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Jesus in the Talmud 7/25/09 Edition
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Peter Schäfer, Winner of the 2007 Distinguished Achievement Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
"Schäfer's fine new book should be of interest to a wide audience, and not only to specialists in the field of the historical interaction of Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity (who will be right to devour it). . . . Schäfer's book tells a fascinating story. . . . His great scholarship now provides Jews and Christians interested in developing a new and better relationship with a way to work through many of the hateful things that we have said about each other in the past, but without pretending that this bad past was not as bad as it really was or that it can simply be forgotten. . . . The sources that Schäfer adduces are virulent and dangerous, but his analysis of them leaves one unexpectedly full of hope."--David Novak, New Republic
"In the talmudic references to Jesus . . . Schäfer persuasively finds sophisticated 'counternarratives that parody the New Testament stories,' composed by Jews who evinced a precise knowledge of the New Testament. The true accomplishment of Jesus in the Talmud is to show how certain talmudic passages are actually subtle rereadings of the New Testament, 'a literary answer to a literary text.' With considerable skill, Schäfer weaves these together until they can be seen to form an intricate theological discourse that prefigures the disputations between Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages."--Benjamin Balint, First Things
"Meticulously researched and argued as well as clearly and accessibly written, this most intriguing--albeit radical--book is sure to spark interest, debate, and controversy. An essential purchase for academic religion collections and theological libraries."--Library Journal
"In [this] book Schäfer has proven himself not only a formidable scholar of ancient and medieval Jewish texts . . . but also a talented author from whose hands the text flows like the water to which the rabbis likened the Torah."--Galit Hasan-Rokem, Jewish Quarterly Review
"Peter Schafer's Jesus in the Talmud reviews well-trodden territory but derives new and important readings from this familiar evidence. Applying contemporary historiographical methods, Schafer offers a convincing explanation of the talmudic texts about Jesus."--Ruth Langer, Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations
"Peter Schafer deserves great merit for having taken up a subject whose reexamination has been overdue for a long time already and that is of major interest to New Testament scholars, Talmudists, and historians of ancient Judaism alike...The great achievement of this book is that it reopens the discussion of texts that are of greatest significance for the study of the relationship of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity and the early Middle Ages. It presents the Jewish intellectual elite in a new light, as active respondents to Christian claims and allegations and forceful combatants in the Christian-Jewish dispute."--Catherine Hezser, Review of Biblical Literature
"Schafer's excellent study shows that, by ridiculing fundamental Christian claims, Babylonian Jewry rejected any notion that the old covenant had been superseded by the new, Judaism had nothing for which to reproach itself: its superiority over Christianity was incontestable."--Anthony Phillips, Church Times
"Peter Schäfer...provides a sophisticated treatment of the subject of Jesus and other figures in the New Testament in Talmudic literature. This subject has a long history, but have never been undertaken with the kind of rigor and sensitivity to contextual factors, including the differences between the evidence available in the Babylonian versus Jerusalem versions...Clear and accessible reading for the non-specialist, this is a careful, scholarly treatment that sets the agenda for future studies"--Jewish Book World
"One of the greatest Hebrew scholars, Peter Schäfer, published a book on a very controversial and difficult subject--Jesus in the Talmud. Jesus in the Talmud is a work of great value. Although the author declares that the book is not a scholarly treatise, but only a kind of extensive essay, the investigation is thorough and all its theses are excellently and fully argued."--Maciej Tomal, Palamedes
"Peter Schäfer's Jesus in the Talmud is already being picked up by anti-Semitic Web sites as proof that Judaism harbors blasphemous beliefs about Jesus. Yet, it is an important book by a meticulous scholar, the head of Princeton's Judaic studies program. It is also a truthful book and should be received in a spirit of truthfulness."--David Klinghoffer, Hadassah Magazine
"Schäfer bases his clearly written and exquisitely informed work on a collection of the fragmented texts about Jesus from the heart of the rabbinic period, a cluster of passages he assembles from material scattered throughout the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds and contemporaneous rabbinic literature. The simple gathering of these newly translated texts in one place makes the book an excellent English-language resource for researchers and laypersons alike."--Stephen Hazan Arnoff, Haaretz
