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Books: How It Began

David Novak is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

Jesus in the Talmud

By Peter Schafer

(Princeton University Press, 210 pp.,


When The Passion of the Christ elicited such great public controversy a few years ago, it raised once again the old question of how Jews and Judaism are portrayed in classical Christian sources, first and foremost in the New Testament. And it raised the new question as to how accurately Mel Gibson's film represented that portrayal. From at least a cursory reading of the New Testament accounts of Jesus's relations with his fellow Jews and with Judaism, the image one retains seems to be largely a negative one (although we are now aware that the picture of Jews and Judaism in the Qur'an is far more negative, and far more dangerous). And in the minds of many people, certainly in the minds of many Jews, Gibson's film made a bad image even worse.

Gibson, whether he knew it or not, drew upon a long history of Christian anti-Judaism in developing his own picture of how badly the Jews treated Jesus, even adding some points not found in the New Testament. Those Christians who are earnest in their desire to have a new and more positive relationship with Jews and with Judaism were embarrassed by Gibson's film and sought to dismiss it, while trying to show more positive Christian precedents for a better Christian-Jewish dispensation. This effort of getting Christians to examine Christian antiJudaism candidly and critically has been, to a certain extent, the result of the goading of Jewish scholars of Christianity, such as Marcel Simon and Jules Isaac, whose works laid out the evidence of Christian anti- Judaism. It results also from the influence of great Christian scholars such as Edward Flannery and Malcolm Hay, who, after World War II and its devastation of European Jewry, began to respond to this challenge with scholarly acumen. This response requires not least that pro-Jewish Christian scholars learn more about Judaism than anti-Jewish Christian scholars in the past knew (or wanted to know), if they are to develop a new and better Christian picture of Judaism as it really is.

Both Christian and Jewish texts have had to be re-examined with the greatest care, so that this rethinking not become an apologetic whitewash of embarrassing traditions rather than an honest, and often painful, re-assessment of them. This process of re-examination and reconstruction has been salutary for both Jews and Christians--for Jews because it has led to a great decrease in Christian contempt for them and for Judaism (and not only from scholars of religion), and for Christians because it has better enabled them to avoid the temptation of modern anti-Semitism, which often turns out to be as anti- Christian as it is anti-Jewish. For this reason, the new rigor and the new candor have great political significance.

This process of rereading the texts of one's own tradition that talk about a close neighbor, an other, demands the very best scholarship. Peter Schafer is certainly one of the most prominent and most formidable Christian scholars engaged in the new enterprise of looking at Judaism in relation to Christianity. He may well be the most distinguished non-Jewish scholar of classical Jewish sources in the world today. Which is to say, he may be the individual most qualified to deal with a very delicate question that inevitably arises out of the inquiry into what Christians say about Jews and Judaism in their classical sources: what do Jews say about Christians and Christianity in their classical sources? The question becomes more focused when it is directed to what the Jewish sources say about Jesus.

What Jews have said about Jesus tells us how they were thinking about the Christians they encountered, since Jesus is always the central personality in the story that Christians tell about themselves. To think about Christians without talking about Jesus is like thinking about Jews without talking about the Torah. You cannot understand the one without the other. And since the story that Christians tell about themselves is still being told, how Jews have regarded that Christian story in the past will have great influence on the way Jews see that Christian story in the present. That is why Schafer'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). For one of the book's accomplishments is to suggest that this vexed subject is not at all arcane.

Schafer's book tells a fascinating story. We need to appreciate how subtle that story is before we can properly ponder its larger implications for the new Jewish-Christian discussion, implications that are more than academic. What Schafer calls "the Talmud" is the whole corpus of rabbinic literature that was written between the first and the seventh centuries of the Christian Era. Some of that vast literature was written in the land of Israel (then called "Palestine")--first under pagan Roman rule, then under Christian rule after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century--and is known as the Palestinian Talmud. Even more of that vast literature was written in Babylonia, then part of the Persian Empire. When most Jews say "the Talmud," they mean the Babylonian Talmud, called the Bavli.

There were far fewer Christians in Babylonia than there were in Palestine, and those Christians did not pose the political threat to the Jews that the Christians in Palestine did, and so all scholars interested in Jewish views of Christians and Christianity have regarded the Babylonian treatments of the subject to be historically worthless. They have preferred to concentrate their efforts on discussions and allusions in the Palestinian sources. Those sources alone seem to be talking about a real historical phenomenon, which, when we decode it, tells us much about how the Jews saw the Christian community in Palestine, with whom they had real conflicts.

But what does this say about Jesus himself? Since the appearance in 1906 of Albert Schweitzer's extraordinary work The Quest of the Historical Jesus, most scholars have not looked for evidence of the Jesus "who really was." All we know about that Jesus is what his disciples and their disciples have told us in the New Testament. There are no reliable competing accounts. These treatments of Jesus's birth, career, and death (let alone his reported resurrection) were hardly written to be historical descriptions, even of the type written in antiquity by historians such as Thucydides or Tacitus. Instead they are believers' impressions, which tell us more about the way the things they portray have affected their viewers than about the things themselves. The narratives of the Gospels were not recorded or redacted impartially. These treatments of Jesus are not meant to be accurate, in the empirical or mimetic sense, though of course they are meant to be true.

