Jesus in the Jewish Tradition

Extracts from

Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.?

by G.R.S. Mead
(1903; Kessinger reprint, no date)

1) The Talmud was compiled between 100 and 500 AD, and consists of a generally older deposit called the Mishna and of additional strata known as the Gemara or 'completion'.
2) In the following extracts from Mead's book, some footnotes have been incorporated in the main text between square brackets and some have been omitted.

The Talmud 100 B.C. story of Jesus (pp. 137-48)

    Let us, then, first of all turn to what, from the chronological point of view, is the most extraordinary passage, a passage found not once but twice in the Babylonian Gemara ["Sanhedrin," 107b, and, in almost identical words, "Sota," 47a].
    "The Rabbis have taught: The left should always be repelled, and the right, on the other hand, drawn nearer. But one should not do it . . . as R. Joshua ben Perachiah, who thrust Jeschu with both hands. What was the matter with regard to R. Joshua ben Perachiah? When King Jannai directed the destruction of the Rabbis, R. Joshua ben Perachiah and Jeschu went to Alexandria. When security returned, Rabi Simeon ben Shetach sent him a letter to this effect: 'From me, Jerusalem the holy city, to thee, Alexandria in Egypt, my sister. My spouse tarries in thee, and I dwell desolate.' Thereupon Joshua arose and came; and a certain inn was in the way, in which they treated him with great respect. Then spake Joshua: 'How fair is this inn (akhsanga)!' Jeschu saith to him: 'But, Rabbi, she (akhsanga = a hostess) has little narrow eyes.' Joshua replied: 'Thou godless fellow, dost thou occupy thyself with such things?' directed that 400 horns should be brought, and put him under strict excommunication. Jeschu ofttimes came and said to him, 'Take me back.' Joshua did not trouble himself about him. One day, just as Joshua was reading [? reciting] the Shema [The words: "Hear, O Israel," etc., Deut. vi. 4 ff], Jeschu came to him, hoping that he would take him back. Joshua made a sign to him with his hand. Then Jeschu thought that he had altogether repulsed him, and went away, and set up a brickbat and worshipped it. Joshua said to him: 'Be converted!' Jeschu saith: 'Thus have I been taught by thee: From him than sinneth and maketh the people to sin, is taken away the possibility of repentance.' And the Teacher [i.e., he who is everywhere mentioned by this title in the Talmud] has said: 'Jeschu had practised sorcery and had corrupted and misled Israel.' " [This formal charge is also found in "Sanhedrin," 43a.]
    This formal passage, if taken by itself, would of course fully confirm the hypothesis of the 100 years B.C. date of Jesus. The arguments for and against the authenticity of its statements embrace, therefore, practically the whole substance of our investigation. Let us first of all consider the face value of these statements.
    Jannai or Jannaeus (John), who also bore the Greek name Alexander, was one of the famous Maccabaean line of kings, the son of John Hyrcanus I., and reigned over the Jews 104-78 B.C.
    Though it is now impossible from the imperfect record to ascertain the exact state of Jewish domestic affairs, or the precise causes of the fierce internal religious struggle, during the reign of this wild warrior king, the salient fact dwelt on by Josephus in both his accounts is that Jannai for the major part of his reign was engaged in a bitter feud with the Pharisaean party, whom he had deprived of all their privileges. This Pharisaean party was practically the national religious party who resented the oriental despotism of their Hasmonaean rulers, and above all detested the usurpation of the high priestly office by Jannai. The Pious and Pure could not brook the sight of "a wild warrior like Jannaeus discharging the duties of the high priest in the holy place," as Schürer puts it. Bitter internal strife intensified by religious fanaticism accordingly marked the first eighteen years of Jannai's reign. The Pharisees finally led a rebellion against the hated monarch, in which no less than 50,000 Jews are said to have fallen, and finally the leaders of the nationalist party fled to the stronghold of Bethome or Besemelis. Jannai besieged Bethome and captured it. The prisoners were taken to Jerusalem, and there no less than 800 of them are said to have been crucified to make sport before Jannai and his wives and concubines, the wives and children of the wretched Pharisees having been previously butchered before their eyes. This atrocious act is said to have struck such terror into the hearts of the unfortunate "Rabbis" of the time, that no less than 8000 of them fled, and during Jannai's life-time kept far from Judaea. This happened about 87 B.C.
    The greatest hero of those times, according to Rabbinical tradition, who still withstood the tyrant to the face and boldly berated him with the unaided weapons of Rabbinic wisdom, was Simeon ben Shetach, who is said moreover to have been the brother of Jannai's wife Salome. Many stories of his wise sayings before Jannai are handed on in the Talmud, though it must be confessed that they sound to modern ears somewhat puerile. There are some, however, who think that Simeon too had to flee, and that his withstanding of Jannai took place before the revolt.
    When Salome, however, succeeded her impious spouse, her policy with regard to the Pharisees was the direct antithesis of Jannai's cruel measures. [Schürer:] "Salome from the beginning of her reign [78-69 BC] took her stand unhesitatingly on the side of the Pharisees, lent an ear to their demands and wishes, and in particular gave legal sanction again to all the Pharisaic ordinances abolished since the time of John Hyrcanus. During these years the Pharisees were the real rulers of the land." . . .
    Pharisaean tradition, therefore, naturally depicts the reign of Salome as a golden age . . .
    [I]f there is any historical basis at all for the passage under consideration, Joshua ben Perachiah presumably fled to Alexandria in 87 B.C., and was probably recalled by Simeon ben Shetach in 78 B.C. He must then have been a very old man, for he is said to have begun to teach as early as 154 B.C., an assertion, however, which I have been unable to verify. In any case Joshua ben Perachiah and Nithai of Arbela were the second of the famous "Five Pairs" of the "Guruparampara" chain (to use a Brahmanical technical term) of Talmudic tradition, while Simeon ben Shetach and Judah ben Tabbai form the third "Pair."
    According to this "tradition of the fathers," then, Jeschu was regarded as having been originally the pupil of one of the two most learned "Rabbis"* of the time, nay, of the most learned, the "spouse" of Jerusalem; not only so, but Jeschu was apparently Joshua's favourite pupil. See the result of disregarding this counsel of wisdom, said the Rabbis of later days; there is the famous case of the great Joshua ben Perachiah who was too stern with his disciple Jeschu, and with what disastrous results!

