The Talmud on Jesus


A comment from Steven Baker in the FAQ section from June 15 this year raises the question whether the Talmud would be “full of extreme hatred against Jesus” and if so, what was our position on it. Although we are dealing rather with local issues regarding the Jewish history in Augsburg, former Austrian, today’s Bavarian Swabia or let’s say Southern Germany, it maybe is worthwhile trying to find an answer – which of course is ours and may differ from other assessments.

Question:

 Dear Madam or Sir,

I have read a number of times in different books and articles that the Jewish book of Talmud is full of extreme hatred agains Jesus. Is that true and why is that so and what is your position on this?

Short Answer:

The short answer to your question in a Hillel like style would be: Since the authors of the Talmud most likely had no knowledge on him, they did not mention Jesus in the Talmud and there also would had been no need to do so.

More detailed answer:

Everything else actually rather derives from the fantasy of the authors of those books and not from given facts.

According to common understanding Jesus from Nazareth in the Galilee lived about the first third of the first century according to Christian calendar and therefore was a contemporary of the earlier Mishna period (until 220). None of the umpteen scholars of the Mishna does refer to Jesus, although thousands of ideas and interpretations of the Tora, particular laws, regulations, customs and beliefs as well as historical events, customs of foreign people are topics of endless debates. Although also a larger number of long forgotten rivals of rabbinical Judaism are mentioned in detail, most of the time quite sober in order to assess their standpoints, Jesus, almost incredible to most Christians, actually is not. The explanation for this is quite simple, the Mishna, and still more the completing Gemara (until sixth and seventh century) of the Talmud originate basically from Babylonia, where early Christianity obviously played no important role (if any) and therefore was no part of any controversies within the Jewry there. This of course rapidly changed when from the eighth and ninth century on Talmudic sages from the Orient arrived in Southern and Western and Middle Europe.  At this time, the Talmud of course already was completed. But now there is no problem at all to find a huge number of disputations between Christians and Jews on Jesus and / or the Talmud, with written references on both sides. Some were quite famous and time and again resulted in Christian burnings of the Talmud, as the 1240 one in Paris for instance.

A more formal requirement was how the Talmud actually should or could have refered to Jesus at all. For some two centuries modern Humanist scholars and leaders of Reform Judaism as well as nowadays participants of Christian-Jewish or Jewish-Christian dialogue groups name him “Yeshu” or “Yeshua”, etc. in order to re-translate his Greek Jewish name into a Hebrew Jewish one. That of course is an anachronism. Nobody knows whether Jesus actually was called “Yeshua”, “Yeshu” or “Yoshua”, but we of course do know that the name Jesus as written in the Greek Gospels actually existed and that furthermore it was a quite common name among Greek speaking Jews all over the Mediterranean. In the life time of Jesus probably the majority of Jews already lived outside of Israel and their main language was no longer Hebrew, but Greek. Therefore long before Jesus the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible were translated into the Greek Koine language (commonly known by the Latin word Septuagint). The Hebrew Book of Joshua, following right after the first five books in the Bible in Greek was titled “Jesus”. This means every time the Hebrew Bible mentions “Joshua”, for instance in the context of the conquest of Jericho, the Greek text of the Septuagint has Ιησους (Yesous). Accordingly among ancient Greek Jews the name Yesous was as popular as Yoshua was among Hebrew Jews. At best you may compare this to the popularity of the English name “James”  which as Jacob refers to the Hebrew name Yakow. From the writings of ancient Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (who by the way reported ten thousands of crucifications) as well as from many ancient inscriptions we know that there were many bearer of the name Jesus, so there is no reason to assume that the Jesus of the Christian Gospels would have had another name. Since his followers regarded him as central figure of their faith it furthermore is rather unlikely that they will have changed his original name, whether it was “Jesus” or “Yoshua” in one way or another.  So there actually is no doubt that his original name was “Yesous” and not “Yoshua”, although that of course implies that he was named by the Greek version instead of the Hebrew one. Since on the other hand the name of his mother according to the Gospels was Maria, that of course was no surprise. Although Mary (Latin: Maria) by many is interpreted as Hebrew name Miryam it actually of course is the female equivalent of the Latin name “Marius”. Ancient Rome only knew a little number of prenomia (first or fore names), from which the female equivalents were derived. A daughter of Julius therefore was named Julia, a second one Julia Secunda (Julia the second) in order to differ her from the first one. Likewise the female equivalent of Lucius was Lucia, of Gaius was Gaia, and so on. Maria thus is the female version of Marius, which refers to the Roman god of Mars and often was given to boys who were born in the Month of March which also refers to Mars. A well known example would be historian Marius Maximus (165-230), who was quite popular as biographer of twelve Roman emperors and was regarded as successor of Sueton. Considering the spread of female Roman names of Julia or Lucia, there is no plausible reason to assume that of all Roman names only Marius had no female name bearer and all persons with the name Maria would refer to the Hebrew name Miryam instead, which in Greek “mar-yam” may sound somewhat similar, but isn’t the same.  By the way it is perfectly normal and anything but exceptional that some Jews in this time also had foreign and even pagan names. It is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage. The predominant language in the Galilee obviously was Greek not Hebrew. Since the Talmud has thousands of foreign words from Greek and Latin it just reflects the given influence which noone will deny.

