Flies and elephants

It's wonderful to see an attempt to herd the creatures of Judaism and Christianity in a single book.

elephants 298.88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
elephants 298.88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Is it possible that the director of Judaic studies at Princeton has never read the Babylonian Talmud - "a field which is not my primary research area" - even once from start to finish? Or that such an influential teacher would then undertake a book titled Jesus in the Talmud without first reading the New Testament - "a field of which I can claim even less competence" - either? It's difficult to draw any other conclusion, considering the gaping holes in Peter Sch fer's coverage of his subject. But then, this is a man who evidently considers both the Talmud and the New Testament to be little truer or worthier of serious study than fairy tales. As Sch fer puts it, the Talmud's treatment of Jesus provides "literary answers to a literary text, the New Testament..." the study of which has long been hobbled by the "crude and positivistic historicity" characteristic of fundamentalists and evangelists, which "must be dismissed once and for all." In short, it seems he searched several digital editions of the Talmud for possible references to Jesus, and with the understandably meager results of such investigation (after all, Jews are strongly discouraged from naming or discussing a person convicted of a capital crime), constructed his central thesis - that the Talmud's few and enigmatic references to him represent "a highly ambitious and devastating counter-narrative," "a well-designed attack" by Babylonian rabbis who intended to mock the Gospels' accounts of Jesus's birth, life, death and resurrection, while defending his condemnation as a sorcerer who led Israel astray. The book's nine short chapters cover what the author maintains is the Talmud's description of Jesus's birth and family, his failures as a student and disciple, his work as a Torah teacher, healings done in his name, his execution, his disciples, and his punishment in hell, where he is described as sitting in boiling excrement. Whether the few scattered words and phrases involved (most referring not to "Jesus" or "Jesus of Nazareth" at all, but rather to one "ben Stada" or "ben Panthera") indeed represent the deliberate and "devastating counter-narrative" posited by Sch fer, I leave to the reader's judgment; however, it seems to me that Sch fer may actually have caught and dissected one or two academic flies, while ignoring at least two elephants in the lab - and all because of his stated fear of "relapsing into the bad habits of positivism." THE FIRST of these elephants has to do with Jesus's appearance before the Sanhedrin. While Jesus' trial for blasphemy - described in all four Gospels and surely a central feature in the story of his life - is not dealt with explicitly anywhere in the Talmud and was thus invisible to Sch fer's research tools. However, the Talmud, which he calls "the founding document of rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity" devotes one of its 60-plus volumes to describing the bylaws governing just how such a capital case should be heard, while the written evidence preserved in the Gospels goes into considerable detail as to how the trial actually was conducted. So anyone conversant with the New Testament would have been fascinated to learn, for example, that no capital case was to be heard at night, or without all 71 judges present. At least two witnesses had to be in virtually perfect agreement as to the details of the alleged crime, and two or more had to have first warned the defendant of its legal consequences. Judgment was not to be passed or sentence issued until the judges had had a chance to sleep on the matter. Self-incrimination was strictly forbidden, and a unanimous vote to condemn meant automatic acquittal. I say "fascinated" because, according to the New Testament account - written by simple men who were likely unaware of the existence of these bylaws, let alone of their significance - every one of these bylaws was ignored during the trial of Jesus. Furthermore, the Talmud makes it clear that any case can be reopened and a verdict overturned at any time - even centuries after an execution - since Judaic law recognizes no statute of limitations in such matters. THE SECOND elephant that I feel Sch fer missed, and one which could easily justify a book of its own, has to do with a bitter second-century dispute between the talmudic sage Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and his 70 colleagues on the Sanhedrin, by then a pride-infected body that had arguably been moving away from God and toward humanism since before Jesus was born. The issue at hand concerned the possibility of purifying a particular kind of oven. Eliezer remembered the Halacha passed down orally since Sinai, but the 70, as foreseen in general by Moses (Deut. 32:15) and in detail by Ezekiel (Ez. 8), were intent on rebellion, and had picked this seemingly picayune issue as their test case. As he heard his colleagues' debate moving further and further toward perdition, Eliezer grew worried enough to call up three open miracles in an attempt to change their minds. When the rebels responded - accurately enough - that God had instructed humanity centuries earlier to put no stock in miracles when it came to deciding the value of a man or his message, Eliezer saw that he had run out of options. Pushed to the wall and desperate to keep his fellow Jewish leaders from breaking a divine command ("obey My voice" - Ex. 19:5, Deut. 28:15, Jer. 18:10) so basic that the punishment for violation was national exile, he called on God Himself to stay their hand. In response, a heavenly voice was heard by all supporting Eliezer's position. But the leader of the 70, taking a biblical passage entirely out of context, replied that "the Torah is not in heaven" (Deut. 30:12), and the rest pounced on this "proof-text" as justification for deliberately exceeding their divine mandate. God was heard to laugh (as Moses predicted would happen in Deut. 28:63-64), and the black clouds of a seemingly endless exile began to gather. Indeed, this episode has been taught by Diaspora rabbis ever since as an example of the triumph of majority rabbinic rule over individual interpretation - with no apparent consideration of the Torah's warning (Ex. 23:2) not to follow after the majority to do evil. I should stress here that the re-casting of this account as a tale of cold-blooded rebellion and the cause of our exile is entirely my own; I submit it for consideration because, according to Yoma 9b, this exile will not end until its cause is acknowledged and repented of. So I didn't know whether to laugh or cry upon finding a horribly distorted version of this story related by Sch fer as evidence that the sages - just as he claims they did in Jesus' case - acted to protect the ordered forces of rabbinic rationalism against the chaotic predations of magic; the account itself makes it clear that "magic" wasn't the bone of contention. To sum up, it's wonderful to see any attempt made to herd the creatures of Judaism and Christianity between the covers of a single book, however myopic the herdsman. But remember... those elephants are still waiting. The writer is editor of The Jerusalem Post Christian edition.