The following discussion relies almost entirely upon Peter Schafer’s Jesus in the Talmud, which I have chosen for three reasons. First, it is accessibly short (under two hundred pages) and written for the non-specialist; second, it is recent (2007), conveniently summarizing the long history of scholarship on the subject; third, there cannot be the least suspicion that it was motivated by anti-Semitism. The fact that the dust-jacket includes tributes from Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Visotzky (of the Jewish Theological Seminary) makes that clear enough; that it lists, amongst Schafer’s other works, the title Judaeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World, puts it beyond doubt. I also follow Schafer’s order and division of the topic, although my headings are somewhat more forthrightly worded.
Jesus the Bastard Son of an Adulteress
Along with the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ ancestry and birth is one of the foundational narratives of Christianity. The Evangelists are, accordingly, very careful to establish Jesus’ messianic pedigree. He was born, as they relate, in Bethlehem (the city of David) to Mary and her husband (or betrothed) Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth. Through his father Joseph, Jesus descends (in the twenty-eighth generation, in Matthew’s genealogy) in direct line from David, thus fulfilling the ancient Jewish prophecies of the coming of a Messiah out of the royal house of Jesse.
Whether she was already married or merely espoused to Joseph, the Evangelists insist that Mary was still a virgin when, through the afflatus of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was conceived. Being a “just man”, and “not willing to make her a public example” – to expose her to gossip and ridicule –, Joseph “was minded to put her away privily” when he found her with child. But while he deliberated, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, telling him to fear not, for the child in Mary’s womb was conceived of the Holy Ghost, and would be born in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child…” (Matt. 1:18-23)
Evidently familiar with the Gospel narrative and the tone of high moral and theological sanctity in which it is retailed, but determined to impugn it as part of a general campaign to discredit the nascent faith (which they regarded as heretical), the Rabbis tell a rather different story.
The Rabbis’ version is alluded to in several passages in the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli), which did not reach its final form until the seventh century. For this reason, it might be tempting to dismiss its allusions to Jesus and Christianity as hopelessly late. This, however, as Schafer and other scholars have insisted, would be a mistake. First, the Bavli is a compilation of traditions, oral and written, that go back to the early fourth century. Secondly, because of the easy familiarity presumed by the interlocutors in these passages, it is highly probable that a rabbinic counter-narrative of Jesus’ lineage and birth had coalesced in a very early age, and had thus been in broad circulation for several centuries before being formally recorded.
In the first of these texts (Shab 104b), the story follows upon an exposition of the mishnaic law according to which the writing of two or more characters constitutes “work”, and is thus forbidden on the Sabbath. With typical scrupulosity, the Mishnah lists any and all of the instruments and materials that could conceivably be used for writing (quill, stylus, chisel, paper, wax, clay, stone), and even includes within the Sabbath prohibition the use of one’s own body (i.e., anyone “who scratches [a mark] in his flesh”). This particular mishnah then inevitably engenders a debate about the legal status of tattoos. The principal antagonists are the famous Talmudic sages, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.
R. Eliezer argues that tattoos are also proscribed, and in the Tosefta (the Talmudic supplements), he presents before the Rabbis in attendance at the debate the proof: “But did not Ben Satra learn only in such a way?” (t Shab 11:15) Since the infamous Ben Satra used tattoos as an aid to learning, surely they are a form of writing that must be forbidden on the Sabbath. Elsewhere (b Shab 104b), R. Eliezer makes an even more damning argument: “But did not Ben Stada bring forth witchcraft from Egypt by means of scratches upon his flesh?” Yet, in spite of his confidence that the mere mention of the name of Ben Satra/Stada in connection with the practice of tattooing would be enough to demonstrate that it should be forbidden, the Rabbis dismiss Eliezer’s testimony by pointing out that Ben Satra/Stada was “fool”, and that a fool’s behaviour ought not to bear upon so grave a question of rabbinic law.
The text then goes on to pose the question of this notorious “fool’s” parentage:
Was he the son of Stada, and not on the contrary, the son of Pandera?
Said Rav Hisda: the husband was Stada, and the lover was Pandera.
But was not the husband Pappos ben Yehuda and rather his mother Stada?
His mother was Miriam, the woman who let her hair grow long.
This is as they say about her in Pumbeditha: This one was unfaithful to her husband. (Shab 104b)
This (so Schafer assures us) is an entirely typical Bavli dialogue, insofar as it attempts to resolve the contradiction between two Talmudic traditions: here, one that holds that the “fool/magician” is the “son of Stada”, and another, according to which he is known as the “son of Pandera”. As Schafer emphasizes, what the Talmud is concerned with is “the problem that the same person is called by two different names, and not about the question of who this person is” (the answer to which, i.e, Jesus the Nazarene, is assumed to be widely known) (Jesus, p. 17). To resolve the conflict, each of the interlocutors in our passage proposes a different solution.
