In Lucem Gentium: Anecdotal Reflections on Growing Up and Out of the Jewish Ghetto, Part VII

Jesus the Impossible Offspring of a Mule

In the previous installment of this essay, I outlined the early rabbinic confabulation according to which the Virgin Birth was a hoax, contrived so that Joseph, Mary, and the Evangelists might conceal the embarrassing truth that Mary was a notorious adulteress, and that the “Son of God” was the product of her shameful union with a Roman soldier. The Jewish counter-narrative was the source of a similar allegation that soon entered the arsenals of the pagan anti-Christian controversialists. It was also the source – mediated, apparently, by two thousand years of faithful oral transmission – of the crude mockeries of my teenage Jewish friends in the Manor, who assured me that the Virgin Birth was an invention meant to cover up the fact that Mary had gotten “knocked up”.

Other passages from the Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud) refer derisively to the Virgin Birth, including one that calls Jesus’ followers “the afterbirth of a mule”—an insult that is the ancient Hebrew equivalent of the modern scatological expletive, although one wonders precisely which one. The curious dialogue is supposed to have taken place in Athens between the early second century Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya and certain unnamed Greek philosophers, for the purpose of determining whose wisdom was superior, that of the Greeks or the Rabbis. There is, of course, no question of the historicity of this debate, since its presumptive subjects are so homely and trivial that one can hardly imagine their being of interest to the likes of Plutarch, Albinus, Apuleius, or Numenius–even if they are entirely typical of the Talmud.

Asked, during the conversation, to furnish an example of a “fictional tale”, R. Yehoshua submits the following:

There was this mule which gave birth, and round its neck was hanging a document upon which was written, “there is a claim against my father’s house of one hundred thousand Zuz”.

They [the Athenian Sages] asked him: “Can a mule give birth?” He answered them: “This is one of these fiction stories.”

Again, the Athenian Sages asked: “When salt becomes unsavory, wherewith is it salted?”

He replied: “With the afterbirth of a mule.”

[The Sages]: “And is there an afterbirth of a mule?”

[R. Yehoshua]: “And can salt become unsavory?” (b Bekh 8b)

The ostensible cleverness of R. Yehoshua turns on the well-known fact that a mule is congenitally sterile (i.e., a mule that has given birth is the Rabbi’s example of a “fiction story”). Thusfar, the passage has no apparent relevance to Jesus. But the connection between the miraculous offspring of a mule and the Virgin Birth emerges in the ensuing dialogue. The Sages test the Rabbi’s wisdom by asking him if he knows of anything that can restore the savour to salt that has lost its taste. His answer, “the afterbirth of a mule”, is immediately challenged because, as he has already declared, there can be no “afterbirth” of an animal that is incapable of bearing offspring. The Sages think they have “got” him. But he turns the tables on them, with a rhetorical question of his own: “And can salt become unsavory?” Of course not. This, as the wise Rabbi sarcastically implies, is another of those “fiction stories”.

The Talmud here derides Jesus’ famous proclamation from the Sermon on the Mount:

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. (Matt. 5:13)

With these words, Jesus addresses his disciples as the new salt of the earth, inasmuch as the old salt has lost its savour. The old salt is the Old Law which, no longer spiritually efficacious, must be cast aside and trampled under foot.

The Bavli dialogue attempts to undercut such Christian claims. Christians pretend that the salt of the Old Covenant can no longer satisfy the hunger of the spirit, and must be rejected. They affect that only they can restore its savour. But the Old Law has not lost its taste, any more than salt can lose its taste. The Christian claim is another “fiction story”. And by what means do Christians affect to be able to restore its savour to the Law? By the afterbirth of a mule! – another impossibility inasmuch as the mule cannot give birth any more than salt can lose its taste.

Once again, it is the deliberate and ingenious vulgarity of the Talmudic polemic that shocks the civilized sensibility. Jesus is the “divine child” of a mule. (This, of course, constitutes a concomitant insult to Mary who, like the proverbial mule, is stupid and stubborn – her refusal to admit her indiscretions? – and the product of miscegenation.) That Jesus has been miraculously born of a Virgin who conceived of the Holy Spirit is as impossible as that a mule has been delivered of a cub. As the offspring of Jesus, the disciples are the mule’s “afterbirth”. Both the Virgin Birth and the pretensions of the New Covenant to supercede the Old are risible myths.