The Talmud’s Counter-Yeshua Narrative in Response to the Brit Hadashah
This study1 is based on the premise that the Talmud2 (Gemara) contains rabbinic responses to the gospel story, intended to neutralize the contention that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah foretold by the prophets, expected by Second Temple period Jews, and announced in the New Testament (Brit Hadashah).3 To some extent, interchanges between Yeshua and the Pharisees recorded in the gospels continued through responses by Talmudic voices. This thesis assumes that the Brit Hadashah was accessible to the sages who constructed the Gemara, and that they were knowledgeable about its contents, whether by oral transmission or by reading gospel manuscripts. This is a reasonable assumption since well before the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) was completed the Brit Hadashah was widely known and distributed throughout the Roman world.4 Additionally, chatter about Yeshua in the market-place undoubtedly abounded with various stories, some raising sincere questions about the gospel claims and others intended to disparage those claims. The Talmudic sages assuredly had an ear to these varied ruminations.
The Bavli contains a number of writings that patently reference Yeshua; most, if not all of them, are disparaging.5 The primary rationale for such defamatory remarks is probably the number of Jews coming under the “spell” of the Brit Hadashah writings, some of whom embraced Yeshua and thereby presented a challenge to rabbinic authority. (There was even a handful of sages reported in the Talmud who were within Yeshua’s sphere of influence, discussed more fully toward the end of this article.6) Here is an opportunity for the post-70 ce sages, under the Talmud’s authority, to attack Yeshua without fear of a direct apologetic retort by the “opposition.” The Talmud was not widely read by non-Jews and although during the Medieval Period it was the subject of censorship and even burning, by then the Talmudic anti-Yeshua monologue was deeply ingrained within the Jewish psyche with little known rebuttal. The Talmud had the ear of the learned Jewish reader. At stake here in the Talmud, as it was in the early part of the 1st century, was rabbinic authority. The rabbis claimed authority from the succession of the sages as pronounced in Pirke Avot:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.7
The sages whose teachings were recorded in the Mishnah and Gemara taught in the name of the past sages, and thereby derived their authority from the “tradition of the elders.” In contrast, Yeshua taught in his own name, albeit with full knowledge of the traditions and the sages’ teachings. This was perceived as a usurpation of proto-rabbinic authority; post-70 ce Jews who embraced Yeshua were definitely accounted as outside the pale of rabbinic authority, and thus the Mosaic faith.
Yeshua was a direct threat to Pharisaic authority and successor rabbinic authority. Had the Pharisees and their Talmudic successors acknowledged that Yeshua was Messiah, they would also have had to admit that they were wrong, which would seriously diminish their stature and authority. Consequently, the posture of the Talmudic sages was a continuation of hostility toward Yeshua and his followers. By addressing some of the Brit Hadashah claims in the Talmud, in a sense, they had the last word in the combat, as the Brit Hadashah canon was closed by then. They could load up, which they in fact did in some cases by making wild claims about Yeshua in rebuttal to the Brit Hadashah claims, and in defense of the Pharisees. Some of these claims are embedded in the shared memory of even non-religious Jews today.
There are not many places where Yeshua is identified by express name or a pseudonym within the “sea of the Talmud.” Some deny that the Talmud has anything to say about Yeshua, maintaining that any reputed references to Yeshua do not fit into the Brit Hadashah time frame, and thus are not reliable when identifying Yeshua as the subject.8 This article rejects those contentions, identifies some of the more obvious Talmudic references to Yeshua, and then works backward to determine which Brit Hadashah contention the Talmud is challenging. By retrojecting in this way, we are able to determine which portions of the gospel the post-70 ce rabbis thought the greatest threat to the claims of Yeshua’s messiahship and thereby significant enough to aggressively rebut.
Only two major sects survived the destruction of the Second Temple: the Pharisees and the Nazarenes. The Pharisees morphed into the post-destruction Yavneh rabbis and the Nazarenes into Jewish Yeshua-believers (Messianic Jews). Messianic Jews adopted the Brit Hadashah writings as their response to the destruction, while the rabbis constructed the Mishnah and Gemara in reaction. These two survivors have been in polemic dueling ever since. The Brit Hadashah reported on numbers of Jews who embraced Yeshua as their Messiah, including some prominent leaders, which only compounded the authority threat. With this background in place let us next survey those Brit Hadashah followers of Yeshua, before proceeding to the Talmud’s counter-narrative responses.
Brit Hadashah Followers of Yeshua
The Brit Hadashah reports that many Jews came to faith in Yeshua. Paul cites the eye-witness testimony of those who saw Yeshua alive after his death and resurrection: Cephas (Peter) and James and all the apostles, and over five hundred (1 Cor 15:5–7). Many more who did not witness the resurrected Yeshua on earth embraced him as Messiah, including the 120 who were in the upper room awaiting the Holy Spirit, as well as 3000 one day, 5000 the next, and those that were added daily (Acts 1:15, 2:41, 47, 4:4).
It was not just the am ha’aretz (common people of the land) who were added to the kehila but also prominent religious and political leaders of the day, including a “large number of priests [who] became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7), and a number of Pharisees who believed (Acts 15:5). Saul (aka Paul), a religious zealot trained by Gamaliel (a first-century tanna), was a shaliach (emissary) who secured letters from the High Priest to persecute Jewish Yeshua-followers in Damascus (Acts 9:1–2). On his way he experienced a vision and saw the resurrected Messiah, embraced him, was immersed in water, and became a powerful witness of the Messianic faith (Acts 9:3–20). He brought the Yeshua-message to synagogues throughout his diaspora journeys. In Corinth he encountered Crispus and Sosthenes, the successive heads of the same synagogue, who presumably under Paul’s tutelage became Jewish Yeshua-believers (Acts 18:7–8, 17; 1 Cor 1:1).
Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four gospels, from which we derive a composite picture of who he was and his role in Yeshua’s burial (Matt 27:57–60; Mark 15:43–46; Luke 23:50–53; John 19:38–40). Joseph was a rich man from Judea who sat on the Sanhedrin, righteous and respected among his peers. He had clout with the government; he boldly approached Governor Pilate for Yeshua’s body, and after confirming Yeshua’s death, Pilate surrendered it to him. Joseph purchased linen, wrapped the body in it and laid it in his own new tomb, which was hewed out of stone, and rolled a large rock over it to block the entrance. He was a dissenter on the council that condemned Yeshua. From this description and nothing more, it is reasonable to assume that Joseph had a special relationship with Yeshua or even was a disciple. But we do not need to make that assumption since a gospel account tells us expressly that Joseph, who was waiting for the kingdom, for fear of Jewish leaders, kept his faith in Yeshua secret (John 19:38).
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and also a member of the Sanhedrin who came to Yeshua by night (John 3:1–2a). It is likely that he visited at night to avoid the day crowds because he did not want other Pharisees and Sanhedrin members (who were his peers) to notice that he was going to see Yeshua, whom the bulk of those groups eschewed (John 19:38). Additionally, the evening was also probably a mutually convenient time to meet.
One explanation for Nicodemus approaching Yeshua was that, knowing the Tanakh and Yeshua’s teachings and hearing of his miracles, he was looking for the answer to the big question: “Are you the promised Messiah?” Nicodemus inquires of Yeshua saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one can perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2b). Nicodemus uses the “we” pronoun with regard to knowledge that Yeshua is of God. That is puzzling since the gospels report that the ruling class was in opposition to Yeshua and his teachings and miracles. Apparently, Nicodemus, a religious leader, had a different mind-set on the matter; perhaps, the circle in which he moved (including a fellow member of the Sanhedrin Council, Joseph of Arimathea), was affirming that “this Yeshua must be of God.” In any event, Nicodemus appears to be a seeker. After Yeshua expounds on being “born again” and explains that you are not all the way there in the kingdom unless you are “born from above,” Nicodemus continues to inquire in sincerity, “How can this be?” (John 3:9). He demonstrates enough interest and fascination to continue querying in order to grasp Yeshua’s teachings.
Yeshua proceeds into even greater depth, speaking to Nicodemus, but also to the multitudes listening in throughout the centuries to come. He expounds on the way of salvation, which is even beyond Nicodemus’s initial inquiry. The dialogue ends without Nicodemus’s oral response. However, we see his reaction next when priests and Pharisees ask the temple guards why they did not seize Yeshua and bring him to them (John 7:45), presumably to take him before the Sanhedrin for trial. Here Nicodemus boldly intervenes in the face of those who obviously know him as a leader in the Sanhedrin. He says to them, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” (John 7:50–51). It certainly appears that Nicodemus has moved from inquirer to intervener who defends Yeshua and his teachings.
Finally, after Yeshua’s death, Nicodemus shows up where Joseph of Arimathea had taken the body with Pilate’s permission, with a 75-pound “mixture of myrrh and aloes.” Along with Joseph, he wrapped Yeshua’s body in linen, anointing him with the great weight of spices (John 19:39). This was no small task and took a lot of devotion to Yeshua to do this while being part of the very Sanhedrin that had condemned him. Now Nicodemus has gone from an interlocutor to actively preparing Yeshua’s body for burial. The fact that he was doing it in connection with Joseph who was a disciple of Yeshua (John 19:38), along with John’s report of Nicodemus’s two previous Yeshua encounters, is convincing evidence that Nicodemus was also a Yeshua-follower, and that he and Joseph were compatriots in the faith.
Counter-Narrative Responses in the Talmud
The Name and Genealogy of Yeshua
The gospels present Yeshua as royalty. He is the offspring of David, and thus heir to the eternal throne. From both his father Yoseph and his mother Miriam he draws his lineage from King David (Matt 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38), whose progeny was promised the throne forever (2 Sam 7:12–16). Throughout the gospels he is addressed as the Son of David. He is born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of David and the place from where the One who would be “from ancient times” would come forth (Mic 5:1). This One was destined to be the King of the Jews; and the gospels tell us that he was taken to Egypt as an infant to escape the hand of Herod who had heard from the wise magi of the east of this One to be born a King.
The angel of God named him Yeshua, which means “salvation.” This name and its variant Yehoshua were common in the 1st century. Yeshua was an appropriate name for King Messiah, for his mission was to bring salvation to the Jews, and also to the world.9 Anna and Simeon, awaiting the coming of Messiah, recognized this when he was brought to the Temple as an infant (Luke 2:25–38).
Miriam and Joseph were betrothed (engaged). The betrothal was really like a marriage but without intimate relations. In fact, it took a divorce to sever the bonds of a betrothal. When Miriam was found to be pregnant, Yoseph was inclined to divorce her. Yet an angel intervened and let them know that this child was not from an unfaithful relationship, but of the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20).
This brief biographical sketch provides the foundation for Yeshua’s messianic identity which, of course, the Pharisees denied. It is noteworthy that there is no serious objection by religious leaders or others to Yeshua’s Bethlehem birth, or that he possessed lineage from King David.10 Neither the Pharisees, the Scribes, nor the Sadducees contested the genealogy or the birth place. But with the rising threat of the Jewish Yeshua-believers who were not welcome in the synagogues, and possibly excluded by 90 ce through the birkat haminim pronouncement,11 the post-destruction rabbis seize the opportunity to construct a response that would undermine his claim to royalty, the throne, and the messianic office. Presumably, this would be effective to discourage other Jews from examining Brit Hadashah accounts and claims concerning Yeshua.
