Jesus and the Christian “Heretics” in the Talmud
Shortly before my eighteenth birthday, I hit upon the duly adolescent idea of inviting a group of my closest high-school chums to head downtown on Christmas Eve to attend the midnight mass at St. James Cathedral. In the mid-Sixties, my friends had enthusiastically taken up the nascent propaganda about Toronto as a “world-class city” (because it was so culturally “diverse”); and I naively fancied that a visit to a church might be culturally broadening. (I hadn’t yet learned that “multiculturalism” meant Christians visiting mosques and synagogues, but on no account did it oblige insular minorities to learn anything about the wider culture or religion of Canada’s founding majority.) In retrospect, it seems surprising that even a few of my friends agreed. But at the time what took me aback was the volcanic energy with which the majority declined my invitation. For a Jew, apparently even for the entirely secular Jews of the late-twentieth-century North American suburb, to enter a church was a sin.
Both the emotional vehemence and the reasons with which my friends issued their demurrals made such an impression on me that I still recall them to this day. There was, predictably, general mirth about the doctrines of the Trinity (neo-pagan “polytheism”), the Virgin Birth (Mary got “knocked up” by another man and concocted a fantastic story to explain her embarrassing condition to her husband), and the Resurrection (Jesus’ followers stole the body from the tomb). (Such imaginative essays in de-mythologizing impress me even more today than they did at the time, since, as I now know, they come right out of the contra Christianos polemic of the contemporary pagans and Gnostics.) But there were more serious allegations and concerns. One young man, a robust, athletic type who otherwise never shrank from a dare, admonished me earnestly that the Christmas Eve congregants might try to kidnap and convert us, as Christians had always sought to convert Jews. Another said that churches were full of “idols”, and that Christians were “idolaters” who “worshipped” inanimate statues as gods. A third added that Christians, especially Catholics, took part in “Satanic rituals”; the eucharist, he explained, involved both human sacrifice and cannibalism, in which the participants ate the victim’s flesh and drank his blood.
It is easy enough to dismiss such lurid scenarios as the childish fantasies that they were; except that, never having entered a church by their own admission, my friends could only have learned them at their elders’ knees. I wish I could believe that they had been conveniently conjured up as bogey-men by Jewish parents anxious to keep their credulous children within the fold. The fact, however, is that they were widely accepted, as I found out, amongst the adult population of the Manor, and that they have been preserved within Jewish arsenals of anti-Christian invective ab origine.
Like other anachronistic Jewish attitudes, these have survived tenaciously from an age riven by fundamental theological differences and consequent religious enmities—an age when, if Christians vilified Jews as blind literalists, spiritual legalists, and the murderers of their Lord, Jews reviled Christians as the propagators of risible and pernicious fables, and the usurpers of their ancient promise. In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (c. A.D. 160), Trypho acknowledges a widespread belief amongst the Jewish “multitudes” that Christians “eat men; and that after the feast, having extinguished the lights, [they] engage in promiscuous concubinage” (xx). According to Trypho, the Gospel account of the Virgin Birth merchandised the same species of “monstrous nonsense” as one could find in the fable of Perseus and many other “shameful” stories circulated throughout Greek mythology” (lxvii). That Jews of the period were particularly contemptuous of this Christian mystery is confirmed by the second-century pagan Middle Platonist Celsus, who makes reference to a certain Jew who, supposedly disputing with Jesus, “pour[ed] ridicule on the pretence of his birth from a virgin, while quoting the Greek myths about Danae and Melanippe and Auge and Antiope”. Celsus’ Jew accuses Jesus of having
fabricated the story of his birth from a virgin; and he reproaches him because he came from a Jewish village and from a poor country woman who earned her living by spinning. He says that she was driven out by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, as she was convicted of adultery. Then he says that after she had been driven out by her husband, and while she was wandering about in a disgraceful way, she secretly gave birth to Jesus. And he says that because he was poor he hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of these powers, and on account of them gave himself the title of God. (Origen, Contra Celsum I. 28)
As conspiracy-minded as any New-Age Dan Brown, Celsus’ “Jew” was almost certainly a literary invention. But his close agreement with Justin’s Trypho merely underscores the fact that their anti-Christian confabulations were typical and widespread amongst Jews of the period, of whom Celsus has merely made his “Jew” the collective mouthpiece. But what is interesting above all is that much of the ammunition of the anti-Christianos polemic of pagan controversialists such as Celsus, Lucian, Porphyry, and Julian seems to have been borrowed from the armories of earlier or contemporary Jewish partisans.