 

However, since the Talmud does not mention Jesus, what for Christian scholars until today of course is quite disappointing, for a long time, there of course were many attempts to reinterpret other sections from the Talmud which refer to rivals of the rabbinical Jews, of which were many among the Jews of that time. Some writers try to examine the Christian Gospels on the basis of Talmudic writings, especially the trial of Jesus. To some extend this might be interesting, but in the bottom line it just is science fiction. 

Another argument is to assume two types of censorship on the Talmudic scripture, one imposed by Christian authorities in Europe and the other as freely one practiced by the rabbinical scholars to avoid conflicts with the Christian authorities. This of course requires patterns of thinking also known from conspiracy theories, which postulate the result of an investigation and likely will ignore any other interpretation. For instance if the Talmud actually would have referred to Jesus, why any references necessarily must have been derogatory when contrary to that the Talmud has no problem in admitting advantages of Greek or Roman achievements, what it does on quite a number of occasions? So the expectation already is biased and therefore focuses on feigned “suspicious” passages from the Talmud, which are interpreted to refer in a negative way to Jesus and Christianity, although both are not mentioned in the Talmud.     

Actually this is no attempt of an apology which is out to deny references of the Talmud (some authors invent to sell their books) to the Christian Jesus and his lore. Of course we would prefer if there were any, but inasmuch Christianity rejects full obedience towards the commandments of the Tora what of course is everything else but a bagatelle, it likewise defines Christianity as an independent and self-contained religion, outside the framework of Judaism, what hardly is common ground for debates.  Christianity obviously needed a sharp distinction from Judaism as well as a close relation to it. Judaism in contrary has no inner need to deal with Christian beliefs, which simply are regarded as another foreign religion. In our times Jews and Christians have no general problems to meet Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims or to have a dialogue with representatives of Zen, Shinto, Jaina or Bahai in order to find things in common, which are quite a lot. It is no use to look for a rather notional who was wrong, who is right. It simply is enough to be aware of your the own tradition and to respect those of others.  

On the other hand, there maybe are quotes from Jesus in the Talmud nobody understands as such. Always provided that Jesus indeed originally was called “Yoshua” by his students and contemporaries and not “Jesus”, there are umpteen Yoshua, Yosse and Yoshi mentioned in the Mishna and Gemara, even one who was called Yossi Hagalili and lived in the first century of today’s Christian calendar counting. From many we know hardly more than some wisdom saying. Since fiercest controversies are expected no one would ever take notice of.

4 Responses to The Talmud on Jesus

  1. Helga Schäfer Vegesack says:

    Brilliant comment. Many thanks for this. Is it taken from a book? If not will there be one on it?