The Mishnah and the Gemara exposit on the law which denounces the writing of two or more letters on Shabbat as work.12 The discussion turns to the question of the object of the writing and whether tattoos are prohibited. R. Eliezer says yes, and R. Yehoshua says that they are not prohibited. R. Eliezer, in the parallel reading of the Tosefta, an expanded supplement to the Mishnah, says: “But did not Ben Stada bring forth witchcraft from Egypt by means of scratches/tattoos upon his flesh?”13 The sages respond that Ben Stada was a fool and that a fool should not influence the implementation of the Sabbath laws.14 The uncensored version of the text then digresses by attacking Yeshua’s pedigree, apparently in direct response to the gospel accounts:
(Was he) the son of Stada (and not on the contrary) the son of Pandera?
Said Rav Hisda: the husband (ba’al) was Stada, (and) the cohabiter/lover (bo’el) was Pandera.
(But was not) the husband (ba’el) Pappos ben Yehuda and rather his mother Stada?
His mother was [Miriam], (the woman who) let (her) . . . [hair] grow long. . . . This is as they say about her in Pumbeditha: This one turned away from (was unfaithful to) her husband. . . . 15
Here there is a question that needs to be resolved. Was this offspring the son of Stada or the son of Pandera? Rav Hisda, a rabbinic sage of the academy of Sura, suggests that there are two fathers—the husband and the lover—and thus two names were invoked: the son of Stada when referring to the husband and the son of Pandera when referring to the lover. But an anonymous voice rebuts this by saying that the father was Pappos ben Yehuda, and it was the mother who was called Stada. Now, the discourse strays to the question of the meaning of “stada.” The rival academy in Pumbeditha responds and clarifies the meaning by noting that the mother’s name was actually Miriam, but she is a “stada,” which means “one who has gone astray.”16 This raises the implication that she was unfaithful and, in fact, was a sotah, subject to the law of verification through drinking bitter water.17 Rather than put Miriam through the humiliation of the sotah ritual for testing for a woman’s unfaithfulness, Yoseph opted for a private divorce (Matt. 1:19).
All considered, it is more than mere conjecture that here is a post hoc attempt to illegitimize the gospel birth story by impugning Miriam’s reputation, and thereby disqualify Yeshua from being the Jewish Anointed One. By pairing Miriam with ben Pandera, the lover, it defines Yeshua as a mamzer, thus an illicit heir to the Jewish throne. Some translations refer to Miriam as a “hairdresser,” 18 a not-so-reputable profession, and one who is spurned as promiscuous.19
In another Talmudic reference we read, “Rabbi Shimon ben Azai said ‘I have found a roll of pedigrees in Jerusalem and therein is written a certain person of spurious descent.’”20 Another portion reads: “She [Miriam] was the descendant of princes and rulers; she played the harlot with carpenters.”21 Here are reinforced attacks on the genealogy of Miriam from whom Yeshua claims direct Davidic rule, by alleging “spurious” descent, and illegitimacy. However, it would be very unlikely that any records were recovered from the Jerusalem Temple area post-70 ce because of its total obliteration. Matthew and Luke both had access to the Temple records before the 70 ce destruction and they most likely verified the Davidic claim through Temple records. This was the place and the time to dispute the ancestry, not centuries later when the records were no longer available, and only speculation abounded.
The Disciples of Yeshua
Yeshua had twelve apostles; when Judas was lost the community cast lots and a replacement apostle was tapped (Acts 1:15–26). The number twelve is significant. First, it is a substantial number, indicating that Yeshua had a critical mass of inner-circle devotees, whom he was specially discipling. But even more significant is the fact that there were twelve sons of Jacob, giving rise to twelve tribes. Hence, the twelve apostles correspond in some spiritual and eschatological way with the twelve tribes of Israel. In the New Jerusalem the twelve apostles’ names will be written in the twelve foundations of the wall (Rev 21:14). This capstones the high honor of the apostles who were chosen by Yeshua, much in the same way as the sages chose their disciples. The apostles were the foundation of the kehilah of which the cornerstone is Yeshua. This lofty position was manifest throughout the gospels.
