An Often Overlooked Detail in an Apparent Talmudic Polemic Against Jesus

One can find numerous websites (and social media posts) noting that the Talmūd says Jesus is being punished by being boiled in excrement. The reality, however, is the subject is a bit more complex. The relevant passage is in Talmūd Bavli, tractate Gītīn 57A. Some editions of the relevant Talmudic text do not mention Jesus, referring instead to certain obscure posh`ey Yisrael (i.e. sinners, criminals or apostates of Israel)[1], while other editions mention Jesus (or Yesh”ū) explicitly. This blog entry will move forward under the assumption that the reading that mentions Jesus is the original (or at least the earlier of the two), with the more obscure reference to Israelite criminals or apostates coming later with the conscious censoring of the Talmūd (to avoid violent reactions from Christians).

While many are outraged about this polemic against Jesus, few seem to notice the surrounding context. The story actually begins on the previous page (i.e. Gītīn 56B), opening before Onqelos (the translator of the famous Targūm Onqelos) converted to Judaism. As the story goes, Onqelos uses necromancy to contact three different men: Titus, Balaam, and Jesus. After Onqelos raises each man, he asks him the same three questions:

  1. mān Hashīb b’ha-hū `almā
    Who is [most] important in that world [i.e. the world to come]?
  2. mahū l’īdabūqey b’hū
    What [do you think] about joining with it?
  3. dīneyh d’ha-hū gabrā b’māy
    What is the judgment of the man [i.e. your punishment]?

Each man answers the question about their respective punishment, and it is the answer to that third question which depicts Jesus as boiling in excrement (i.e. the text depicts Jesus as describing Himself that way). However, it is the answers to the two previous questions which provide an interesting detail many seem to miss.

All three men are depicted as answering the first question by declaring that Israel is preëminent in the world to come. Titus and Balaam are depicted as arguing against joining Israel, while Jesus is depicted as breaking from that pattern, instead telling Onqelos to seek good for Israel rather than harm.

What’s fascinating about this detail is that, while Jesus is not quoted as explicitly telling Onqelos to convert, He is the only person among those contacted who doesn’t encourage Onqelos to oppose the Jews, and, in the context of a question of whether one should convert to Judaism, His advice to seek the good of Israel rather than its harm seems to come close to an indirect encouragement to join them.

Now, of course, from a Muslim or Christian (or even secular) perspective, one can confidently assume the story is fictional. However, that raises certain questions: to what extent is it fictional? Might there be an historical core underlying the legend? While one can only speculate as to whether there is an historical root to the story, and what that kernel might be, the idea that Jesus might have been influenced Onqelos’ conversion would be fascinating, in part because Onqelos’ subsequent targūm (i.e. his Aramaic translation of the Torah) is almost Johannine in the way it treats the Word of God as a divine hypostasis.[2]

Think of it this way: Christianity posits that the author of the Gospel of John was influenced by Christ, while more skeptical minds wave that off as ahistorical. Meanwhile, ancient Rabbinic literature seems to indirectly insinuate that Onqelos might have been influenced by Jesus, and that too can be waved off as ahistorical. However, two independent claims, from two different faiths or schools of thought, positing a certain man was influenced by Jesus, become collectively intriguing when each of those men have similar divine and personified or hypostatized Word concepts.[3]

The intention here is not to claim a definitive argument has been presented in this entry, but rather only to note that the possibilities can be tantalizing.

NOTES

(1) However, when the question of “their” judgment is raised, the possessive suffix is in the singular, perhaps a vestige of when the text referred to a single individual.

(2) Note that Targūm Onqelos to Genesis 3:8 seems to (preemptively?) polemicize against one who would say God moved through the garden by instead having Meymrā moving through the garden, and the way Targūm Onqelos to Genesis 28:21 has Jacob declare Meymrā to be God (Elahā) feels like a parallel to John 1:1c.

(3) Of course, one could argue that such is a mere coincidence, as there were other schools of Jewish thought which took a similar view, as is reflected in the writings in Philo and the 18th chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon. In that case, one might say that a belief in a divinized and hypostatized Logos was fairly widespread, and thus the prologue to John might be relatively at home within the paradigm of ancient Jewish thought immediately before and after the dawn of the common era.



Categories: Christianity, Islam, Judaism

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