  2. gospel culture…

    […]The Talmud on Jesus « Jüdisch Historischer Verein Augsburg[…]…

  3. J. Daniels (UCLA) says:

    Your name argument is very convincing. There were the Hebrew and the Greek naming of Jews in that time. The Galilee background as well as the further development – Judea is more of a travel destination than a residence for the protagonists of the story – after the death of Jesus Christ of course support this. Jesus, was part of the Greek speaking Jewry in the Galilee of that time who of course knew a lot of Jewish quotes, obviously rather in Aramaic. The same is with Jews today who may come from Russia to speak English in the U.S.. They know many phrases and words in Yiddish or Hebrew, but their son is Michael as you pronuounce it in English and not “mee-kha-el” as pronounced in Hebrew.

    So you are right, quite clear the Talmud does NOT refer to Jesus. If this were so, the Talmud writers of course would mention him by the Greek name Jesus he was known by and not otherwise.

    Congratulations on this wonderful contribution to the controversial debate!

    • yehuda says:

      Dear J. Daniels,

      many thanks for your comment.

      Indeed the whole “Talmud refers to Jesus” issue derives from two motives. The first, as mentioned, is the pressing need to have other references beyond the Gospels. Christians of course regard Jesus as central figure of their faith and as consequent peak of all previous scripture of the Hebrew Bible. Realizing that Jewish scriptures do not mention him at all of course is a setback in the context of the debate on the historicity of Jesus, which of course is a rather modern and no Jewish one.

      Their “New Testament” (a Latin term from later times) however actually is a completion to the Greek not to the Hebrew Bible. Among many early Christian Gospels (there were way more than the four “known”) and umpteen fragments of it, there was no single Hebrew one. All are Greek. An often ignored fact which however unequivocally brings to mind, that obviously there never was any intention to refer to the previous and then still present Hebrew tradition. The Hebrew Jews obviously were not the target group. Even the “Epistle to the Hebrews” was written in Greek (Πρὸς Έβραίους) and doubtless quotes the Greek Septuagint and not the Hebrew Bible (which have a number of differences). The Christian “Testament” only refers to the way younger tradition of the Greek speaking Jewry (on the basis of the Septuagint and other attempts to translate parts of the Hebrew scripture), which at the lifetime of Jesus already was the majority of all Jews.

      Greek Jews of course used Greek names, which is perfectly normal . The earliest records of Jews in Greece date from 300 years before Jesus. From the second century Hyrcanos, a leader of the Jewish community of Athens is known. Greek historian Clearchos (Kλέαρχoς, 4th to 3rd century) , who thought that the Jews were from India, mentions a Jew who was acquainted with Aristotle about whom the famous philosopher said “not only spoke Greek but had the soul of a Greek”. Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (Φίλων ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς, ca. 20 BC to 50 CE), tried to harmonize Greek and Hebrew traditions. Although his Logos idea influenced Christianity fundamentally his writings were Greek not Hebrew. He only refers to the Septuagint and obviously only knew little Hebrew and does not refer to Hebrew writers of his time. He also does not mention Jesus who was his contemporary. The use of Greek names of course also was somewhat common among Hebrew Jews in Judea and Jerusalem as well. About 175 BC the high priest in Jerusalem was Jason son of Onias. While the later is the Greek pronunciation of the Hebrew name חוני (Khoni), Jason doubtless is the Greek name Ἰάσων, meaning “healer”. Since there are countless examples in ancient literature the list can be continued ad infinitum. So if there were writers and even high priest in Jerusalem who adopted Greek names like Philo or Jason there is no reasonable doubt that the original names of Jesus and Mary were Yesous and Maria. It might be that Christians now may rate it as a kind of shortcoming when both had no Hebrew names, but in ancient times no one would have such an idea. In the contrary proven Greek-Jewish followers of Bar Kokhba, who was regarded as Messiah then necessarily referred to him as Χριστός (Christos). However, since the Talmud has on reference to “Yesous of Nazareth” or his mother Maria, a number of passages which maybe have some allusions are quoted to close the gap, although the examples are taken out of the context and do not match.

