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Jesus in the Talmud
September 24, 2003
Steven Bayme, National Director, Contemporary Jewish Life Department
The recent controversy over the forthcoming release of Mel Gibson's The
Passion has reignited the longstanding debate over responsibility for
the crucifixion of Jesus. This 2,000-year-old debate clearly has been a
costly one for Jews. Statements attributed by the Gospels to Jewish
leaders of the first century urging that Jesus be crucified and that
responsibility for the act be laid at the hands of the Jewish people
for all time form the basis for the charge of deicide against the Jews.
More tellingly, historians have argued correctly that this "teaching of
contempt," casting the Jews as a permanently accursed people, often
served to legitimate violence against Jews as the living embodiment of
those who killed Jesus.
In the mid-1960s, the Vatican II Council was meant to relegate this
teaching of contempt to the history books. The Church released a
statement claiming that "what happened in His passion can not be blamed
upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews
of today". Precisely with the leadership of groups such as the American
Jewish Committee, remarkable progress in Catholic/Jewish relations has
since been attained, especially concerning the portrayal of Jews and
Judaism within Catholic textbooks. Gibson's movie, intended to tell the
story of the Gospels, has alienated many Jewish leaders, who correctly
worry whether the movie's graphic description of the crucifixion and
its alleged overtones of a Jewish conspiracy to kill Jesus may ignite
long-dormant Christian hostilities to Jews.
For this reason, the account of the Gospels, and its associations with
anti-Semitism, needs to be honestly confronted, including the question
of the relationship of church teachings to acts of violence against
Jews. Yet it is also important that Jews confront their own tradition
and ask how Jewish sources treated the Jesus narrative. Pointedly, Jews
did not argue that crucifixion was a Roman punishment and therefore no
Jewish court could have advocated it. Consider, by contrast, the
following text from the Talmud:
On the eve of Passover Jesus was hanged. For forty days before the
execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth
to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to
apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor let him come forward
and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his
favor, he was hanged on the eve of Passover. Ulla retorted: Do you
suppose he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not a
mesith (enticer), concerning whom Scripture says, "Neither shall thou
spare nor shall thou conceal him?" With Jesus, however, it was
different, for he was connected with the government. (Sanhedrin 43a)
This text, long censored in editions of the Talmud, is concerned
primarily with due process in capital crimes. Standard process requires
that punishment be delayed for forty days in order to allow extenuating
evidence to be presented. However, in extreme cases, such as seducing
Israel into apostasy, this requirement is waived. The case of Jesus,
according to the Talmud, constituted an exception to this rule.
Although one who enticed Israel into apostasy is considered an extreme
case, the Jews at the time waited forty days because of the close ties
of Jesus to the Roman authorities. However, once the forty days elapsed
without the presentation of favorable or extenuating comment about him,
they proceeded to kill him on the eve of Passover.
Three themes emanate from this passage. First, the charges against
Jesus relate to seduction of Israel into apostasy and the practice of
sorcery. According to the Gospels, the charges against Jesus concerned
his self-proclamation as a messiah. The Talmud seems to prefer the more
specific charges of practicing sorcery and leading Israel into false
beliefs. One twentieth-century historian, Morton Smith of Columbia
University, argued on the basis of recently discovered "hidden Gospels"
that the historical Jesus indeed was a first-century sorcerer (Jesus
the Magician, HarperCollins, 1978). In the eyes of the Talmudic rabbis,
the practice of sorcery and false prophecy constituted capital crimes
specifically proscribed in Deuteronomy 18: 10-12 and 13: 2-6.
Second, the Talmud is here offering a subtle commentary upon Jesus'
political connections. The Gospels portray the Roman governor Pontius
Pilate as going to great lengths to spare Jesus (Mark 15: 6-15).
Although this passage may well have been written to appease the Roman
authorities and blame the Jews, the Talmudic passage points in the same
direction: The Jews waited forty days, in a departure from the usual
practice, only because Jesus was close to the ruling authorities.
Lastly, the passage suggests rabbinic willingness to take
responsibility for the execution of Jesus. No effort is made to pin his
death upon the Romans. In all likelihood, the passage in question
emanates from fourth-century Babylon, then the center of Talmudic
scholarship, and beyond the reach of both Rome and Christianity.
Although several hundred years had elapsed since the lifetime of Jesus,
and therefore this is not at all a contemporary source, the Talmudic
passage indicates rabbinic willingness to acknowledge, at least in
principle, that in a Jewish court and in a Jewish land, a real-life
Jesus would indeed have been executed.
To be sure, historians can not accept such a text uncritically. For one
thing, the Talmudic text, as noted, was written some 300 years after
the event it reports. Secondly, it makes no acknowledgement of
intra-Jewish tensions in first century Palestine in which Jewish sects
proliferated, and Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots competed
for Jewish allegiances. Jesus's antipathy towards the Pharisees, of
course, is well known from the Gospels, and the Talmudic rabbis, who
presumably read these accounts, defined themselves as the intellectual
heirs of the Pharisaic teachers. By contrast, the High Priest was, in
all likelihood, a member of the Sadducee faction, which generally
consisted of more aristocratic elements. What the Talmudic narrative
does demonstrate is fourth century rabbinic willingness to take
responsibility for the execution of Jesus.
What, then, are the implications of this reading of Jesus through the
eyes of rabbinic sources? First, we do require honesty on both sides in
confronting history. Jewish apologetics that "we could not have done
it" because of Roman sovereignty ring hollow when one examines the
Talmudic account. However, the significance of Vatican II, conversely,
should by no means be minimized. The Church went on record as
abandoning the teaching of contempt in favor of historicizing the
accounts of the Gospels and removing their applicability to Jews of
later generations. A mature Jewish-Christian relationship presupposes
the ability of both sides to face up to history, acknowledge errors
that have been committed, and build a social contract in which each
side can both critique as well as assign value to its religious
Bibliography for further reading:
Steven Bayme, Understanding Jewish History (KTAV), 1997
Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (Beacon Books), 1964
R. Travers-Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (KTAV), 1975
Questions for further discussion:
1. Given the climate in first-century Palestine, what threat did Jesus
pose to Jews and to Rome?
2. How should Jews understand Jesus today?
3. What should be the terms of a social contract between believing Jews
and Christians? How should adherents of each faith view the other?
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