Was There No Historical Jesus?
by Earl Doherty


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Sepher Toldoth Yeshu and the Quest of the Historical Jesus in Jewish Sources
by Frank R. Zindler

American Atheist Press, 2003

    When New Testament mainstream scholarship began circling the wagons, toward the middle of the 20th century, in an attempt to counter what had become a vigorous mythical Jesus movement and History of Religions School, they managed to send both largely into eclipse, bringing an end to the heyday of such mythicist writers as J. M. Robertson, Arthur Drews and Paul-Louis Couchoud. For a generation beginning in the 1960s, George A. Wells became almost the sole voice keeping the discipline alive, even if it was now regarded as a somewhat discredited and quaint aberration. Far from disappearing into extinction, however, the view that an historical Jesus never existed flared into new prominence in the 1990s, aided by the establishment of the Internet. An extensive constituency of interested laypeople suddenly had access to a range of biblical scholarship and opinion, and an easy forum to develop that interest and express their own views. Several books and websites appeared propounding the no-Jesus theory as the old century drew to a close, giving it new strength and a sympathetic following. These publications have continued into the new century.
    The most recent of these is Frank R. Zindler’s The Jesus the Jews Never Knew. If there has been an area of research in the case for the non-existence of Jesus that has been largely neglected thus far, or at least given less study than it has merited and needed, it is the presence or absence of Jesus in the Jewish rabbinical writings and traditions of the first several centuries of Christianity. That gap has now been filled—and magnificently. It is a subject that has usually been dealt with in a passing manner, as an adjunct to larger cases focused on other matters. And it was not helped by the essential difficulty and obscurity of this particular literature. Wading through the various collections of rabbinic commentary over this period is not easy, nor especially rewarding for the non-specialist. The material itself is often dry and esoteric. It is a feather in Zindler’s cap that he has not only performed this task, he has managed to present it in a coherent and engaging manner.
    An in-depth analysis of the reputed references to Jesus in the rabbinical writings seems to be something that modern scholars who study the historical Jesus are not overly anxious to undertake. The Christian scholarly study which Zindler most thoroughly addresses, because of its own thoroughness and relative competence, is one by R. Travers Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash, now exactly a hundred years old. To my knowledge (and I presume Zindler’s), there has been nothing to equal it since. Perhaps this is not only because the literature is so dusty and tangled, but because more recent scholars have come to realize that this reputed reference to Jesus among the rabbis is not just obscure, it is ludicrous to regard it as having any real value. This, of course, does not prevent apologists from appealing to it in general, lumping it with their other ‘proofs’ of Jesus’ existence and the lack of concerted challenge in the ancient world to that presumption.
    Before going further, however, let me hasten to add that Zindler’s book also deals with the non-rabbinical Jewish writings of the period, including Philo and that most worked-over author in the mythicist debate, Flavius Josephus himself. Moreover, his is one of the most thorough examinations of these writers I have yet encountered, with a lot of new ideas and insights brought to them, some of which I can only feel chagrin for not having come up with myself!

The Fourth Pillar

    I have no hesitation in describing Zindler’s book as "the fourth pillar" in the modern case against the historical Jesus. The other three holding up that platform, in my estimation (and the reader will forgive my own bit of self-indulgence), are The Jesus Puzzle, Robert Price’s Deconstructing Jesus, and The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (despite the latter’s admitted flaws). Of course, G. A. Wells himself is still writing (though his most recent books have not broken too much new ground, and he has unfortunately—and not without some misunderstanding and exaggeration on the part of his detractors—backtracked on the issue of a possible human progenitor behind one aspect of the Christian movement). Other worthy additions to the recent Jesus-as-myth corpus are The Christ Conspiracy by Acharya S, whose main focus is the astrological underpinnings and sources of the Jesus myth, and Alvar Ellegard’s Jesus—One Hundred Years Before Christ, which falls into a Wellsian-type category in suggesting that the Jesus of early Christian worship was looked upon as being a man who had lived on earth in a non-recent past, in this case identified with the Essene Teacher of Righteousness. All of the specific books mentioned above have been reviewed on this website.
    Frank Zindler’s objective is to demonstrate that whatever the rabbis may have said about the Jesus figure, as found in their various commentaries, such comments are not based on a Jewish knowledge of any historical figure. Quite the contrary, features of those reputed references indicate that this rabbinic ‘awareness’ concerning Jesus developed only gradually and in response to what the Christians were saying about their supposed founder from the 2nd century on. Zindler further demonstrates that the earliest reputed references were almost certainly not to Jesus at all, and that today’s scholarly habit of finding Jesus behind certain characters the early rabbis speak of, whose names are alleged to be code words for him, is unfounded and based simply on modern wishful thinking.
    A good portion of the book—and the first meaningful study of the document from the mythicist point of view that I am aware of—is devoted to the Sepher Toldoth Yeshu, a satirical "antigospel" life of Jesus, which Christian scholars like to claim was written at an early date, being a counter by 2nd century rabbis who at least could base their satire of Jesus of Nazareth on what they presumably knew about him. This study of the Toldoth is worth the price of admission alone.

