It is extremely difficult to know whether the stories and observations about Jesus in the Talmud (see Sotah: 43a-b; 47a; Sanhedrin: 47a; Gittin: 56b and 57a) actually refer to the Jesus of the New Testament. Several dates do not correspond, and many other problems exist. Scholars have made the important observation that there is also a very great discrepancy between the picture which emerges from the actual text of the New Testament and the one developed by the church. Even in the New Testament itself there are several readings which do not appear consistent, possibly because of later interpolations.
The observations in the Talmud may therefore quite well refer to the Jesus as projected by the Church and not to those which appear in the New Testament (notwithstanding the inconsistency related to the dating of these stories.)
It is, however, the portrait of Jesus created by the Church which has prevailed as the most common and perhaps the most authoritative one in Western civilization. In its need 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.
A critical reading of the text in the New Testament seems, however, to speak about Jesus as a conservative person who was little interested in starting a new religion. Scholars are of the opinion that neither was he looking for ways to undermine the Halacha as his disciple Paul was. His statements concerning divorce do not support the view that he opposed divorce entirely as was stated by the Church (See, for example, Matthew, 19:9 in comparison with Mark, 10:1-12) In fact, he seems to adhere to the view of Beth Shamai that a man is only allowed to divorce his wife when she has committed adultery! (Mishna, Gittin: 9:10) Nor does the well-known incident where he permitted his disciples to pluck ears of grain on Shabbat prove that he favored Shabbat desecration. The text seems to indicate that it may have been a case of sakanath nefashoth, danger of life. (See Mark, 2:23-28) (For another halachic explanation, see Professor David Flusser, Jesus, page 58, The Magnes Press, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1998)
It may also be suggested that he was not always consistent in his views or perhaps an “am ha’aretz”, a man with little knowledge of the Halacha, lacking an in-depth knowledge of the Torah. To account for the instances in which Jesus is quoted as having spoken against Halachic standards, scholars seem to agree that this is due to later “reworking” of the original texts. (See David Flusser, ibid, chapters 1 and 4.)
This may explain why several rabbis of world renown had a much more positive attitude towards Jesus (although they completely rejected the claim that he was the mashiach) than the talmudic texts seem to indicate.
A most remarkable and surprising statement is found in the preface to “Seder Olam” by the famous halachic authority, Rabbi Yacov Emden (“Yavetz,” 1697-1776):
The founder of Christianity conferred a double blessing upon the world. On the one hand, he strengthened the Torah of Moshe and emphasized that it is eternally binding. On the other hand, he conferred favor upon the gentiles in removing idolatry from them, imposing upon them stricter moral obligations than are contained in the Torah of Moshe. (sic!) There are many Christians of high qualities and excellent morals. Would that all Christians would live in conformity with their precepts. They are not enjoined, like the Israelites to observe the laws of Moshe, nor do they sin if they associate other beings with God. They will receive a reward from God for having propagated a belief in Him among the nations that never heard his name: For He looks into the heart.
On the other hand, it is worthwhile mentioning a controversial Midrash which is rather uncomplimentary of Jesus. On the verse: “There arose no other prophet in Israel like Moshe, who knew God face to face.” (Devarim 34:10) the Sages commented with a most unusual observation: “In Israel none arose, but among the gentiles one did arise. And who was that? Bilaam, son of Peor.” (Sifri ad loc).
Since it is unthinkable that this statement suggests that Bilaam ever rose to the level of Moshe Rabenu, several commentators make the point that the gentiles had someone whose function with regard to 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 received that kind of authority in their eyes, and that was Bilaam.
While there is no allusion to this to be found in the Torah text, the Midrash quotes a verse from Bilaam’s words in his blessing of the Jewish people: “God is not a man that He should lie” (Bamidbar 23:19).
To this the Midrash Tanchuma (in uncensored printings) adds: “Bilaam foresaw that a man born from a woman would arise and would proclaim himself a god. Therefore, Bilaam’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 (this man) says he is God, he is lying.” In that sense Bilaam became a “legislator” towards the gentiles warning them for believing in Jesus as the son of God.
Even more interesting is an Aggada in Sanhedrin 106b where a sectarian asked one of the sages: “Do you know how old Bilaam was when he died?” He replied: “It is not actually stated, but since it is written: ‘Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days’ (Tehilim 55:24) he must have been 33 or 34.” He rejoined and said: “You have spoken well. I personally have seen Bilaam’s chronicle in which it is stated Bilaam, the lame, was 33 years old when Pinchas the ‘Lista’a’ killed him.”
What is Bilaam’s chronicle? There is no such book known, but, as one of the later Jewish writers (Geiger) suggested, it may allude to Jesus. The latter died when he was 33 years old and was killed by Pontius Pilatus. The name Pinchas Lista’a may well be corruption of Pontius Pilatus. In that case, the chronicles may refer to Jesus’ death.
Remarkable to say the least!