The Talmud takes aim at the number twelve by listing only five: Matthai, Nequai, Netzer, Buni, and Thodah.22 Moreover, instead of acknowledging the exalted position the apostles occupy in the gospels, and their commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19), the Talmud relegates them to condemnation and death by execution for the “crimes” of blasphemy and idolatry, presumably for their association with Yeshua.23 Interestingly, it is the same punishment (death) as Yeshua’s, and the Bavli’s account is positioned immediately after the account of Yeshua’s execution.24
What is even more rewarding in our search for an understanding of the Talmudic exposition is the dialogue between each “apostle” pleading for life, and each rabbinic sage arguing for death. In an exegetical midrashic combat, each accused and each sage cites a verse of scripture which argues for its position based on the meaning of each of the Hebrew names assigned to the five disciples.25
Mattai’s plea: “When (Mattai) shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42:3)
Rejoinder: “When (Mattai) will he die and his name perish?” (Psalm 41:6)
Naqqai’s plea: “You shall not execute the innocent (naqi) and the righteous.” (Ex. 23:7)
Rejoinder: “From a covert he executes the innocent” (naqi). (Psalm 10:8)
Netzer’s plea: “An offshoot (netzer) shall grow forth out of his roots.” (Isaiah 11:1)
Rejoinder: “You shall cast forth away from your grave like an abhorred off-shoot” (netzer). (Isaiah 14:19)
Buni’s plea: “My son (beni), my firstborn is Israel.” (Exodus 4:22)
Rejoinder: “Behold I will execute your firstborn son (binka).” (Exodus 4:23)
Todah’s plea: “A Psalm for thanksgiving (todah).” (Psalm 100:1)
Rejoinder: “He who . . . [executes] . . . Todah . . . honors me.” (Psalm 50:23)26
Each disciple first protests his death penalty by pleading for life, citing a scriptural reference that portrays a life-giving meaning of his name, but in each case a sage counters with the same Hebrew word in a scripture that speaks of death.27 The scripture of each apostle supported a plea for life, and each rabbinic scripture supported a rebuttal for death that may be cryptically applied to the disciple’s master, Yeshua.28
The Teachings of Yeshua
Although there are a number of Talmudic passages that rebut the teachings of Yeshua, one stands out as illustrative of the contention that the Talmud contains an express counter-narrative to the gospel stories, and in a sense serves up the last word from the rabbinic side of the dispute. In the gospel of Matthew we read:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat! . . .” Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matt 15:1–2, 10–20)
Here Yeshua bested the Pharisees in the sparring. Just previously he had turned the tables by saying that it is they who actually transgress the commandments of God by a certain tradition whereby under the guise of declaring money or property korban, they are able to defeat the commandment to honor parents by dedicating “their honor” elsewhere (Matt 15:3–9). These attacks upon their Pharisaic predecessors did not sit well with the rabbis who looked back on the contest, and now lodged the final word. The Talmud’s counter-narrative condemns Yeshua for eternity, relegating him to “boiling in his own excrement.”29 Thus, it is not far-fetched to imagine that the “boiling in excrement” condemnation was a response to Yeshua’s alleged discounting of purity laws. As supposed, since Yeshua undermined traditional handwashing purity laws, he will be condemned to lie in his own impurity (excrement) for eternity, thus providing the lesson to all those Jews who follow him that tradition is essential and “what goes into the mouth” does matter.”30 In other words, one is defiled by the lack of ritual handwashing. However, it is noteworthy that the rabbis misunderstood Yeshua’s metaphor. He was certainly not declaring that his Jewish followers could eat anything, whether kosher or not, nor that they should refrain from ritual handwashing. He was merely teaching that the tradition of handwashing must yield to Mosaic commandments and the weightier matters, when they are in conflict, an accepted rabbinic practice even today.
There is still another possibility for the underlying rationale for the vile accusation that Yeshua is “boiling in his own excrement.” It may be a response to the promise of eternal life that Yeshua offers to his followers through his resurrection. On the crucifixion stake he said to the thief next to him, who had repented: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). In fact, the Talmudic retort is, “No, Yeshua will not be in paradise but will be in hell burning in his own excrement,” a pronouncement intending to send a frightening message to all those contemplating following Yeshua.
The Miracles of Yeshua
Yeshua performed miracles in the manner of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. The miracles were a sign of his distinctiveness and, along with his teaching, attracted crowds. His popularity grew and his words spread. His miracles consisted of healing the blind, the lame, and the mute, as well as calming the winds, walking on water, and multiplying the bread and the fish. His authority came either from God or from the devil. Talmudic authorities answered that question by insisting that Yeshua derived his magical powers from the charms he had brought out of Egypt,31 thus disparaging the origins of his miracles while conflating and distorting a number of the gospel entries.32
Yeshua was shuttled to Egypt when a young child in order to flee from King Herod; there were magicians in Egypt from the time of Moses. The Talmud simply says that he “wrought his miracles by means of sorcery, which he had brought with him from Egypt,” by hiding it in a cut in his skin.33 Hence, the Talmud picks up on the explanation of the Pharisees who accused him of casting out demons by the prince of demons (Matt 12:24). It further explains that Yeshua brought the sorcery out of Egypt by hiding the magic in an incision in his flesh, thus making him ineligible to be the “unblemished” Lamb of God.
Still, an alternative story disparaging the miracles of Yeshua (or Yeshu, as he is referred to in some Talmudic manuscripts) places him in a setting where he, an alleged disciple of Joshua Ben Perachiah, fled with Joshua from Jerusalem to Alexandria to escape King Alexander Yannai, the second ruler of the Hasmonean dynasty in Judea, 103–76 BCE, who was putting Pharisees to death. Yeshua allegedly had an altercation with Joshua over a presumed “sexual” remark at an inn they were visiting, which ultimately led to Joshua excommunicating Yeshua. However, after Yeshua came to Joshua several times and asked him to rescind the ban, Joshua had second thoughts and encouraged Yeshua to repent. Yeshua refused because he did not think that he had the liberty to do so after committing such great a sin.34 Yeshu, according to the narrative, “stood up a brick to symbolize an idol and bowed down to it. [He] performed magic and incited the people of Israel and led them astray.”35
This account, aside from being composed hundreds of years after the alleged event, with no historical report before that, also fails for the chronology of the characters.36 Joshua ben Perachiah was born in the latter part of the 2nd century bce, whereas Yeshua was active in the early part of the 1st century ce, 150 or so years later. Thus, it was impossible for their lives to intersect. For these reasons some scholars refuse to believe that this is the Yeshua of the Brit Hadashah. However, the Talmud is not a reliable historical document and it is not unusual for it to conflate people and events that occur in non-intersecting time periods. The important matter here is that the Talmud redactors may be taking the liberty to rebut something that is connected to Yeshua and the Brit Hadashah.
Timing and chronology defects were apparently not an impediment to the defamatory comments. Here is yet another rebuttal to the healing and miracle claims that were asserted in the Brit Hadashah. Those claims are discredited by explaining them as derived from sorcery.
The Trial and Execution of Yeshua
The trial of Yeshua is treated in each of the four gospels (Matt 27–28; Mark 15–16; Luke 22–24; John 18–21). Jewish law comprehends several methods of capital punishment, but not crucifixion. That was a Roman application. The Sanhedrin’s right to implement the death penalty was weakened by the Empire before Yeshua’s execution (John 18:31).37 The gospels clearly state that Yeshua was convicted by the High Priest and presumably the leaders of the Sanhedrin, and turned over to the governor for execution, which under Jewish law was appropriate for the crime of blasphemy, and under Roman law, for the crime of sedition or treason.
