoke the notion of Jesus as sacrifice. In denying Todah, Schäfer argues, the judges intend thereby to deny Paul’s references to Jesus as a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2) and as coming “to abolish sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26).

Schäfer’s portrait is occasionally marred by a speculative tone: “we may just presume” and “it may be safe to add” and “it is certainly possible that.” It lacks a sketch of the powerful forces of censorship and self-censorship that gave the Talmud’s passages on Christianity their elliptical shape.

For all its stress on the rabbinic critique of Jesus, it lacks, too, a delineation of the convergence between Jesus’ ethical teachings and those of the Talmud’s sages—and of the sages’ stance toward the parallels.

But in the talmudic references to Jesus, scant though they may be, Schäfer persuasively finds sophisticated “counternarratives that parody the New Testament stories,” composed by Jews who evinced a precise knowledge of the New Testament (or at least the Diatessaron version of the gospels, arranged by Tatian in the second century). The true accomplishment of Jesus in the Talmud is to show how certain talmudic passages are actually subtle rereadings of the New Testament, “a literary answer to a literary text.” With considerable skill, Schäfer weaves these together until they can be seen to form an intricate theological discourse that prefigures the disputations between Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages.

Jesus in the Talmud reveals that the early Jewish–Christian relationship was not nearly as asymmetrical as we had thought. If Schäfer is right, far from greeting the emergence of Christianity with silence, the rabbis answered the growing Christian triumphalism earlier, more forcefully, and more coherently than it at first seems. The effect is a reversal of the consensus view, as the Oxford scholar Geza Vermes once put it, that “open and deliberate doctrinal conflict on the Jewish side had to wait until the Middle Ages.”

What Jesus in the Talmud demonstrates is that Rabbinic Judaism and orthodox Christianity did not evolve in ignorance of each other. From the beginning, these two nascent orthodoxies, more sisters than a mother and a daughter, vied for influence and narrative sovereignty. Anxiously defining themselves, they listened to one another, echoed each other, and fashioned themselves against each other.

Benjamin Balint is a fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. He last reviewed in these pages Jon D. Levenson’s Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel.

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