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Notes from the Moishe House Beit Midrash

Early Responses to Christianity in the Talmud

Michael Pollak

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

This talk is about the very first responses of Jewish writers to the life of Jesus and the phenomenon of Christianity. By the second century, the two groups (Judaism and Christianity) had split, and daggers were drawn. The nineteenth blessing of the `Amida [in order of composition, the twelfth in sequence], as originally written, is an attack on Christians, and they in turn didn't think too much of us.

Was that always the case; was there always intense competitiveness and dislike between the two groups?

What's helped us understand what's going on is the references to Christianity in the Talmud. Given that the seven-hundred year period covered by the Talmud covers the time of the rise of Christianity, you'd have thought it would have had something to say on the subject. It doesn't; but we've discovered that four or five texts have been expurgated from the Talmud on the subject. This was mainly done by the Jewish publishers themselves to guard themselves from problems with the Christians [not entirely what this talk suggests...].

There is a considerable debate about the significance of these texts in the Talmud, which were rediscovered in the libraries of Europe in the middle of the last century. What comes out of them is that initially the Jewish authorities were not antagonistic to Christianity and Jesus; there was a wait-and-see attitude, and that only broke when the Church Fathers decided to change the date of the sabbath and turn their back on circumcision.

The person who has written the most about this in the last few years is Peter Schäfer, Perelman Professor of Jewish Studies and Professsor of Religion at Princeton; his book on the subject, Jesus in the Talmud, won prizes. At the heart of it are two propositions.

Firstly, that all the Rabbinic references to early Christianity are part of an ongoing polemic triggered by the Christian literature of the New Testament. They are "a literary answer to a literary text," in the same way that the Gospels are a literary creation rather than simple historical documents. I.e., somewhere around the fourth century, someone Jewish came across the New Testament and started creating stories to express a Jewish perspective on it.

Secondly, Schäfer insists that these texts are to be read as "polemical counternarratives that parody the New Testament stories"; as he points out, "they ridicule Jesus' birth and death."

However, there has been a hunt for Jesus in the Talmud independent of the censored texts.

The Mishna reads, in Pesaḥim 10:5:

Rabbān Gamliel said: Whoever does not mention these three things on Passover has not discharged his duty, and these are they: the Paschal sacrifice, matzā [unleavened bread], and bitter herbs. רבן גמליאל היה אומר: כל שלא אמר שלשה דברים אלו בפסח, לא יצא ידי חובתו, ואלו הן, פסח, מצה, ומרור׃

In general when you perform a mitzva, no one asks you why you are doing it. So why here do you have make a declaration as to what you're doing?

Israel J Yuval did research on early Christian Haggādoth. When Christianity started out, Christians did not want to leave Jewish customs behind; they wanted to take them with them, but they adapted them to give them a Christological interpretation. For them, the paschal lamb does not represent a sacrifice in the Temple, as Jesus said such would not be brought any more. Christianity said the Jews had lost their elected status. Another sacrifice has come along to take the place of sacrifices in the Temple: that of Jesus, the Lamb of God. So, in the Christian seder the lamb is not in memory of the paschal sacrifice, but in memory of Jesus.

Similarly for them, the matzā represents the Eucharist, and the māror (bitter herbs) is symbolic of the agony or bitterness of the Cross.

Yuval says Rabbān Gamliel's assertion is an attempt to make sure there is no one Christian in the group celebrating the seder. Rabbān Gamliel was the leader of the Sanhedrin, at the time the anti-Christian nineteenth blessing of the `Amida was instituted. If seder guests won't say why they're doing what they're doing in the seder, it's not valid. Similarly, our declaration הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא "This is the bread of affliction" is to clarify that for us, this is most definitely not the Body of Christ!

Another example of Judaism and Christianity riffing off each other is the song דַיֵינוּ which we sing at the seder, in which we go through each of the things God did for us between being released from slavery and entry into the Land of Israel, and proclaim that if God had only done thus far and not proceeded to the next step, it would have been enough for us.

I'm sorry? "If God had taken us into the desert and left us there, it would have been enough." No it bloody well wouldn't! What's going on here?

