A distinguished Jewish scholar, deeply involved in inter-faith discussion, was once asked what he thought of Jesus. "I don't," he said. He was not being rude, simply reflecting the fact that Jesus hardly appears in the Talmud and has no place in Jewish theology. This has not stopped scholars from trying to find something in the Talmud that will contribute to our knowledge of the Jesus of history. Peter Schafer believes that nothing can be learnt from the Talmud in pursuit of that quest and that to try to do so is to ask the wrong question. The right question concerns what it is that the Talmud scholars were responding to when they did bring Jesus into the discussion and what they were saying about him in their own time.
What he finds is that they were trying to refute, doctrine by doctrine, the developed beliefs of the Christian Church, especially as they are expressed in the Gospel of John. In arguing this thesis he is scholarly, clear and accessible.
The Talmud developed over several centuries and takes two forms. The Palestinian, or Jerusalem, Talmud was edited in the 5th century, and the Babylonian Talmud reached its final form in the 7th. The method of argument in the Talmud is not always easy to follow. A rabbi puts forward a statement about a disputed interpretation of Jewish law. A contrary point of view is put. A biblical verse is interpreted with a form of exegesis that we find very strange today. There are often obscurities in the text, and in the end it is often not clear what you are meant to think is the orthodox answer. The strength of all this, of course, is that it has allowed endless discussion and ought to make (although it has not) any kind of biblical fundamentalism alien to Judaism. When we take into account that references to Jesus are scattered, incidental and fragmentary, it is clear that Schafer has a difficult task, involving some reconstruction of the text and interesting speculation. To give just one example: the Gospels tell us that Jesus had 12 disciples and gives us their names. The Babylonian Talmud says he had five: Mattai, Naqqai, Netzer, Buni and Todah.
In fact, each of these names is based on a word in a biblical text that is interpreted not to tell us about any particular disciple, but rather to refute a claim made by the Christian Church about Jesus. As Schafer comments, "this is a highly sophisticated fight with biblical verses, indeed a fight to the death".
In the Palestinian Talmud, Jesus is depicted as a miracle worker/magician.
But it is the later Bablylonian Talmud that really interests Schafer. He believes that its authors were familiar with the Diatessaron and/or the Peshitta, the New Testament of the Syrian Church, and were particularly concerned with the Gospel of John, in which the claims made by and on behalf of Jesus are most startling. According to Schafer, it is being argued in these incidental references that Jesus was not born of a virgin but was the bastard son of a Roman soldier; he was a religious teacher who led Israel into idolatry and apostasy; he was stoned to death by the Jewish authorities before being hanged, which was a just punishment for his blasphemy; and far from enjoying eternal life, he will suffer for ever sitting in his own excrement. Schafer believes this is a way of refuting the Johannine claim that believers in Jesus will feed on him, especially in the Eucharist. In short, what we have in the Babylonian Talmud is the expression of a self-confident Judaism entirely willing to take full responsibility for the death of Jesus, which it regards as fully deserved.
Schafer argues that in Palestine - which during the 4th century became officially Christian and where, as a result, Jews increasingly found themselves under pressure - it was not possible for Jewish scholars to engage in this kind of religious polemic. In Babylon, however, which was part of the Persian Sasanian empire, Christians were under pressure because they were suspected of being fifth columnists of the Christian Byzantine empire next door, and there was no inhibition on Jews giving expression to this kind of knock-about stuff, which Schafer calls parody and satire.
It is a pity that Schafer does not give us more background about Judaism in both Palestine and Babylon in these centuries and that he does not say more about the censorship that happened under Christian influence. But, even allowing for many disputed points of interpretation and some conjecture, his main thesis seems convincing. The Talmud scholars were responding not to the Jesus of history, but to the beliefs of the Christian Church. In the light of today's respectful dialogues, all this Talmudic labour and scholarship to produce such bizarre polemic seems sad, though not as tragic as the Christian anti-Judaism of the neighbouring Byzantine empire.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth was Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. He is an honorary professor of theology at King's College London.
Jesus in the Talmud
Author - Peter Schäfer
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 232
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 0 691 12926 6 and 12926 6