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Rabbi Jesus

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Recently, Shlomo Riskin, an American Israeli Orthodox rabbi, came in for sustained attack because he was shown on a Christian Embassy video referring to “Rabbi Jesus”. Such was the brouhaha that Rabbi Riskin had to defend himself, claiming not to have praised Jesus. He said, “I never praised the character or the personality of the person in whose name Jews were slaughtered throughout history. If that is how my words were understood, I am disturbed by that understanding and state that that was not my intention at all. I apologize if my words were taken improperly. I related to the historical persona of Jesus, who was not a Christian, did not hate Jews, but was a Jewish and religious person.”

Now I mean no offense, but I still need to be convinced that there actually was such a specific person as Jesus. The Gospels were written in Greek, anywhere between 40 to 100 years after his presumed death, and as the late Hyam Maccoby has amply illustrated, their stories contradict each other and the Jewish context of the times. The text in Josephus that refers to him is suspect, and the derogatory hints in the Talmud were written hundreds of years later.

What is certain is that the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to leaders and teachers that sound very similar to the John the Baptist and the Jesus of the Gospels. Except they speak of a generation earlier. In the period leading up to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70, there were all kinds of sects and charismatic teachers wandering around the Judean countryside teaching and healing. Virtually all the popular teachings attributed to Jesus can be found in earlier popular and proselytizing mainstream Jewish, Pharisaic, teachers such as Hillel.

It seems to me that it was Paul, Saul of Tarsus, who was the founder of Christianity. As he admits, he never met a historical figure and only had his famous vision on the road to Damascus. It would not have been difficult to create a persona as a construct out of a range of popular figures from a previous generation. The genius of Paul was to create a compelling narrative and legend. He borrowed from Judaism and other cultures and selected a range of popular ideas that appealed to a much wider audience in the Roman Empire than the more exacting, divided, and national-based ideology of the Judaism of the time. There have been distinguished Jewish academics, such as the late David Flusser, who have tried to identify Jesus and place him in a Jewish context, and probably this was what Riskin was basing himself on. But I am afraid I remain a skeptic, albeit a sympathetic one.

As we have seen, both within Christianity and within Judaism, it is not difficult to create new religions or variations on existing ones that acquire a mythology, even supernatural support. Mass hysteria can lead to all sorts of visions and mental states. Religion is notoriously good at persuading its followers of almost anything. Think of all the wars that have been waged in the name of God, Jesus, or Muhammad.

The fact is that history is very subjective. Just consider, in our own case, the different perspectives on the Hasmoneans between the Books of the Maccabees and the Talmud. Different people looking at the same “events” can come up with very different interpretations. Myth is not necessarily derogatory. It doesn’t only mean “fairy stories”; it can also mean “hallowed traditions” and ways of relating to the world. It can be important in conveying values. It creates symbols and examples appropriate to the different moods and values of religions.

There are different ways of regarding Jesus within Christianity. He is worshipped as God, while others see him as man, and some as an ideal. Just as there are differences in understanding the Koran, as between Shia and Sunni, and opposing ways of looking at King David, for example, in Judaism.

In the end, what emerges from different contexts is a religious culture and way of life that sets out to try to make humans, humanity, and the world a better place. Sadly, its efforts are always hampered by the abuses and misuses with which people succeed in distorting the theory. (But then, I cannot think of any area of human ideology where this does not happen.) And then for a while, a new improved version tries to do things better.

Of course, I agree that there is no objective, archaeological evidence for Moses or Sinai, and that too becomes a matter of faith, intuitive or cognitive. What has and does keep Judaism alive is more a commitment to following God’s Law rather than historical facts that are as yet unconfirmed. I suspect this is precisely why the Torah describes Moses as a man of poor speech. His inability to complete the cycle from slavery to freedom in the Land of Israel and the absence of a grave are all to emphasize the priority of the Divine over the human and no one has ever suggested Moses was more than man.

If individuals are inspired by whichever Jesus narrative they feel comfortable with, that is entirely a matter for them. What matters to me is that it should increase the amount of good and spirituality in the world. But I do not see why we Jews should in any way feel obliged to adopt an agenda that is not ours, even if its origins were born, in part, from our tradition. Rabbi Riskin’s desire to see Jesus as a good rabbi seems to me to be an unnecessary attempt to curry favor with those he might be enlisting to support his political agenda, rather than his spiritual one. Sadly, I fear he ended up doing more harm than good. As they say in Yiddish, and I translate, “Don’t mix in!”

