The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 1/Section 3

3.—The Talmud.Edit

When we have thus excluded Josephus from the number of witnesses to the historicity of Jesus, there remains only the question whether there may not be some evidence in the other Jewish literature of the time: in the body of Rabbinical writings collected under the name of the Talmud, which cover a period from about 200 B.C. to 600 A.D. The answer is that no information about Jesus is to be found in the Talmud. One would suppose that, in works intended solely for a Jewish public, the Rabbis of the time would not fail to take the opportunity of attacking Jesus, if he spoke and acted as the gospels describe. Instead of this, they almost entirely ignore him, and, when they do mention him, their references have not the least historical importance. Von Soden declares that they had no opportunity of dealing seriously with him, as the oldest collection, entitled “Sayings of the Fathers,” contains only moral sentences. Nevertheless, all these moral aphorisms, definitions of religious law, and ritual prescriptions are closely connected with the meaning of the work. They partly relate to the same subjects as the sayings of Jesus. They bring together the opposing views of the various famous Rabbis. Why is the Talmud silent about Jesus in this connection? Why is there not the slightest definite reference to the man who expounded the law more subtly than any other Jewish teacher, and made the most serious attack upon the orthodox conception?

It is poor consolation for the supporters of the historicity of Jesus when an expert on the Talmud, Chwolson, says that there was no contemporary Rabbinical literature. In the extant Rabbinical literature of the second century there is, on his own showing, much material and many sayings that “belong to the Rabbis of the second and first centuries of the Christian era.”[1] In fact, there are supposed to be among them three valuable references of the first and beginning of the second century—the experience, namely, of the Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the brother-in-law of Gamaliel II., with the Judaeo-Christian James of Kefar-Schechania, of whom it is said that he was a “pupil” (disciple) of Jesus, and had healed the sick in the name of Jesus. Then there is the explanation by Jesus of a difficulty in the law, which the said James put to him, and which Jesus settled by a certain verse, after the fashion of the Rabbis. Lastly, there is the doubt of the Rabbi as to the orthodoxy of Jesus and the disdain he himself incurred by becoming a Christian. But who doubts for a moment that at the close of the first century and in the first half of the second sayings and explanations of the law were current in the name of Jesus, that the name of Jesus was used in exorcisms, and that sympathy with the Jesus-sect might in certain circumstances have very unpleasant consequences for a Rabbi?[2]

There is no room for doubt that after the destruction of Jerusalem, and especially during the first quarter of the second century, the hostility of the Jews and Christians increased, as not only Chwolson himself (Das letzte Passahmahl Christi) and Joel,[3] but also [Samuel] Lublinski, has recently shown.[4] Indeed, by the year 130 the hatred of the Jews for the Christians became so fierce that a Rabbi, whose niece had been bitten by a serpent, preferred to let her die rather than see her healed “in the name of Jesus.” But when Chwolson says that we see from these passages that the Rabbis of the second half of the first century, or the beginning of the second, were “well acquainted with the person of Christ” (13), he clearly deceives himself and his readers, if the impression is given that they had any personal knowledge of him.

On the other hand, the Rabbis are said to have possessed, as early as the year 71 A.D., a gospel which, according to Chwolson, “was probably the original gospel of Matthew.” About that time a judge appointed by the Romans, “undoubtedly a Judaeo-Christian of Pauline tendencies,” though he is not expressly described as such, quotes Matthew v, 17, in the Aramaic language, where it is said that Christ did not wish to abolish, but to supplement, the Mosaic law. In his work Jesus, die Häretiker und die Christen nach den ältesten jüdischen Angaben (1910, p. 19, etc.), Strack has given us a literal translation of this passage.[5] It runs:—

Imma Salom was the wife of the Rabbi Eliezer, the sister of Rabban Gamaliel. Among his acquaintances was a “philosopher” who had the reputation of being incorruptible. They wished to make him ridiculous. Therefore she [Imma] brought to him a golden candlestick, and said: “I desire a part of the family property.” He answered them: “Divide it.” Then he [B. Gamaliel] said: “It is written for us [6] that, where there is a son, the daughter inherits nothing.”. He answered: “Since ye were driven from your land the law of Moses is abolished, and there is Avon-gillajon [Evangelium = the Gospel], in which it is written, ‘Son and daughter shall inherit together’.” On the following day he [E. Gamaliel] on his own part brought him a Libyan ass. Then he replied: “I have searched further in the Avon-gillajon, and it is written therein: ‘I, Avon-gillajon, have not come to do away with the Thora, but to add to the Thora of Moses have I come.’ And it is further written therein: ‘Where there is a son, the daughter shall not inherit’.” Then she said: “Thy light shineth like a candle.” And E. Gamaliel said: “The ass has come, and has attached the candle”

—i.e., someone had spoiled the effect of a small bribe by giving a larger one.

