‘Tis The Season

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My friendship with, and admiration of, David Klinghoffer will survive his latest book. I hope that the good feeling is reciprocal, because I am going to have to respectfully disagree with his thesis. This snippet from the AP story on it will explain why.

During the Lenten season of 2004 there was considerable fury over Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion” and its depiction of Jewish leaders conspiring to hand Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion.

A year later, just in time for Good Friday of 2005, a book by Jewish writer David Klinghoffer says of course that’s what the Jewish authorities did: “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).

He bases that not only on the New Testament – whose history he distrusts to a fair extent – but on the Talmud, Judaism’s authoritative compilation of Bible commentary and rabbinic law, and later Jewish sages such as Maimonides.

The Talmud says that “on the eve of Passover they hung Yeshu (Jesus)” on charges that he “performed magic, enticed and led astray Israel.”

Since that’s Jewish tradition, “to say that Jewish leaders were instrumental in getting Jesus killed is not anti-Semitic,” Klinghoffer insists.

It is certainly not Jewish tradition, which is decidedly divided about the stories in the Talmud.

The single most famous Yeshu story in the Gemara casts the protagonist as a student of R. Yehoshua ben Perachya, who became the Nasi in 140 BCE, a century and a half before the Jesus known to history. In the story of Yeshu/ Yosi Pandera, he was executed in Lod by stoning, not in Jerusalem by crucifixion.

So many details just don’t match, that when four sages were forced to debate the apostate Nicholas Donin in 1240 in front of Louis IX, R. Yechiel of Paris (one of the Tosafists) swore to the queen that the Talmud could not have been speaking of the Christian Jesus. (An incredulous monarch asked, “Do you really mean to say that there was not one, but two or more Yeshu’s around in the ancient world?” R. Yechiel responded, “And is every Louis the King of France?”)

The Meiri and the Tosafos HaRosh concurred that the Yeshu of the gemara was another.

To be sure, there were those who looked at the similarities in the stories, and adjudged the two figures to be one and the same, albeit without offering fixes for those nasty details that didn’t match.. The most that can be said about the issue IMHO reads like the old joke about the wise old rabbi: “You’re right; you’re right; you’re right, too.” Consensus, there isn’t. Neither is there anything resembling a tradition.

The different opinions in rabbinic literature shouldn’t surprise anyone. No need to be more pious than the Pope, as the old saying goes. The authors of the Gospels aren’t exactly all on the same page. With none of the Gospels written until decades after the death of Jesus, and none by anyone who had actually met him, it is hardly unexpected that some of the details – including rather important ones – were going to come out fuzzy around the edges. Jews could hardly be expected to do a better job.

Worthwhile considering is the analysis of one of the first Jewish writers to deal with the entire corpus of rabbinic literature from a traditional standpoint, J.D. Eisenstein in his Otzar Vikuchim. (OK – let’s call it traditional-lite. He was a bit of a maskil.) Basically, he argues that in his lifetime, Jesus was not particularly significant to most Jews. By the time Christianity had picked up steam and became a force to be reckoned with, so much time had elapsed that we did not have a very strong memory of who Jesus really was. If the authors of the Gospels really lacked an unequivocal tradition, how could we expect Jews to have one?

My friend David is certainly correct in arguing that the most important question is not what our forebears did to Jesus, but why they rejected him. Nonetheless, I fear that by accepting a narrative of the crucifixion that is not really ours, there will be lots of unfriendly fingers gleefully pointing away from heretical documents like Nostra Aetate, and pointing towards the Jews, saying “We told you so!”

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10 Responses

  1. Dov Wachmann says:

    Reb Yitzchok,
    You nitpick the old issue of the Jewishness of the tradition that Jesus was killed by the Jews while ignoring a new issue that may be more pertinent… PR material on Klinghoffer’s website invokes the tradition of the disputation, “For the first time in modern history, Klinghoffer, an Orthodox Jew, revives an ancient tradition – that of the disputation, going back to the Middle Ages – to explain the Jewish rejection of Jesus”. This description overlooks the fact that it was a tradition that Jews relished almost as much as they relished that other great tradition in Christian-Jewish dialogue – the pogroms.