Philo and Josephus

    Perhaps wanting to soften us up for his excursion into a convoluted and ill-understood literature, Zindler first tackles a more popular and well-known field: the Jewish historians and commentators of the first century. He manages to bring fresh and often hitherto untilled insight to them.
    By way of introduction, he deals with the existence of Nazareth in the first century (rendered completely unreliable); the ‘darkness at noon’ debate centered on second and third-hand Christian hearsay about reports in the non-extant historians Thallus and Phlegon, demolishing any reliance on such ‘witnesses’ to the event of the crucifixion; and in an extended note, the authenticity of Tacitus’ reference to a human Christ is seriously undermined, even if Tacitus’ work, the first of 2nd century Gentile accounts mentioning Jesus, is too late "to be evidence of Christ as distinguishable from Christianity." [6]
    With these non-Jewish sources having been given a nod, Zindler gets down to business. He starts by quoting John Remsburg’s list of writers of the first couple of centuries CE "who would likely have commented on ‘the Christ’ if they had heard any whisper of his affairs." [13] The Jewish historian Justus of Tiberias, whose works are now lost (inexplicably, Zindler points out, if they had actually contained any reference to Jesus), is shown to have had no knowledge of a wonder-worker who had spent his career in next-door proximity to Justus’ own turf. Then comes the most thorough study of Philo’s silence on Jesus and Christianity yet to appear in this field. In its course, Zindler examines Philo’s family connections with Palestine, the account in Acts of his niece’s meeting with Paul, as well as the attempt by three Christian writers of a later period—Eusebius, Jerome and Photius—to co-opt Philo into Christian history by manufacturing connections between them. Beside this undeniable silence, stands the picture of a ‘Christianity’ before Christ in the form of Philo’s "Therapeutae," a "multinational therapeutic sect as the rootstock from which the lowly branching shrub of Christianity sprang." [27] On this type of root and branch, the artificial creation of Jesus of Nazareth later flowered.
    Zindler opens his extensive chapter on Flavius Josephus by highlighting the universal practice of forgery which can be found throughout the Christian documentary record of the time. "[M]endacity has been both the bricks and the mortar with which the edifice of Christianity has been built." [32] "Whenever one encounters material that is suspect on historical, philological, scientific or other grounds, the default interpretation should be that fraud is involved." [33] From Eusebius to Augustine to Cardinal Newman, Zindler points out, "the utility of prevarication [lying] and deception in the service of religion" has been extolled, and it is in the light of that infamous record and attitude that the works of Josephus need to be investigated.
    Zindler gives a thorough examination to the silence on Jesus in the earlier Jewish War; James the Just and John the Baptist; the now-missing (and why) references to James’ death as the cause of the fall of Jerusalem; the Testimonium Flavianum (the famous Jesus passage in Antiquities of the Jews 18) in its content and context with the surrounding material; the silence in the early Church Fathers. The latter include a couple one rarely sees addressed in such studies, both later than Eusebius: John Chrysostom (late 4th century) and Photius, Patriarch of Constantinope (9th century). The former knew his Josephus well and had more than one occasion to refer to the Testimonium. Considering that the "received text" of the Testimonium is found as early as Eusebius (who some consider to have been the forger, though Zindler has a somewhat different scenario), later silences and differences point to a more convoluted text history of the references to Jesus found in Josephus than is usually surmised. Zindler identifies, in Chrysostom’s words, what must have been an otherwise unattested Christian insertion into Josephus, namely that the War was due to Herod’s execution of John the Baptist, yet another viewpoint which indicates that the extent of Christian interpolation into Josephus was even greater than we realize.
    We learn that Photius, in his monumental survey of ancient books, makes no mention of Jesus or the Testimonium, nor the idea that the Jews were defeated because of the death of Jesus, James or John the Baptist, when discussing those sections of Josephus' histories. We are given observations about how interpolations can find their way in, as well as insights into the patchwork character of such insertions, so that one commentator can possess some of them and not others. And (something I had not encountered before) we learn that a Table of Contents attached to some Greek manuscripts of Josephus contains no reference to either the Testimonium or the passage on John the Baptist (18.5.2).
    In tracing the appearance of different versions of the Testimonium in different surviving manuscripts, in Agapius, in Michael the Syrian, in Jerome, in the Slavonic Jewish War, Zindler traces a plausible evolution of the famous interpolation until it reached the state in which we find it in Eusebius, though the tortured routes of that patchwork quilt were to continue beyond Eusebius. Throughout this discussion, one encounters fascinating tidbits, such as that while the Latin text of Jerome differs in some respects from the standard Greek text we now know, whoever translated Jerome into Greek brought Jerome’s words into line with the evidently more widespread Eusebian text! Such things prove once again that absolutely nothing in the Christian record—and that includes the documents of the New Testament—can be relied upon to reflect the original writer’s words and meaning. This sort of thing undercuts all apologetic arguments based on the particular wording of any given passage—as in, to throw out one simple example, claiming Paul’s firm identification of James as an historical Jesus’ sibling, based on the ‘fact’ that he wrote "the brother of the Lord.")
    As to the question of whether Eusebius invented the Testimonium whole, Zindler’s conclusion is that he ‘improved’ "the germ of the Testimonium (that) had already begun to infect certain Christian-copied versions of Antiquities of the Jews." Zindler’s ability to make reasonable deductions out of the tangled skeins of ancient documentary evidence spanning centuries is truly impressive. He goes into obscure variants in obscure documents to a depth not found in even the most professional debates on Josephus. There is also some extensive discussion of the later insertions into the Greek text of the Jewish War, which are revealed in the so-called Slavonic Josephus, "forged Christian material totaling more than all the interpolations in the Antiquities combined." [60]
    One of these I can’t resist calling attention to is found in book 5, chapter 5, where a pious Christian scribe makes Josephus tell of the torn Temple curtain at the climax of Jesus’ crucifixion. This prompts a footnote discussion of the curtain legend (with a quote from Robert Eisler) and how it can plausibly be used to date Mark—who created the event in the first Gospel—as no earlier than the mid-70s of the first century.

