Book Review: Jesus in the Talmud, Peter Schafer.

Schafer’s book, Jesus in the Talmud, examines what can only be a scintillating subject: how does Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, appear in the Talmud? Schafer emphasizes that in the vast ocean of Talmud, passages referring to Jesus (implicitly or explicitly) are only a few minor drops. But those drops are important to analyze to bring together the fractured histories of Judaism and Christianity. While Talmudic references to Jesus are far too late to be of use in understanding the historical Jesus, he argues that these passages are counternarratives to the Christian stories about Jesus and Christian polemics against Jews.

In each chapter Schafer takes a Talmudic passage and unpacks it. Chapter one, “Jesus’ Family,” paints Mary as a prostitute who conceived Jesus by a Roman soldier named Pandera/Panthera. Chapter two analyzed Talmudic passages depicting Jesus as a failed rabbinic disciple who “public spoils his food dish,” a euphemism for sexual licentiousness. Schafer argues that this relates to the Talmudic narrative of Jesus’ bastard birth and Gentile blood, but also to the Gnostic language of Jesus loving Mary Magdalene. In chapter three, we see Jesus as rabbinic disciple of Yehoshua b. Perahya, but an utterly failed disciple who “practiced magic and deceived and led Israel astray.” This chapter actually explains the origins of Christianity: Jesus was peeved because his teacher was impatient with him!

Chapter four, “The Torah Teacher,” introduces a rabbinic follower of Jesus, R. Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer becomes a stand-in for critiques of Christianity. Eliezer is also accused of sexual impropriety, and elsewhere in the Talmud is depicted as a weak debater who must summon God to ratify his points (this is a famous rabbinic story). According to Daniel Boyarin, Eliezer is a liminal figure who represents the borderline between Judaism and Christianity.

Chapter five deals with spells of healing in the name of Jesus. While the Talmud depicts this magic as effective, it is also dangerous and prohibited because Jesus is, well, not kosher. Just because Jesus has divine power does not mean God approves. The power is an open conduit, and immoral and moral men alike can use it.

The next chapter is very interesting. Talmudic sources on Jesus’ execution actually accept Jewish blame for the charge, in keeping with a long Christian tradition of deeming Jews Christ-killers. But here the Talmudic sources accept responsibility and defend the penalty, arguing that Jesus was an idolater and a blasphemer who was sentenced fairly according to the law. Wow.

The next two chapters describe Jesus’ disciples as dead failures, and paint a vivid portrait of Jesus’ afterlife eternally trapped in a bath of boiling excrement in hell. Yuck.

Schafer’s final chapter examines some of the broader themes of Jesus in the Talmud. For example, many of the accusations against Jesus have to do with sexual immorality, implying that he was the son of a prostitute and was himself licentious. Another theme is magic, which is connected to the accusation that Jesus was an idolator and blasphemer – we see this accusation against Jesus in the gospels too (e.g. Mt. 26:63-65). Schafer also discusses differences between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds in their depiction of Jesus. Most of these slurs only appear in the Babylonian Talmud; he argues that this is because Jews under the Sassanians were not under a Christian empire, so they could speak more freely. Schafer also argues that the rabbis of the Bavli must have been familiar with the New Testament because there are explicit references to NT texts in these counternarratives, particularly to John.

I really liked Schafer’s book. The book itself is only 129 pages, and his writing is very clear and to-the-point. I would highly recommend this book.

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