It is possible that we really have here a reference to the text of Matthew, and this is the more likely when we consider the play upon the candlestick, in reference to Matthew v, 14-16. That there is no question of our Matthew is certain, as there is no such passage in any of our gospels that the son and daughter shall inherit together; Jesus, on the contrary, often expressly dissuades from mingling in these quarrels about inheritance.[7] But what right has Chwolson to put the witness of this “Primitive Matthew,” which seems to be referred to in the anecdote, about the year 71 A.D.? Chwolson relies on the fact that R. Gamaliel (died about 124) was the son of the R. Simeon ben Gamaliel who is known to us from Acts v, 34, where he cleverly speaks for the Christians, and Acts xxii, 3, as a teacher of the Apostle Paul, and who was executed about 70 A.D. with other Rabbis who had taken part in the rising against the Romans. He gratuitously assumes that the passage in the Talmud refers to the quarrel about the property of the dead father, which would be divided about the year 71. This is plausible enough if there is question in the passage of a genuine quarrel about inheritance. But that is precisely what the text of the passage excludes. It is expressly stated that they wished to bring ridicule upon the “philosopher” who had an unmerited repute for incorruptibility. There is question, therefore, of a purely fictitious quarrel about inheritance, and there is no reason to suppose that this would necessarily be about the year 71. Indeed, the text itself shows that it was not, as the Jews were not yet expelled in 71; so that Chwolson finds himself compelled to change the expression “driven from your country” into “lost your country.” Hence Chwolson's statement that there is evidence of a Gospel of Matthew in 71 A.D. breaks down. Moreover, even if the existence of such a gospel at that time were proved, it would have no bearing on the historicity of Jesus. The saying in Matthew v, 17 is not at all quoted in the Talmud passage as a saying of Jesus, as one would gather from Chwolson. “We see,” says Chwolson emphatically and in large type, “from this important reference that not only was there a Gospel of Matthew in existence about the year 71 A.D., but it was already well known to the Christians of the time.” As you please; but one would like to know what this proves in regard to the historicity of Jesus.[8]

In addition to the few first-century references quoted by Chwolson, and regarded by him as “of great historical value,” the Talmud contains a comparatively large number of references to Jesus, mostly of the third and fourth centuries. They have, of course, as Chwolson admits, “no historical value whatever” (p. 11). They are rather caricatures of Jesus, when they do plainly refer to him; though this, on account of the cryptic phrasing of the Rabbis, does not seem to be the case quite as frequently as is generally supposed. Derenbourg has shown that the much-quoted Stada or ben Sat'da is not originally identical with Jesus, and Strack also admits that the scanty material in regard to Jesus which earlier students found in the Talmud shrinks still further on more careful inquiry.[9] Jülicher, however, has pointed out that, as the caricatures of the Jesus-story are familiar to R. Akiba, we may conclude that the Christian tradition itself is much older. Now, Akiba met his end, in old age, on the occasion of the bloody rising of the Jews under Bar Kochba, in the year 135. It is not disputed that the evangelical tradition existed in the first third of the second century, when the hostility of the Jews and Christians was at its height. What “proof” is there, then, of the historicity of Jesus in the fact that Akiba, a fierce enemy of the Christians, spoke bitterly of Jesus at that time? Certainly he regards him as an historical personage, just as the Talmud generally never doubts that Jesus had really existed. But Joel has, in this connection, shown that the Talmudists of the second century were careless about everything except the study of the scriptures and the law, and pointed out that it is “one of the most curious and astonishing consequences” of this indifference that they were so poorly informed in regard to events in the time of Jesus.[10] The Talmud derives all that it knows of the origin of Christianity from the little that has reached it of the gospel tradition and from the impression it has of the life of Jesus from the events of the second century; and it changes its statements, as time goes on, in harmony with the changes in the Christian tradition. Thus Akiba, for instance, followed the narrative of the Synoptics in regard to the death of Jesus, and put the execution on the Feast-day. On the other hand, the somewhat later Mischna iv, 1, and the Gemara give the later version of the Gospel of John, that the death was on the Day of Preparation for the Passover. Hence the Talmud has no independent tradition about Jesus; all that it says of him is merely an echo of Christian and pagan legends, which it reproduces according to the impressions of the second and later centuries, not according to historical tradition.[11] That is, moreover, the view of Jülicher in Kultur der Gegenwart, where he says that the Talmud has “borrowed” its knowledge of Jesus from the gospels. The Talmud is, in fact, so imperfectly acquainted with the time and the circumstances of Jesus that it confuses him with the Rabbi Josua ben Perachja, or a pupil of his of the same name (about 100 B.C.), and even makes him a contemporary of Akiba in the first third of the second century. Can we, in such circumstances, pretend that there is any evidence for the historicity of Jesus in the fact that the Talmud does not question it?

It is not true, however, as has recently been stated, that no Jew ever questioned the historical reality of Jesus, so that we may see in this some evidence for his existence. The Jew Trypho, whom Justin introduces in his Dialogue with Trypho, expresses himself very sceptically about it. “Ye follow an empty rumour,” he says, “and make a Christ for yourselves.” “If he was born and lived somewhere, he is entirely unknown.”[12] This work appeared in the second half of the second century; it is therefore the first indication of a denial of the human existence of Jesus, and shows that such opinions were current at the time.


  1. Ueber die Frage ob Jesus gelebt hat, p. 11.
  2. Moreover, it is by no means established that the Jesus whom James of Kefar followed was the Jesus of the gospels. Neubauer, in his text of the Talmud, read, instead of Jesus ha-Nozri (the Nazarene), Jesus Pandira, who was supposed to be a contemporary of the Rabbi Akiba (p. 135). Cf. K[arpel] Lippe, Das Evangelium Matthaei vor dem Forum der Bibel und des Talmud, 1889, p. 26. Google Books
  3. Blicke in die Religionsgeschichte, II, 1883, especially p. 73, etc. Google Books (Vol. 1)
  4. Die Entstehung des Christenthums aus der antiken Kultur, 1910.
  5. Babyl. Talmud Sabbath, p. 116, etc.
  6. Numbers xxvii, 8.
  7. Luke xii, 14.
  8. Compare [Friedrich] Steudel, Im Kampf um die Christusmythe, 1910, p. 83, etc.
  9. There is a complete collection of the relevant passages in H. Laible, Jesus Christus im Talmud, 1891, 2nd ed. 1900. Google Books
  10. Loc. cit., p. 54.
  11. Joel, loc. cit., p. 54, etc.
  12. viii, 3. Compare also K. Lippe, Das Evangelium des Matthäus.