James and John the Baptist in Josephus

    Zindler has an interesting take on the second reference to Jesus in Josephus, in Antiquities 20. Concluding that the insertion (witnessed to by Origen and Eusebius, but not surviving in any extant manuscript line) had to have been made quite early, he surmises that it may well have come from the hand not of Christians of the ‘Catholic’ Church, but from "Jewish proto-Christians for whom James the Just was venerated as the founder of their faith. It is probable that Jesus and Christ were not originally part of the interpolation but were added when the text passed from Jacobite fabricators into the falsifying factories of early Christianity." [78-79]
    There is further evidence from Photius that this passage, too, as brief an insertion as it may seem to our eye, underwent its own evolution, first appearing without the name Jesus, but only "brother of the Lord." This launches Zindler into a fascinating discussion of the notorious phrase in Galatians 1:19, "James, the brother of the Lord" and its possible meaning (nothing to do with Jesus), along with the development of the ‘magic name’ quality of terms used by the Septuagint translators for God, in their need to avoid speaking or revealing the sacred name of Yahweh. Zindler goes even deeper, however, to analyze the ‘Ananus’ passage as a whole in Antiquities 20, pointing out its inherent difficulties and the possible scenario that the entire passage is inauthentic. Is the episode a "religious folk-tale" rather than Josephan history? The product of "Jewish proto-Christians who venerated James and had a quarrel with the establishment high priests?" [87] Zindler does not commit himself in this regard, but it is a generally overlooked possibility, and quite compelling.
    Continuing his in-depth excursion through the Christian Josephus which makes other discussions of the subject seem asthmatic, Zindler turns his attention to the passage on John the Baptist in Antiquities 18 (5.2). He prefaces this by surveying the Baptist’s appearances in the Gospels and Acts, with an eye to their authenticity and historical reliability, and even the light they cast on the question of whether John himself is an historical figure. Then, a close examination of the Antiquities 18 passage on John suggests that it is in fact a forgery,  inserted not by a Christian but a Baptist follower. While I myself had previously accepted the Josephus passage on John the Baptist as likely authentic, I find it impossible to retain the same conviction after reading Zindler’s arguments.
    Finally, other Christian forgeries into Josephus are noted, relating to some of the prophets and to the subjects of Greek knowledge of Hebrew history and the Tetragrammaton. There is far more to Christian tampering with Josephus than the well-culled references to Jesus in the Antiquities of the Jews. It may be difficult for us to get our minds around the extent of falsification, apocryphal invention, and doctoring of established writings which Christians have been guilty of through the ages, but it is an expression of that distinguishing feature which they alone of the ancient savior religions adopted: the conviction of exclusivity and possession of sole absolute truth, which legitimized forgery and deception without limit or scruple in the service of that truth. There has never been another literary phenomenon quite like it. It is folly of the blindest sort to imagine, in the face of all the fraud which is clearly present and acknowledged throughout the centuries of Christian writing and transmission, that the canonical documents are somehow pristine and historically reliable.
    In his summary thus far of the non-rabbinical Jewish writings, Zindler says of Josephus: "No information whatsoever can be extracted from the Jewish historian that can serve as evidence of any historical Jesus. To the contrary, the silence of Josephus speaks loudly against any flesh-and-blood founder of the western world’s majority faith. The very fact that he had to be falsified to give proof of the reality of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ indicates that the Christians themselves had no documentable evidence of his historicity." [101]