Bishop [lacuna] of Sardis wrote about how the Jews are rubbish because they don't recognise how fantastic God is. When God took them out of Egypt, they complained; when God brought them into the land, they complained; and similarly for every step in between.

One can imagine the author of Dayenu had this poem in his hand, and was responding to it.

Returning to Rabbān Gamliel, invoking his anti-Christianity in the Mishna, he could really only have said that about the Pesach sacrifice whilst the Temple still stood. The Temple was destroyed in 70 CE; Rabbān Gamliel was around ten at the time. This must, then, rather have been said by his grandfather, Gamliel the Elder.

This was not the author of the "blessing" of the heretics; he had a different relationship to Christianity. He was the teacher of Paul of Tarsus [presumably before Paul became Christian]; Paul speaks of him very highly. In Acts 5:34 it says that when a fight happened with the Christians, Gamliel broke it up:

Ἀναστὰς δέ τις ἐν τῷ συνεδρίῳ Φαρισαῖος ὀνόματι Γαμαλιήλ, νομοδιδάσκαλος τίμιος παντὶ τῷ λαῷ, ἐκέλευσεν ἔξω βραχύ τι τοὺς ἀποστόλους ποιῆσαι. Then there stood up in the council, a Pharisee named Gamliel, a doctor of the law held in high repute among all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside a little while.

All the people means Christians and Jews together. This is a senior Jewish rabbi whom the Christians had a positive view of, as do we, and he had a non-antagonistic view of the Christians.

He lived in (almost) the last years of the Temple, at a time when Jesus was alive. Can we now muster sufficient other non-antagonistic material to associate with him to say that not only he but other people were saying non-antagonistic things about the other religion?

Babylonian Talmud, Soṭa 47a סוטה מז א

When King Yannai put the Rabbis to death, Shimon b. Sheṭaḥ was hidden by his sister whilst Yəhoshua` b. Peraḥiah fled to Alexandria in Egypt.

When there was peace, Shimon b. Sheṭaḥ sent this message to him: "From me, Jerusalem, the Holy City, to thee Alexandria in Egypt. O my sister, my husband dwelleth in thy midst and I abide desolate." R. Yəhoshua` arose and came back and found himself in a certain inn where they paid him great respect. He said, "How beautiful is this akhsania." One of his disciples, Jesus of Nazareth, said to him, "My master, her eyes are narrow!"* He replied to him, "Wicked person! Is it with such thoughts that thou occupy your mind!" He sent forth four hundred horns and excommunicated him.

Jesus came before him on many occasions, saying, "Receive me," but he refused to notice him. One day while R. Yəhoshua` was reciting the Shema`, he came before him. His intention was to receive him and he made a sign to him with his hand, but Jesus thought he was repelling him. So Jesus went and set up a brick and worshipped it. R. Yəhoshua` said to him, "Repent!" but he answered him, "Thus have I received from thee that whoever sinned and caused others to sin is deprived of the power of doing penitence." A master has said, "The disciple practised magic and led Israel astray."

כדהוה קא קטיל ינאי מלכא לרבנן׃ שמעון בן שטח אטמינהו אחתיה׃ רבי יהושע בן פרחיה אזל ערק לאלכסנדריא של מצרים

כי הוה שלמא שלח ליה שמעון בן שטח מני ירושלים עיר הקודש לך אלכסנדריא של מצרים׃ אחותי בעלי שרוי בתוכך ואני יושבת שוממה׃ אמר שמע מינה הוה ליה שלמא כי אתא אקלע לההוא אושפיזא קם קמייהו ביקרא שפיר עבדי ליה יקרא טובא׃ יתיב וקא משתבח כמה נאה אכסניא זו׃ אמר ליה אחד מתלמידיו רבי עיניה טרוטות׃ אמר ליה רשע בכך אתה עוסק׃ אפיק ארבע מאה שפורי ושמתיה כל יומא׃

אתא לקמיה ולא קבליה׃ יומא חד הוה קרי קרית שמע אתא לקמיה הוה בדעתיה לקבוליה׃ אחוי ליה בידיה סבר מדחא דחי ליה׃ אזל זקף לבינתא פלחא׃ אמר ליה חזור בך׃ אמר ליה כך מקובלני ממך כל החוטא ומחטיא את הרבים אין מספיקין בידו לעשות תשובה׃ דאמר מר כישף והסית והדיח והחטיא את ישראל׃

* The word can mean both the inn and the person that runs it. R. Yəhoshua` intended it to mean the former; Jesus interpreted it as the latter.