The gospels assign blame for the condemnation of Yeshua to the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, and even the Jews (or Judeans).38 However, there are gospel details that militate in favor of the Roman government’s greater culpability. First, the mode of execution is by crucifixion, a Roman not a Jewish method. Second, the Sanhedrin did not have the power to implement the death penalty (John 18:31). Third, there is a serious question about the legality of the trial process, suggesting that the Roman authorities under the circumstances are at fault for executing on a sentence that lacked traditional Sanhedrin due process.39
The Talmud’s response is a strange admixture of semi-truths gleaned from the gospels, but modified for a particular purpose. Perhaps the purpose was to unequivocally place the blame on the Jewish people for the death of Yeshua, in order to make it clear that he deserved what he got for the sin of exalting himself as God (blasphemy).
The Talmud records that Yeshua was hanged on the eve of the Passover.40 Hanging was a form of punishment utilized by the Jews before they were stripped of it by Rome. First, the convicted would be stoned and then hanged publicly. The Talmudic voice does not want to suggest that Yeshua was crucified but rather was hanged in the manner of the Jews, thereby placing the responsibility for Yeshua’s death squarely upon Jewish law, which supports the death penalty for blasphemy.41
Anticipating the accusation that Yeshua was not afforded due process, the Talmudic account clothes the procedure with legitimacy in at least two reports. One passage says that a herald went forth for 40 days before the execution, announcing the charges against Yeshua and pleading for anyone who knew something that would exonerate him to speak up. The law required the heralds to go in front of the accused only immediately before the sentence was executed. However, the Talmud in the special case of Yeshua, because he was allegedly “close to the kingdom (government),” claimed that he was given more than the process due him under the law.42 Second, the Talmud states that two witnesses were in the outer chamber while Yeshua was questioned in the inner chamber and thus heard him blaspheme. This anticipates that there would be disagreement as to whether, from the pericopes contained in the gospel stories, two witnesses freely confirmed his guilt, as required by the Torah and the Sanhedrin. Although this “concealment” is highly irregular, the Talmud justifies it once again because allegedly Yeshua was favored by the sovereign and apparently would otherwise secure help from the Roman authorities.43
Reports of Sages Connected to Yeshua
The Mishnaic and Amoraic rabbis had good reason to be concerned about the proliferation of Jewish Yeshua-followers. It is suspected that there were even some within their own ranks, or at least some who came into contact with Yeshua’s teachings.
Nakdimon ben Gurion
There is support for the contention that Nicodemus who came to Yeshua by night appears in the Talmud by the name Nicodemus (or Nakdimon) ben Gurion, who is a wealthy, righteous man, possessing miraculous powers.44 There are several stories and references concerning him in various Talmud tractates. In one he lost his wealth,45 in another he miraculously through prayer caused the rain to fall and then the sun to shine.46 It would be odd for the Talmudic sages not to disparage him had it been the same Nicodemus who came to Yeshua by night and appeared to come to faith in the 1st century. But Talmudic sourcing does equate Nicodemus with the name Buni (or Boni) who appears as one of Yeshua’s apostles.47 The Talmud voice further reflects on circumstances that led to Nakdimon ben Gurion losing his riches, which is deemed a “curse.” Whether Nicodemus, who came to Yeshua at night and was present at his burial circa 33 ce, and Nakdimon ben Gurion of the Talmud were the same person historically is beside the point. The time gap, if it exists, is closed by Talmudic voices that are not deterred by that problem, but rather are able to engage in a creative historiography by conflating the two figures.
Shmuel HaKatan, a 2nd-century rabbi, is credited with constructing the birkat haminim,48 a curse inserted in the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions) or Amidah (Standing Prayer), and now rewritten and recited as benediction number twelve. The minim were heretics who may have included Jewish believers in Yeshua.49 The curse was useful as a tool for weeding out the minim who would not recite it in the synagogue because it would be a self-curse. It is quite noteworthy that Shmuel HaKatan apparently refused to recite that curse, which he constructed, thereby raising suspicion that he was a min, an apostate, or even a Yeshua-follower. However, the Council that ruled on the issue refused to sanction him, perhaps because he was the author of it and he was old and forgot the wording.50 A plausible alternative is that he became a believer in Yeshua and would not pronounce a curse against himself.
Ben Zoma was a prominent 1st and 2nd century tanna who was adjudged as being “on the outside” by his peers. A Talmudic passage suggests that he had doctrinally “gone astray,” evidenced by his “trinitarian” allusions based on an exegesis of a portion of Bereshit (Genesis), and cryptic comments about the virgin birth.51 He was one of the four rabbis who went into the pardes (orchard) of esoteric knowledge, “gazed and [went out of his mind],”52 a possible rabbinic rationalization for why he had “gone astray” in his messianic allusions and interpretations. Although it would have been very difficult to publicly disavow this brilliant sage (who also appears in every Haggadah), saying he “was on the outside” was a possible way of signaling that he was a believer in Yeshua to be shunned.53
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was a mishnaic sage who sat under Yohanan ben Zakkai, Nasi of the Yavneh Council, and was assigned the name Eliezer haGadol (the Great). He is one of the most cited rabbis in the Mishnah and considered to be a giant in scholarship. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and had his own academy at Lydda where a number of prominent students studied, including Akiva.54
In a dispute over whether a new-fangled oven could become unclean, he made an unorthodox appeal to the supernatural, and insisted that it could, in opposition to the majority. He thus allegedly dodged the tradition of the majority rule and the principle that “Torah is no longer in heaven.” He was put under a ban and sidelined for the rest of his life.55 He humbly accepted the expulsion, though his teachings remain permanently embedded in the Talmud.
