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:
- Given the climate in first-century Palestine, what threat did Jesus pose to Jews and to Rome?
- How should Jews understand Jesus today?
- What should be the terms of a social contract between believing Jews and Christians? How should adherents of each faith view the other?