19 thoughts on “Rabbi Jesus

  1. Fascinating theory about Paul-Saul. As there say, behind every successful sort-of-Jew is another sort-of-Jew pulling the strings ! Protocols of the Elders of Christianity.

    Shabbat shalom Jeremy from Tel-Aviv.

  2. I'm surprised to see how many people, yourself included, seem to doubt that Jesus existed; when it's the mainstream consensus that he did.

    You say that it was Paul of Tarsus who founded Christianity; AIUI whilst Paul founded the type of Christianity we have today, he came into conflict with the earlier church led by James, brother of Jesus.

    Anyhow, have you read the book Modern Jews Engage the New Testament by Rabbi Dr Michael J. Cook?

  3. lethargic-man:
    I haven't read the book you refer to but I have read all the primary sources and records and a great deal of serious academic work on the matter, including those who believe he did exist, such as Geza Vermes through Flusser and I am afraid I am simply not convinced. But then it seems to me it's entirely a matter of faith and I don't have it on this issue.

  4. You doubt the veracity of the existence of the person referred to in the texts as Jesus. I remain confused on your position of the revelation at Sinai – about which there are as many reasons to be doubtful. Could you clarify? Because it seems to me one can't, on the one hand, be doubtful on historical grounds about one and not on the other.

  5. Anonymous:

    If historicity were an overriding factor then I would say there's a very big difference between a period when many different people were recording events as they happened, and a period when there was far less contemporary record.

    As for the Sinai revelation it is the actual content of the Revelation and its ongoing expansion that is important rather than the historicity of the events. A person contravenes Torah when he refuses to act according to it, not when he has doubts about its provenance.

    There is it is true the Sinai Covenant which is binding as well as the law but it is the commitment to adhere to the content of the law that is primary not a notional abstract commitment to an idea.

    It is the content of Torah rather than the individuals who played a part that matters more.

    If for most Christians, Christianity depended on the message rather than on the events surrounding the purported finder, it would be altogether different.

    J

  6. Rav-I have a few questions about your article:
    Now I mean no offense, but I still need to be convinced that there actually was such a specific person as Jesus.

    …the derogatory hints in the Talmud were written hundreds of years later.

    According to your biography, you have Orthodox smicha from the Mir. I converted Orthodox in J-m in 1999. I have since studied in Bnei Barak among other places. I find it highly suspicious when someone, especially an Orthodox Rabbi doubts that Yeshu existed. In addition, I have never heard an Orthodox Rabbi describe sections of the Holy Talmud as being "derogatory." I went to a lecture on December 25 by Rabbi Daniel Baron (who also learns at the Mir). He stated emphatically that Yeshu was born on the 9th of Tevet. Please clarify your remarks!

  7. Justin:

    I am sure you are aware that the Mishna was not written down until the end of the second century, by R' Yehuda HaNassi, and that the Bavli was not compiled until around 500, and we cannot know for certain whom, exactly, anyone writing hundreds of years after an event might have actually been referring to. There were thousands of apostates, reformers, Sadduccees, Dead Sea sectarians, all around the end of the first century BCE that Chazal dissociated themselves from and condemned and told us not to read.

    You also know that the text of the Gemara we commonly use in yeshivot nowadays was censored by Christian censors and only the Babylonian Codex survives with uncensored texts.

    In the text we all study in yeshiva nowadays, there is no direct and obvious reference to Jesus, only to problematic heretics or magicians whom Medieval commentators such as the Tosafits suggested might be Jesus, and they are all derogatory (that's what I said–not that there is anything derogatory about the Gemara, only that it expresses views that are derogatory about heretics).

    There is the Gemara in Sanhedrin 43a, which the censor removed, which MIGHT be a reference to Jesus; but even so, its actual date may be three hundred years after the events, and again it is not in the text we use in yeshivas nowadays.

    References to someone who might have been Jesus fall within the realm of Aggadata and are not binding the way halacha is. So I repeat: There is no definitive evidence from Gemara texts that the person many Christians claim to be a god, or who died and was resurrected on the third day, actually existed, any more than references in the Gemara to flying castles means they actually existed.

    J

  8. the Mishna was not written down
    My understanding, based on "Kerem Yehoshua" (Rabbi Yehoshua Cohen) is that parts of the Mishna were written down. Rebbi decided which Mishnayot "made the final cut" into the "Mishna."

    only the Babylonian Codex survives
    I don't know what this "Codex" refers to.

