It is extremely difficult to know unequivocally whether the stories and observations about Jesus in the Talmud actually refer to the Jesus in the New Testament. Several dates do not correspond, and many other problems are evident. Scholars have also noted that there is a great discrepancy between the picture that emerges from the actual text of the NT and the one developed by the Church. Furthermore, within the NT there are several readings that do not appear consistent, possibly because of later interpolations. The remarks in the Talmud, therefore, may quite well refer to the Jesus as projected by the Church and not to the one that appears in the NT, notwithstanding the inconsistencies related to the dating of these stories.
It is the portrait of Jesus created by the Church that has prevailed as the most common and perhaps the most authoritative one in Western civilization. In its determination to separate Christianity from Judaism, the Church went out of its way to rewrite the story of Jesus in such a way that he became a strong opponent of Judaism and, above all, of Halacha.
However, a critical reading of the text in the NT seems to reveal Jesus as a conservative person who was little interested in starting a new religion. Scholars are of the opinion that he was not looking for ways to undermine the Halacha, as was his disciple Paul. His statements concerning divorce, for example, do not support the view that he opposed divorce entirely, as was stated by the Church (1). In fact, he seems to adhere to the view of Beth Shamai that a man is allowed to divorce his wife only if she has committed adultery! (2) Nor does the well-known incident where he permitted his disciples to pluck ears of corn on Shabbath prove that he favored Shabbath desecration. The text seems to indicate that it may have been a case of sakanath nefashoth (life threatening situation) (3).
It may also be suggested that Jesus was not always consistent in his views, or that he was perhaps an am ha’aretz (a man with little knowledge of the Torah and Halacha). To account for instances in which he is quoted as having spoken against halachic standards, scholars seem to agree that this is due to later reworking of the original texts (4).
This may explain why several world renowned rabbis had a much more positive attitude towards the historical Jesus than the Talmudic texts seem to indicate. A most remarkable and surprising statement was written by the famous halachic authority, Rabbi Yaakov Emden, also known as Ya’avetz (1697-1776):
The Nazarene brought about a double kindness in the world. On the one hand, he strengthened the Torah of Moses majestically…and not one of our Sages spoke out more emphatically concerning the immutability of the Torah. And on the other hand, he did much good for the Gentiles by doing away with idolatry and removing the images from their midst. He obligated them with the Seven Commandments [Noahide Laws]….He also bestowed upon them ethical ways, and in this respect he was much more stringent with them than the Torah of Moses, as is well-known. This in itself was most proper, as it is the correct way to acquire ethical practices, as the philosopher (Maimonides) mentioned. We have written similarly in our Siddur. However, it is not necessary to impose upon Jews such extreme ethical practices, since they have been obligated to the yoke of Torah, which weakens the strength of the (evil) inclination without it. They have taken the oath at Sinai and are already trained in proper practice and nature (5).
Even more surprising is a book (6) by the controversial Orthodox Jewish Professor Friedrich Weinreb, in which he claims that the story of Jesus is an allegory about the inner and outer aspects of human life. He seems to argue that since the story about Jesus had such a profound influence on the world, there must be a higher religious meaning to it, whether or not Jesus really existed. This is similar to Maimonides’ observation that God allowed this man to be so influential in order to prepare mankind for the coming of the real Mashiach (7).
On the other hand, it is worthwhile mentioning a controversial midrash that is rather uncomplimentary about Jesus. On the verse “No other prophet like Moshe has arisen in Israel, who knew God face to face” (8), the Sages commented, “In Israel no such prophet arose, but amongst the nations there was such a prophet – Bil’am, son of Beor.” (Sifri) Since it is unthinkable that this statement suggests that Bil’am ever rose to the level of Moshe Rabenu, several commentators point out that the gentiles had someone whose status among the nations of the world was similar to that of Moshe in Israel. Moshe was the great halachic legislator, and the gentiles also had a man who held that level of authority in their eyes, and that was Bil’am. While there is no allusion to this in the Torah text, the Midrash quotes a phrase from Bil’am’s blessing to the Jewish people: “God is not a man that He should lie” (9). To this the Midrash Tanchuma (in uncensored printings) adds: “Bil’am foresaw that a man born from a woman would arise and would proclaim himself a god. Therefore, Bil’am’s voice was given the power to inform the gentiles: ‘Do not go astray after this man; God is not a man, and if he (a man) says he is God, he is lying.’” In that sense Bil’am became an authority for the gentiles. Here, too, this apparently refers to the Jesus projected by the Church and not the historical Jesus.
Even more interesting is an aggadah in Sanhedrin 106b about a heretic who asked one of the sages how old Bil’am was when he died. Rabbi Chanina replied that although it is not actually stated, based on the verse “Men of bloodshed and deceit shall not live out half their days” (10), he must have been thirty-three or thirty-four. The heretic conceded that he was right and said, “You have spoken well, for I personally have seen Bil’am’s chronicle in which it is stated that Bil’am, the lame, was thirty-three years old when Pinchas Lista’a (“the robber”) killed him. What is surprising is that as far as we know there is not, nor was there, such a chronicle. But, as Jewish writer-scholar Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) suggested, this aggadah may be alluding to Jesus. The latter was killed at the age of thirty-three by Pontius Pilatus’ authorization. The name Pinchas Lista’a may well be a distortion of Pontius Pilatus. In that case, the chronicle may refer to the NT. Remarkable, to say the least!
1. See, for example, Matthew, 19:9 in comparison with Mark, 10:1-12.
2. Mishnah, Gittin 9:10.
3. Mark, 2:23-28. For another halachic explanation, see David Flusser’s Jesus (Jerusalem: Magnus Press Hebrew University, 1998) p. 58. David Flusser was an Orthodox Jew, Professor of Early Christianity and Judaism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the greatest experts on the NT.
4. David Flusser, ibid. chs. 1 and 4.
5. Seder Olam Rabbah Vezuta – letter written by Rabbi Yaakov Emden to the Council of Four Lands in Poland, 1757, translated by Rabbi Harvey Falk, 1985.
6. Innenwelt des Wortes im Neuen Testament: Eine Deutung aus den Quellen des Judentums (Thauros Verlag, 1988) (The Inner World of the New Testament: A Jewish vision).
7. See TTP 325 – Christmas, Jesus and the Rejection of a Jewish Child.
8. Devarim 34:10.
9. Bamidbar 23:19.
10. Tehillim 55:24.