There is a “rest of the story,” which may explain further the ban and Eliezer’s long isolation leading up to his death. When trying to figure out why he was accused of apostasy, he remembered that once in Sepphoris he met a disciple of Yeshua who communicated to him a halakhah in the name of Ben Pandera, a pseudo-name of Yeshua. He admitted that he listened to him and found pleasure hearing it. He thus acceded to the judgment against him, citing Proverbs 5:8: “Keep your path far from her and do not go near to her house.”56
Eleazar ben Dama
Eleazar ben Dama was a tanna of the beginning of the 2nd century and a nephew of Yishmael ben Elisha. Eleazar and his uncle did not always agree on rabbinic matters. Once Eleazar was bit by a poisonous snake. Jacob of Kefar, a Yeshua-follower, offered to heal him by invoking the name of Yeshu ben Pandera. Eleazar’s uncle was opposed. Eleazar so wanted to live that he contradicted his uncle and consented to the offer. However, before the prayer was invoked Eleazar died.57
This study is not intended to be comprehensive, but only selective. It does not exhaust all of the Talmudic passages that purportedly refer to Yeshua, but samples them through the lens of the Brit Hadashah, and particularly the gospel stories. There is much that the Talmud does not expressly say about Yeshua, including any direct rebuttal to the resurrection claim. Perhaps this omission was intentional so that attention would not be drawn to the resurrection. However, the resurrection is tacitly rebutted by the other Talmudic refutations of Yeshua discussed within this article. Additionally, there was an implied rebuttal in the Brit Hadashah where the soldiers who were watching the tomb said that the disciples came and stole the body, explaining its absence (Matt 28:12–13).
The study has presented a model for examining Talmudic disparagements of Yeshua by casting each as a specific reaction to the gospel claims. That model reads the Talmud references as a counter-narrative to the gospel story contained within the Brit Hadashah. It continues the polemical conversation with Yeshua and his disciples expressed in both halakhic and aggadic discourses. By reacting to the gospel story it becomes clear that the Amoraic sages who opposed Yeshua and his associates, who sought to undermine the Yeshua-believers, and who placed the Brit Hadashah on the banned list, had a familiarity with at least some of its contents. Although the Brit Hadashah closes the Messianic canon, the Yeshua apologetic debate has continued throughout the ages with an increased scholarly interest and awareness in the last half-century regarding the Jewish essence of the gospels and Yeshua, as opposed to the Talmudic ad hominem disparagement response to the Brit Hadashah.58
Rabbi Elliot Klayman is a past president of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, the current Executive Director of Messianic Literature Outreach, and editor of its publication, The Messianic Outreach. He is the Chief Financial Officer of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, and a former editor of Kesher. He teaches in various messianic schools and forums and has published widely in journals and books, on a variety of Jewish history topics. Elliot holds an MA in Jewish History from The Ohio State University (OSU), as well as two law degrees. He is an attorney, an emeritus professor of law, and an elder at Kehilat Ariel, San Diego, where he resides with his wife and granddaughter.
1 This article is a substantial revision and expansion of a paper submitted to St. Petersburg Seminary and Yeshiva, “Gospels in Jewish Context,” Spring, 2013, taught by Dr. John Fischer, which appeared under the title, “The Talmud’s Response to Yeshua in the Gospels,” The Messianic Outreach 32:4 (2013): 3–10. All Brit Hadashah references are to the New International Version (NIV) and all Hebrew Bible references are to the Jewish Publication Society (JPS 1999).
2 The Mishnah, redacted circa 225 ce (including an addendum, Pirke Avot), is a compilation of the oral law and traditions passed down from the sages since 450 bce. The Talmud and the Gemara are used as interchangeable terms within this work, and consists of an expanded commentary on the Mishnah. The Jerusalem (Yerushalmi) Talmud was completed circa 400 ce; the Babylonian (Bavli) Talmud was completed circa 500 ce. The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem) has fewer citations to Yeshua, probably because the redactors were under Roman Christian rule at the time and did not want to offend Rome; and because it ended at least 100 years before the Bavli. All Talmud citations are to the Bavli, unless otherwise noted.
The Mishnah does not expressly contain Yeshua references but it does contain sayings that were identical, or similar to some of Yeshua’s sayings. Dr. Roy B. Blizzard, Jr., Mishnah and the Words of Jesus (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013). This is not surprising since Yeshua was within the same Jewish pale as the Mishnaic sages, and some scholars see him as following a Pharisaic tradition of Hillel, as opposed to the Shammai school, e.g. Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003). Others have gone so far as to identify Jesus as a Pharisee, e.g. Hyam Maccoby, Jesus the Pharisee (UK: SCM Press, 2003).
3 See Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). The term Brit Hadashah is often referred to as the New Testament and is translated from the Hebrew, as New Covenant, and used throughout the article.
4 By the second century the Harmony of the Four Gospels (Diatessaron) compiled by Tatian was distributed and in the 5th century the New Testament Peshitta was circulating. For an extensive treatment of the early versions of the gospels see Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 10ff. Certainly Trypho, the Jew in dialogue with Justin Martyr, was aware of the gospel story by the middle of the second century.
5 The Yerushalmi Talmud does include some disparaging comments about Yeshua, but more sparingly than the Bavli, probably, in part, because the amoraim in Babylon who were given greater freedom under the Sasanian rule than the Yerushalmi amoraim under Christian rule; see also note 2. Nonetheless, the Talmud was under great threat especially during the Middle Ages in Europe where disputations and persecutions often resulted in its burning and/or censorship of the “slanderous” portions. It is nonetheless possible to reconstruct the original by examining various Talmudic versions during different eras as has been facilitated by the electronic collections of manuscripts both online and maintained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. For a list of various Bavli versions and comparisons see Schafer, 131–44.