† Hence antisemitism was born. He chose to put his prayer before making up with his disciple. Maybe he thought Jesus would understand his sign, but he did not.

‡ No one knows what the brick is about. Connection with a fish? [Me: Maybe the text is corrupt, and he's actually worshipping the moon: Aramaic לְבֵינְתָא ləveinthā "brick", לְבָנָה ləvānā "moon".]

So, Jesus comes out well in this story, R. Yəhoshua` does not.

The problem with this story is that R. Yəhoshua` b. Peraḥiah and King Alexander Yannai lived a hundred years before Jesus; they could never have met.

So, how do we explain this? There are three possibilities: Firstly, none of it is true. Secondly, the part involving R. Yəhoshua` b. Peraḥiah is true, and the student was someone other than Jesus. And thirdly, that the Jesus part was true—we know Jesus did go down to Egypt—but the teacher was someone other than R. Yəhoshua b. Peraḥiah

The more true something is, the more likely it is to get into the Talmud.[citation needed] So why add one part to the other? Assuming the story was originally about R. Yəhoshua` b. Peraḥiah, the Jesus part could have been added to show how catastrophic the behaviour of R. Yəhoshua` b. Peraḥiah was. (Note that this may not have been written before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.) Assuming, conversely, though, that the Jesus part is original, the Jesus part was probably written at the time, and the R. Yəhoshua` part added later.

Assuming the Jesus part was original, why was R. Yəhoshua` b. Peraḥiah brought into the story? Perhaps it was because of his appearance in פִּרְקֵי אָבוֹת, 1:6:

Yəhoshua` b. Peraḥiah said: Get for yourself a teacher, and acquire* for yourself a companion, and always give people the benefit of the doubt. יהושע בן פרחיה אומר, עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר, והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות׃

* Acquire: as close to you as your possessions.

Someone must have thought: wouldn't it be amazing if the teacher with whom Jesus fell out was the same person who still said "Always give people the benefit of the doubt"? One can picture R. Yəhoshua` saying to himself: "Where did this go wrong: I didn't give him the benefit of the doubt. My failure was that [lacuna]"

This is a beautiful fit to create a powerful story. We know the story is partially not true. We can re [lacuna]. So, in contradistinction to what Schäfer writes, [this is not a Talmudical polemic against Christianity, but an attempt to create a rapprochement concerning attitudes of Jews to Jesus and Christianity.] This could only have been written during the relatively small window at the time when Rabbān Gamliel I lived, before the two religions fell out.

Another area where we had information about a story that was not involved in polemical counternarrative, but trying to tell the thing as it was, concerns Jesus' origin. Jesus' family status is of great interest [to Jews trying to delegitimise Christianity].

The later version of this story is that [Christian readers take a deep breath or look away now] Jesus was born as a result of his next-door neighbour seducing his mother. There are two traditions as to whom this next-door neighbour was. In the Talmud,* it was a Roman soldier named Pandera. A later tradition replaces him with a Jewish next-door neighbour called Yoḥanan, who creeps into the house [at night], and has sex with Mary, whilst she doesn't realise her husband's away on a business trip.

* [תּוֹלְדוֹת יְשׁוּ, surely?]

Why did the story change from involving a Roman soldier to a Jew? Answer: To put negativity on Jesus. By contrast, the offspring of adulterous relationships with non-Jews are not mamzerim. Rav and Shmuel debate this in the Talmud, but it's only resolved in the Middle Ages. So, the later writers [of the story of Jesus' origins], from about 450 onwards, thought, we can make Jesus even worse: a mamzer. But the original story again seems to tell is like it is.

By the time of the later version, we have Talmudic stories (censored, again) talking about how [someone] went down to Gehinnom and saw Qoraḥ in a vat of urine for eternity, Balaam in a vat of semen, and Jesus in a vat of boiling excrement. But there was an earlier time when the world was a better place.

Jewish learning notes index


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