Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Jesus in the Talmud"

The following remarks pertain to the recent book by Peter Schäfer, “Jesus in the Talmud.” To reach his conclusions Schäfer, Director of Judaic Studies at Princeton University, examined and collated dozens of Talmud editions and manuscripts.

In recent years the conventional wisdom has been that that appearances of Jesus and Christianity in the Talmud were limited to "a few oblique references." This in essence was the thesis of Johann Maier’s German monograph of 1978 ("Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Überlieferung"), which enjoyed the status of a standard work. Schäfer reexamines all of the available references to Jesu in the manuscripts and texts of the Babylonian Talmud. Opposing Maier’s earlier minimalizing approach, he nonetheless acknowledges that the rabbinic presentation of Jesus adds nothing to our knowledge of the actual life of Jesus. Indeed, how could it? By the same token, however, this material is not mere persiflage; instead, it is of eminent importance for understanding the Jewish intellectual elite’s response to the triumphant church of late antiquity. Comparable material in the Jerusalem Talmud, compiled mainly under circumstances of Christian domination, is relatively sparse. Only from the distance and security of the Mesopotamian diaspora, where the Persians were the supreme authority, could a direct and fierce assault on Christian claims to Jesus’ authority and divinity be launched.

Through careful sifting of all of the relevant source materials, Schäfer reveals the rabbinic texts’ actual force as “polemical counternarratives that parody the New Testament stories.” These passages clearly seek to subvert Christian claims to Jesus’ Davidic origin, authority as a teacher and healer, execution by representatives of the Roman government,
resurrection, and ascent to heaven.

In his book Schäfer does not limit himself to explicit references to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He also traces the code words employed in the Talmud editions expurgated and sanitized for gentile consumption. The Princeton scholar shows how "Balaam," "that man," "the carpenter," "ben Pandera" (son of Pandera), the blank spaces and the rest of the code words refer to Jesus. As has so many times been recognized by those who care to look at the evidence, the Talmud teaches that Jesus was a "mamzer" (bastard) conceived adulterously in "niddah" (menstrual filth) by a Roman soldier named Pandera [Kallah 51a] of a whore [Sanhedrin 106a].

Pandera is evidently an Aramaic variation on the surname Pantera (the Latin form of Pantheras, meaning “Panther”). For example, a first-century Roman tombstone in Bingerbrück, Germany, has an inscription which reads: “Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera of Sidon, aged 62, a soldier of 40 years' service, of the first cohort of archers, lies here." The ascription of Jesus’ paternity to Pantera can be traced back to the pagan anti-Christian polemicist Celsus, writing ca. 180 CE. Presumably Celsus derived the name from oral tradition.

The Talmud assures us that Jesus is now in Hell, boiling in excrement. In some renderings Jesus is portrayed as boiling in semen as punishment for sexual perversion [Gittin 57a].

There is much more, including the Talmud claim that the Sanhedrin justly executed Jesus because he was an idolater [Sanhedrin 43a] who worshipped a brick [Sanhedrin 67a], even boasting that the Sanhedrin overcame Roman opposition to the execution of Jesus [Sanhedrin 43a].

Schäfer’s monograph conclusively establishes that references to Jesus in the Talmud are more than scattered and coincidental. Still, one may question his suggestion that the texts constitute a “counter-Gospel” to the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John.

Lying outside of Schäfer’s remit is a strange late medieval book, the Toledot Yeshu (“Story of Jesus”), which retells many of the hostile motifs of the Babylonian Talmud, adding others. In one version, preserved in a manuscript in Strasbourg, Mary was seduced by a soldier called Ben Pandera. The miracle-working powers of Jesus derive from his having stolen the Name of God from the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus goes to Galilee, where he brings clay birds to life and makes a millstone float. Jesus is thus a sorcerer. Judas Iscariot learns the Divine Name as well, and Jesus and Judas fly through the sky engaged in aerial combat. As the winner, Judas sodomizes Jesus, whereupon both fall to the ground. The now powerless Jesus is arrested and put to death by being hung upon a carob tree, and buried. The body is taken away and his ascension is claimed by his apostles on the basis of the empty tomb. But Jesus's body is found hidden in a garden and is dragged back to Jerusalem and shown to Queen Helena.

The Toledot Yeshu is thus truly a counter-Gospel, offering a continuous narrative of the life of Jesus. This vile book shows that the belittlement and mockery found in the Talmud are not confined to that locus. In fact, the Talmud and the Toledot Yeshu represent two landmarks in a long history of Jewish disparagement of Christianity. This strand in Jewish thought continues to this day. In all likelihood it reflects perplexity at what must strike many Jews as a conundrum. How is it that Western civilization, under whose aegis most modern Jews live, was founded and nourished by Christians? Why is it that, in this signal instance, the Chosen People were not chosen?

Through his careful scholarship Schäfer has dispelled the myth that the Jews always responded to Christian attacks with quiet forbearance, declining to descend to the level of their adversaries. The scurrilous material in the Babylonian Talmud, together with its later avatars, shows that this is not so.

