Death of Christ: Jews Admit Responsibility
Although Vatican II “absolved” Jews of responsibility for the death of Christ, this issue is still used to attack the Catholic Church, especially its more traditionalist forms such as the Church in Poland. What early Jews wrote on this topic is therefore most interesting. Here is my review, recently appearing at Amazon.
Review of Jesus in the Talmud, by Peter Schaefer [Schafer]. 2007. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
Very Scholarly: Includes an Ironic Counterpart to Christian Charges of Jewish Deicide
Agree with this author or not, he is no intellectual lightweight. He teaches Judaic studies at Princeton University, and Rabbi Burton L. Vizotzky (on the outside book cover), calls Schaefer the premiere “Christian-Hebraist” of our time. His approach rejects the extremes of Travers Herford, who saw Jesus in many Talmudic texts (p. 4), and Johann Maier, who saw virtually none. Maier had overemphasized the deconstruction of literary sources (pp. 5-8), and relied on a stilted history of manuscripts. (p. 144).
The TOLEDOT YESHU is not part of this investigation. (p. 7). Although commonly thought of as being medieval, some versions of TOLEDOT YESHU may go back to Late Antiquity. (p. 2).
The most explicit Jesus passages in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) date back, at the earliest, to the late-200/early-300 A. D. (p. 8). Schaeffer includes a helpful tabular Appendix (pp. 132-144) that details the various editions of the Bavli, listing the relevant verses and their comparative translations. [As a non-Jew, I found it a rewarding experience to read the printed and online Talmud myself. Particularly instructive verses deal with Jesus the Bastard Son (Sanhedrin 67a, Shabbat 104b), His execution (Sanhedrin 43a), and Him burning in hell in hot excrement (Gittin 57a). One useful online source, though in denial about Him in the Talmud, is the English Soncino Babylonian Talmud, located at halakhahdotcom.]
Discrepancies between Bavli and the New Testament accounts have been used to argue that there is no Talmudic reference to Jesus at all. Instead, such discrepancies can be accounted for by 1) The rabbis’ superficial knowledge of Christianity reflected by frequent elementary blunders, 2) Accounts written in code so as to afford plausible denial in case of Christian hostility, and/or 3) A creative mockery of Christian doctrines. Schafer emphasizes the latter.
Except for not mentioning the name of the Child, the Bavli essentially repeats anti-Christian Celsus’ tale of Jesus being the product of an adulterous affair involving the soldier Panthera/Pandera, as also mentioned by several rabbinical sources. (pp. 18-20). Contrary to objections, the name Panthera is not that common, and the story is distinctive and stable enough to refer unambiguously to Jesus. (e. g., p. 20, 141; see also p. 98). The account is a creative mockery of the Virgin Birth of Christ and His claim to be of Messianic Davidic lineage.
Traditional Christian teachings on Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ, though abandoned by most branches of Christianity, remain relevant. The German-Nazi made Holocaust has been blamed on these Christian teachings even though the connection between the two is, at most, extremely tenuous. Schaefer’s research turns this on its head: The Jews not only admit responsibility for the death of Christ, but they actually take credit for it, and throw it back in the face of the Christians. (p. 74).
The fact that the relevant Bavli accounts refer to stoning, and not Crucifixion of the malefactor, has been used to discount their association with the death of Jesus. Schaefer, instead, points out that the reference to stoning, and the ignoring of Pilate’s sentence, were a way for Jews to assume complete credit for the execution of this seducing Jewish Heretic according to Jewish law (pp. 71-72). It may even be to take credit for being persistent in manipulating Pilate to have Jesus put to death in accordance with their judgment against Him. (p. 74).
The reference to the malefactor’s closeness to the Roman government has been used to discount it being a reference to Jesus, as He has never been known to have such ties. The answer is straightforward. For a time, Pilate was the Roman governor who was the protector of Jesus, seeing no criminality in Jesus, and trying to have Him spared and Barabbas crucified instead. (pp. 73-74).
The reference to Jesus sentenced to an eternity in hell sitting in boiling excrement is a creative mockery of His Resurrection. (p. 82-on). It may even be a more creative mockery–of His teaching that foods pass through the person and come out in the latrine, but do not defile the person (Christ’s point being that evil thoughts and deeds actually do.). (p. 91).
The author provides much to consider. Even if Schaefer is completely mistaken about the Talmudic verses, and even if the Jews had nothing to do with the death of Jesus Christ, it certainly was not for lack of trying. The lucid Talmudic references as to what to do to with idolaters and false messiahs are unambiguous. Finally, even if the passages in the Talmud originally referred to someone else, they certainly came in handy as weapons against Jesus Christ.
The anti-Christian statements in the Talmud are commonly framed as a Jewish reaction to Christian persecution. Schafer, in contrast, thinks that the relevant persecution in Christian-ruled Palestine has been exaggerated. (p. 116). [Of course, the informed reader realizes that such events as the Crusades, expulsions of Jews from many Christian-majority nations, compulsory ghettoization, etc., were still centuries in the future.] In Babylon, the rulers at the time were Persian Zoroastrians, and they were the ones who persecuted–Christians more than Jews. (pp. 116-117). Far from being a lashing-out against Christian persecution, the anti-Christian teachings in the Bavli actually originated from the freedom of the Babylonian Jews to express their anti-Christian sentiments, and even as an act of Jewish-Persian collaboration against the Christians. (pp. 121-122).