Jesus in the Rabbinic Traditions
By Sam Shamoun
The following article will briefly examine some of the Jewish rabbinic references on the person and work of Jesus Christ. The purpose in doing so is to provide extra-biblical evidence that supports the historical reliability of the New Testament in providing accurate informationon the life of Christ. Hopefully, once this has been done the reader will come to appreciate the authenticity of the NT documents even more, coming away with the impression that the Jesus of biblical faith is the Jesus of history. The two are inseparable.
The Talmud is an extensive compilation of Jewish commentary and is divided into the Mishnah and Gemara. The Mishnah is viewed as covering material up to AD. 220 and is called the Tannaite period. The Gemara is the compilation of ancient commentaries on the Mishnah and covers material up to the fifth century and is called the Ammoraim period. It is also believed that the Gemara actually contains older Mishnahic statements.
The material covered within the Talmud range from issues relating to such things as legal disputes and questions known as the Halakah. The legends, anecdotes and other sayings used to illustrate the traditional laws are called the Haggadah.
There are essentially two Talmuds. The first is known as Talmud Yerushalmi or the Talmud of Jerusalem, compiled around AD 400. The Jerusalem Talmud was the last product of Palestinian rabbinic Judaism. The second, called Talmud Babli or the Talmud of Babylon, was compiled sometime during the sixth century AD.
It is not surprising to find the Talmud referring to Jesus, his mother and his disciples. In fact, some of the material coincides with the NT depiction of Jesus and the Jewish ruling council's assessment of his person and mission. The following statements are taken from the Soncino edition of the Babylon Talmud as cited in Robert A. Morey's pamphlet Jesus in the Mishnah and Talmud. We will also be using Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson's He Walked Among Us unless noted otherwise.
Before proceeding, we must point out that at one time the following Talmudic references were believed to have been lost. This is due to the fact that in the seventeenth century, Jewish rabbis took steps to expunge all references to Jesus. This act was motivated primarily by the Church's persecution of the Jews. Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson explain:
"... in light of the persecutions, the Jewish communities imposed censorship on themselves to remove references to Jesus in their writings so that they might no longer be a target of attack. Morris Goldstein, former Professor of Old and New Testament Literature at the Pacific School of Religion, relates:
Thus, in 1631 the Jewish Assembly of Elders in Poland declared: .We enjoin you under the threat of the great ban to publish in no new edition of the Mishnah or the Gemara anything that refers to Jesus of Nazareth... If you will not diligently heed this letter, but run counter thereto and continue to publish our books in the same manner as heretofore, you might bring over us and yourselves still greater sufferings than in previous times.'
At first, deleted portions of words in printed Talmuds were indicated by small circles or blank spaces but, in time, these too were forbidden by the censors.
As a result of the twofold censorship the usual volumes of Rabbinic literature contain only a distorted remnant of supposed allusions to Jesus..." (Ibid, pp. 58-59)
Dr. Robert Morey continues:
"Thankfully, copies of the uncensored pre-1631 texts can be found in Oxford University and several other European libraries. Thus the statements about Jesus were never actually .lost.' They were published separately in numerous editions and studied by Jewish scholars in private. No one denies these facts any more... While the Soncino edition of the Babylonian Talmud is a censored text, the editors usually give the uncensored original readings in a footnote. We have put the statements about Jesus back into the text where they originally belonged and have indicated this by [ ]." (Morey, pp. 1-2)
I. Jesus' Birth
R. Shimeaon ben 'Azzai said: I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, "Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress."
McDowell and Wilson state, on the authority of Joseph Klausner, that the phrase such-an-one "is used for Jesus in the Ammoraic period (i.e., fifth century period)." (McDowell & Wilson, p. 69)
According to the Jewish Tractate of Talmud, the Chagigah a certain person had a dream in which he saw the punishment of the damned. In the dream,
"He saw Mary the daughter of Heli amongst the shades..." (John Lightfoot, Commentary On the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica [Oxford University Press, 1859; with a second printing from Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1995], vol. 1, p. v; vol. 3, p.55)
Compare this with Luke 3:23.