"This remarkable monograph is required reading for anyone interested in the reception of the NT in rabbinic literature."--M. J. Geller, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament
"[C]ertainly the best modern study of this topic."--Simon Gathercole, Journal for the Study of the New Testament
"This is a very interesting book, and the author's arguments are both logical and unique."--W. Pretorius, Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae
"Schafer's erudite sailing through the 'sea of Talmud' is evident on every page; and, to the extent his thesis is correct, he relocates Talmudic Jesus tradition from Jesus research in the first century to Jewish-Christian relations in late antiquity."--Michael A. Daise, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
From the Back Cover
"Peter Schäfer's remarkable volume on Jesus' enigmatic place in Talmudic literature is a work of erudition and depth. It will bring deeper knowledge to students and teachers of Judaism and Christianity."--Elie Wiesel
"When the premiere 'Christian-Hebraist' of our era turns his attention to Jesus in the Talmud, everyone interested in ancient history and modern interreligious dialogue must take notice. Peter Schäfer carefully sifts through all of the literary evidence from that great monument of late-fifth-century Babylonian Jewish culture with fresh eyes and striking insights. His final chapter, focused on why the Babylonian Talmud could sustain such anti-Christian rhetoric, is a scholarly tour de force."--Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Jewish Theological Seminary
"From the opening pages of Jesus in the Talmud the reader senses that something new and important is about to be unfolded. It is, and the unfolding of it is pure Schäfer: straightforward and plain-speaking, argued densely, yet with great clarity, provocative, but finally persuasive. And yes, exciting too."--F. E. Peters, author of The Children of Abraham
"This is an exceptionally engaging book. Professor Schäfer has subjected to close scrutiny all the passages relating to Jesus in the Talmudic and other rabbinic literature produced in Palestine and in Babylonia in late antiquity. His aim is to use them to discover the rabbis' attitude to Christianity. While the force of the argument suggests this book should be mainly of interest to students of rabbinic Judaism, I believe that the subject matter will ensure that it has a much wider readership. It sheds light in places on the way the gospel traditions evolved particularly in Palestinian and Syriac-speaking Christianity."--Nicholas de Lange, University of Cambridge
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The basic thesis of this book is that the Talmudic references are a reaction to the growing church. They reveal knowledge of the written accounts in the Gospels (not direct knowledge of Jesus), and are a counter-narrative.
These stories preserved the authority of rabbi's, by rejecting the authority of Jesus. In other words, they served to draw the line on orthodoxy (apologetic purposes).
Here is where their historic value comes into play: not by shedding light on the historic Jesus, but showing differences in Palestine and Babylon. Jews in Palestine had to refrain from writing anti-Christian polemics due to Constantine's conversion to Christianity. But the Jews in Babylon did not. They lived in another empire. And this empire persecuted the Christians. Hence the freedom to write anti-Christian polemics.
Shafer's thesis is compelling, especially when the Palestinian & Babylonian Talmud's are set against the light of politics happening around them. When we look at Justin Martyr's defense against a rabbi, Origin's rebuttal against the pagan Celsus (who picked up stories from Jewish apologists), and Tertullians writings --- we gain additional evidence these stories were written to counter the claims in the Gospels.
In light of their late date, and their propogandistic purposes --- they have little value in unwrapping the historical Jesus. But they do shed light on the formation of post-Temple Judaism, and Christianity's divergence from it.
Schäfer’s careful analysis of stories that seem so enigmatic before being laid out is remarkable. He writes clearly and goes in depth without losing the reader’s interest. His arguments are convincing and go beyond simple conjectures. The anti-Christian piques in the Talmud are not immediately intelligible, often written as riddles, and would have remained obscure without this clear investigation. Each chapter opens a new window on the Talmud editor's intention to portray Jesus as a the child of a Roman soldier with a whore, a heretic and magician attempting to lead Israel astray, a blasphemer punished with eternal damnation. His disciples are all executed, no resurrection for them either, meaning that Jesus' followers shared the same fate and the deceiver’s teachings have no future. Readers won't find the Jesus of the Gospels but a campaigning program aiming to discredit the competing religion.
