References to Jesus in Early Rabbinic Literature (200-500 c.e.)

(Rabbi) Michael J. Cook, Ph.D.
Sol & Arlene Bronstein Professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion - Cincinnati Campus

[adapted from "Evolving Views of Jesus," in B. Bruteau, ed., Jesus Through Jewish Eyes (Orbis, 2001): 1-24. Posted with Prof. Cook's kind permission.] 


Webmaster's Note:  An article in the October 3, 2003 issue of The Jewish Week [Eric J. Greenberg, "Jesus' Death Now Debated by Jews"] raises the question of whether the Talmud and other rabbinic literature provide historical information about the role played by Jewish individuals or institutions in the death of Jesus.  Prof. Michael Cook here explains that these materials were shaped by the circumstances of Jews and Christians centuries after the crucifixion and so provide no historical data about that event itself.


In early rabbinic literature (from Babylonia as well as Palestine), we encounter statements about Jesus from specifically Jewish sources. Even so, since the Talmud, Midrash, and related works are vast compendia of Hebrew law and lore, their allusions to Jesus must be adjudged strikingly sparse. These mentions are also so widely scattered that we must "hunt and peck" simply to assemble a viable portrait--combining views from different rabbis, generations, and academies. Compounding the problem is confusion over whether some passages, not originally alluding to Jesus, later became misconstrued as indeed about him. Rabbinic texts dealing with other figures (e.g., ben ["son of"] Stada, Peloni ["a certain person"], [ben] Netzer) became subsequently misapplied to Jesus. Supposed camouflaged references to Jesus (e.g., under the name of "Balaam") need not all have been framed with Jesus in mind. Once so processed, however, even mistaken allusions to Jesus entered into the mix of presumed rabbinic perceptions of him, thus complicating, even corrupting, an already perplexing enough mosaic. In such a fashion did rabbinic understandings of Jesus both grow and yet go awry. What results is not only a crude kind of composite but virtually a caricature of sorts.

A proper analysis of this conglomeration of traditions would be daunting, requiring (to start with) the compartmentalization of texts according to their chronological and geographical origin. Granted, the findings from such an exercise might clarify somewhat how rabbinic traditions about Jesus had developed. But given the considerable impact of rabbinic traditions on later Jewish assessments of him, it is unclear, overall, whether these conclusions could be of much practical import.

In terms of the rabbis' cumulative understanding of Jesus, some had come to think that Jesus, while in Egypt [the newborn Jesus is depicted in Egypt in Matthew 2:13-23], had become schooled in the art of sorcery along with the charms and formulae needed to perform feats of magic. Possibly, this was how rabbis explained (or explained away) the miracles that the Gospels credited to Jesus--since "miracles," to believers, were easily dismissible as trickery, by skeptics. As for datings of Jesus, these are likewise puzzling. The rabbis mentioned Jesus in connection with various figures whose time-frames, when combined, spanned at least two centuries. Yet Gospel testimony assigned Jesus' ministry to the narrow period when Judea was ruled by Pontius Pilate (26-36 C.E.)--and when Jesus had been "about thirty" [Luke 3:23]. (Of course, by their later day, the rabbis--especially in Babylonia--would have had few guidelines for dating Pilate's rule, either.) On an even more basic matter, the Talmud allotted Jesus merely five disciples even though the Gospels consistently assigned him twelve! Was it simply a rabbinic convention that often teachers had five disciples (five were accorded Johanan ben Zakkai, traditional founder of the Jamnia [Yavneh] academy; and Judah ben Baba ordained five disciples of Rabbi Akiba)? Alternatively, is it at least remotely conceivable that the rabbis deprived Jesus of having "twelve" disciples so as to obstruct claims that Christianity (symbolized by twelve disciples) had supplanted Judaism (symbolized by twelve tribes)? Likewise puzzling is how the rabbis could confuse Jesus' mother, Mary, with Mary Magdalene (a lapse typical of some modern Jews as well)!

Elsewhere, however, the rabbis seemed not only fully aligned with Gospel traditions but even overly accepting of them. They naturally viewed anti-Jewish sentiments attributed to Jesus, by the Gospels, as originating with him personally--rather than as retrojections by the later church. They also took for granted that Jesus had proclaimed himself divine; accordingly, any Jew worshiping him was compromising monotheism. Ironically, therefore, the same Jesus who had designated the Shema ("Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one") his preeminent directive could also be summarily accused of having denied Judaism's cardinal teaching! Mindful that some Jews had indeed been lured into Christian ranks, the rabbis denounced Jesus himself for having attempted to "entice and lead Israel astray," i.e., into apostasy and idolatry. All told, accordingly, the rabbis could deem fully credible Gospel renditions of Jesus' Sanhedrin trial.
The Gospels said the Sanhedrin tried Jesus and condemned him for blasphemy.  Well, that sounded plausible enough to later rabbinic ears -- because "blasphemers" is exactly how rabbis of a later day viewed Christian contemporaries.  The Gospel formulations cast Jesus as condemned for "blasphemy" and held Jewish, not Roman, authorities responsible for his execution (both of these assumptions were to become vigorously challenged by Jews centuries later).

Nonetheless, while accepting these premises, the rabbis denied that Jesus' trial had been in any way speedy or unfair:

And it was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshua [the Nazarene] was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come and plead on his behalf." And since nothing was brought forward in his favor, he was hanged on the eve of Passover." (BT. Sanhedrin 43a.)

The reason for this Sanhedrin 43a passage is obvious:  the later Babylonian Rabbis were uncomfortable with the notion that a Sanhedrin was said by Christians to have acted unfairly.  They were responding to the Gospel polemic by showing that fairness was always the Rabbinic practice, even in the case of Jesus.  They accepted Christian reportage of the facts as the "Gospel truth" and then spun those supposed "facts" their way.  This is a passage about later times, not anything factual about Jesus' day hundreds of years and miles away.

However we explain this and still other rabbinic traditions, the overall judgment remains warranted: the rabbis convey little if anything reliable about the historical Jesus. Plausibly, Jewish views of Jesus in any one era could have influenced--even determined--those of succeeding years. If, as argued, Jesus had not been well-known among Jews during the time of his own ministry, the Jewish tradition might not have gotten off to an accurate understanding of who he was. Such a circumstance could readily have given rise not only to misconceptions about Jesus emerging relatively early on, but to their retention and embellishment by Jews of later periods as well.