MISHNAH.[104b] If one writes on his flesh, he is culpable; He who scratches a mark on his flesh. He who scratches a mark on his flesh, [etc.] It was taught, R. Eliezar said to the sages: But did not Ben Stada bring forth witchcraft from Egypt by means of scratches [in the form of charms] upon his flesh? He was a fool, answered they, proof cannot be adduced from fools. [Was he then the son of Stada: surely he was the son of Pandira?- Said R. Hisda: The husband was Stada, the paramour was Pandira. But the husband was Pappos b. Judah?- his mother was Stada. But his mother was Miriam the hairdresser?- It is as we said in Pumbeditha: This is one has been unfaithful to (lit., 'turned away from'- satath da) her husband.] (Shabbath 104b)
R. Papa said: When the Mishnah states a MESITH IS A HEDYOT, it is only in respect of hiding witnesses. For it has been taught: And for all others for whom the Torah decrees death, witnesses are not hidden, excepting for this one. How is it done?- A light is lit in an inner chamber, the witnesses are hidden in an outer one [which is in darkness], so that they can see and hear him, but he cannot see them. Then the person he wishes to seduce says to him, "Tell me privately what thou hast proposed to me"; and he does so. Then he remonstrates; "But how shall we forsake our God in Heaven, and serve idols?" If he retracts, it is well. But if he answers: "It is our duty and seemly for us," the witnesses who were listening outside bring him to Beth din, and have him stoned. ["And thus they did to Ben Stada in Lydda, and they hung him on the even of Passover." Ben Stada was Ben Pandira. R. Hisda said: The husband was Stada, the paramour Pandira. But as not the husband Pappos b. Judah?-His mother's name was Stada. But his mother was Miriam, a dresser of woman's hair?-As they say in Pumpbaditha, This woman has turned away (satath da) from her husband, (i.e. committed adultery).] (Morey, p. 6)
Morey quotes from the Soncino edition of the Babylonian Talmud:
Footnote in Soncino: "Supposed by Tosah, to be the Mother of Jesus; cf. Shab. 104b in the earlier uncensored editions. Her description Megaddela (hairdresser) is connected by some with the name of Mary Magdalene whose name was confused with the name of Mary, the mother of Jesus." (Ibid., p. 7)
Some scholars also see an allusion to the virgin birth of Christ in the term, "son of Pandira." This is due to the fact that "Pandira" seems to be a play on the Greek word for virgin, parthenos, the very term used in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke when recording Jesus' virgin birth. McDowell & Wilson report:
"... Scholars have debated at length how Jesus came to have this name (i.e., ben Pandira) attached to his. Strauss thought it was from the Greek word pentheros, meaning 'son-in-law.' Klausner and Bruce accept the position that panthera is a corruption of the Greek parthenos meaning 'virgin.' Klausner says, 'The Jews constantly heard that the Christians (the majority of whom spoke Greek from the earliest times) called Jesus by the name "Son of the Virgin"... and so, in mockery, they called him Ben ha-Pantera, i.e., "son of the leopard."'... The theory most sensational but least accepted by serious scholars was dramatized by the discovery of a first century tombstone at Bingerbruck, Germany. The inscription read, 'Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, an archer, native of Sidon, Phoenicia, who in 9 c.e. was transferred to service in Germany.'... This discovery fueled the fire of the theory that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and the soldier, Panthera. Eve n Origen writes that his opponent, Celsus, in circa A.D. 178, said that he heard from a Jew that 'Miriam' had become pregnant by 'Pantheras,' a Roman soldier; was divorced by her husband, and bore Jesus in secret.