Rav Hisda (a teacher at the academy of Sura, d. 319) explains that the paternity of our “fool” is doubtful, because his mother had both a husband and a lover. Those who thought her husband was the father called him “son of Stada”; those who suspected that her lover was the father called him “son of Pandera”.
Disagreeing, an anonymous interlocutor posits another explanation. The husband’s name, he argues, is not “Stada” but Pappos ben Yehuda (a Palestinian scholar of the first half of the first century); in fact, it was the mother who was called “Stada”. The mother, as he goes on to say, is the notorious Miriam of the long hair—the Miriam who is condemned and convicted in the Pumbeditha (Sura’s rival rabbinic academy in Babylonia) of adultery. “Stada” is thus merely an epithet, deriving from the Hebrew satah/sete (“to go astray; to be unfaithful”). Miriam, that is, is also called “Stada” because she was a sotah, an adulteress.
Both explanations assume, then, that the mother of our “fool” had, at the same time, a husband and a lover, and was thus incontrovertibly guilty of adultery. The dispute is only about the name of the husband (“Stada” or “Pappos b. Yehudi”?). Significantly, the latter is mentioned elsewhere in the Bavli, in an admonitory tale told by R. Meir, according to which Pappos b. Yehudi was so uncertain of his wife’s faithfulness that he used to lock her in his house whenever he went out (b Gittin 90a). In the Rabbi’s account, Pappos is an example of the proverbial chastened cuckold who, when a fly falls into his cup, no longer drinks from it: that is, even while keeping his wife locked up, he regards her infidelity as so inevitable that he refuses to have intercourse with her.
The sexual promiscuity of our fool’s mother is further emphasized in the anonymous speaker’s statement that she let her hair grow long. Schafer cites numerous passages throughout Talmud in which long hair is the scarlet letter of a “bad woman”; indeed, the text about Pappos b. Yehudi in Gittin continues with the admonition that the unfortunate man “who see his wife go out in public with her hair unfastened” should not only refrain from sexual contact with her but immediately file for divorce.
Though the passage from Shab leaves the paternity of our fool ultimately in doubt, whether his father was Miriam’s husband or her lover, the fact that she was an adulteress in itself made the child a mamzer (bastard) in Jewish law. Moreover, on the basis of numerous and widespread rabbinic references to him as the “son of Pandera/Panthera”, Schafer concludes that “the Talmud seems to be convinced that his true father was indeed Pandera, his mother’s lover, and that he was a bastard in the full sense of the word” (Jesus, p. 18).
Once again, it must be emphasized that the identities of the bastard son and the adulteress mother in these oblique rabbinic references are not in doubt. For the Rabbis of the Talmud, the son is Jesus, and his mother Miriam is the Miriam (Heb.> Lat. Maria) of the Gospels. But who is her lover “Pandera”?
In attempting to answer this question, Talmudic scholars have for generations adduced a remarkable parallel in a passage from the Alethes Logos (The True Doctrine, preserved in fragments quoted by Origen in his Contra Celsum) of the second-century pagan Middle Platonist philosopher Celsus. In The True Doctrine, Celsus introduces a certain Jew who, supposedly in debate with Jesus, accused him of having “fabricated the story of his birth from a virgin”, whereas, in fact
he came from a Jewish village and from a poor country woman who earned her living by spinning. He [Celsus’ Jew] says that she was driven out by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, as she was convicted of adultery. Then he says that after she had been driven out by her husband and while she was wandering about in a disgraceful way she secretly gave birth to Jesus. And he says that because he was poor he hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of these powers, and on account of them gave himself the title of God. (C.C. I, 28)
In the previous section of this essay, I have already quoted this passage in conjunction with another from Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, but reproduce it here because of its immediate relevance to the rabbinic texts under discussion. A subsequent reference by Origen (C.C. I, 32) places that relevance beyond question:
Let us return, however, to the words put into the mouth [by Celsus] of the Jew, where the mother of Jesus is described as having been turned out by the carpenter who was betrothed to her, as she had been convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier name Panthera.
Between our Talmudic text and the account of Jesus’ parentage and childhood that Celsus has “put into the mouth” of his Jew, the parallels are certainly striking. In both, the child is the son of an adulteress and her lover “Panthera”, and returns from Egypt with certain “magical powers”. The only difference is that Celsus’ Jew identifies him explicitly as Jesus, whereas the Rabbis refer to him offhandedly as the “fool”, without mentioning his proper name. But then, as we have already seen, the interlocutors in the Talmudic dialogue are not concerned with his identity, but the oddity that he is known by two names.
