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Jesus In The Talmud

Written by Gil Student

Bastard
Harlot
Died Young
Balaam
   Beginning
   Conclusion
Historians
Jesus in Hell
 
The Accusation
Insults Against Blessed Mary, Sanhedrin 106a . Says Jesus' mother was a whore: "She who was the descendant of princes and governors played the harlot with carpenters." Also in footnote #2 to Shabbath 104b it is stated that in the "uncensored" text of the Talmud it is written that Jesus mother, "Miriam the hairdresser," had sex with many men.

"Jesus was a bastard born of adultery." (Yebamoth 49b, p.324). 
"Mary was a whore: Jesus (Balaam) was an evil man." (Sanhedrin 106a &b, p.725). 
"Jesus was a magician and a fool. Mary was an adulteress". (Shabbath 104b, p.504).

The reference to Shabbat 104b will be taken up in the section on the Jesus narrative.


The Text
Mishnah Yevamot 4:18

R. Shimon ben Azzai said: I found a book of geneologies in Jerusalem and in it is written "The man Plony is a bastard."

This is claimed to be a reference to Jesus. However, this claim is patently ridiculous.  The Mishnah was most likely referring to a famous person and, due to the lack of any practical ramifications, his name was left out by the compilers of the Mishnah.  Plony is a biblical term used similar to John Doe today (cf. Ruth 4:1).  The keeping of geneological records was very common in talmudic times so that regular Jews did not marry bastards and violate the biblical prohibition (Deuteronomy 23:3).  Investigations into lineage and proclamations of bastardy were not uncommon (cf. Nehemiah 7:5; Talmud Kiddushin 70b-71a).  There is no reason to assume that this refers to Jesus.

Gustaf Dalman rejects the assertion that this Mishnah refers to Jesus [Dalman, Die Worte Jesus (Liepzig: Hinrichs, 1898), p. 4 n. 2].  Similarly, RT Herford calls this suggestion "doubtful and probably unfounded" [Herford, "Jesus in Rabbinical Literature", The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 6 pp. 87-88].  Johann Maier calls it "odd speculation" [Maier, Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Uberlieferung, p. 50].  All of this is cited approvingly by John P. Meier in his highly acclaimed A Marginal Jew, vol. I p. 108 n. 53.  See also Avraham Korman's discussion in Zeramim Vekitot Beyahadut, pp. 348-349.


The Text
Sanhedrin 106a 

R. Yochanan said (regarding Balaam): In the beginning a prophet, in the end a sorcerer. 
Rav Papa said: As people say, "She was the descendant of princes and rulers, she played the harlot with carpenters."

Here we come to the common distortion that references in the talmud to Balaam are really veiled references to Jesus.  As we shall soon see, Balaam is not a talmudic codeword for Jesus.  Therefore, the passage above is referring solely to Balaam and not to Jesus.  Besides this fact, read the passage closely and you will see that Rav Papa is offering a parable that explains R. Yochanan's statement.  It is impossible to read R. Yochanan's statement as referring to Jesus and Rav Papa's as referring to Jesus' mother.

R. Yochanan is saying that Balaam had tremendous potential and started out as a true prophet of G-d.  However, he turned to evil and in the end of his life became a sorcerer (i.e. user of black magic).  This tradition regarding Balaam's descent was also recorded in the Tanchuma [Balak, 5] and in Yalkut Shimoni [Numbers, 771].

Rav Papa adds a parable to explain this.  Consider a woman who is married to a powerful ruler who leads their people out into battle. She is used to being the wife of someone strong, whose powerful hands can skillfully manipulate a sword and overcome any opponents. If her husband were to die she would still want to marry someone in a similar position of leadership and strength. Even if this widow is continually passed over by those she wishes to marry, she will still strive for her former glory, and will even marry a carpenter who, while not leading his countrymen out into battle, still must skillfully handle tools. Even when the ability to reach her old glory is obviously absent, she will still try everything possible to reach any position that remotely resembles it.

