Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Is the Talmud anti-Christian?
came out in the NY Jewish Press, and can be read at
I am taking advantage of your patience by pasting here the longer
fuller version of the article. The shorter version can be read from
the address just mentioned.
Is the Talmud anti-Christian?
By Steven Plaut
For centuries Jews have been accused of studying anti-Christian texts
and materials supposedly contained in the Talmud. Such allegations
are the staple fare of anti-Semitic organizations and web sites and a
favorite calumny of Neo-Nazis.
But is there any truth to it?
First of all, just what exactly is the Talmud? It is an edited set of
protocols of scholarly debate and discussions that took place in
rabbinic "academies" operating between the second and late fifth
centuries. There are in fact two Talmuds. The more authoritative one
is the Babylonian Talmud, composed in Jewish academies located in what
is now Iraq in the pre-Moslem era. It was composed in jurisdictions
outside the Roman empire, and so also outside the realm of
Christendom. The participants in the Talmudic discourse in "Babylon"
lived under pagan rule and had no reason for reluctance in expressing
criticism or dissent from Christianity, if they were of such a mind.
The second, shorter Talmud is the Jerusalem Talmud, composed in
academies in the Land of Israel, and so subject to the censorship and
rule of Rome and later of the Byzantine Empire.
The subject matter of the Talmud is by and large Biblical law, ranging
from laws about torts, property, court procedure, marriage, and
divorce to rulings regarding religious ritual and custom. Because the
Talmud is essentially the collection of protocols of debates, it also
includes sections of digressions that were made by the participants in
those debates, when they would meander off and discuss folklore,
gossip, medical advice, legend, history, and humor. Some of the
comments are biting insults by one scholar challenging another. Only
parts of the Talmud have survived the ages; some other sections or
"tractates" were lost. The language of both Talmuds is Aramaic, mixed
with Hebrew, although each Talmud is in a different dialect of
Aramaic, making their mastery an enormous challenge that requires
decades of work and effort to accomplish properly. Of the
traditional charges made by anti-Semites that the Talmud is somehow
anti-Christian, all such accusations are directed at the Babylonian
Talmud. None are directed at the Jerusalem Talmud.
A complete set of the Babylonian Talmud takes up several shelves in a
library, and consists of thousands of pages and dozens of book
volumes. There is more than one version of the Talmud, with minor
differences in the text. The standard "Vilna" version, often
considered the most reliable, has nearly 6000 pages, and versions
including translations or additional commentaries can be longer. The
"Schottenstein" translation of the Talmud into English consists of 73
Traditional anti-Semitism has claimed that the Talmud is filled with
derogatory comments about Jesus, Mary and Christianity. Such
allegations have been made for so many centuries that even some
civilized and fair-minded people accept them at face value. Because
of such allegations, throughout the centuries volumes of the Talmud
were often burnt, sometimes at the instigation of the Church.
Talmudic texts were often subject to censorship in Christian nations,
but usually not in Moslem countries - since the Talmud predates the
As it turns out, every single accusation and allegation about Talmudic
anti-Christian texts is based upon creative "deconstructing" of
Talmudic references to sinners or those who are punished, falsely
alleging that these actually refer to Christian figures. The
deconstruction operates even when the sinner in question has a
completely different name, or no name.
In fact, there are no explicit references to Christianity at all
anywhere in the Talmud. There are no specific references to Jesus or
Mary although there are references to people who have names somewhat
similar to theirs. Thus while the traditional Hebrew name for Jesus
is Yeshua, there are mentions of several people named Yeshu, generally
people who live in different eras, either long before Jesus or long
afterwards. There is also a story about an immoral woman named
Miriam, but again there is no reason why anyone should assume this is
referring to the New Testament's Mary. The names Miriam and Yeshu
appear in the Jewish Bible (the "Old Testament"), where they obviously
do not refer to the Christian figures, and both names were evidently
commonly used in the era of the Talmud.
Out of the massive volume of Talmudic text, traditional anti-Semitism
claimed to find a handful of passages that refer to Jesus. The most
lurid and common accusation involves a single passage in the Talmudic
tractate Gittim, a section of the Talmud that generally involves laws
of divorce. Anti-Semites claim the page describes Jesus in the
Afterworld being punished by being boiled in excrement. Among current
anti-Semitic web sites making this accusation are that of David Duke,
that of Holocaust Denier Michael Hoffman II, and those of countless
other Neo-Nazis and anti-Semitics.
There is a tradition among Jews of studying a full Talmudic page each
day, a daunting challenge that takes up at least a full hour, or more
if it is done properly. As it turns out, this week it was my turn to
study Gittim page 57, that selection of the Talmud. So I am not
relying on the reports by others who have studied the page in question
but on my own eyes.
As it turns out Jesus is nowhere mentioned on the page, nor is there
anyone with a name resembling that of Jesus, like Yeshu. What
actually is on the page is a digression by the sages participating in
a debate about land ownership law, who get sidetracked into a long
discussion of legends concerning Roman Emperors, starting with Caesar
and ending with Titus. The immoral behavior of Titus is discussed at
length (he is said to have had sex with a prostitute inside the Holy
of Holies of the Temple in order to desecrate it). The various
indignities and punishments Titus suffers later in his life are
described, with the presumption that these are divine retributions.
Having discussed Titus's life at length, a relative of Titus is then
discussed. The nephew of Titus was named Onkeles son of Kelonikos,
and he converted to Judaism, becoming one of the leading scholars of
his age. One of the earliest translations of the Bible (into Aramaic)
was performed by this same Onkeles and is still an indispensable tool
for understanding the Bible.