This evidence has a disturbing relevance today. As David Novak remarks, “at the most troubling level, Schäfer’s work might encourage those Jews who would be happy to learn that there were times when Jews were able to ‘get even’ with their Christian enemies: a kind of schadenfreude. In this way Schäfer’s work might hinder the emergence of a more positive Jewish-Christian relationship. . . . Such people could use his work to encourage Jews to speak similarly again, now that Christians are much weaker than they have been in the past. But it is naive to think that self-respecting Christians will simply sit back and not answer their Jewish critics in kind, which would easily revive all the old animosity against Jews and Judaism. Taken this way, Schäfer’s work could also encourage Christian ‘hard-liners’ to insist again that an animosity to Christians and Christianity is ubiquitous in Judaism and endemic to it, and that it cannot be overcome by the Jews. Why should Christians be any better when speaking of Jews and Judaism than Jews have been when speaking of Christians and Christianity?

“Many Jews like to dwell on the tradition of Christian anti-Judaism in all its ugly rhetoric, implying that the Jews have largely kept themselves above any such ugliness. . . . Schäfer demonstrates just the opposite. One might even speculate that had Jews gained the same kind of political power over Christians that Christians gained over Jews, Jews might well have translated their polemical rhetoric against Christianity (which, after all, posed a tremendous threat to the legitimacy of Judaism) into the political persecution of Christians, much the same way that Christians translated their polemical rhetoric against Judaism into the political persecution of Jews. Victimization does not confer sainthood. The Jews lacked the opportunity, but perhaps not the motive or the will, to practice the type of intolerance that they experienced at the hands of the Christians.”


ADDENDUM. A reinterpretation of the Mamzer allegation has come from an unexpected quarter. Bruce Chilton is Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College and an ordained Christian minister. His book “Rabbi Jeus: An Intimate Portrait” is yet another attempt to depict Jersus as a first-century Jew, and as such not notably original--except in one respect. Chilton believes that the definition of Mamzerut (the status of being a Mamzer) was broader than is generally recognized.

In John’s Gospel opponents appear to taunt Jesus with being born of "fornication" (porneia; John 8:41), a slur not endorsed by any other New Testament writer--and of course not by John either, since he is simply reporting the allegation. On this slender foundation, however, Chilton builds his argument that the young Jesus suffered from being stigmatized as a Mamzer. Perhaps the situation was not unlike fagbaiting today.

The ensuing social isolation gave Jesus a sense of apartness, permitting him to develop a new, “outsider” view of contemporary Jewish society and its traditions. “At base, a mamzer was the product of a union that was forbidden because the couple was not permitted to marry and procreate according to the Torah. Whatever became of the man and the woman as the result of their sexual contact, their offspring was what we may call a changeling or mixling (terms which perhaps better convey the sense of mamzer than "bastard" or "mongrel," the traditional translations). The sense of abhorrence involved, at the mixture of lines which should never be mixed, was such that the stricture of mamzerut could also be applied to the offspring of a woman whose sexual partner was not categorically identifiable and therefore was not known to have been permitted to her.”

In short, the broader application of the term would loosely correspond to the Hindu idea of chandala, referring to an individual in the lower strata of the caste system or one who is born of the (ostensibly illicit) union of members of two different castes. Put differently--very differently--Jesus would have been a kind of Barack Obama avant la lettre.

The problem is that the citations Chilton offers for his definition of Mamzerut are all later--from the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Talmud. There is no certainty that these definitions prevailed in Jesus’ time, or indeed that he was actually called a Mamzer, or some equivalent, in that period. As we noted above, Celsus is the first to report the slur that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier with whom Mary had an adulterous affair. If this allegation had any basis, it would double Jesus’ mamzerut: “he is the product of adultery (and therefore a mamzer according to the definition of the Mishnah) and the offspring of a non-Israelite father (and therefore a mamzer according to the definition which later emerged in the Talmud).” However, Celsus wrote some 150 years after the death of Jesus. As opponents of Christianity, neither Celsus or the rabbinical writers have credibility in this regard. Not disinterested observers, their aim is to disparage Jesus and Christianity with any means at their disposal.

Moreover, this broad definition would make every child today who is born of a “mixed marriage" a mamzer. While there is some disapproval of mixed marriages in Jewish circles these days, few if any rabbis would countenance labeling an innocent child in this manner.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Generic Viagra said...

The real Jesus was just another idiot crushed by the power of Rome. That's all!

1:27 PM  
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5:46 PM  
Blogger EAGLE SPERM-CANNON said...

Jesus was the bastard son of the Roman Emperor Tiberius and Herod's ex wife. He went to Tiberius on Gallilee after being outed as a mamzer and refused bar mitzvah by the high priests. After spending time as a "wine biber" he attempted to win acceptance of Roman Rule by the Jews and was able to escape punishment by them due to his connections with the Romans. This ended when Caligula assumed power, Jesus was then seen as possible heir to the throne and was ceremonially crucified and declared dead, although the he was allowed to live by Pilate and the other Romans in Judea with whom he was friends.

12:37 AM  

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