Revenge of the Rabbis

    But what Frank Zindler has served up thus far in The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, despite being a rich and tasty fare, is only an hors d’oeuvre. Now we arrive at the main course: the Jewish rabbinical literature. He begins things this way:

    "If Jesus had been an historical personage who was continually in conflict with ‘the scribes and Pharisees,’ it is only to be expected that the rabbinical descendants of his opponents would have preserved a vivid memory of his disputations and claims. It might even be expected that they would preserve details of his teachings (especially as they impinge upon the authority of ‘the Law’) not preserved in the canonical Christian writings. One might even expect to find an entire book in Aramaic or Hebrew in which Jesus is cited as a rabbi himself, if only to refute him in the form of the popular format ‘R. Yeshua said X, but R. Yehudah answered Y.’
    "The idea that the rabbis suppressed memory of these disputes because they had always been bested in the debates is simply contrary to all that is known about the religious mind. No advocate of any religion—no matter how exotic—has ever been at a loss for words or solutions when presented with difficult arguments. One need only think of the success of amateur apologists such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses to see how unlikely it would be for professional squabblers such as the rabbis to have been floored by anything any historical Jesus might have argued." [105]
    Zindler further observes, here and elsewhere, that nothing within any of the alleged rabbinic references to Jesus contains a hint of Roman involvement in Jesus’ death, or that this figure in any way claimed, or had attached to him, an identity as the Messiah. That these basic facts could have any historical basis and be forgotten or unmentioned by the rabbis is inconceivable. Moreover, the use of appellations, and the evolution of that use, is extremely revealing, as we shall see.
    Before launching into the texts, Zindler provides a thorough and very useful survey of the four centuries-long conglomeration of rabbinic records, which I will summarize here only generally: the written and the oral traditions reputedly going back to Moses, definitions of midrash, halakhah and haggadah, the distinction between the Talmuds (Palestinian and Babylonian, the former not completed until around 400, the latter about 500 or 600), their cores of Mishnah, Baraitas, and the satellite Tosefta. If you’ve ever been confused and discouraged by this "ramshackle body" of rabbinic commentary, this is an ideal opportunity to have it all sorted out.
    This "perplexing text history" and the fluidity of the oral tradition that preceded it makes it extremely difficult and even foolhardy to base upon it claims to Jewish historical knowledge and accuracy about Jesus. Add to this the fact that many statements in the literature in regard to historical events in general can be demonstrated as false or erroneous, and it becomes impossible to glean from it any useful or reliable information about the reputed founder of Christianity.