Similarly, Balaam started out as a man with prophecy (like a prince or ruler). He was capable of seeing the future and even manipulating it through his curses and blessings. However, when he lost that gift when G-d removed his prophecy, Balaam still wanted to see the future, even resorting to such pale comparisons as sorcery and black magic (like a carpenter).

This passage has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus and there is certainly no insult implied towards Mary.

Cf. R. Meir HaLevi Abulafia, Yad Ramah, Sanhedrin ad. loc.; Ephraim Urbach, "Rabbinic Exegesis About Gentile Prophets And The Balaam Passage" (Hebrew), Tarbitz (25:1956), p. 284 n. 56.


The Accusation
Gloats over Jesus Dying Young, A passage from Sanhedrin 106 gloats over the early age at which Jesus died: "Hast thou heard how old Balaam (Jesus) was?--He replied: It is not actually stated but since it is written, Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days it follows that he was thirty-three or thirty-four years old."

 
The Passage
Sanhedrin 106b 

A sectarian said to R. Chanina: Do you know how old Balaam was?  [R. Chanina] replied: It is not written.  However, since it says (Psalms 55:24) "Men of bloodshed and deceit will not live out half their days..." he was 33 or 34.  [The heretic] said: You said well.  I have seen the chronicle of Balaam and it said "At 33 years Balaam the lame was killed by Pinchas (Phineas) the robber."

Again we see the assumption that Balaam is a codeword for Jesus.  Here the connection is that Jesus died at the age of 33, and this passage says that Balaam died at that age also.  Also, Pinchas and Pontius Pilate both have the letter "P" in their names.  Even if this passage refers to Jesus, which it does not, I do not see any gloating.

However, historians generally agree that this passage does not refer to Jesus.  The following is taken from Encyclopedia Judaica ("Jesus", vol. 10 p. 16) [transliteration from Hebrew changed for consistency]:

However, it is impossible to imagine that a Christian would ask a Jew how old Jesus was, and call the Gospel Balaam's Chronicle or that Pontius Pilate, who is not mentioned even once in the whole of rabbinic literature, should be referred to as Pinchas the robber.  The sectarian referred to was merely a member of a Gnostic sect who was testing whether Chanina could answer a question that was not answered in the Torah.  Balaam's Chronicle was an apocryphal book on Balaam.  These books often adopted an unfavorable attitude to the patriarchs and the prophets and it was possible that Pinchas of the Bible was called in them Pinchas the robber.
Cf. Urbach, ibid., p. 284; W. Bacher, Jewish Quarterly Review O.S. 3, pp. 456-457; Chanoch Zundel Ben Yosef, Eitz Yosef to Ein Ya'akov, Sotah 11a sv Balaam.

To clarify the issue, let us now address the general claim that Balaam is a talmudic codeword for Jesus.


Balaam
Balaam in rabbinic literature is one of the archetype villains.  As we shall see, he was a powerful man whose prophecy and closeness with G-d gave him potential to do much good.  However, he chose to use those gifts towards evil.  Because of his terrific potential that was utterly twisted, his heavenly abilities that were perverted towards wrongdoing, he is considered the prime example of corruption.

Some scholars have suggested that Balaam is a codeword in talmudic literature for Jesus.  However, we will show that Balaam is considered the paragon of evil in passages that cannot refer to Jesus and from these passages we can see that there is no compelling reason to read other similar passages as referring to Jesus.  Indeed, reading these passages as referring to Jesus would be breaking with the established understanding of the talmud.
 
 
Sifrei on Deuteronomy 34:10 

"Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses" - But in other nations there did arise.  Who? Balaam the son of Beor.  But there is a difference between Moses's prophecy and Balaam's prophecy. 

Moses did not know who spoke to him but Balaam knew who spoke to him, as it says (Numbers 24:16) "The words of the one who hears the sayings of G-d..." 

Moses did not know when G-d would speak to him until he was spoken to but Balaam knew when He would speak, as it says (ibid.) "Who knows the knowledge of the Supreme One..." 