    There is no definitive evidence from Gemara texts…
    You can look, however, at חסרונות הש"ס which I bought as a Yeshiva student. It contains the references to Yeshu and אותו האיש which clearly refer to him. In addition, the Rambam specifically mentions Yeshu and the fact that Christians have "Shabbat" on Sunday.

    Again, I am referring to your statement "I still need to be convinced that there actually was such a specific person as Jesus." I have heard non-Orthodox Jews make this comment, even in front of Christians, as a way to placate them. However, I find this argument, in the framework of Torah Judaism, to be a dubious one. As far as Torah Judaism is concerned, such a person, who was a student of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachya, certainly existed. Being that the case, I am only pursuing this issue לשם שמים.

  9. Justin:

    >My understanding, based on "Kerem Yehoshua" (Rabbi Yehoshua Cohen) is that parts of the Mishna were written down. Rebbi decided which Mishnayot "made the final cut" into the "Mishna."

    Yes you are correct, there were earlier compilations by Rebbi Meir, Rebbi Akiva etc etc I was being simplistic for the sake of brevity.

    >I don't know what this "Codex" refers to.

    Try this or Google
    http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=32&letter=T

    >You can look, however, at חסרונות הש"ס which I bought as a Yeshiva student. It contains the references to Yeshu and אותו האיש which clearly refer to him. In addition, the Rambam specifically mentions Yeshu and the fact that Christians have "Shabbat" on Sunday.

    But even if they do and are authentic and undisputed, they are texts of hundreds of years after the events and written in the light of continuing Christian persecution. Rambam lived a thousand years after the events. He was responding to Christian claims not necessarily making a historical statement of fact.

    >Again, I am referring to your statement "I still need to be convinced that there actually was such a specific person as Jesus." I have heard non-Orthodox Jews make this comment, even in front of Christians, as a way to placate them. However, I find this argument, in the framework of Torah Judaism, to be a dubious one. As far as Torah Judaism is concerned, such a person, who was a student of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Prachya, certainly existed.

    But if there were literally thousands of roaming preachers at the time and all those sects had spiritual leaders, miracle workers and were regarded as apostates by the rabbis and many of them called Yehoshua or Yeshu or Yeshua ( or Yoshki only joking ), a very common name, we still do not know exactly which fellow Yehoshuah ben Perachya or anyone else was referring to and we do not know if they were dealing with Christianity or with some other heresy as it was in their day or in some other day.

    If belief in anyone is a matter of Faith, Emunah etc (I believe in Moshe as Emunah not as scientific fact) and if you dont have that Faith (and I have none in Christianity which again I stress does not mean they might not do lots of good as well as bad) then you need facts and there are none as far as this issue is concerned.

    J

  10. I don't mean to beat this thing in the head, but with reference to:

    References to someone who might have been Jesus fall within the realm of Aggadata and are not binding the way halacha is.

    As far as I know, it is halacha to not study Torah (with varying practices) on December 25th. If Yeshu didn't exist, this would be an absurd practice. I have heard non-Orthodox Jews make this claim in order to "defuse" Christianity. However, just as Yeshu was excommunicated for "going against" חז"ל, those who claim that this person did not exist are similarly going against what the Rabbis have decided is true. Rabbi David Goldenberg (Jerusalem) told me that the following Gemara is a direct reference to Yeshu.

    Yeshu led Israel astray

    Sotah 47a
    What22 was the incident with R. Joshua b. Perahiah? — When King Jannaeus23 put the Rabbis to death, Simeon b. Shetah was hid by his sister, whilst R. Joshua b. perahiah fled to Alexandria in Egypt. When there was peace,24 Simeon b. Shetah sent [this message to him]: ‘From me, Jerusalem, the Holy city, to thee Alexandria in Egypt. O my sister, my husband25 dwelleth in thy midst and I abide desolate’. [R. Joshua] arose and came back and found himself in a certain inn where they paid him great respect. He said: ‘How beautiful is this ‘aksania’!26 One of his disciples27 said to him, ‘My master, her eyes are narrow!’ He replied to him, ‘Wicked person! Is it with such thoughts that thou occupiest thyself !’ He sent forth four hundred horns and excommunicated him.28 [The disciple] came before him on many occasions, saying 'Receive me’; but he refused to notice him. One day while [R. Joshua] was reciting the Shema’, he came before him. His intention was to receive him and he made a sign to him with his hand, but the disciple thought he was repelling him. So he went and set up a brick and worshipped it. [R. Joshua] said to him, ‘Repent’; but he answered him, ‘Thus have I received from thee that whoever sinned and caused others to sin is deprived of the power of doing penitence’. A Master has said: The disciple practised magic and led Israel astray.