"If 'Pantheras' were a unique name, the theory of Mary's pregnancy by the Roman soldier might be more attractive to scholars. But Adolf Deissman, the early twentieth-century German New Testament scholar, verified, by first century inscriptions, 'with absolute certainty that Panthera was not an invention of Jewish scoffers, but a widespread name among the ancients.'... Rabbi and Professor Morris Goldstein comments that it was as common as the names Wolf or Fox today. He comments further:
It is noteworthy that Origin himself is credited with the tradition that Panther was the appellation of James (Jacob), the father of Jospeh, the father of Jesus... So, too, Andrew of Crete, John of Damascus, Epiphanius the Monk, and the author of Andronicus of Constantinople's Dialogue Against the Jews, name Panther as an ancestor of Jesus...
"Jesus being called by his grandfather's name would also have agreed with a statement in the Talmud permitting this practice. Whereas Christian tradition identified Jesus by his home town, Jewish tradition, having a greater concern for genealogical identification, seems to have preferred this method of identifying Jesus. Goldstein presents more evidence to argue the case convincingly." (McDowell & Wilson, pp. 66-67)
Hence, why or how Jesus came to be called ben Pandira is an issue which scholars have not come to an agreement.
II. Jesus' Crucifixion
"And it is tradition: On the eve of Passover they hung Jeshu [the Nazarene]. And the crier went forth before him forty days (saying), [Jeshu the Nazarene] goeth forth to be stoned, because he hath practiced magic and deceived and led Israel astray. Anyone who knoweth aught in his favor, let him come and declare concerning him. And they found naught in his favor. And they hung him on the eve of the Passover. Ulla said, 'Would it be supposed that [Jeshu the Nazarene] a revolutionary, had aught in his favor?' He was a deceiver and the Merciful (i.e. God) hath said (Deut. xiii 8), `Thou shalt not spare, neither shalt thou conceal him.' But it was different with [Jeshu the Nazarene] for he was near the kingdom.''' (Sanhedrin 43a)
Would you believe that any defense would have been so zealously sought for him? He was a deceiver, and the All-merciful says: "You shall not spare him, neither shall you conceal him." It was different with Jesus, for he was near to the kingship. (McDowell & Wilson, p. 65)
III. Jesus' Resurrection
"And he took up his parable and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this! R. Simeon b. Lakish said: Woe unto him who maketh himself alive by the name of God. [a covert allusion to Jesus.]" (Sanhedrin 106a)
IV. Jesus' Deity
Christian Author Michael Green quotes a rabbi named Eliezar, writing about AD 160, who writes:
"God saw that a man, son of a woman, was to come forward in the future, who would attempt to make himself God and lead the whole world astray. And if he says he is God he is a liar. And he will lead men astray, and say that he will depart and will return at the end of days." (Green, Who is this Jesus? [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992], p. 60- cited in We Believe Series-Basics of Christianity, Jesus Knowing Our Savior, author Max Anders [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995], p. 136)
"Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kappar said: God gave strength to his (Balaam's) voice so that it went from one end of the world to the other, because he looked forth and beheld the nations that bow down to the sun and moon and stars, and to wood and stone, and he looked forth and saw that there was a man, born of a woman, who should rise up and seek to make himself God, and to cause the whole world to go astray. Therefore God gave power to the voice of Balaam that all the peoples of the world might hear, and thus he spake: Give heed that ye go not astray after that man, for is written, 'God is not a man that he should lie.' And if he says that he is God, he is a liar; and he will deceive and say that he departed and cometh again at the end. He saith and he shall not perform. See what is written: And he took up his parable and said, 'Alas, when God doeth this.' Balaam said, Alas, who shall live- of what nation which heareth that man who hath made himself God." (Yalkut Shimeon, [S alonica] sec. 725 on wayissa mishalo [Num. 23. 7], according to Midrash Y'lamm'denue)
Another rabbi, writing a hundred years after Eliezer, states:
