Posted by: L | August 14, 2007

The New Republic on the Talmud and Jesus…

“In contrast to this official Christian version of the circumstances of Jesus’s conception and birth, the Babylonian Talmud presents, in Schäfer’s words, “a highly ambitious and devastating counternarrative to the infant story of the New Testament.” In the rabbinical text that Schäfer 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 Schäfer 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)? Schäfer 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 Schäfer 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.

Schäfer’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. Schäfer calls the Babylonian declaration “a proud and self- confident 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.”

Schäfer’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, Schäfer 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. Schäfer 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 Schäfer ends his fascinating book.

Peter Schäfer’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 Schäfer’s extraordinary scholarship in the context of the current Jewish-Christian relationship today.

First, at the most troubling level, Schäfer’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 Schäfer’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 naïve 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, Schäfer’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, Schäfer’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 Schäfer 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, Schäfer’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….”

More at the New Republic by David Novak on Jesus in the Talmud, by Peter Schäfer, Director of the program in Judaic Studies at Princeton University.


My quest for the historical Jesus ended a long time ago, as it did for many people, with Albert Schweitzer’s magisterial work of that name.

Generosity toward other traditions, respectful criticism of our own, and faith in the human ability to think critically — with just a little of that, the different faiths  – and lack of faith — can learn to live together not only peacefully, but fruitfully…..

It’s less a matter of scholarship than of a will to peace. Too bad that peacemakers are always as much in short supply as pundits are in excess….


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