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It is known that conflict between Jews and Christians has resulted in the loss of a number of references to Jesus that previously existed in Jewish literature. This loss occurred progressively over a long period of time extending well into the second millenium, sometimes through forced destruction of offending texts and sometimes as a result of a semi-voluntary suppression inspired by fear of a Christian backlash. On the other hand, as time went by, some more fanciful stories were added to later documents. There are a number of passages, however, that are regarded by the majority of both Christian and Jewish scholars as being authentic early references to Jesus. Some of these are given below.
The Hanging of Yeshu
The Babylonian Talmud is a compilation of earlier Jewish traditions which was assembled into its final form during the period 200 – 500 AD. Sanhedrin 43a includes a ‘baraitha’, a comment dating from the Tannaitic period (70 – 200 AD), which reads as follows:
‘It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu. And an announcer went out, in front of him, for forty days (saying): “He is going to be stoned, because he practised sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and plead in his behalf.” But, not having found anything in his favour, they hanged him on the eve of Passover.’
Note that ‘hanged’ was a term used to describe both hanging as we know it and crucifixion. ‘Yeshu’ is another form of the name, ‘Jesus.’ Many Jewish scholars have denied that this is a reference to Christ: but a number of manuscripts have been found that date from around the time of the 13th century Christian censorship. Some of these explicitly say, ‘Yeshu the Nazarene’: whilst in others the name, (or even the entire passage) has been obscured or deleted, leaving visible gaps of equivalent length. A useful summary of these variations can be found here: Jesus in the Talmud – Wikipedia. A much more detailed analysis, presented from a Christian standpoint but including an image of the censored Munich manuscript passage, can be found here: “Jesus of Nazareth’s Trial in the Uncensored Talmud,” by David Instone-Brewer.
We would expect a Jewish source to portray Jesus in a highly negative light and the Jewish authorities in a positive one: but the charge of sorcery corroborates the New Testament accounts, which record that the scribes and Pharisees claimed he was casting out demons through ‘Beelzebub, the prince of the demons. The reference to a foregoing proclamation may have its echo in the gospel’s mention that the authorities were known to be planning his arrest (John 11:57).
Following this passage, a late 3rd century teacher called ‘Ullah, adds the comment:
‘Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him? He was a deceiver, and the All-merciful says: “You shall not spare him, neither shall you conceal him.” It was different with Jesus, for he was near to the kingship.’
Rabbi Eliezer’s ‘heresy’
Both the Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 165, 17a, and the Tosefta, Hullin 2.24, contain versions of an incident when Rabbi Eliezer was arrested for Minuth (Heresy) and taken before the civil Procurator. Following his acquittal, one of his disciples suggests that possibly he had been subjected to this accusation because he had at some time taken pleasure in a word of heresy, provoking the following response:
Akiba, you have reminded me! Once I was walking along the upper market of Sepphoris and found one of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth and Jacob of Kefar Sekanya was his name. He said to me, It is written in your Law, “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot, etc.” What was to be done with it – a latrine for the High Priest? But I answered nothing. He said to me, So Jesus of Nazareth taught me: “For of the hire of a harlot hath she gathered them, and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return”; from the place of filth they come, and unto the place of filth they shall go. And the saying pleased me, and because of this I was arrested for Heresy. And I transgressed what is written in the Law: “Keep thy way far from her” – that is Heresy; “and come not nigh the door of her house” – that is the civil government.
Jacob cites part of Deuteronomy 23:18, which forbids money obtained by inappropriate means being presented as an offering to God, and suggests an alternative use would be to build a latrine (a typically Jewish solution, reminiscent of the decision to use the ‘blood money’ from Jesus’ betrayal to buy a cemetery for foreigners). In support of this he cites Jesus, who apparently quoted part of Micah 1:7 (actually a warning of forthcoming judgement against idolatry and immorality), followed by the words, ‘from the place of filth they come, and unto the place of filth they shall go.’ But we don’t know if Jacob is supposed to be citing Jesus’ words in response to some topical event or using them figuratively. The latter usage frequently strayed some way from the literal meaning of a saying, as with Rabbi Eliezer’s own use of Proverbs 5:8 at the end of the passage.
The early nature of this reference is indicated both by Jacob’s claim to have been taught by Jesus himself, and the apparently friendly dialogue between the Rabbi and the Christian. Scholars date the trial of Rabbi Eliezer to about 95 AD, and the earlier conversation from about 60 AD onwards.
In order to avoid arousing the wrath of Christians, it is known that a number of references to Jesus’ name were changed to ‘Such-an-one.’ Amongst these there are some acknowledged by scholars as being of relatively early origin. For example, the following from the Mishna, Yebamoth 4.13 (also Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 49b):
R. Shimeon ben ‘Azzai said: ‘I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress; to confirm the words of Rabbi Jehoshua.’
R. Shimeon ben ‘Azzai lived c.100AD and was a disciple of R. Jehoshua.
Yeshua ben Pantera
There are also a number of references to Jesus as ‘ben Pantera’ (Son of Panther).
For example, several documents (including the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds and the Tosefta, Hullin 2.22.) relate the story of how, when Rabbi Elazar ben Damah was bitten by a snake, a man named Jacob came to heal him in the name of ‘Yeshua ben Pantera’, but was refused admission by another Rabbi, called Ishmael. Rabbi Elazar died before the dispute could be resolved; which Rabbi Ishmael maintained was better than falling into error by allowing Jacob to minister to him. Despite the tragic outcome of this case, the passage provides valuable confirmation that Christians did practice healing in the name of Jesus.
There are several theories as to the origin of ‘ben Pantera’. In Hebrew, the name means ‘Panther’, but in Greek is similar to ‘parthenos’, meaning ‘virgin’. Some believe this was a deliberate play on words, mocking the claim of the virgin birth. Origen, and others after him, claimed that Jesus took the name from his grandfather, Joseph’s father, who was said to have been called Panther.
Another theory, generally given more factual credence by opponents of Christianity than scholars, whether Jewish or Christian, is that he was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier of that name. But as this story is known to have circulated amongst the Jews as early as AD 178, it could have earlier origins. As the name is known to have been common in the Roman forces, it could easily have been picked at random, since no-one could be sure which ‘Pantera’ was being referred to. After all, if Mary had conceived a child before being properly married to Joseph, tongues would have been bound to wag!
If we are looking for historical corroboration from Jewish sources, what more likely piece of evidence than a juicy bit of gossip such as this?