The disdainful and often scurrilous dismissals of Jesus and his faithful minim (“heretics”) by the Rabbis of the Talmud have been anthologized and analyzed by scholars from the Middle Ages down to our own day. They were probably first collected by the Spanish Dominican Raymond Martini (d. 1285) in his Pugio fidei. Martini’s manuscript was republished by the celebrated humanist Scaliger at the end of the fifteenth century, and reprinted again in 1651 (Paris) and 1678 (Leipzig). In 1681, also drawing on Talmudic sources, the Christian Hebraist and religious historian Johann Wagenseil published his collection of Jewish anti-Christian polemics, Tela ignea Satanae, which was followed, in 1699, by the Jesus in Talmude of the Orientalist Rudolf Meelfuhrer, and by the comprehensive two-volume work of Johann Eisenmenger, Entdecktes Judenthum (“Judaism Unmasked”), published in 1700 at Frankfort.
As the titles of these works indicate, many of them were themselves unscholarly polemics, intended to counter the anti-Christian polemics of the Rabbis, sometimes to bolster the faith of new Jewish converts, and usually therefore adduced by Jews and others as further evidence of an inveterate Christian anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, since the turn of the twentieth century, a number of modern Talmudic scholars, with no conceivable polemical purpose or anti-Jewish animus, and typically in the rarefied academic pursuit of distinguishing the “historical Jesus” from the Jesus of myth—a Christian intellectual obsession of the period—have renewed these early Talmudic researches.
In 1902, Samuel Krauss published the first scholarly edition and analysis of the Taledot Yeshu (“The Story of Jesus”), the earliest connected narrative of the vita Christi, which had been assembled from earlier rabbinic sources by the Rabbis of late antiquity. The following year, Travers Herford released his Christianity in Talmud and Midrash, soon to become the standard work in English on the treatment of Jesus and Christianity in the early Jewish literature. Then, in 1910, the formidable Christian Talmudic scholar Hermann Strack (author of the famous Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash), issued the first text-critical edition and translation of the relevant rabbinic passages in his Jesus, die Haretiker und die Christen nach den altesten judischen Angaben.
Jewish scholars of the last century showed no less interest in the Talmudic literature, insofar as it might shed some light on the problem of the Jesus of history. In 1922, the Hebrew University professor Joseph Klausner published the first major scholarly work in Hebrew on the rabbinic Jesus. A generation later in America, Morris Goldstein’s Jesus in the Jewish Tradition appeared in 1950, followed, in the subsequent year, by a long essay by Jacob Lauerach in Rabbinic Studies.
More recently, in 1978, Johann Meier published his monumental and erudite Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Uberlieferung, in which all the Talmudic passages that had ever been thought to bear, even remotely, on Jesus and Christianity are analyzed in meticulous detail. Finally, a brief and highly readable treatment of the subject was published in 2007 by Peter Schafer, Ronald O. Perlman Professor of Judaic Studies at Princeton University.
I have provided this brief bibliographical survey only to show that the disparaging treatment of Jesus and Christianity in the Talmud is hardly a matter of obscurity, having been recognized and exhaustively documented by scholars for generations. Anyone who doubts the existence of these rabbinic texts can find them, in Hebrew and translation, in the titles listed above. In what follows, of course, I can only attempt the briefest summary of their contents.