Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007): 210 pp.
This book is about references to Jesus of Nazareth in the Talmud (both Palestinian and Babylonian), the “the foundation document of rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity” (1).
The author sees the scattered references to Jesus, Mary, and his followers as evidence of the early conflict between Jews and Christians (or, we might say, Christianity as a sect emerging out of Judaism).
Chapter One: Jesus’ Family
This traces rabbinic traditions that deny the virgin birth by saying that Jesus instead was conceived through an adulterous relationship between Miriam (who grew her hair long as a sign of promiscuity) and a Roman soldier named Pandera/Panthera.
This Jewish slur on Jesus was picked up on by the pagan writer Celsus.
Chapter Two: The Son/Disciple Who Turned Out Badly
Vague references are made to Jesus as a failed son/disciple who succumbed to sexual immorality.
The author notes here the Gnostic connection of Jesus with Mary Magdalene as his wife.
Chapter Three: The Frivolous Disciple
Jesus is presented as a heretical and idolatrous disciple of the rabbis who practiced magic and even worshipped a brick (!).
Chapter Four: The Torah Teacher
The focus here is on Jews who had become followers of Jesus. One is a disciple named Jacob (James?). Another is called Rabbi Eliezer who was accused of sexual immorality with a prostitute and use of magic.
Chapter Five: Healing in the Name of Jesus
Discussion is given here to depictions of the followers of Jesus as “tricksters and imposters” (62) who use of the name of Jesus as a magical formula to perform exorcisms and healings.
Chapter Six: Jesus’ Execution
This chapter traces vague references to Jesus as one who was put to death by stoning and hanging for idolatry. The “Bavli narrative” even reveals “the precise day of his execution: he was hanged on the even of the Passover, that is, the day before the Passover” (72).
Schäfer notes that the rabbinic authors even stress that “the Jews took upon themselves the responsibility for Jesus’ execution” (74). He summarizes the message the rabbinic authors wanted to convey:
… yes, the Roman governor wanted to set him free, but we did not give in. He was a blasphemer and idolater, and although the Romans probably could not care less, we insisted that he get what he deserved. We even convinced the Roman governor (or more precisely forced him to accept) that this heretic and imposter needed to be executed—and we are proud of it (74).
He concludes, “What we have in the Bavli is a powerful confirmation of the New Testament Passion narrative, a creative rereading, however, that not only knows some of its distinct details but proudly proclaims Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ execution” (74).
The Talmud thus sees the death of Jesus as “the rightful execution of a blasphemer and idolater” (74).
Chapter Seven: Jesus’ Disciples
This chapter discusses a tradition in the Bavli following the execution of Jesus which says he had five disciples (one of whom was named Mattai—Matthew?) who were also put on trial and executed.
The author suggests that “this forms the climax of the Bavli’s discussion of Jesus and Christianity…. Jesus was rightly killed, and there is nothing that remains of him and his teaching after his death” (81).
Chapter Eight: Jesus’ Punishment in Hell
This final section relays a Talmudic tradition about three notorious heretical figures in hell: Titus (the destroyer of Jerusalem); Balaam (the pagan prophet); and Jesus the Nazarene.
Titus must repeatedly be burned and have his ashes scattered over the seven seas.
Balaam is forever placed in boiling semen.
And Jesus is forever placed in boiling excrement.
Final Summary: Jesus in the Talmud
In the closing chapter Schäfer gives a summary of the Talmudic attack on Jesus and early Christianity.
First, he says “the most prominent characteristic” that dominates is the charge of “sexual promiscuity” and immorality (97). Jesus is a bastard. Christianity is an “orgiastic cult” (99). They even engage in ritualistic cannibalism of babies (a parody of the eucharist).
These charges were also picked up by pagan critics.
Second, they charge Jesus with being a magician and deceiver.
Third, they charge him and his followers with idolatry and blasphemy.
Rather than being raised from the dead, his fate will be to sit in excrement in hell.
The author notes that the stronger attacks on Christianity are found not in the Palestinian Talmud but in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud).
He surmises this is due to the fact that “Palestinian Judaism was under the direct and continuously growing impact of Christianity in the Holy Land” (115), so it is no surprise that the “most graphic polemic against Jesus” was found in the Babylonian Talmud composed outside of Palestine (122).
He suggests that the Rabbis likely had access to the NT (perhaps through Tatian’s Diatessaron or through the Syriac Peshitta) (123).
He takes special interest in John since it seems it seems to be “the most strongly anti-Jewish Gospel of the four Gospels” (124). He sees it as having been written in Asia Minor sometime after AD 100.
Having been written in the Jewish Diaspora of Asia Minor, it bears all the characteristics of a bitter struggle between the established Jewish and emerging Christian communities, a struggle that was waged by both sides with the gloves off (128).
He ends: “Taken together, the texts in the Bablyonian Talmud, although fragmentary and scattered, become a daring and powerful counter-Gospel to the New Testament in general and to John in particular” (129).
Observation: In the current context the NT is often accused of being antisemitic (Matthew and John, in particular). This study is refreshing in that it acknowledges that this was a conflict in which both Jews and Christians were mutually engaged and that the rabbis, at the least, gave as much as they received.
On the PA:
Toward the end, the author makes reference to the way in which the PA fits within the overall themes of this conflict between Jesus and his disciples and the Jews or Pharisees. The discussion begins, “Some of the confrontations are portrayed as direct discussions between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ or the Pharisees. When Jesus prevents the stoning of the adulterous woman…” (127-128). He sees the content of John 8:17ff, in particular, as related to the earlier challenge of the forgiveness of the adulterous woman.
Schäfer assumes that the PA is part of the authentic text of John that it fits with the overall theme of conflict or confrontation. Thus, he presents a cogent internal argument for the authenticity of this passage and how it fits within the overall narrative and literary goals of John.
This shows that is it no way irrational to posit that the PA is consistent with the rest of John, but instead exposes the folly of those who reject it or scorn it as their “favorite story that’s not really in the Bible.”