Assuming that Jewish authors who lived at least a century after Jesus's death did not have the personal contact with Jesus that the authors of the Gospels did, we may imagine that when they speak of Jesus, they are really talking about the community that sees Jesus to be its founder and still-present guide. But if the Palestinian Jews who had no acquaintance with Jesus are only really talking about the community that came after him, how much more so are the Babylonian Jews in their own sources: they did not even know a threatening Christian community, not to mention Jesus himself. In fact, who are these Babylonian Jewish sources talking about when they do speak of Jesus? We might say that whereas the Palestinian sources are speaking about a lively ghost, the Babylonian sources seem to be talking about a pure phantom. But this is precisely the view, predominant among scholars, that Peter Schafer wishes to overturn.

Schafer builds his argument about Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud on a largely overlooked fact: that "whereas the Palestinian rabbis' (few) statements reveal a relative closeness to the emerging Christian sect ... the Bavli's attention is focused on the person of Jesus." But how can what the Talmud says about Jesus be of any significance if the Babylonian rabbis were even further removed from the historical Jesus than the Palestinian rabbis before them? Schafer's answer is that the Babylonian rabbinical texts are dealing not with the historical Jesus, but with the character of Jesus as it was presented in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John, which seems to present the most anti-Jewish Jesus of the four Gospels. These treatments are what Schafer calls "a literary answer to a literary text."

Whereas the Palestinian anti-Christian texts are responding to a threatening social reality, the Babylonian texts are talking about the basic document (the New Testament) of a Christian community that is no longer a threat to the Jews of Babylonia, the Babylonian Christians being as much (if not more) of a marginalized minority as the Jews. Thus, in Schafer's view, Babylonian Jewish statements about Jesus could be more direct than the Palestinian statements, and they could be nastier. Schafer shows all this with dazzling erudition and critical insight. He also shows how these Babylonian sources condemned and ridiculed the New Testament accounts of Jesus's birth, powers, and supposed innocence at his trial. Since the local Christians in Babylonia were as far removed from the historical Jesus as the local Jews, having only the Jesus of the New Testament, the Jewish criticism of Jesus in Babylonia could attack Christians at their most vulnerable point. In the end, the political power of Christians over Jews made a huge difference in the ways Jews could conduct their anti-Christian polemic.

The most vivid example of the anti-Christian polemic of the Babylonian Talmud can be seen in its treatment of the virgin birth of Jesus as presented in the New Testament. The intent of Christians in claiming that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary was to emphasize that Jesus's father was God himself--that the earthly Jesus, and not just the heavenly Christ (the second person of the Trinity, who has no mother), was truly the son of God. Mary's virginity was important so that no one might entertain the notion that her fiance, Joseph, really fathered her child Jesus.

In contrast to this official Christian version of the circumstances of Jesus's conception and birth, the Babylonian Talmud presents, in Schafer's words, "a highly ambitious and devastating counternarrative to the infant story of the New Testament." In the rabbinical text that Schafer selects to illustrate this point, it is stated that "his mother was Miriam [Mary].... This is as they say about her in Pumbeditha: This one turned away from (was unfaithful to) her husband." This being assumed, the Talmud identifies Mary's lover and Jesus's real father to be a man named Pandera--clearly a Roman name. In this account (which had an enormous impact upon some medieval Jewish polemical writings), Mary's lover and Jesus's true father is not only not his mother's lawful husband, he is also a gentile--indeed, a hated Roman. From this Schafer infers that "if the Bavli takes it for granted that [Jesus's] mother was an adulteress, then the logical conclusion follows that he was a mamzer, a bastard or illegitimate child." In this view, Jesus is as far from being the son of God and a pure virgin as is possible in Jewish imagination.

It is no wonder that this text is "only preserved in the uncensored manuscripts and printed editions of the Bavli." Those were the versions of the Talmud published at times and in places where Christians had great political power over Jews and were using it harshly against them. It is thus easy to see why the Jews would want to emend such an inflammatory text, in the interests of security and self-preservation--and why the Christians would make the Jews emend such a text so that their Jewish underlings would be unable to use it to buttress their anti-Christianity. No doubt, many pro-Jewish Christians and many pro-Christian Jews today would like to forget that such a text ever existed in its original form.

But why did the Babylonian Jews go to the trouble of denying the veracity of a text that mattered only to a small Christian community that had no power over Jews (no power of the sort that Palestinian Christians came to enjoy once Christians became members of the official religion of the Roman Empire)? Schafer gives two answers to this question. Unlike his analysis of the literary evidence, where he has some important data at his disposal, the causal explanation involves much more speculation on his part. Yet Schafer is not a hasty or arrogant historian; he says only what he believes the evidence entitles him to say. Would that more historians were as modest.