The Mishnah and the Tosefta

    The earliest body of commentary is the Mishnah, completed about 220 CE. It nowhere contains the name "Jesus," nor the names "ben Stada" and "ben Pandira/Pantiri," two later alleged code names for Jesus. Instead, the two references usually seized on by Christian commentators as references to Jesus can be shown as unlikely to be so at all. Zindler’s argumentation is quite efficient on this score. In the second case, he first opens the file of the biblical "Balaam" which he will return to later in the book. Balaam, the character in Numbers 22-24, is taken to be a code for Jesus, while the three others listed with him—all being numbered among those whom the rabbis declared would not "share in the world to come"—are commonly considered to be code names for various Gospel apostles of Jesus.
    Zindler’s detailed but easy pricking of this preposterous balloon, reveals not only the desperation of Christian commentators to find an historical support for Jesus in the rabbinic literature, it is a measure of the utter lack of truly reliable and concrete support there really is. Later Talmudic collections did eventually adopt these as code names, but in the period before Constantine, when Christianity had no power to persecute Jews, no necessity for coding existed, and the later practice is simply read back into earlier times. Yet it is in those earlier times that the greatest dearth of reference to Jesus—by name or otherwise—is found in the literature.
    When Zindler enters the Tosefta, a body of commentary somewhat later than the Mishnah, we first encounter the name "Yeshua," but not in conjunction with ha-Notzri (the Nazarene: this doesn’t show up until even later), but with the attached appellation "Pantiri" or "Pandira." The tradition of the name "Pandira" associated with Jesus is a convoluted one which Zindler manages to unravel, while demonstrating the likelihood that the original name referred not to the Gospel figure at all, but was only later interpreted as such, usually to be reshaped according to that view. The "ben Stada" who also appears in the Tosefta is similarly revealed as originally a non-Jesus figure (even though in one of the later Talmuds he is reinterpreted as being Jesus), while both "ben Pandira" passages bear the marks of later insertions into the pericopes being recorded. Thus, it could well be that the two earliest completed compendiums of rabbinic tradition contained no identifiable reference to Jesus at all.
The Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds

    In laying out his exposition of the later Talmuds, Palestinian and Babylonian, Zindler explains that both are collections of Gemaras (commentaries) enlarging on and built around a core of the Mishnah and parts of the Tosefta. They contain a telling feature. The character of "Jesus of Nazareth" appears for the first time in the later, Babylonian Talmud. He never appears in the Palestinian Talmud. In other words, as Zindler has been tracing him through the long history of rabbinic writings, the Gospel character, whether in name or in anything remotely resembling Christian tradition about such a figure (and it is in any case always surprisingly off the mark), does not emerge until the very latest set of documents. Equally notable, he does not emerge in the Talmud that was produced in Palestine itself. When this is coupled with the fact that the very name of "Jesus" does not appear in the earliest commentary, the Mishnah, and only "ben Pandira" and "ben Stada" are found in the next earliest, the Tosefta, completed around 350 (these names were to evolve into "Jesus of Nazareth" within the later Babylonian Talmud), we have a clear-cut case of the gradual evolution of awareness and tradition about a Christian Jesus, and no evidence of any early knowledge. This would be a direct reversal of every logical and normal pattern if Jesus had existed, and the Jewish religious authorities of the time had remembered and passed on historical traditions about him.
    When they are incorporated into the Palestinian Talmud, the Tosefta pericopes that refer to ben Pandira and ben Stada undergo little or no literary evolution, indicating that the later rabbis had no further Jesus traditions to add than what they read in the earlier Tosefta, despite being in the very place that Jesus had supposedly lived and worked. One sensible conclusion Zindler suggests is that those earlier figures in the Tosefta are not dealing with an historical person (nor think that they are) but are rather titles of contrived literary personages.
    Even in the Talmuds, there are alleged (by Christian scholars like Herford) references to Jesus which Zindler renders highly doubtful. Most interesting is the Palestinian Talmud’s revisiting of the Balaam & Co. figures who are "excluded from the world to come." There is probably more in this book than we ever need to know (or at least be able to remember) on certain subjects, and Balaam and his kingdom-denied associates may be one of them, but Zindler’s forays into the obscurer nooks and crannies of this often antiquated and bemusing literature usually has an entertaining sparkle and even humor to it. Moreover, it is always in the service of his thorough argumentation. (The book is also scrupulously referenced, and there is no shortage of examination of Greek, Hebrew and even Aramaic passages, but the non-academic reader will not find these intrusive.)
    In refuting Herford’s bizarre identification of "Phineas the Robber"—who killed Balaam when he was 33 years old (Sanh. 106b)—Zindler makes some interesting comments:

