“In addition to the written scriptures we have an ”Oral Torah,” a tradition explaining what the above scriptures mean and how to interpret them and apply the Laws. Orthodox Jews believe God taught the Oral Torah to Moses, and he taught it to others, down to the present day. This tradition was maintained only in oral form until about the 2d century AD, when the oral law was compiled and written down in a document called the Mishnah. Over the next few centuries, additional commentaries elaborating on the Mishnah were written down in Jerusalem and Babylon. These additional commentaries are known as the Gemara. The Gemara and the Mishnah together are known as the Talmud. This was completed in the 5th century AD. There are actually two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is more comprehensive, and is the one most people mean if they just say “the Talmud” without specifying which one.1
If the Talmud has anything to say about Jesus at all, the reader is predisposed to expect negativity2 and is not disappointed. In the Talmud, Jesus is a man who “spoils his food/dish”3 or “publicly burns his food,” a crime that Blomberg suggests is equal to defiling your master’s teaching.4 Schäfer suggests it is connected to sexual uncleanness, and he interprets this Talmudic commentary on Psalm 91:10 as meaning that “the worst plague is a son or disciple who publically leads a licentious life by which he compromises himself and his poor wife.”5 Jesus is thrown into this discussion either by the Jewish tradition of the infidelity of his mother Mary or by Jesus’ known association with sinners and prostitutes.6 Furthermore, as a teacher, Jesus is made to look absurd and profane. He is associated with all sorts of blasphemy and even shown as he weighs in on a discussion of whether or not the fee of a whore may be used to purchase a toilet for the high priest.7 However, these more condescending passages are sprinkled with other statements that, even while continuing to express a poor opinion of Jesus, nevertheless confirm that Jesus was a man both associated with and a worker of wonders.
The first hint of Gospel correlation in the Talmud deals with Gospel accounts of the death of Christ and peculiar, even miraculous events that surrounded that event. Matthew records the following as events that immediately followed the death of Christ:
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:51-54, ESV)
Plummer suggests that this passage has a strong connection to what is written in Jerusalem Talmud:
It has been taught: Forty years before the destruction of the Temple the western light went out, the crimson thread remained crimson, and the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open. Said [to the Temple] Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, “O Temple, why do you frighten us? We know that you will end up destroyed. For it has been said, ‘Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars!” (Zech. 11:1).8
The passages are vastly different in detail. However, three central themes are consistent. First, strange and inexplicable events take place in the temple. Second, these events are seen by observers as divine portents. Third, the events take place at or near the year of the death of Jesus of Nazareth, forty years before the fall of Jerusalem.9
Elsewhere in the Talmud, the reader finds more direct statements. In Sanhedrin 107b, “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray”. Likewise in the account of Jesus’s death in Sanhedrin 43a, Jesus is denounced “because he practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.” This unnecessary admission by an unfavorable source that Jesus worked some type of extraordinary wonder is powerful evidence for the historical fact of Jesus’ miracles. No reason can be imagined for a rabbinic writer to concede the notion of a wonder-working Jesus rather than make a stern denial, except perhaps that facts are stubborn things. “Again the Christian claims are not denied but simply given a different interpretation.”10 Rather than dismiss the miraculous power of Christ, they interpret it as sorcery. The fierceness of the denial of the divine origin of Jesus’s miracles demands exploration of whether this “sorcery” has a better interpretation than his enemies would allow.
Clearly, sorcery is not the only category in which to place Jesus’s miracles. As John records, at least one leader among the Pharisees came to very different conclusion. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2, ESV) Nicodemus, and apparently a silent number among the Jewish leadership, understood that the miracles of Jesus of Nazareth lent themselves more naturally to a favorable interpretation. They may have been confounded by his doctrine, but the spectacle of his wonders were not only impossible to deny, but also unlikely the work of pagan power or magic. Likewise, his disciples came to a similar conclusion. After the stilling of the sea, they marveled and asked, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27, ESV) Without doubt, he has demonstrated power beyond mortal bounds. He could be a practitioner of sorcery, though it seems evident that the authority over nature this miracle displays passed beyond any sort of parlor trick or illusion. He could be favored by some pagan deity, but such a view would have been anathema to any first century Jew. Finally, Jesus could be favored by the one true God, whose power over nature stood as an absolute fact in the Jewish tradition. “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” (Psalm 107:28-29, ESV) Their continued discipleship demonstrates their answer.
Likewise, even the modern and enlightened thinker must wrestle with these ancient facts. Jesus of Nazareth worked miracles. His disciples wrote that he did. The writers of the Talmud wrote that he did. If there is any honest method to the pursuit of historical facts, then surely the testimony of such hostile witnesses commends this undeniable fact. The challenge then remains to answer the same simple and humbling question that the disciples asked long ago upon the sea, “What manner of man is this?”
I consulted Jacob Neusner, trans., The Babylonian Talmud: a Translation And Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005). ↩
Bavli Sanhedrin 103a. As cited in Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 26. ↩
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. 2nd ed., (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, USA, 2007) 253. ↩
Schäfer, 26-29. ↩
Ibid., 29. ↩
Kalmin references this passage (b. ‘Aboda Zar. 16b-17a) and argues that it is actually complementary of Jesus, but I find this hard to believe; Richard Kalmin, “Christians and Heretics in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity,” Harvard Theological Review 87, no. 2 : 155-58. ↩
Tractate Yoma 6:3 as cited in Robert Plummer, “Something Awry In the Temple? The Rending of the Temple Veil and Early Jewish Sources That Report Unusual Phenomena In the Temple Around AD 30,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46, no. 2 [June 2005]: 306. ↩
For further reading on this topic, see H. W. Montefiore, “Josephus and the New Testament,” Novum Testamentum 4, no. 2 [December 1960]: 148-154. ↩
Blomberg, 253. ↩