What the Talmud Really Says About Jesus

Will Peter Schaefer’s new book, Jesus in the Talmud (Mar.), be controversial? “I’m afraid so,” Schaefer told RBL. “That’s why I’m nervous.”

His editor at Princeton University Press, Brigitta van Rheinberg, laughed but agreed: “You think, oh, whoa, this is not going to go over well in certain circles.”

Schaefer, who heads up Princeton’s Judaic studies program, has collected and analyzed all the passages in the Talmud that apparently refer to the founder of Christianity, texts that were previously censored from Talmud editions for centuries. In his book he argues—against other scholars—that the scandalous passages indeed refer not to some other figure of ancient times but to the famous Jesus of Nazareth.

What exactly is so scandalous? How about Jesus punished in Hell for eternity by being made to sit in a cauldron of boiling excrement? That image appears in early manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud, as does a brief account of Jesus’ trial and execution—not by the Romans but by the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin. The Jewish community, to the extent Jews were even aware of these excised texts, has been content to let them remain obscure and unknown.

Schaefer, a distinguished German-born Christian scholar who describes classical rabbinic literature as “my first love,” has now definitively let the cat out of the bag. This undermines a widespread assumption that, of Judaism’s and Christianity’s respective sacred texts, only the Christian Gospels go out of their way to assail the rival faith, whereas Judaism’s classical texts refrain from similar attacks.

It seems fair to say now, however, that the Talmud is every bit as offensive to Christians as the Gospels are to Jews.

The Talmud’s scattered portrait of Jesus unapologetically mocks Christian doctrines including the virgin birth and the resurrection. Which isn’t to say that the rabbinic invective is meant simply to insult. In his book, the author calls the Talmud’s assault on Christian claims “devastating.”

“It is a very serious argument,” said Schaefer, who emphasizes that the rabbis’ stories about Jesus were never intended as an attempt at historically accurate narrative. Rather, in the classic Talmudic style, they encode legal and theological argumentation in the form of sometimes-imaginative storytelling.

One naturally wonders, when Jesus in the Talmud is published, what the results will be for Jewish-Christian relations. “I certainly don’t want to harm Jewish-Christian dialogue. God forbid,” Schaefer said. But dialogue requires honesty, and “I’m trying to be honest.”

This article originally appeared in the January 31, 2007 issue of Religion BookLine.

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