6 They included Nakdimon ben Gurion, who may cryptically appear in the Talmud as a disciple of Yeshua, and the same Nicodemus who appears in the Brit Hadashah; Shmuel HaKatan, the sage who reputedly constructed the birkat haminim; Ben Zoma, a prominent late 1st and early 2nd century tannaitic sage adjudged as being “on the outside” by his peers; Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a mishnaic sage who may have been put under the ban for listening to a disciple of Yeshua; and Eleazar ben Dama, who sought healing from a snake bite from Jacob of Kefar, in the name of Yeshua. See below under “Reports of Sages Connected to Yeshua,” including notes 44–57, and accompanying text.
7 Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1.1 (circa 225 ce).
8 See Gil Student, The Jesus Narrative in the Talmud, http://www.angelfire.com/mt/talmud/jesusnarr.html (accessed 6/16/20).
9 “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name [Yeshua = Salvation] because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
10 Though not an accurate or serious objection, some disputing in a crowd denied that Yeshua was Messiah, maintaining that he cannot be the Messiah because “the Messiah does not come from the Galilee” but rather from Bethlehem (John 7:41b–42). This was just an isolated mistake or confusion regarding Yeshua’s residency versus his birthplace.
11 Ber 28b–29a; The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin Jaffee (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), xviii, 258–59 (the birkat haminim included followers of Yeshua); see also Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing, 1991) (taking the position that the minim were Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah, post-Temple destruction). There are various versions of the birkat haminim. One version, derived from a geniza fragment, reads:
For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the nozerim and the minim be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant. Encyclopedia Judaica,
“Birkat-Ha-minim,” https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/birkat-ha-minim, accessed 6/19/20.
Some scholars question whether nozerim, which refers to Jewish believers in Yeshua, was in the original or was added after the Bar Kokhba revolt. The history of the plethora of changes in the birkat haminim makes it difficult to know precisely if and when the Jewish Yeshua-believers were at least one of its targets. While there is scholarly support for the belief that it was part of the circa 90 ce rendition there is also support denying that it addressed Yeshua-believers, at least, within the first century versions. See Ruth Langer, Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat Haminim, Chapter 1, “Origins and Early History” (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2011). But see Jeffrey M. Cohen, “Shmuel HaKatan and the Political Background of Avot 4:19,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought. (Vol. 44:2, 1995), 171–9, indicating that Rome was the primary target but Jewish believers were also included. For an exhaustive treatment of the birkat haminim, see David Flusser, Judaism of the Second Temple Period, Vol. I “Qumran and Apocalypticism,” trans. Azzan Yadin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 70–118 (Chap 9, “4QMMT
and the Benediction against the Minim”).
12 Mishnah, Shab 12.4; Shab 104b.
13 Schafer, 16. Various veiled allusions to Yeshua appear in the Talmudic discourses, including the names Ben Stada and Ben Pandera, gleaned in part from how the discourses follow the Brit Hadashah narrative of Yeshua’s birth and life, and the counter-narrative to the story it presents.
14 Schafer, 16.
15 Shab 104b (uncensored version, Munich 95); Schafer, 16. It is well to note that the Talmud’s references to Yeshua (identified as Yeshu, sparingly) are fragmented, convoluted, and complex, and often adorned with cryptic allusions and pseudo-names for Yeshua and his family. The references cited are supported by a historiography of scholarship on the subject. , See Schafer, 1–14. But see, Johann Maier, Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Ulberlieferung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschast, 1982), denying that these citations are references to Jesus.
16 See Joseph S, “Yeshua in the Talmud,” The Messianic Outreach (Vol. 3:4, 1984):13–14, arguing that the Talmud writers lacked understanding of the time of Yeshua’s birth and his father’s name.
17 Num 5:11–31; for the detailed ritual see Sotah tractates in the Mishnah, Gemara, and Tosefta. Interestingly, sotah and stada are variants, with sotah, a Mishnaic Hebrew term meaning “strayed,” and stada translated as “gone astray.” Hence, it is clear that the “gone astray” stada Talmudic reference characterizes Miriam as “unfaithful.”
18 Shab 104b.
19 For a finding of confusion between Mary, the mother of Yeshua and Mary Magdalene, see Gustav Dalman, Jesus Christ in the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar and the Liturgy of the Synagogue (New York: Arno Press, 1973), 16f., noting that both women are named Mary, both are identified as hairdressers and both have tarnished reputations.
20 Mishnah, Yevam 4.13.
21 Sanh 106a. The allusion to the gospel accounts here tying the Talmud account to a distorted Brit Hadashah account is obvious. Note that Luke 3’s genealogy of Yeshua on Miriam’s side traces her to princes and rulers of Israel, including King David; Mark 6:3 suggests that Yeshua was a carpenter and Matthew 13:55 identifies Joseph as a carpenter; Yeshua’s virgin birth raises suspicions of illegitimacy, and of Miriam’s unfaithfulness. See also a discussion of Yeshua’s family background in Schafer, 15–24.
22 Matthai = Matthew; Naqqai = Luke; Netzer = Andrew, or a pun on Notzrim (Christian); Buni = Nicodemus or John; and Todah = Thaddaeus. Sanh 43a–b; Schafer, 171, n. 11. For an interesting analysis that concludes that the compiler mistakes Naqqui and Buni for different personages when, in fact, Buni is his Hebrew name and Naqqui is his Greek name, and thus they are the same, see Richard Bauckham, “Nicodemus and the Gurion Family,” JTS 47, No 1 (1996): 37.
