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- This article is about references to the name Yeshu in classical Jewish rabbinic literature. For details of specific owners of the name, see Jesus (disambiguation).
Yeshu (ישו in Hebrew) and slight variations such as Jeshu (Bible English transliteration), Jeschu (German transliteration) or Yeishu (Yiddish pronunciation), is the name of one or more persons in various works of classical Jewish rabbinic literature, including the Babylonian Talmud (redacted roughly before 600 CE) and the classical midrash literature (written between 200 CE to 700 CE.)
Interpretations of the name
The name Yeshu is generally believed to be an acronym for the Hebrew expression yemach shemo vezichro, meaning "May his name and memory be obliterated", a term used for those guilty of enticing Jews to idolatry. This name is similar to, and may be a wordplay on, Yeshua, which is believed by many to have been the Aramaic or Hebrew name of Jesus, the central figure of Christianity.
Due to this fact, along with the occurrence in one manuscript of the appellation Ha-Notzri, which resembles Nazarene, and some similarities between the stories of the two figures, some or many of the references to Yeshu have been traditionally understood to refer to the Jesus of Christianity.
The question has historically been a delicate one because Yeshu is portrayed in a negative light; negative portrayals of Jesus in Jewish literature might incite, or be used as an excuse for, anti-semitism among some Christians. Furthermore, the stories of Yeshu have been used both as proof of a historical Jesus and to discredit Christianity by claiming that Jesus is a myth based on confused memories of various individuals. However, scholars disagree about whether there is a connection between Yeshu and Jesus.
Primary references to Yeshu
The primary references to Yeshu are the uncensored Babylonian Talmud and the Tosefta. No known manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud makes mention of the name although one translation (Herford) has added it to Avodah Zarah 2:2 to align it with similar text of Chullin 2:22 in the Tosefta. All later usages of the term Yeshu are derived from these primary references.
In all cases the references are to individuals associated with acts or behaviour that are seen as leading Jews away from Judaism to paganism. This is consistent with the Rabbinical explanation that the term is not a name but the acronym yemach shemo vezichro used in place of the real names of individuals guilty of such sins who are deemed not worthy of being remembered in history. Indeed the name does not correspond to any known Hebrew root and moreover no other individuals have ever borne this name in Jewish history, while the usage of the expression yemach shemo vezichro and its acronym were widely used in Jewish writings.
In Chullin 2:22-24 a man named Jacob from the town of Sichnin is mentioned who performed healing in the name of a certain Yeshu. Jacob is associated with minuth, a Talmudic term (sometimes translated heresy or apostasy) used for one who followed a mixture of Judaism and paganism of the kind that existed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The event occurs in the second century CE at the time of Rabbi Akiva. Jacob says that he was taught by Yeshu.
- In Avodah Zarah 16b,17a, the anecdote about Jacob from the town of Sichnin (Sechania in Aramaic) from the Tosefta is mentioned and he is described as a follower of Yeshu.
- In Gittin 56b, 57a a story is mentioned in which Onkelos summons up the spirit of a Yeshu who sought to harm Israel. He describes his punishment in the afterlife as boiling in excrement.
- In Sanhedrin 43a, the execution of a certain Yeshu for sorcery, and enticing others to apostasy, is mentioned. Because of his connections with the government a town crier was sent to call for witnesses in his favour for forty days before his execution. No one came forth and in the end he was stoned and hanged on the Eve of Passover. Sanhedrin 43a also mentions that a certain Yeshu (possibly intended to be the one it mentions earlier) had gathered five disciples Matai, Nekai, Netzer, Buni, and Todah who were executed. In the Florence manuscript of the Talmud (1177 CE) an addition is made to Sanhedrin 43a saying that Yeshu was hanged on the eve of the Sabbath. This is not found in the other manuscripts and is generally considered too late to have authority.
- Sanhedrin 103a and Berachot 17b, talk about a Yeshu who burns his food in public, possibly a reference to pagan sacrifices.
