Jesus in the Talmud

Scholars for years have focused on what Christians have thought and said about Jews throughout history. It is not a pleasant story. Very few scholars have asked an equally interesting question: what do classical Jewish texts say about Chritianity? Peter Schäfer has published a new book, Jesus in the Talmud, that examines this question.

David Novak, professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, offers a favorable and illuminating book revew in the New Republic:

This process of rereading the texts of one’s own tradition that talk about a close neighbor, an other, demands the very best scholarship. Peter Schäfer is certainly one of the most prominent and most formidable Christian scholars engaged in the new enterprise of looking at Judaism in relation to Christianity. He may well be the most distinguished non-Jewish scholar of classical Jewish sources in the world today. Which is to say, he may be the individual most qualified to deal with a very delicate question that inevitably arises out of the inquiry into what Christians say about Jews and Judaism in their classical sources: what do Jews say about Christians and Christianity in their classical sources? The question becomes more focused when it is directed to what the Jewish sources say about Jesus.

. . .

Schäfer’s book tells a fascinating story. We need to appreciate how subtle that story is before we can properly ponder its larger implications for the new Jewish-Christian discussion, implications that are more than academic. What Schäfer calls “the Talmud” is the whole corpus of rabbinic literature that was written between the first and the seventh centuries of the Christian Era. Some of that vast literature was written in the land of Israel (then called “Palestine”)–first under pagan Roman rule, then under Christian rule after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century–and is known as the Palestinian Talmud. Even more of that vast literature was written in Babylonia, then part of the Persian Empire. When most Jews say “the Talmud,” they mean the Babylonian Talmud, called the Bavli.

There were far fewer Christians in Babylonia than there were in Palestine, and those Christians did not pose the political threat to the Jews that the Christians in Palestine did, and so all scholars interested in Jewish views of Christians and Christianity have regarded the Babylonian treatments of the subject to be historically worthless. They have preferred to concentrate their efforts on discussions and allusions in the Palestinian sources. Those sources alone seem to be talking about a real historical phenomenon, which, when we decode it, tells us much about how the Jews saw the Christian community in Palestine, with whom they had real conflicts.

. . .

Schäfer builds his argument about Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud on a largely overlooked fact: that “whereas the Palestinian rabbis’ (few) statements reveal a relative closeness to the emerging Christian sect … the Bavli’s attention is focused on the person of Jesus.” But how can what the Talmud says about Jesus be of any significance if the Babylonian rabbis were even further removed from the historical Jesus than the Palestinian rabbis before them? Schäfer’s answer is that the Babylonian rabbinical texts are dealing not with the historical Jesus, but with the character of Jesus as it was presented in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John, which seems to present the most anti-Jewish Jesus of the four Gospels. These treatments are what Schäfer calls “a literary answer to a literary text.”

Whereas the Palestinian anti-Christian texts are responding to a threatening social reality, the Babylonian texts are talking about the basic document (the New Testament) of a Christian community that is no longer a threat to the Jews of Baby- lonia, the Babylonian Christians being as much (if not more) of a marginalized minority as the Jews. Thus, in Schäfer’s view, Babylonian Jewish statements about Jesus could be more direct than the Palestinian statements, and they could be nastier. Schäfer shows all this with dazzling erudition and critical insight. He also shows how these Babylonian sources condemned and ridiculed the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s birth, powers, and supposed innocence at his trial. Since the local Christians in Baby- lonia were as far removed from the historical Jesus as the local Jews, having only the Jesus of the New Testament, the Jewish criticism of Jesus in Babylonia could attack Christians at their most vulnerable point. In the end, the political power of Christians over Jews made a huge difference in the ways Jews could conduct their anti-Christian polemic.

. . .

But why did the Babylonian Jews go to the trouble of denying the veracity of a text that mattered only to a small Christian community that had no power over Jews (no power of the sort that Palestinian Christians came to enjoy once Christians became members of the official religion of the Roman Empire)? Schäfer gives two answers to this question. Unlike his analysis of the literary evidence, where he has some important data at his disposal, the causal explanation involves much more speculation on his part. Yet Schäfer is not a hasty or arrogant historian; he says only what he believes the evidence entitles him to say. Would that more historians were as modest.

Schäfer’s first answer to the question is psychological and political; more precisely, it concerns the influence of the political environment upon psychological motivation. In his view, the Jews of Babylonia could say about Christianity, in the person of Jesus, what their Palestinian brethren could not say because of the dangers involved. Schäfer calls the Babylonian declaration “a proud and self- confident message,” one quite different from the “defense mechanisms” that the Palestinian rabbis had to employ in their political prudence. It was a “proud proclamation” of “a new and self-confident Diaspora community.”

Schäfer’s second answer to this question is more concretely political. Here he notes that in the Persian Empire, both Judaism and Christianity were minority religions–islands of monotheism in a sea of Zoroastrian dualism (which affirmed a good god in conflict with a bad god, as opposed to the one good God affirmed by Judaism and Christianity). The two monotheistic religions were highly suspect in the eyes of the polytheistic Zoroastrian Persian or Sasanian rulers. Indeed, older polemics of Roman pagans against Jews and Christians castigated them both for their monotheism. From these political facts, Schäfer speculates that the anti-Christian polemics of the Jews might be part of “a very vivid and fierce conflict between two competing religions’ under the suspicious eye of the Sasanian authorities.”

Read the entire review here.

What can such a close review of what the classical Jewish texts said about Jesus tell us about our own faith today? And what can it tell us about the history of the relationship of Jews and Christians?

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