The anti-Jesus information being scattered throughout both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmud possibly indicates that the early derisive propaganda (Schäfer traces it back to the second century) found refuge in later authoritative texts. (Just as pro-Christian references were squeezed out of context into Josephus’ Antiquities, into Suetonius and Tacitus) The Talmud additions, made when Christianity became a more politically significant and structured religion, preserved and updated the earlier arguments developed against a dissident side-branch of Judaism.
Why be surprised that Rabbinic Judaism threw a few stink bombs addressing rivals? Nobody was left out of the merry-go-round of contending opinions. We already know from the late first century Pharisaic Jamnia Council that the Nazarenes were excluded as heretical. Reciting the benedictions, synagogue-attending Jews would not have ignored that the Jesus partisans had unauthorized claims. Jamnia, defending a cultural identity, also rejected the Greek translation of Scripture and discouraged any attempt to approach Greek culture. The segregation the Jamnia Council dictated offers an early historical context to Schäfer’s chapters on the Torah Teacher and healing in the name of Jesus. The Babylonian Talmud also declared that the Jews killed Jesus according to their own laws and not according to Roman jurisdiction. The story of Jesus’ execution according to Jewish law was probably the only known version of the trial around the mid second century. We find the same rejection of Roman intervention in Justin’s Dialogue, chapter 18. Speaking through Trypho, future church father Justin first gives us the point of view of a Jewish disbeliever, making his interlocutor Trypho consider that Jesus was certainly not crucified because it was a Roman torture, moreover used only for villains. Rejecting Jesus’ crucifixion Trypho excludes any Roman implication. Justin answers that all Israel's hardships resulted from the Jews having “slain the Just One, and His prophets before him.” Justin exclusively accuses the Jews. So however far back they believed the Jesus events had occurred, (I’m suggesting here that the Jesus events had not yet been placed in the early first century) neither Trypho nor Justin considered that the Romans intervened. On both sides of the discussion those outside the law played no part. It can be argued that the trial story initially narrated only a Sanhedrin confrontation and that the Pilate story was a latecomer to the Gospel's narrative that secondarily spread into all the important texts for the sake of harmonizing. Furthermore, the deicide accusation held against the Jews only developed when the Hellenistic theology supporting Jesus’ divinity permeated the Roman church in the later second century. Schäfer, analyzing Jesus' trial reported by the Talmud, considers, as most scholars do, that both parts of the trial story were early and simultaneous developments. I believe they weren’t.
The Pharisees were not the only ones to openly oppose the Jesus claims. The Nazarenes were also divided: Ebionites did not accept the virgin birth, Christ’s divinity or the Eucharistic body and blood ritual. Second century Greco-Roman philosophers were also very critical toward the NT declarations that they read at face value and mocked what they called “the faith of fools”. Church fathers were poisonous against the Gnostic and Marcionite interpretations and vice-versa. Bubbling second century Christianity owes more to the heretics than to orthodoxy. With tensions in the background, Christianity siding and separating from Judaism was an intricate and virulent affaire. (Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, Ezra 2 and Romans 9-11) Winning an important mid to late second century political battle against "heretical" Hellenistic Christianity, Rome’s initial centrist Church orthodoxy comprised the Judean legacies as indicated by Peter’s primacy. The initial orthodoxy, the golden age that transferred late events to an earlier date allowing to erase the agitated church history, was soon covered with a second layer of Hellenistic theology more conform to Greco-Roman ideology, traditionally attributed to Paul.
During the first two centuries, and even beyond, nascent Christianity had constantly to face inside and outside rivals. Finding criticism and mockery in Jewish texts aiming the Gentile’s changing beliefs concerning a new Messiah from Israel can hardly surprise. Offense and its corollary of party polarization were on both sides. Schäfer’s investigation, that gives life to the corrosive declarations that the Talmud perpetuated, will certainly remain on our bookshelves.