- In Sanhedrin 107b and Sotah 47a a Yeshu is mentioned as a student of Joshua Ben Perachiah who was sent away for judging a woman by her physical appearance. (This happened during their period of refuge in Egypt during the persecutions of Pharisees 88-76 BCE ordered by Jannaeus Alexander . The incident is also mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud in Chagigah 2:2 but there the person in question is not given any name.) After several returns for forgiveness he mistook Perachiah's signal to wait a moment as a signal of final rejection, and so he turned to idolatry (described by the euphemism "worshipping a brick"). A quote from the Mishnaic era is given in which it is explained that Yeshu practised black magic, deceived and led Israel astray. This quote is seen by some as an explanation in general for the designation Yeshu. In the Munich manuscript of the Talmud (1342 CE), the appelation Ha-Notzri is added to this last mention of Yeshu.
- By the time the Munich manuscript was produced, Notzri had become the standard Hebrew word for Christian and Yeshu Ha-Notzri had become the conventional rendition of "Jesus the Nazarene" in Hebrew. For example, by 1180 CE the term Yeshu Ha-Notzri can be found in the Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Melachim 11:4, uncensored version). Although with conventional vowelization the word Ha-Notzri literally means the watchman, Maimonides' reference is clearly intended to indicate Jesus. However, the addition in the Munich manuscript is generally considered far too late to have any authority. The term is not found in four other early manuscripts. Herford's translation takes liberty and not only translates Ha-Notzri as Nazarene but appends it to other occurrences.
Ben-Pandera and ben-Stada
In the Tosefta reference to Yeshu, the title ben-Pandera (son of Pandera) is added after the name. The surname Pandera is not known from any graves or inscriptions, but the surname Pantera (the Latin form of Pantheras, literally meaning Panther), is unusual but not unknown. A first century tombstone in Bingerbrück, Germany has an inscription which reads: "Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera of Sidon, aged 62, a soldier of 40 years' service, of the 1st cohort of archers, lies here".
Still, the names are not identical, as the Hebrew d (dalet) does not correspond to the Greek th (theta); comparison with other Greek words transliterated into Hebrew indicates that any original Greek would have had a delta as its third consonant, not theta as in "Pantheras". However, some point out that a variant spelling of Pandera in Hebrew is found in certain places using a hard t (tet) which can correspond to the Latin t; others regard the variant spelling as a copyist error or an alternative method of representing the Greek d (delta).
Robert Eisler considers Pandera not as a real name but instead as a generic name for a betrayer. He notes that in the Iliad, Pandaros betrays the Greeks by hurling a lance at Menelaus thus breaking an armistice confirmed by solemn oath. His name came to be used a generic name for a betrayer similar to the use of the name Benedict Arnold today. It was borrowed by Hebrew as Pandar and is found in Midrash. The form Pandera can be understood to be the Aramaic equivalent. The term "son of Pandera" may therefore be not a patronymic but rather a designation of a class of person, similar to the expression son of Belial. The name also resembles that of Pandareus in Greek mythology and the Toledot Yeshu narratives contain elements resembling the story of Pandareus.
In 178 CE, the pagan writer Celsus, in a polemic against Christianity, claimed that he had heard from a Jew that Mary had been divorced by her husband after having an affair with a Roman soldier name Pantheras who was the real father of Jesus. The similarity between Pantheras and Pandera as well as the detail of the lover being a Roman soldier, suggests that Celsus' claim has its origins in material later incorporated in the Talmud. But whereas the Talmud presents separate anecdotes, in Celsus' version they are conflated. The Toledot Yeshu narratives similarly conflate the various anecdotes, and this may be the source for the later common Jewish description of Jesus as Yeshu ben Pandera.
According to Epiphanius, the Christian apologist Origen wrote (c. 248 CE) (in response to Celsus' claim) that Pantheras was the patronymic of Joseph the husband of Mary on account of his father, Jacob, being called Panther. An alternative claim was made in the Teaching of Jacob (634 CE) where Panther is said to be the grandfather of Mary.