Schafer's first answer to the question is psychological and political; more precisely, it concerns the influence of the political environment upon psychological motivation. In his view, the Jews of Babylonia could say about Christianity, in the person of Jesus, what their Palestinian brethren could not say because of the dangers involved. Schafer calls the Babylonian declaration "a proud and selfconfident message," one quite different from the "defense mechanisms" that the Palestinian rabbis had to employ in their political prudence. It was a "proud proclamation" of "a new and self-confident Diaspora community."

Schafer's second answer to this question is more concretely political. Here he notes that in the Persian Empire, both Judaism and Christianity were minority religions--islands of monotheism in a sea of Zoroastrian dualism (which affirmed a good god in conflict with a bad god, as opposed to the one good God affirmed by Judaism and Christianity). The two monotheistic religions were highly suspect in the eyes of the polytheistic Zoroastrian Persian or Sasanian rulers. Indeed, older polemics of Roman pagans against Jews and Christians castigated them both for their monotheism. From these political facts, Schafer speculates that the anti-Christian polemics of the Jews might be part of "a very vivid and fierce conflict between two competing 'religions' under the suspicious eye of the Sasanian authorities."

Yet the Christians, however weak they were in the Persian Empire, no doubt had contacts with, and loyalties to, their far more numerous and more powerful brethren in the Roman Empire, and so it is plausible to suggest that the Persian authorities would have regarded Christians to be more of a political threat than their religious rivals, the Jews. Schafer thinks that Babylonian Jewish putdowns of Jesus might have been a way of diverting official Persian suspicion away from themselves and their religion toward Christians and their religion. In other words, the anti-Christianity of the Bavli was a way for the Babylonian Jews to curry favor with their Persian overlords by castigating a "negative other." And here Schafer ends his fascinating book.

Peter Schafer's historical research and textual interpretation have implications, obviously, beyond the academy. This is a subject that profoundly affects Christian and Jewish self-understandings and mutual understandings. I can see three possible ramifications of Schafer's extraordinary scholarship in the context of the current Jewish-Christian relationship today.

First, at the most troubling level, Schafer's work might encourage those Jews who would be happy to learn that there were times when Jews were able to "get even" with their Christian enemies: a kind of schadenfreude. In this way Schafer's work might hinder the emergence of a more positive Jewish-Christian relationship. (Not that he is guided by such an anxiety in his scholarship, of course.) Such people could use his work to encourage Jews to speak similarly again, now that Christians are much weaker than they have been in the past. But it is naive to think that self-respecting Christians will simply sit back and not answer their Jewish critics in kind, which would easily revive all the old animosity against Jews and Judaism. Taken this way, Schafer's work could also encourage Christian "hard-liners" to insist again that an animosity to Christians and Christianity is ubiquitous in Judaism and endemic to it, and that it cannot be overcome by the Jews. Why should Christians be any better when speaking of Jews and Judaism than Jews have been when speaking of Christians and Christianity?

Second, Schafer's work might embarrass those Jews who like to dwell on the tradition of Christian anti-Judaism in all its ugly rhetoric, and imply that the Jews have largely kept themselves above any such ugliness. For Schafer demonstrates just the opposite. One might even speculate that had Jews gained the same kind of political power over Christians that Christians gained over Jews, Jews might well have translated their polemical rhetoric against Christianity (which, after all, posed a tremendous threat to the legitimacy of Judaism) into the political persecution of Christians, much the same way that Christians translated their polemical rhetoric against Judaism into the political persecution of Jews. Victimization does not confer sainthood. The Jews lacked the opportunity, but perhaps not the motive or the will, to practice the type of intolerance that they experienced at the hands of the Christians.

Lastly, Schafer's very original scholarship in the area of Jewish-Christian relations might have the effect of ending at last the "guilt trip" that some Jews have laid on Christians, according to which theological contempt and religious intolerance is a uniquely Christian problem. (It is worth noting, of course, that in our own day militant Islam makes Christian anti-Judaism a less important threat to Jews.) Jews of this mind also want a positive relationship with Christians. Yet the fact is that, at least on the level of ideas, Jews and Christians have a similar problem with the notions about each other that emerge from their respective traditions. So at a time when both religions lack the power to hurt each other politically, there remains only the arena of ideas in which to build a new and better relationship or to destroy it. For this reason, this arena should be cultivated, and protected, and allowed to grow freely and honestly.

Whatever Peter Schafer's extrascholarly intentions, 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. Reading Jesus in the Talmud in this way might well provide Western readers who live by either the Talmud or the New Testament, and who want to live in peace and maybe even trust with their closest historical-philosophical neighbors, with a great intellectual challenge. The sources that Schafer adduces are virulent and dangerous, but his analysis of them leaves one unexpectedly full of hope.

By David Novak