American Jewish Committe Article
but removed within days and now considered by them to be "an internal document."
Google's cache of the article is (as of 10 October 2003) at this URL:
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 counterpart.
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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