Another title found in the Tosefta and Talmud is ben-Stada (son of Stada). This title is never applied to Yeshu. However in Shabbat 104b and Sanhedrin 67a in the Babylonian Talmud, a passage is found that some have interpreted as equating ben-Pandera with ben-Stada. The passage is in the form a Talmudic debate in which various voices make statements, each refuting the previous statement. In such debates the various statements and their refutations are often of a Midrashic nature, sometimes incorporating subtle humour and should not always be taken at face value. The purpose of the passage is to arrive at a Midrashic meaning for the term Stada.
Shabbat 104b relates that a ben-Stada brought magic from Egypt in incisions in his flesh. Sanhedrin 67a relates that a ben-Stada was caught by hidden observers and hung in the town of Lod on the Eve of Passover. The debate then follows. It begins by asking if this was not ben-Pandera rather than ben-Stada. This is refuted by the claim that it is both, his mother's husband was Stada but her lover was Pandera. This is countered with the claim the husband was Pappos ben Yehuda (a second century figure elsewhere remembered as having locked up his unfaithful wife) and that the mother was named Stada. This is then refuted by the claim that the mother was named Miriam, the dresser of women's hair, but that she had gone astray from her husband (a Miriam the daughter of Bilgah, is mentioned elsewhere as having had an affair with a Roman soldier). In Aramaic, "gone astray" is satat da, thus a Midrashic meaning for the term Stada is obtained. Real historical relationships between the figures mentioned cannot be inferred due to the Midrashic nature of the debate. Pappos and Miriam might have been introduced simply as a result of their being remembered in connection with a theme of a woman having gone astray.
The character of Miriam the dresser of woman's hair is of interest. (Her name is also mentioned briefly in Chagigah 4b in the Babylonian Talmud where it is used together with Miriam the teacher of children simply as an arbitrary choice of names in illustrating a point.) Some suggest that the expression "dresser of women's hair" is a euphemism for a woman of ill repute. The original Aramiac for her name is Miriam megadela neshaya in which many see Mary Magdalene. Some have thus identified her with Mary Magdalene while others are more cautious merely suggesting dresser of women's hair as a possible meaning of Magdalene alternate to the traditional understanding of the name as a toponymic surname.
Ben-Stada is also mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud. In Shabbat 12:4 III he is mentioned as having learnt by cutting marks in his flesh. In Sanhedrin 7:12 I he is mentioned as an example of someone caught by hidden observers and subsequently stoned. This information is paralleled in the Tosefta in Shabbat 11:15 and Sanhedrin 10:11 respectively.
The literal meaning of the term Stada is no longer known. It does not correspond to any known name, suggesting that son of Stada might also be a designation of a class of individual rather an a patronymic, or perhaps an invented title like that of the Jewish general Bar Kochba (son of the star). The only known parallel to the term is found in the apocryphal Christian text the Acts of Peter where the villain Simon Magus describes himself as `uios `o stadios - the son who remains standing. The Toledot Yeshu narratives combine elements from the Talmud about ben-Stada with elements about Simon Magus suggesting that there is indeed a connection. As a result of the difficulty in understanding the name some attempt to explain it by focusing on variant spellings in certain manuscripts containing an r (resh) instead of the d (dalet), however these variants are generally regarded as copyist errors.
The Medieval Toledot Yeshu narratives
Toledot Yeshu literally "Generations of Yeshu", is the title of several mediaeval manuscripts containing legends and folktales concerning "Yeshu". These manuscripts are not part of rabbinic literature and are not considered canonical or normative.
There is no one authoritative Toledot Yeshu story; various medieval versions existed that differ in attitudes towards the central characters and in story details; it is considered unlikely that any one person wrote it. Each version seems to be from a different set of storytellers. Storypoints common to all versions:
- Miriam comes from a good family, and marries a decent man who can trace his line back to King David. However, she is raped by a neighbour. After Miriam is raped, she is left by her husband and left to raise her child alone. Her child, Yeshu is depicted as being of unusual intelligence and wit, but shows disrespect to those older than him and to the sages. The story holds that Yeshu had some supernatural powers, which he obtained by using the name of God written on scroll; Toledot Yeshu also accepts that other rabbinic sages of Yeshu's era could display similar supernatural powers. A struggle emerges between Yeshu and one or more of the sages, and Yeshu is left powerless.