      One famous example is the Ben Stada account as noted in Shabbat 104b and Sanhedrin 67a, where is talk of a person named Ben Stada (בן סטדא) who was accused to have practiced sorcery, which he brought from Egypt to Israel. In the discussion Ben Stada also is identified to be Ben Pandira (בן פנדורא), because obviously his natural father was different from his legal one. Another opinion however was that Stada was the name of the mother and her husband’s name was Pappos ben Yehuda (פפוס בן יהודה). Finally another one adds to the discussion that it is said in Pumbedita the mother was Miryam the hairdresser (מרים מגדלא שיער).

      So what does this mean? The talk, which obviously took place in Pumbedita (פומבדינתא), a Jewish center from 3rd to 11th century, somewhat in the middle of today’s Iraq, close to modern-day city of Fallujah, is about a man whose name is Ben Stada, but also is known as Ben Pandira, while his father also may be Pappos ben Yehuda. His mother however also has the name Stada or maybe Miryam who in this case was a hairstylist (the term מגדלא refers to a pinned-up hair style, derived from מגדל migdal which means “tower”). Miryam the hairstylist obviously had different men in her life and thus an illegitimate child, who was accused to be sorcerer.

      What is has to do with Jesus and Mary who both are not mentioned in the quote? According to the Christian Gospels the name of Mary’s husband was Josef son of Jakob (Gospel of Matthew) or Eli (Gospel of Luke), which both however have nothing in common with Pappos ben Yehuda. Jesus’ mother in no place was described as a hairstylist. Pappos ben Yehuda however as is known from another passage of the Talmud (Brachot 61b), was a contemporary and fellow campaigner of Rabbi Akiva and with him was killed by the Romans in the course of the Bar Kokhba War about the year 135 CE, which is roughly a century after the time Jesus was crucified. Although in the context of the Christian Gospels there are a number of miracles and wonders, it sounds less likely that Jesus’ stepfather survived him more than a hundred years.

      There only are two factors which aroused the suspicion of Christian scholars: 1. The Hebrew name Miryam along with the term “migdala” and 2. the talk about an illegitimate child. Miryam however is not Maria, as pointed out, and everything but a rare name. Interpreted as “Maria Magdalena”, known from the Gospels it would mean to regard her as mother of Jesus. “Magdala” or “Migdala” however was the name of quite different villages and places, which obviously had an eponymous kind of tower. The same way you may argue that a remark like “Mary the dress tailor” without any doubt and other information refers to a particular woman from one of the two dozen locations in the USA named Taylor, excluding any other interpretation and ignoring that the mentioned person obviously lived a century later than the one you are looking for.

      Of course it is possible that someone who lived a century after Yesous was an illegitimate child with a mother who maybe had the name Miryam and was hairdresser. Since her husband was known as ally of Rabbi Akiva he is mentioned in the Talmud. So what?

      This exemplarily reveals what one is getting into, when arguing with people on Talmud extracts, who have no idea what the Talmud is all about . There are other quotes who refer to a man called “Yeshu” who live a century before the Christian Jesus or another one which says that Ben Stada (not Jesus) was stoned (not crucified) in the town of Lud (not in Jerusalem) and all that a hundred years later, but it always uses the same cookie-cutter approach. Since it does not fit, they use the big hammer.

      So it appears to be a problem for people who are greedy for any howsoever small hint (which may a single name similarity) in order to precipitate abstinence like symptoms otherwise only known by drug addicts. However, this is utter nonsense. The Talmud does not refer to Jesus. Christian believers of him should be content, pleased and happy with their own writings, composed in Greek language. There should be no doubt whether the authors of the New Testament even failed to name Yesous and Maria by their original names. On the other hand they had no intention to write Hebrew texts, thus the Hebrew speaking world, which had to deal with quite other problems took not notice of it.

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