    "The fact that the rabbinical literature everywhere else knows nothing of Pontius Pilate, and never relates the death of Jesus or his alleged alter egos to Roman authorities is itself a point of interest. If the trial before Pilate never occurred, it would be expected that the Jews would not mention the idea. On the other hand, the Jews might have taken no interest in the fact even had it been historical. The fact is, however, that by the time of the Bavli [the Babylonian Talmud] the Jews were very interested in the circumstances of Jesus’ death and indicated that it was Jews, not Romans, who did him in—in two different ways. According to b. Sanh. 43a, ‘On the eve of Passover, Yeshu [the Munich MS adds ‘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 practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy…" ’
    "It would appear in this passage that we have caught a myth in the midst of formation. Only one manuscript identifies Yeshu as being ha-Notzri—the Nazarene. But the contradiction regarding whether Jesus was hanged or stoned is easily explained away by reference to the known tradition that after being executed, malefactors were sometimes strung up and exposed for further disgrace. Accordingly, Jesus was stoned and then hung up. Nevertheless, the text doesn’t say that…More important for attempts to salvage Christian traditions regarding the death of the Messiah, however, is the fact that taken in combination, these two deaths of Yeshu absolutely rule out the notion that he was crucified. While references in the New Testament and elsewhere indicating that Jesus was hanged have easily been explained by special pleaders as poetic references to crucifixion, it surely must be beyond the ability of even the most brazen expert in ‘Hard Sayings of the Bible’ to show how Jesus could have been stoned as well as crucified." [191-92]
    The "33 years" mentioned in Sanhedrin 106b is readily explained as the "less than half the days" of the average man (threescore and ten: Psalm 90) which was allotted to evildoers like Balaam. The fact that three of Balaam's associates (alleged to be code names for apostles of Jesus) were also given this 'under half' life of 33 and 34 years shows how much scholarly need there is to find Christian references within the rabbis and how much ability there accompanies it to screen out the more common sense alternative interpretations.

Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud

    It is only with the Babylonian Talmud, completed around the year 600 (according to Jacob Neusner), that anything approaching an active rabbinic tradition referring back to a Christian founder can be detected. As Zindler opens this chapter:

    "Five or even six centuries after the time at which Jesus of Nazareth is supposed to have been born in Palestine, rabbis living hundreds of miles from there in Iraq appear to have completed the literary task of creating a life for him. As had earlier been the case with the canonical and uncanonical Christian ‘evangelists,’ who had created a wild variety of biographies according to the different ways they imagined their Messiah to have acted, so also was it the case with the rabbis. They too ended up with more than one Jesus—if we are to believe the apologetics of certain Christians on behalf of the historicity of Jesus. Interestingly, the rabbinical Jesuses did not live at the same time as the Christian Gospel Jesuses. One of them lived nearly a century BCE, at the time of Alexander Jannaeus—a Jesus before Christ. Another lived around two centuries after that—a Jesus after Christ! Like the Christians, the rabbis are alleged also to have given Jesus a father and a mother—and created a birth legend scandalously different from that in the Gospels. The Jesuses of the Babylonian Talmud were the evolutionary end-products of the characters we have already encountered in the Mishnah and Tosefta…
    "It is only after he has reached the Bavli, the latest of the major rabbinical treatises, that Jesus of Nazareth crystallizes out of the Yeshu ben Pandira tradition. Indeed, he absorbs the ben Strada tradition as well and acquires some surprising biographical features—not the least of which is a birth date one hundred years later than the dates implied by Matthew and Luke. All this is the work of the authors of the Babylonian Talmud and their later interpolators." [231-32]
    The Babylonian Talmud’s evolution of traditions about Jesus characteristically add more detail to earlier references in the Tosefta, a tendency universal in sectarian writing of which we have a prime example in the Christian documentary record itself. Imagination comes into play over time. Dubious characters in the early rabbinic commentaries are expanded not only to an identification with Jesus, his reputed teachings are now quoted as well. We also encounter a more specific attribution of comment about Jesus to 1st and 2nd century rabbis, those more likely—if the attribution were true—to reflect early and thus more dependable knowledge of the historical figure. But where is this knowledge and attribution in the early rabbinic literature? It is similar to the case in the Christian literature, where the earliest has virtually nothing to say about the life and features of Jesus on earth, even in his salvific death, whereas such features and events increasingly appear and develop as the literature progresses. The logical deduction where both genres are concerned need not be spelled out.
    It is in the Babylonian Talmud that we find what are probably the most well-known of the rabbinic ‘references’ to Jesus, but even here, as Zindler notes in the quote above, the information given is amazingly out of sync with the Gospel picture. In Shabb. 104b, "ben Stada" is linked to Pappos ben Jehudah, who has been identified as a friend of R. Akiba, who lived early in the 2nd century. In Sanh. 67, Jesus is "hung on the eve of Passover," although, as Zindler points out, the place of execution is in Lydda—a town 23 miles NW of Jerusalem! Elsewhere in that commentary it is declared that a herald went forth for 40 days before the execution to solicit favorable testimony on behalf of Yeshu the Nazarean, an apparent attempt to counter Christian traditions that the trial had been carried out in secret and the execution with unseemly haste. Many of these passages can be seen to have been inserted into older, often unrelated material, and "indicate considerable confusion in the minds of the rabbis on this subject." [236] It can also be discerned that direct identification of these figures as "Yeshu ha-Notzri" are redactional developments by rabbis who had come to believe that (for example) ben Stada was actually the Jesus whom the Christians had elevated to godhood.
    Zindler postulates that since most of this material consciously identifying various Talmudic characters with the Jesus of the Christians comes from the Babylonian branch of rabbinical Jewry, and since it might be hard to understand how such confusion as to dates and events of Jesus life could exist as late as the 5th century, it is possible the explanation lies in assuming that the Iraqi rabbis had little contact with the Mediterranean parts of the empire where the Gospel Jesus essentially took shape and was disseminated. On the peripheries, such as inland from Palestine, "early competitors" to the Great Church that came to be centered on Rome and the Gospel Jesus could still be thriving, without too much in the way of ‘orthodox’ Gospel traditions. The knowledge such rabbis would have had of details later Christianity took for granted could have been quite limited and confused. The appearance of "Miriam" (the most popular feminine name of the day among Jews) as Jesus’ mother is hardly any more reassuring, since she is made the wife of a 2nd century person, and a "hairdresser." There is even an attempt to render the "Stada" entity as a woman. Such a state of confusion could only make sense in a world that originally lacked an actual historical Jesus or widespread knowledge of any human figure in the early days of the Christian faith.
    Zindler’s survey of the alleged "apostolic" figures in the Talmud also indicates that confusion reigned here as well, one which paralleled an equal confusion in the early Christian literature, to illustrate which Zindler provides a two-page chart showing the conflicting lists of disciples/apostles in the various early Christian Gospels.
    Many even of the references to Jesus of Nazareth in the Babylonian Talmud can be quite readily identified as interpolations or mutations within earlier texts, using comparative text criticism. And in his summary to the Talmudic examination, Zindler points out the complete unreliability of attributions to any given rabbi, and thus the lack of foundation in regard to the common practice by scholars of identifying a given statement about Jesus with the time period of its attribution. They have also been guilty of a related fallacy:
    "All previous attempts to find traces of the historical Jesus in rabbinical sources have, I maintain, employed a faulty methodology. All have retrojected the usage and interpretations of late (or even modern) documents into ancient texts. If so-and-so means Jesus in documents produced in the Warsaw Ghetto, so-and-so must mean Jesus in the sixth-century Babylonian Talmud. If that is its meaning in the Talmud, it must also mean the same thing in the third-century Mishnah. It is hard to believe that even famous scholars have practiced so illogical a method for so long, yet it seems to me that is the bald truth of the matter." [262]
    In summation, Zindler says: "Apologists for the historical Jesus have never been able to demonstrate convincingly that non-Christian attestations of the life of Christ are anything more than hearsay obtained from Christians. Lamentably few of them seem even to be aware of the fact that they need to do so. Worse yet, they cite Christian scriptures and the Church Fathers as though such sources can be considered serious historical evidence. One might as well have asked an ancient Egyptian if Isis and Osiris exist and have done anything significant!…" [264]