In the more developed versions of the narrative, the story contains other motifs. Many details were added, secondary characters were developed, and the story became a romance about the tragic fate of a young man mistaken in his ways.
The Toledot Yeshu stories generally show a confounding of the Talmud accounts of the individuals titled Yeshu, ben-Stada and ben-Pandera with the Greek myth of Pandareus, Gospel elements about Jesus and even Christian legends regarding Simon Magus, all conflated into a single character called Yeshu. The stories typically understand the name Yeshu to be the acronym yemach shemo vezichro but justify its usage by claiming that it is wordplay on his real name Joshua.
Although the Toledot Yeshu stories seem to identify Yeshu with Jesus they are much later than the primary references in the Talmud and Tosefta upon which they are based and cannot be used to infer that the writers of the Talmuds intended Yeshu to mean Jesus.
Is Yeshu actually the Christian Jesus?
Identification as Jesus
Many Jews and Christians have traditionally assumed that the term Yeshu in the Talmud and Tosefta refers to Jesus. Since at least the 12th century the standard Hebrew name for Jesus has been Yeshu. As well, according to articles in The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), by professor of Hebrew literature Joseph Dan in the Encyclopedia Judaica (1972), and the Encyclopedia Hebraica (Israel) many of the stories about Yeshu in rabbinic literature are understood to be about the Christian Jesus. This is also the view of Steven Bayme , the American Jewish Committee’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life, and Dr. David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary and R. Travers-Herford, author of Christianity in Talmud and Midrash.
The argument that Yeshu is the Christian Jesus is based on the observation that the name Yeshu, is similar to Yeshua, which is often believed to be the Aramaic or Hebrew name of Jesus. Certain manuscripts of the Tosefta in fact render the name as Yeshua instead of Yeshu. Moreover it can be argued that the form Yeshu might result from the final consonant of Yeshua (the gutteral ayin) becoming a silent letter.
Like Jesus (according to the Gospel of John), Yeshu was executed on the Eve of Passover. The Florence manuscript says in addition that this was the Eve of the Sabbath. The term Notzri used in the Munich manuscript resembles Nazarene.
Some see the Greek for virgin parthenos in the word "Pandera" either as a corrupted pronunciation or an intentional play on words. Others see the names of Jesus' disciples amongst the five disciples of Yeshu; principally Matai and Todah as Matthew and Thaddaeus, though some have gone further and see the names John and Andrew in Buni and Netzer.
To explain the dearth of references to Jesus in the Talmud, it has been argued that
- The Talmud was subject to censorship. During the medieval period in Europe, Jewish texts were often placed on the Index of Forbidden Books and passages deemed insulting to the Church were expurgated as of 1264 (The entire Talmud was placed on the Index by Pope Paul IV in 1559).
- Although restoring these passages still produces only a few mentions of Yeshu, the Mishnah, which forms the skeleton of the Talmud, was written at a time when Christianity was first emerging. The Christians were just one, apparently usual, sect with which the authors contended (others included Sadducees, Samaritans, and Gnostics).
- The final redaction of the Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud was created in Babylonia, where Christianity did not have the same impact as it did in the Mediterranean Basin. As such, it was not perceived of as a particularly noticeable threat.
- Although it is generally comprehensive, the Talmud is also prone to instances of self-censorship, particularly in response to controversial Jewish factionalism (e.g. Hanukkah is only mentioned in passing in the Talmud, because of the holiday's connection with the Hasmonean dynasty, whose legitimacy was challenged by the Pharisees).
- The Talmud may mention Jesus and Christianity in coded terms, such as min (מין, sometimes translated "apostate" or "heretic"), though this term refers to various sectarian groups. In terms of labeling Christians as minim it is important to note the adage of Rav Nahman in the name of Rava bar Avuha in Tractate Chullin 13b: There are no minim among the gentiles, i.e., the appellation could only be applied to converts from Judaism.