    It has been taught: R. Simeon b. Eleazar says: Also human nature29 should a child and woman thrust aside with the left hand and draw near with the right hand.30

    (23) Alexander Jannaeus, king of Israel from 104 to 78 B.C.E., a persecutor of the Pharisees. The chronological discrepancy is obvious since he lived a century before Jesus, v. however, Sanh. (Sonc. ed.) loc. cit.
    (24) On his death-bed the King advised the Queen to put her confidence in the Pharisees. V. Josephus, Ant. XIII, XV, 5.
    (25) His teacher, R. Joshua.
    (26) The word means ‘inn’ and ‘female innkeeper’. The Rabbi intended it in the first sense, Jesus in the second.
    (27) MSS.: ‘Jesus’.
    (28) A horn is blown at the ceremony of excommunication. The large number used on this occasion indicated the extreme severity of the penalty.
    (29) One must learn to control it so as to avoid extremes.
    (30) [One must not be too severe in chiding a child or reproving a wife lest they be driven to despair.]

  11. Justin:

    Here's a perfect example of what I mean. As the source you quote says, Shimon Ben Shetach was the brother of Shlomzion HaMalka, who was the wife of Yannai, who lived 100 years before the Christians believe Jesus did. So who then was he referring to? It couldn't have been someone not yet born for another hundred years.

    And treating the supposed birthdate of Jesus as a day of mourning simply shows how much suffering Christianity caused Judaism during the Medieval period. Besides, the Christians themselves cannot agree on the birthdate of Jesus and there are different dates for different denominations. The December 25th date originated in Medieval Europe. Again, thousand years after the event.

    J

  12. Jeremy, I heard all these things before that there is no evidence and no certainty that Jeshu existed. There were too many sects and leaders and people with the same name. Since then I completely doubted the existence of this Jeshu the Christians believe in giving the fact that all the gospels were written much later. There were no witnesses. Human beings are very imaginitive. One of them wrote the death story in a way to blame the Jews instead of the Romans who had the power to send someone to death. Jews had no right to judge or sentence anyone to death. Historical it does not make any sense at all. I read a book about it by a German Rabbi who lived during the Holocaust time. He said the Jews had no right to judge etc. as I already said.

    Sabine

  13. Sabine:

    Indeed. The best analysis and demolition of the Christian/Gospel narrative is by the late Hyam Maccoby called The Mythmaker (Paul and the invention of Christianity). He was also my teacher of English literature at high school!

    Jeremy

  14. So who then was he referring to?
    It refers to Yeshu. What Christians think is irrelevant. His heresy was saying that all of Judaism can be summed up in the statement "love your fellow Jew as yourself." The Christian religion has nothing to do with what Yeshu "taught" anyhow. Why does the Pope wear a kippah and tallit? Why not just enroll in yeshiva? He is corroborating the ideas of Rabbinical Judaism with some of his garb (not the crucifix).

    And treating the supposed birthdate…
    I propose that Christmas is the occupation of Hunnukah-hence the 25th idea. In any case, you didn't respond to the comment about the missing sections of Shas. Also, the Rambam's opinion is as strong an opinion as one could ever bring. Most Orthodox Rabbanim today hold that such a person existed. By the above opinions, one could doubt the existence of any Tanach-period figure.

    I once worked for a company here in J-m and I had a coworker who, in New York, would wear a kippah on the subway in NYC on Dec. 25th. He related that he would get angry stares from the other passengers. After having lived in Israel for some 8 years, it is clear to me that this day (Dec. 25th) is a reminder to Jews that the galut is still here and was caused by senseless hatred. One day of phony love of the goyim is enough to cause Torah scholars to stop learning for a time. The Maharal of Prague said that the first exile (70 years) was one of taavah (uncontrollable lust) and the second, which is much longer (2,000 years+) is because of gaavah (arrogance).

  15. Interesting that your comments about Jesus could have been made just as easily by an atheist, and they more or less have been.

    I have the same view about religion as you do. The only difference between us is that I believe in one less god than you do.

  16. stevenmcooper70:

    Fair enough. I'm a tolerant bloke and quite understand how and why some people have difficulty accepting the idea of God, all the more so given the way so many people make such a nonsense out of the idea!

    But if you take "god" as being the most important deciding factor in a person's mortal life (money, ambition, fame, etc.), I bet most people, maybe including, you have far more gods than I do!

    J

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