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Jesus (Yeshu) In The Talmud
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    Despite the numerous mentions of Edom which may refer to Christendom, the Talmud makes little mention of Jesus directly or the early Christians. There are a number of quotes about individuals named Yeshu that once existed in editions of the Talmud; these quotes were long ago removed from the main text due to accusations that they referred to Jesus, and are no longer used in Talmud study. However, these removed quotes were preserved through rare printings of lists of errata, known as Hashmatot Hashass ("Omissions of the Talmud"). Some modern editions of the Talmud contain some or all of this material, either at the back of the book, in the margin, or in alternate print. These passages do not necessarily refer to a single individual and many of the stories are far removed from anything written in the New Testament. Many scholars are convinced that these people cannot be identified with the Christian messiah.

    There is some debate over the meaning of "Yeshu." It has been used as an acronym (יש"ו) for the Hebrew expression ימח שמו וזכרו (yemach shemo vezichro), meaning "May his name and memory be obliterated", a term used for those guilty of enticing Jews to idolatry and used in place of the real names of individuals guilty of such sins who are deemed not worthy of being remembered in history. Some argue that this has always been its meaning. Indeed the name does not correspond to any known Hebrew root and moreover no other individuals have ever borne this name in Jewish history, while the usage of the expression yemach shemo vezichro and its acronym were widely used in Jewish writings.

    Others point out that the word is similar to, and may be a wordplay on, Yeshua, believed by many to be the original Aramaic or Hebrew name of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity. Due to this fact, along with the occurrence in several manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud of the appellation Yeshu Ha-Notzri, which some Christian writers submit may refer to the nazarene, and some similarities between the stories of the two figures, some or many of the references to Yeshu have been traditionally understood to refer to the Jesus of Christianity.

    The question has historically been a delicate one because Yeshu is portrayed in a negative light; negative portrayals of Jesus in Jewish literature might incite negative Christian reactions, even anti-semitism.

    The references of Yeshu have been used as evidence for the Historicity of Jesus but also to discredit Christianity.

    Currently, there are at least three approaches to the relationship of Yeshu and Jesus:

    • that there is no relationship between Yeshu and Jesus

    • that Yeshu refers to Jesus

    • that Yeshu is a literary device used by Rabbis to comment on their relationship to and with early Christians.

    The primary references to Yeshu are found in older texts of the Talmud as a 1554 papal bull ordered the removal of those references, deemed offensive and blasphemous to Christians, from the the Talmud and other Jewish texts.

    The primary references to Yeshu are found in uncensored version of the Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah, 16b-17a; Sanhedrin 43a, 103a, 107b; Berachot 17b; Sotah 47a) and the Tosefta (Chullin 2:22-24; 2:24). No known manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud makes mention of the name.

    In the Tosefta reference to Yeshu, the title ben-Pandera (son of Pandera) is added after the name.

    Another title found in the Tosefta and Talmud is ben-Stada (son of Stada). This title is never applied to Yeshu. However in Shabbat 104b and Sanhedrin 67a in the Babylonian Talmud, a passage is found that some have interpreted as equating ben-Pandera with ben-Stada.

    Identification of Yeshu with Jesus

    Many Jews and Christians have traditionally assumed that the term Yeshu in the Talmud and Tosefta refers to Jesus. Since at least the 12th century the standard Hebrew name for Jesus has been Yeshu. As well, many of the stories about Yeshu in rabbinic literature are understood to be about the Christian Jesus. This is also the view of Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life, and R. Travers Herford, author of Christianity in Talmud and Midrash.

    The argument that Yeshu is the Christian Jesus is based on the observation that the name Yeshu, is similar to Yeshua, which is often believed to be the Aramaic or Hebrew name of Jesus. Certain manuscripts of the Tosefta in fact render the name as Yeshua instead of Yeshu. Moreover it can be argued that the form Yeshu might result from the final consonant of Yeshua (the guttural ayin) becoming a silent letter.

    Like Jesus (according to the Gospel of John), Yeshu was executed on the Eve of Passover. The Florence manuscript says in addition that this was the Eve of the Sabbath, which resembles the day of crucifixion according to all four gospels. The term Notzri used in the Munich, Paris, and JTS manuscripts resembles Nazarene.