- The Talmud was essentially the writing down of the basics of the Oral Law - despite its great size, it's still a very condensed form compared to the knowledge that existed originally, therefore, due to the limited space, only the necessities were discussed that might otherwise be forgotten.
Criticism of the identification
Critics of the identification of Yeshu with Jesus point to inconsistencies between the Talmudic references to Yeshu and ben-Stada and the stories about Jesus in the New Testament. The oppression by King Janneus mentioned in the Talmud occurred about 87 BCE, which would put the events of the story about a century before Jesus. The Yeshu who taught Jacob of Sichnin would have lived a century after Jesus. The forty day waiting period before execution is absent from the Christian tradition and moreover Jesus did not have connections with the government. Jesus was crucified not stoned. Jesus was executed in Jerusalem not Lod. Jesus did not burn his food in public nor make incisions in his flesh, nor was he caught by hidden observers. In the 13th century Jehiel ben Joseph of Paris wrote that the Yeshu in rabbinic literature was a disciple of Joshua ben Perachiah, and not to be confused with Jesus the Nazarene (Vikkuah Rabbenu Yehiel mi-Paris). Nahmanides too makes this point, and Rabbis Jacob ben Meir (Rabbeinu Tam) (12th century) and Jehiel Heilprin (17th century) also belong to this school. Likewise the comments of Rabbi Jacob Emden cannot be reconciled with the collective identification. In addition, the information cited from the Munich and Florence manuscripts in support of the identification are late comments written centuries after the original redaction of the Talmud.
The resemblance of the name Yeshu to Yeshua which some assume to be the original Hebrew or Aramaic for Jesus, is of questionable importance. The gutteral consonant ayin at the end of the latter name forms part of the root but is absent from Yeshu. Although, as remarked above, the ayin became a silent letter no other case is known of where this led to a dropping of the consonant in spelling nor of where it led to a complete dropping of its accompanying vowel as would be the case if Yeshu were derived from Yeshua. The occurrence of Yeshua instead of Yeshu in certain manuscripts of the Tosefta is accompanied by anomalous spellings of Pandera and both are seen as erroneous attempts at correction by a copyist unfamiliar with the terms. Moreover, Yeshua (Jeshua in English) is unlikely to be the original form of Jesus. In the Septuagint and Greek language Jewish texts such as the writings of Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, Jesus is the standard Greek translation of the common Hebrew name Yehoshua (Joshua), Greek having lost the h sound. Yeshua on the other hand is a shortened form of Yehoshua peculiar to the dialect spoken at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and is not undisputedly attested in other periods.
There are significant phonetic difficulties in seeing the epithet son of Pandera as a corruption of parthenos, and this interpretation ignores the understandable meaning of "betrayer" as explained above. Moreover, Jesus was not commonly referred to as son of the virgin making an intentional play on such an expression very unlikely. Regarding the names of the disciples, the accepted origins of Matthew and Thaddaeus are Matithyahu and Thaddai, not Matai and Todah, and the identification of John and Andrew with Buni and Netzer is not considered tenable by linguists.
Travers-Herford and others caution that not all mentions of Yeshu refer to the Christian Jesus. Rabbi David Rosen, American Jewish Committee director of interreligious affairs, and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, author of a prominent new Talmud commentary, hold that most or all mentions of Yeshu are probably not to the Christian Jesus. Furthermore, many critical historical scholars hold that for a variety of reasons, early Christianity was simply one of many factions competing with rabbinical Judaism, and the early sages of the Talmud paid no special attention to Jesus or Christianity.
- Steven Bayme, Understanding Jewish History (KTAV), 1997
- Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (Beacon Books), 1964
- R. Travers-Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (KTAV), 1975
- Frank R. Zindler, The Jesus The Jews Never Knew, Sepher Toldoth Yeshu and the Quest of the historical Jesus in Jewish Sources (AAP), 2003
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