    The National Review’s Michael Potemra estimates that Christians “will surely account for the lion’s share of the book’s readership” Is it right for an Orthodox Jew to publish a book aimed at Christians that debunks their theology?

  2. Sammy Finkelman says:

    > Is it not possible that these gemaros do indeed refer to Jesus, but editors/censors changed the names of the other Tannas involved to protect the Talmud?

    > In other words, the editors and copyists of the Gemara wanted to allow the following generations to avoid any persecution, therefore they made the stories seem seperate. It just seems that there are too many coincidences (Mary, Matthew, Jesus, etc.) for these stories not to be referring to Jesus.

    Is it possible thqt the Christians confused two different individuals, one of whom lived well over 100 years before the other, and that the first one was originally more famous? Matthew is a name I think – although he was supposed to be a immediate folower, appears nowehere in the stories? So maybe Matthew was a folower of the first one?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    The analysis by Rav Irons that I refer to above is in Series 5, as shown in Jewish Heritage Foundation brochure,
    in the set I bought of Tapes 1 and 2 (consisting of The Missing Talmud and The Missing Vessels).

  4. Bob Miller says:

    These issues are discussed in depth in one of Rav Shmuel Irons’ history audiotapes. He is Rosh Kollel in Detroit (actually Oak Park, MI). Evidently, two figures from different eras were known as “Yeshu haNotzri”. See info on the tape series (which includes more than those shown) at http://www.613.org/irons.html

  5. Talmudix says:

    Is it not possible that these gemaros do indeed refer to Jesus, but editors/censors changed the names of the other Tannas involved to protect the Talmud?
    In other words, the editors and copyists of the Gemara wanted to allow the following generations to avoid any persecution, therefore they made the stories seem seperate. It just seems that there are too many coincidences (Mary, Matthew, Jesus, etc.) for these stories not to be referring to Jesus.

  6. Zev Sero says:

    Tosefot in gemara Shabbat says that the Yeshu there (the one whose mother’s name sounds suspiciously like Mary Magdalene) could not possibly be the same person as the Yeshu Hanotzri in gemara Sanhedrin, who was a student of R Yehoshua ben Perachia. RYbP taught during the reign of Alexander Yannai (103-76 BCE), while the husband of “Miriam Megdalia” shared a cell with R Akiva, after bar Kochva’s fall in 135 CE.
    For the same reason, neither of them could be the same as the Jesus of the New Testament, who was at least a century too late for the Yeshu in Sanhedrin, and more than a century too early for the one in Shabbat.

  7. Nachum Lamm says:

    The story is in the end of Sanhedrin, Perek Chelek, but is edited out of most editions (look for the big white space at the bottom of the amud). I know R. Steinsaltz includes it, and Soncino does so in translation. I don’t know if Artscroll does.

    More importantly is the practical effect here: The Sanhedrin *couldn’t* have executed anyone. Is Klinghoffer saying that the Jewish authorities (who were likely Tzedukim at the time) handed him over to the Romans, and the Gemara takes “credit” for that as if the Sanhedrin executed him?

    In any event, this is a minor point of Klinghoffer’s book. There’s a lot more there to agree or disagree with.

    Finally, R. Adlerstein: Are you saying aggados of the Gemara can be wrong! Horrors! Seriously, “Yeshu” was a very common name of that era- and who knows, perhaps the Gospel accounts are corrupted versions of the real story, as told in the Gemara.

  8. Gil Student says:

    For what it’s worth, here’s a link to my online essay about Jesus in the Talmud where I discuss the various passages and point to the historical problems and different resolutions: http://www.angelfire.com/mt/talmud/jesusnarr.html

  9. David says:

    Where in the Gemara is this story of Yeshu being hung on erev Pesach?

  10. Michoel says:

    You’re %100 right. And even if you weren’t, I seriously question the wisdom of publishing such a book.