With Moses, G-d would not speak to him until he was standing, as it says (Deuteronomy 5:28) "But as for you, stand here with Me..."  But with Balaam, G-d would speak to him even while fallen, as it says (Numbers 24:4) "Who sees the vision of the Almighty, while fallen with uncovered eyes."

We see here a clear reference to the biblical Balaam.  The descriptions of his awesome prophetic powers, greater than Moses's, are inferred from verses describing the biblical Balaam.  There is no way that this passage can refer to Jesus or to Yeshu.
 
 
Avot DeRabbi Natan 2:5 

Why is Job called (Job 1:8) "A perfect and upright man"?  To teach us that he was born circumcised.  Adam was also born circumcised as it says (Genesis 1:27) "So G-d created man in His image..."  Seth was also born circumcised as it says (ibid. 5:2 ) "He begot in his likeness and his image..."  Noah was also born circumcised... Shem was also born circumcised...  Jacob was also born circumcised...  Joseph was also born circumcised...  Moses was also born circumcised...  Even the wicked Balaam was born circumcised...  Samuel was also born circumcised...  David was also born circumcised...  Jeremiah was also born circumcised...  Zerubabel was also born circumcised...

The Talmud here is working with the understanding that circumcision is the final step in the creation of a man.  An uncircucised man is not quite complete and G-d gave it to us to finish the job and complete the creation of man by circumcising him.  However, there were some people born with such potential for greatness and perfection that they were born already circumcised.  They were born destined for perfection.  Among this list of heroes, this list of righteous and holy leaders, is Balaam.  He was born with the potential for greatness which he unfortunately perverted towards evil with his free will.

It is clear, however, based on the chronological order, that this refers to the biblical Balaam and not Jesus or Yeshu.  Both Jesus and Yeshu would have been listed after David, Jeremiah, and Zerubabel.
 
 
Talmud Sanhedrin 106a 

Numbers (24:14) "Come, I shall advise you..."  Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said:  [Balaam] said to them: Their G-d hates promiscuity and they desire flaxen clothes.  Let me give you this advice.  Make tents and put old prostitutes in front of them and young ones inside...  When the Jews are walking in the market, the old lady offers to sell them clothes at market value and the young one offers it cheaper.  After two or three times she tells him that he is already a comfortable visitor and should choose what he wants, all the while a bottle of Amonite wine sitting beside her.  She offers him a glass of wine.  After he drinks it will burn him up and he will ask for sex.  She will take out her idol and demand that he worship it first.  He will say that he is a Jew and she will say that all she is asking is that he defecate [and he will not know that this is the worship of that idol].  She will also say that she will not sleep with him until he denounces the Torah of Moses.

This passage discusses the surprising transition in the biblical narrative from Balaam's prophecy (Numbers 24) directly into (Numbers 25:1) "Israel settled in the Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab."  The talmud's explanation is that Balaam, the paid advisor of Moab (see Numbers 22), showed the Moabites how and why to entice the Jewish men into harlotry.

This passage is clearly about Balaam and it describes both his cleverness and his despicability.  There are many more passages that show that Balaam is considered by the talmud to be both a powerful and utterly wicked man who earned the title of most hated villain.
 
 
Mishnah Avot 5:19 

Whosoever possesses these three qualities belongs to the disciples of Abraham our father: a generous eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul.  But he who possesses the three opposite qualities -- an evil eye, a proud spirit, and a haughty soul -- is of the disciples of Balaam the wicked. 

How do the disciples of Abraham differ from the disciples of Balaam? The disciples of Abraham enjoy this world and inherit the world to come, as it is written (Proverbs 8:21) "Endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries." The disciples of Balaam inherit Gehenna and go down to the pit of destruction, as it is written (Psalm 55:23) "But you, O G-d, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you."

Here again, we see that Balaam is the paragon of evil.  Using strictly Old Testament examples, the Mishnah tries to demonstrate the proper  attitudes one should take in life.