23 Schafer, 77.
24 Sanh 43a–b (an early baraita); Schafer, 75.
25 Sanh 43a–b. For a more complete dialogue contained in the Sanhedrin tractate, with analyses, see Schafer, 75–81.
26 Schafer, 77.
27 Schafer, 75–76.
28 Schafer, 78–81.
29 See Git 57a where Yeshu (a shortened form of Yeshua) is brought up from hell and proclaims that he is boiling in his own excrement.
30 Schafer, 91; for a fuller treatment of the Talmud’s depiction of “Jesus’ punishment in hell” see Schafer, 82–94.
31 For a recent treatment of the “magic” of Yeshua reported in rabbinic literature see Michael D. Swartz, The Mechanics of Providence: The Workings of Ancient Jewish Magic and Mysticism, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 172 (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 71–87.
32 Shab 104b (“Jesus was a magician and a fool.”); Sanh 43a (“[He] incited and led Israel astray.”).
33 A. W. Streane, Jesus Christ in the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar and the Liturgy of the Synagogue (Cambridge: Deighton Bell, 1893), 46–47.
34 Sanh 107b; Sotah 47a.
35 Sanh 107b.
36 For a short treatment of the account see Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 23–26.
37 Yerushalmi Sanh 18a (“Forty years before the destruction [of the Temple], they took away [from the Sanhedrin] the [right of judging] capital cases”); see also Sanh 41a. There appears to be a vacillation of this withdrawal depending upon the strictness of the local Judean governor. During Yeshua’s execution, Pilate was the reigning governor; he was deemed to be very rigid and hard on the Jewish populace. It is reasonable to conclude that he was stricter when it came to relaxing the sovereign jurisdiction for capital punishment than some other governors. A History of the Jewish People, ed. H. H. Ben Sasson (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985), 250.
38 Matt 26:57, 59, 65–66; 27:1–2, 25; Mark 14:53a, 63–64; 15:1a, 3, 11–14; Luke 22:66, 70, 71; 23:1, 21, 23. However, Acts 4:26–27 assigns blame among the “kings of the earth” and “rulers,” Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the gentiles and “the people of Israel.” It is also noteworthy that Yeshua interceded on the crucifixion stake for their forgiveness, insisting that they “know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
39 For an exhaustive treatment of the trial of Yeshua examined by an Israeli Justice of the High Court see Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus (Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 2000), who concludes that Rome was responsible for the death of Jesus. See also Harold Rhodes, 10 Reasons the Trial of Jesus Was Illegal, https://lifehopeandtruth.com/god/who-is-jesus/reasons-trial-of-jesus-illegal/ (accessed 6/16/20).
40 Sanh 43a–b.
41 But see Solomon Zeitlin, Who Crucified Jesus? (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1975). It is noteworthy that Pilate was not concerned so much about blasphemy as he was about sedition, which was connected to the accusation that Yeshua claimed to be “King” of the Jews—which was more of a threat to Rome than blasphemy (Matt 27:11; Mark 15:2; and John 18:37). He is also accused of subversion of the nation, and forbidding payment of taxes (Luke 23:2).
42 Sanh 43a.
43 For a fuller treatment of Yeshua’s execution related to the Brit Hadashah, the Mishnah, and the Gemara see Schafer, 63–74.
44 Git 56a. See Oschser Schulim and Kaufman Kohler, “Nicodemus” Jewish Encyclopedia (1906),
http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11525-nicodemus (accessed 6/29/20), suggesting that Nicodemus of the Brit Hadashah and Nakdimon ben Gurion of the Talmud are the same; Sidney R. Sandstrom, “Nicodemus: Coward or Convert?” Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel, 9:3 (2008): 49–59, https://scholars archive.byu.edu/re/vol9/iss3/6 (accessed 6/29/20), suggesting that it is extremely probable that Nicodemus of the gospels and Nakdimon ben Gurion of the Talmud are one and the same, 59–60; but see Bauckham, 1–37, concluding that Nicodemus of the Brit Hadashah and Nakdimon ben Gurion of the Talmud are within the same family, with Nicodemus likely being the uncle of ben Gurion.
45 Ketub 66b; Git 56.
46 Ta’an 19b.
47 Sanh 43a–b; see also note 22.
48 Ber 28b–29a.
49 See note 11.
50 For a suggestion that Shmuel HaKatan would not recite the imprecation because it included a veiled reference against Rome, and he was fearful of Rome’s recrimination against him, see Cohen, 171–9.
Ben Zoma was asked: May a high priest marry a maiden who has become pregnant? [The high priest may marry a virgin only (Lev. XXI, 13).] The question here is: If the girl claims that despite her pregnant condition she is still a virgin, may the high priest marry her? . . . [Ben Zoma replied] . . . [W]e do consider that she may have conceived in a bath [into which a male had discharged semen].
52 Hag 14b. The other three rabbis were Ben Azzai, Elisha ben Abuya (Acher) and Rabbi Akiva.
53 Samson H. Levey, “The Best Kept Secret of the Rabbinic Tradition,” Judaism (Fall 1972): 454–469.
54 Solomon Schecter and S. Mendelsohn, “Eliezer (Liezer) Ben Hyrcanus,” Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5604-eliezer-liezer-ben-hyrcanus (accessed 6/29/20). For an extensive treatment of Eliezer’s life and teachings see Jacob Neusner, Eliezer Hyrcanus: The Tradition and the Man, Vols. 1 & 2 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), reprinted from Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973.
55 Bava Metz 59a–b. See also Schafer, 49–51
56 Avod Zar 16–17; see also Rachmiel Frydland, “Yeshua and the Rabbis,” The Messianic Outreach (14:1, 1994): 41–42.
57 Hul 2:22f. See also Schafer, 54–57.
58 For example, Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York, New Press, 2013); W.D. Davies, The Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966); David Flusser and R. Steven Notley (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magness Press, 2001); Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times and Teaching (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1997); Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002); Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007); David J. Mishkin, Jewish Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017); E.P Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985); Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).