In the Talmudic legendary digression about the life of Onkeles, it is
said that when he was at first contemplating converting from Roman
paganism to Judaism but had not yet made up his mind, he conjured up
his dead uncle, Titus, from the Afterworld. Titus describes his
torments there to his nephew. Onkeles then conjures up two other dead
sinners: one is the evil Balaam discussed in the Book of Numbers, who
lived many centuries earlier, and the last is a nameless Jewish sinner
who had mocked the teachings of the sages. Both are suffering
torments in the Afterlife, with the last sinner being boiled in feces.
The first two sinners advise Onkeles not to convert, while the last
sinner advises him to embrace Judaism, in spite of the sinner's own
Balaam is a symbol of evil used in Jewish texts going back many
centuries before Jesus was born. Anti-Semites claim, somewhat
inconsistently, that Balaam in this page of the Talmud is a secret
code word being used to mock Jesus, and also that the nameless Jewish
sinner being discussed is Jesus. They cannot both be referring to
Jesus. Clearly neither are.
Balaam was a pagan priest in the Bible, serving the king of Moab. In
later Jewish texts, when Jews living under Roman or Christian rule
wished to criticize or protest the behavior of the rulers, they used
"Edom" and the "descendents of Esau" as code for Romans or Christians.
Never "Moab." In fact Moab gets some good publicity in Judaism
because the great grandmother of King David is a Moabite woman, Ruth,
and Moabites are descendent from Lot, the nephew of Abraham. The
nameless Jewish sinner included in the story is clearly added to
illustrate the somewhat different torment of a disrespectful Jew
compared with the punishments of the pagan sinners.
In short, nothing on this page of Talmud refers to Jesus. There is
also nothing that refers to Christianity or Christian figures.
Dredging up this as "evidence" that the Talmud is anti-Christian is a
bit like claiming that Cain or Dotan or Korach are secret Biblical
references to Jesus in an attempt to paint the Old Testament as
anti-Christian propaganda. It is very much like claiming that
criticism of a Hispanic named Jesus, which is a common name among
Latinos, is a secret form of anti-Christian blasphemy.
While that Talmudic segment may be the one most widely cited by
anti-Semites as "proof" that the Talmud is little more than
anti-Christian incitement, the other segments cited by anti-Semites in
"evidence" are, if anything, even sillier.
There is a nameless person, called Plony, which is a Biblical term for
an unnamed person - like John Doe, who is described in the Talmud as a
bastard. Anti-Semites claim it refers to Jesus. It obviously does
not. The John Doe in question evidently lived long after Jesus.
In a different Talmudic segment there is a reference to a nameless
immoral woman, a descendent of princes, who hung out with carpenters.
Evidently because of the carpenter reference, anti-Semites claimed
this was referring to Mary. There are no Christian sources that claim
that Mary was descendent from any princes. The woman in question is
mentioned in the Talmud as someone who practiced sorcery like Balaam.
Anti-Semites claim that the original text here, later removed by
censors, named the woman "Miriam the Hairdresser." Just why anyone
would think that a hairdresser descendent from princes was referring
to the Mary of the New Testament is unclear.
There is indeed a Yeshu discussed in the Talmud, but he is the wayward
pupil of a Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Perachiah, and they lived long before
Jesus was born (under a Hasmonean King who ruled a century before
Christ), spending much of their lives in Alexandria, Egypt. This
Yeshu's sin was that he made a comment about the eyes of a married
woman. The Talmud elsewhere says that this Yeshu had close ties with
the government. No one thinks Jesus was politically well-connected
with the Romans.
If this were to be some sort of Talmudic diatribe against Jesus,
surely the sages involved could have come up with something better
than disapproval of a comment made about a woman's eyes. And from the
biographical details, it is clear that it could not be referring to
the Jesus of Christianity. The only "evidence" here is the name
Yeshu, which was a common one. There is even another Yeshu who is not
Christ mentioned in the New Testament (Collossians 4:11). A different
Yeshu is mentioned in the Talmud having five disciples, four of whom
have names that do not resemble any of the disciples of Christ, and
one is named Matai, a common name, which some claim resembles Matthew.
In other segments of the Talmud one can find references to a Son of
Stada, who was a sinner executed on the eve of Passover in Lud after
being judged by a Jewish court for sorcery. Anti-Semites have claimed
this is a code reference to Jesus. But Jesus was not executed on the
eve of Passover, the execution was not in Lud, his father was not
Stada, he was judged by a Roman court and was not accused of sorcery,
and the Son of Stada evidently lived a century after Christ. The
Talmud cites a dissenting source that Stada was actually the name of
the mother of the Son of Stada, and that she left her husband to have
an affair with a man named Pandira. This is the section where Stada
is also referred to as the Hairdresser Miriam. The first husband of
this hairdresser is discussed elsewhere in the Talmud and is known to
have lived a century after Christ. So none of this can reasonably be
considered to be referring to Jesus.
None of this is to suggest that the Rabbis of the Talmud believed in
Christ or were secret Christians. They had their theological disputes
with Christianity, but these are not matters that are the focus in the
Talmud. While in its earliest phases, Christianity was a minority
theological movement of Jews who were practicing Judaism, the Rabbis
who participated in the Talmudic debates were not part of that
movement. In the debates in the Talmud they are preoccupied with