The Sepher Toldoth Yeshu

    If Zindler had gone no further, he would still have contributed an invaluable addition to the mythicist case. But fully a third of the book has more to say, namely an examination of the Sepher Toldoth Yeshu, a purported anti-gospel satire of uncertain date, and the subject which Zindler says actually triggered the writing of The Jesus the Jews Never Knew. Two different versions of the Toldoth are included in their entirety in Appendices, reprints of the Foote & Wheeler edition of 1896, the other by G. R. S. Mead of 1903.
    Apologists often attempt to date the Toldoth as early as possible, to support the view that such a satire is based on knowledgeable (if inaccurate) traditions about an historical Jesus as found in the Gospels. It can be shown not to be a medieval Christian forgery (as many modern Jews like to claim). Zindler traces a complex history of manuscript traditions and Toldoth themes and components, some through obscure corners of ancient world writings and sects. He comes to the conclusion that, rather than a single document by a single original author passed down through the centuries, the Toldoth Yeshu was "a living tradition, (one) flourishing in the age of printing and tracing back to an antiquity of uncertain depth." [269] While in the medieval age it circulated in underground circles, in earlier periods when Christianity did not wield its later powers of persecution it was "a satirical, polemical tool employed in rabbinical Jewish controversies with messianic Jews who had adopted varieties of Christian beliefs." [271-2]
    Zindler regards it as hopeless to try to construct an Ur-text of the Toldoth, one that might have existed before the Talmuds. At best one can identify Toldoth motifs and disparate elements that might be evidence of a connected work. Such possibilities Zindler traces through various Church Fathers from Justin on, finding the evidence for early knowledge of a specific Toldoth document weak. It is more likely that Celsus’ taunts dealt with by Origen derive from Jewish response to apocryphal Christian or Jewish-Christian writings than from a Toldoth ‘in print’ by Celsus’ time. Rather, Zindler dates the earliest version(s) of such an organized satire to the 4th century. In this section of The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, the author delves into a lot of fascinating material, from lesser known Christian literature of the Fathers and apocryphal writings of the first few centuries, in addition to the canonical documents. Indeed, the richness and scope of this book would be hard to exaggerate.


    Frank Zindler is to be congratulated, and roundly thanked, for tackling such a difficult body of literature, and for bringing the degree of scholarship and insight he does to it. His study has ranged across centuries of diverse documentation, often venturing outside the strictly Jewish. His final chapter is nothing less than, yet again, an insightful survey of the mostly lost ancient Jewish-Christian Gospels. Unerringly, he brings order out of chaos and fragmentation, clarity out of labyrinthine complexity. In answering the question ‘Did the Jews Know Jesus?’ Zindler—and so must his readers—comes to the conclusion that the Jews had no traditions of their own concerning Jesus, an impossible situation if the Gospel story had any factual basis.
    In his final word, offering his own scenario for the origins of Christianity, Zindler carries us back into the time of the Roman poet Virgil (d. 19 BCE) and postulates a mix of nascent mystery and solarized religion arising among Hellenistic and non-rabbinic Jews, while other strands of belief may have come through Greeks imbued with Jewish mysticism. Some link is possible, he suggests, to the astronomical discovery by Hipparchus (c. 128 BCE) of the precession of the equinox, the same discovery which seems to have given rise a little earlier to the Hellenistic version of the Mithras cult.
    Through a very obscure (to us) several decades, such religious developments, reflected also in certain Essene sects, Philo’s Therapeutai, and in early gnostic trends of thinking, coalesced into a "Jesus-Savior" faith, a redeeming Son of God salvation theology which emerges into the light as the second quarter of the first century CE arrived, in groups like those revealed in Paul’s epistles. It was during this period (with help from missionaries like Paul) that this faith movement progressed from being essentially a "mystery cult" with esoteric symbolism known only to its initiates (as in the other savior god cults of the day) to a more exoteric and eventually literalist religion, as propagandizing became increasingly aimed at the general masses. "A celestial being became reified, was given a physical existence, and then acquired a biography—a biography that grew in detail for several centuries." [341]
    Such a thesis Zindler hopes to finalize and demonstrate in a future book. We can only urge him to do so.


From the cover of The Jesus the Jews Never Knew: "Frank R. Zindler, formerly a professor of biology and geology in the State University of New York system, for many years has been a linguist, senior editor, and analyst of biochemical literature for a major scientific publishing society. A veteran of more than 400 radio and television talk-shows, he has debated many creationists, theologians, and purveyors of the preternatural in defense of Atheism, naturalism, and evolutionary science. Since the brutal murder in 1995 of Robin Murray-O’Hair, the editor at that time of American Atheist Press, Zindler has succeeded her in the role of managing editor."

The Jesus the Jews Never Knew is available from American Atheist Press, P.O. Box 5733, Parsippany, New Jersey, 07054-6733. The price is $20.00 US.
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