    Some see the Greek for virgin parthenos in the word "Pandera" either as a corrupted pronunciation or an intentional play on words. Others see the names of Jesus' disciples amongst the five disciples of Yeshu; principally Matai and Todah as Matthew and Thaddaeus

    Criticism of the identification of Yeshu with Jesus

    Critics of the identification of Yeshu with Jesus point to inconsistencies between the Talmudic references to Yeshu and ben-Stada and the stories about Jesus in the New Testament. The oppression by King Jannæus mentioned in the Talmud occurred about 87 BCE, which would put the events of the story about a century before Jesus. The Yeshu who taught Jacob of Sechania would have lived a century after Jesus. The forty day waiting period before execution is absent from the Christian tradition and moreover Jesus did not have connections with the government. Jesus was crucified not stoned. Jesus was executed in Jerusalem not Lod. Jesus did not burn his food in public and moreover the Yeshu who did this corresponds to Manasseh of Judah in the Shulkhan Arukh. Jesus did not make incisions in his flesh, nor was he caught by hidden observers. In the 13th century Jehiel ben Joseph of Paris wrote that the Yeshu in rabbinic literature was a disciple of Joshua ben Perachiah, and not to be confused with Jesus the Nazarene (Vikkuah Rabbenu Yehiel mi-Paris). Nahmanides too makes this point, and Rabbis Jacob ben Meir (Rabbeinu Tam) (12th century) and Jehiel Heilprin (17th century) also belong to this school.

    The resemblance of the name Yeshu to Yeshua which some assume to be the original Hebrew or Aramaic for Jesus, is of questionable importance. The guttural consonant ayin (ע) at the end of the latter name (Yeshua - ישוע) forms part of the root but is absent from Yeshu (ישו). Although, as remarked above, the ayin (ע) became a silent letter no other case is known of where this led to a dropping of the consonant in spelling.

    There are significant phonetic difficulties in seeing the epithet son of Pandera as a corruption of parthenos. Moreover, Jesus was not commonly referred to as son of the Virgin making an intentional play on such an expression very unlikely. Regarding the names of the disciples, the accepted origins of Thaddaeus is Thaddai and not Todah.

    R. Travers Herford and others caution that not all mentions of Yeshu refer to the Christian Jesus. Furthermore, many critical historical scholars hold that for a variety of reasons, early Christianity was simply one of many factions competing with rabbinical Judaism, and the early sages of the Talmud paid no special attention to Jesus or Christianity.

    Yeshu as a literary device

    Recently, some scholars have argued that Yeshu stories provide a more complex view of early Rabbinic-Christian interactions. Whereas the Pharisees were one sect among many in the Second Temple era, the Amoraim and Tannaim sought to establish Rabbinic Judaism as the normative form of Judaism. Like the Rabbis, early Christians claimed to be working within Biblical traditions to provide new interpretations of Jewish laws and values. The sometimes blurry boundary between the Rabbis and early Christians provided an important site for distinguishing between legitimate debate and heresy. Scholars like Rabbi Jeffrey Rubenstein (PhD. in Religion from Columbia University; professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University) and Dr. Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmud at the University of California, Berkeley, argue that it was through the Yeshu narratives that Rabbis confronted this blurry boundary.

    Further Reading

    1. Steven Bayme, Understanding Jewish History (KTAV), 1997
    2. Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999
    3. Robert Goldenberg, The Nations Know Ye Not: Ancient Jewish Attitudes towards Other Religions New York: New York University Press 1998
    4. Mark Hirshman, A Rivalry of Genius: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity trans. Baya Stein. Albany: SUNY PRess 1996
    5. Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (Beacon Books), 1964
    6. Jacob Neusner, Judaism in the Matrix of Christianity Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1986
    7. Jeffrey Rubenstein Rabbinic Stories (The Classics of Western Spirituality) New York: The Paulist Press, 2002
    8. R. Travers Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (KTAV), 1975
    9. Frank R. Zindler, The Jesus The Jews Never Knew, Sepher Toldoth Yeshu and the Quest of the historical Jesus in Jewish Sources (AAP), 2003
    10. Refutations about Jesus in the Talmud - Gil Student
    11. The alleged Jesus Narrative In The Talmud - Gil Student
    12. Did Jesus of Nazareth Exist? - Dennis McKinsey

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    Last updated: June 2013
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