"Rabbi Abahu said, If a man says 'I am God,' he lies; if he says, 'I am the Son of man' he shall rue it; 'I will go up to heaven,' (to this applies Num. xxiii 19) he saith, but shall not perform it." (Jerusalem Talmud Taanith-65b)
V. Jesus' Disciples
Our rabbis taught: Yeshu had five disciples-Mattai, Nakkai, Netzer, Buni, and Todah. (Sanhedrin 43a)
The purpose for singling out only five of Jesus' disciples could be due to the fact that other rabbis in the Talmud such as Yohanan ben Zakkai and Akiba are also said to have five disciples. (McDowell & Wilson, p. 65)
Our teachers have taught: When R. Eliezer [the Great] was arrested for Minuth they brought him to the tribunal for judgment. The Procurator said to him, Does an old man like you busy himself with such idle matters? He answered, I trust him that judges me. So the Procurator thought that he spoke of him, whereas he spoke of his heavenly father. The Procurator said to him, Since you trust in me you are dimissus, acquitted. When he returned home his disciples came in to console him, but he would not accept their consolations. R. Akiba said to him, Suffer me to tell you one thing of what you have taught me. He answered, (Say on). He said, Perhaps [a word of] minuth came upon you and pleased you and therefore you were arrested. (Tosefta reads: Perhaps one of the Minim had said to thee a word of Minuth and it pleased thee?) He answered, Akiba, you have reminded me! Once I was walking along the upper market (Tosefta reads "street") of Sepphoris and found one [of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth] and Jacob of Kefar Sekanya (Tosefta reads "Sakanin") was his name. He said to me, So [Jesus of Nazareth] taught me (Tosefta reads "Yeshu ben Pantere"): "For the hire of a harlot hath she gathered them, and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return"; from the place of filth they come, and unto the place of filth they shall go. And the saying pleased me, and because of this I was arrested for Minuth. And I transgressed against what is written in the Law: "Keep thy way far from her"- that is Minuth; "and come not nigh the door of her house"- that is the civil government. (McDowell &Wilson, pp. 67-68)
Minuth means "heresy." The titles Minuth and Mnim were applied to Christians.
YOHANAN BEN ZAKKAI
In his book, Biography of Jesus the Nazarene, Yohanan Ben Zakkai, a disciple of the famous Rabbi Hillel, wrote:
"The king and the Jewish rabbis had condemned Jesus to death because he blasphemed when he claimed that he was the Son of God... and God."
Then he added:
"When Christ was on his way to death the Jews shouted in front of him, 'May You destroy Your enemies, O Lord!'" (cited in Faris al-Qayrawani's Was Christ Really Crucified?, p. 49)
Compare the preceding statements on the deity of Christ and his ascension with the following NT passages: Mark 14:61-62; John 10:27-39, 14:1-3, 16:28, 20:17; Acts 1:9-11, 7:55-56.
VI. Jesus And Healing
It happened with R. Elazar ben Damah, whom a serpent bit, that Jacob, a man of Kefar Soma, came to heal him in the name of Yeshua ben Pantera; but R. Ishmael did not let him. He said, "You are not permitted, Ben Damah." He answered, "I will bring you proof that he may heal me." But he had no opportunity to bring proof, for he died. (Whereupon) R. Ishmael said, "Happy art thou, Ben Damah, for you have gone in peace and you have not broken down the fence of the Sages; since everyone who breaks down the fence of the Sages, to him punishment will ultimately come, as it is in Scripture: 'Whoso breaketh through a fence, a serpent shall bite him.'" (Tosefta Hullin 2.22; Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbath 14d and Abodah Zarah 40d, 41a; Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 27b)
This is an admission that the name of Jesus had power to heal others and prevent them from dying.
"There is another Jewish hostile manuscript called Toledoth Jeshu. This manuscript does not refer to Jesus only, but it also relates to us a fictitious story about what happened to his body after His death. Its author claimed that Jesus' disciples plotted to steal Christ's body, but a certain gardener, whose name was Judas, discovered the conspiracy. He came secretly and removed the body from Joseph's tomb and relocated it in a newly-dug grave. When the disciples came to the original tomb and found it empty, they proclaimed that He had risen from the dead. Soon after, the Jewish leaders also approached Joseph's tomb and found it empty. The gardener then took them to the newly dug grave and showed them Jesus' body.