The point of all these examples is to show that Balaam is viewed in rabbinic literature as the ultimate villain.  Through indisputable proofs we have shown that the biblical Balaam, not Jesus or Yeshu, is consistently painted as someone destined for greatness who instead misused his talents for evil.  In contemporary terms, he is the Darth Vader of the Bible.  It is therefore no surprise that historians can find many passages that denigrate Balaam.  However, there is every reason to believe that these passages refer to the actual Balaam and not to Jesus or Yeshu.

There are some historians who believe that Balaam is a talmudic codeword for Jesus.  However, this theory has not stood up to the scrutiny of academic talmudic scholarship and has fallen out of favor with historians.
 
 
Professor Louis Ginzberg, "Some Observations on the Attitude of the Synagogue Towards the Apocalyptic-Eschatological Writings", Journal of Biblical Literature (1922), p. 121 n. 18 

One may therefore state with absolute certainty that the entire Talmudic-Midrashic literature does not know of any nicknames for Jesus or his disciples.


 
John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (1991), vol. 1 p. 95 

For instance, a radical position is represented by Johann Maier, who maintains that not only the Mishna but also both Talmuds lack any authentic, direct mention of Jesus of Nazareth41... 

In my opinion, Maier's arguments are especially convincing for the Mishna and other early rabbinic material: no text cited from that period really refers to Jesus.  He thus confirms the view I defend in this section. 

41 See Johann Maier, Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Uberlieferung (Ertrage der Forschung 82; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1978).  His position, which is argued in minute detail throughout the volume, is summarized on pp. 263-75.

The noted historian of rabbinics, Ephraim E. Urbach, dedicated an article to explaining the rabbinic view of Balaam and debunking the theory that Balaam is a talmudic codeword for Jesus.  See Ephraim Urbach, "Rabbinic Exegesis About Gentile Prophets And The Balaam Passage" (Hebrew), Tarbitz (25:1956), pp. 272-289.


The Accusation
Gittin 57a. Says Jesus is in hell, being boiled in "hot excrement."

 
The Text
Talmud Gittin 56b-57a

[Onkelos Bar Kalonikus] called up Balaam from the dead.  [Onkelos] asked: Who is honored in that world?  [Balaam] replied: Israel. [Onkelos asked:] What about joining them?  [Balaam] replied: (Deut. 23:7) "You shall not seek their peace or welfare all your days."  [Onkelos] asked: What is your punishment?  [Balaam answered]: In boiling semen.

[Onkelos] called up Yeshu from the dead.  [Onkelos] asked: Who is honored in that world?  [Yeshu] replied: Israel.  [Onkelos asked:] What about joining them?  [Yeshu] replied: Seek their good.  Do not seek their bad.  Whoever touches them is as if he touched the pupil of his eye.  [Onkelos] asked: What is your punishment?  [Yeshu answered]: In boiling excrement.  As the mast said: Whoever mocks the words of the sages in punished in boiling excrement.

Here we see a story of the famous convert Onkelos who, prior to converting, used black magic to bring up famous villains of history and ask them whether their wickedness saved them in the world to come.  In both cases (there is a third case of Onkelos calling up Titus as well) the sinner is being terribly punished in the afterlife while Israel is being rewarded.  Presumably, this helped convince Onkelos to convert to Judaism.

As we have explained elsewhere, Yeshu is not Jesus of the New Testament.  He is most likely a prominent sectarian of the early first century BCE who deviated from rabbinic tradition and created his own religion combining Hellenistic paganism with Judaism.  While Yeshu may be the proto-Jesus some scholars point to as inspiring the early Christians, he is definitely not the man who was crucified in Jerusalem in the year 33 CE.

Interestingly, if someone were to claim that Yeshu in the passage above is Jesus, then Balaam cannot also refer to Jesus because both Balaam and Yeshu are in the passage together.  In other words, it is self-contradicting to claim that the passages above about Balaam's mother being a harlot or dying young refer to Jesus and to claim that the passage above about Yeshu being punished also refers to Jesus.  You can't have it both ways.
 

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