Moreover, as Schafer stresses again, “several rabbinic sources do mention Jesus as the son of Pandera, and it can be safely assumed, therefore, that the Talmud presupposes the knowledge of this identity.” (Jesus, p. 19) The more important inference, in any case, is the one to which the overwhelming congruencies between the two accounts unmistakably point: Those of both the Talmud and Celsus’ Jew evidently depend upon a common source according to which Jesus was the illegitimate son of an adulteress mother and an obscure father, Pandera/Panthera, who was her lover. The fact that Celsus has attributed these innovations to a “Jew”, in conjunction with its similarities to the rabbinic counter-narrative preserved in the Bavli, suggests that the tradition of Jesus’ illegitimate birth was originally Jewish, not pagan. Celsus’ “Jew” may have been a literary invention – rather than an historical personality who actually conversed with Jesus –, but there is no reason not to suppose that he represents a genuine body of Jewish anti-Christian opinion. The polemical Jewish counter-narrative was thus evidently already in circulation in Celsus’ lifetime (late second century), but may indeed have originated as early as the time of Celsus’ Jew (i.e, the time of Jesus).
Whatever its age of origin, the purpose of the rabbinic counter-narrative could hardly be clearer: to ridicule and undercut in the most sordid terms and at every juncture the ancient professions of faith upon which the sanctity and authenticity of the New Religion rest. The Evangelists hail Jesus as the “son of David”; the book of Matthew begins with a genealogy that traces his ancestry through the royal line to its founder, on which stands the Christian claim that the new-born child is the long-awaited Davidic Messiah. The rabbinic version parodies Jesus’ pretensions to nobility by making him the son of an unknown Roman soldier—a non-Jew and, worse, a member of a detested nation of oppressors. Hardly from the royal city of Bethlehem, in reality he came from an impoverished country village, the son of manual laborers who provided for him so meagerly that the entire family was forced to seek work outside the country. This was the reason for their “flight into Egypt”, rather than to escape Herod’s Massacre, of which, of course, there was never any threat, there never having been a supernaturally heralded birth of any long-awaited King of the Jews of whom Herod could be afraid.
Most risible of all, according to the Rabbis, is the Gospel’s claim that Jesus’ mother was a virgin from whose immaculate womb he was miraculously born as the son of God. On the contrary, Miriam was a loose woman, a notorious adulteress, whose husband was so habituated to her nocturnal prowlings that he kept her under lock and key. This was the real meaning of Joseph’s decision to “put her away privily”, if it was not because Joseph knew that she was already pregnant with the child of another man.
Far from being the “son of God”, whose father was the Holy Spirit, Jesus was in reality a bastard who issued from the loins of Mary’s clandestine lover. No wonder Joseph was “troubled”, and had to be reassured in a “dream”. The whole fantastic story of Mary’s being with child by the Holy Spirit was a dream indeed – a face-saving concoction meant to cover-up the embarrassing truth that Mary, Joseph’s legally betrothed, had an illicit lover, and that her “divine” child was the product of one their sordid tysts. Joseph’s disquieting suspicions were entirely warranted. Mary had certainly betrayed him. Rather than agreeing to accept her as his legal wife, he ought to have dismissed her immediately, in accordance with Jewish law.
This, then, is the Jewish counter-narrative. In the historical context of the sectarian antagonisms of the early Christian centuries, it is perhaps understandable that it attempts to expose as frauds the Gospels’ pious claims that Jesus was descended from David, that his mother was a divinely-elected virgin, that he is the Messiah predicted and expected by the Prophets, and that he is the very son of God. After all, the Jews rejected them while Jesus lived and preached, and there is no reason why they should not continue to reject them vehemently during the decades and centuries in which the Church was establishing herself as the dominant religious community of the ancient world.
Still, even the bitterest pagan opponents of Christianity refuted its theology with reasons and arguments. There are no arguments in the rabbinic polemic. There are only myths and confabulations, erected upon no more solid an empirical-historical foundation than the Gospel narratives themselves. What discredits them, ultimately, is not their falsehood; it is the gratuitous sexual muck-raking and domestic farce into which they so easily and salaciously descend. There is something eerily contemporary about the Rabbis’ cast of mind. It reminds one, in fact, of Dan Brown (whose own scurrilous caricature of the Holy Family owes much, as we will see later, to the Talmudic texts). There has always been, I suppose, a certain kind of mind that sees everything from a worm’s-eye view; that cannot admit the possibility of a world in which such things as love, chastity, and marital fidelity exist, even as ideals, and when confronted by them, does everything in its power to besmirch them.