    But, it may be said, why waste time in speculating on such a transparent anachronism. To this we reply: Even granting the anachronism a priori, without further enquiry -- seeing that the literature of the times teems with many demonstrably ghastly anachronisms -- this passage shows us clearly where Jewish tradition placed Jesus. For if he was a learned man, as indeed is invariably admitted in many other stories; whether or not he got his wisdom from the greatest Jewish teacher of the times or not, is another question.
    It is further to be remarked that there is a striking similarity between the state of internal Jewish affairs in Jannai's time and the numerous hangings and burnings of the Pharisees in the days of Herod (37-4 B.C.). In both reigns the national religious party was led in revolt by those learned in the Law. The Pharisees stood for religion and religious purism against the aristocratic party of the hereditary Sadducaean priesthood, who were interested in the Law solely as a convenient instrument of custom whereby they could extort tithes and taxes out of the people. They were entirely indifferent to all those tendencies which had been and were still spiritualising the national religious literature, and presumably they were above all opposed to what they considered the innovating fanaticism of the mystic and disciplinary views held by such circles as the Chassidim and Essenes.
    Both reigns are characterised by the triumph of the Sadducaean party, and by the ruthless murder of large numbers of the Pharisaean leaders, some of whom were indubitably in closest contact with Chassidim and Essene circles, nay, it is almost probable that members of these circles, or of associations of a similar nature, were the directly inspiring sources of these religious revolts. It must then have been a bitter memory with the followers of these strict schools of discipline, the later "schools of the prophets," which were seeking to establish the rule of the Righteous and the consequent direct reign of Yahweh on earth, that numbers of their holy ones and seers had been ruthlessly done to death by a Jannai or a Herod.*

    Now, in similar mystic circles these prophets and seers, in one of their grades, were known as "little ones" or "children." A most interesting tradition of this designation is still preserved in the little-known "Codex Nasaraeus" of the Mandaites, the so-called Christians of St. John. In the XIth Tractate of their Right-hand Genza there is a most beautiful story of the mystic Baptism. Jesus comes to Johanna to be baptised. Jesus comes as a simple "approacher" seeking initiation into the mystic school of Johanna. But Johanna is not to be deceived, and immediately recognises Him as the Master, Manda d'Hajje Himself, the "Gnosis of Life," by whose power Johanna has been teaching and initiating all the long forty and two years of his ministry. [He apparently now passes on into the seventh "seven years".]
    It is too long to quote the beautiful story of how Johanna, in giving the lower initiation of external (? psychic) baptism to Jesus, receives the true spiritual Baptism from Manda d'Hajje Himself, when "He gave him the grip of the Rushta, and laid His hand upon him in the Jordan; and He made him lay off his garment of flesh and blood; and He clothed him in a raiment of glory."
    It is enough for our purpose to set down a few of the sentences put into the mouth of Johanna: "Come in peace, Little One. . . . Now I go with thee, Little One, that we may enter the stream. . . . Come, come, Little One of three years and one day, youngest among his brethren but oldest with his Father, who is so small yet his sayings are so exalted." Seniority in the Essene and Therapeut communities, it must be remembered, was not reckoned by age, but by the number of years the brother had been a member of the order.
    What, now, if we were to fuse these apparently totally unrelated scraps of information together? Might we not ask ourselves how many elements are to be sifted out of the traditional "murder of the innocents"; how many conflations of historical fact and mystic history before the "myth" was brought to birth in its present form? Can there be in it even some reminiscence of the 800 victims of Bethome? The Talmud Rabbis know nothing of Herod's wholesale murder of the children as recounted in the introduction of our first canonical Gospel; Josephus knows nothing of it; yet Joseph ben Matthai had no reason for white-washing the character of Herod, had such a dastardly outrage been an actual fact, for he records his numerous other crimes without hesitation; and the Talmud Rabbis hated the memory of Herod so well that they could not have failed to record such a horror, had he been really guilty of it.
    But to return to the words of our Talmud passage. The narrative is introduced by citing what is apparently some famous saying of Rabbinic wisdom. It must be remarked, however, that if Streane's translation is correct,* the wisdom of the saying does not immediately appear on the surface, and we must take it in a symbolic sense as referring to such ideas as good and evil, sheep and goats, orthodoxy and heresy; "right" and "left" being the commonest of all symbolic terms, not only in Jewish and Christian but also in Egyptian, Pythagorean and Orphic mysticism.

    As to the inn and hostess story, it is very evident that, if we are to take it literally, we have the veritable birth of a mountain out of a mole-hill. Why the whole orchestra of the Temple of Jerusalem, apparently, should be requisitioned to give world-wide notice of the excommunication of Jeschu, simply because he admired the eyes of a landlady (if that indeed be the meaning of the original)* is passing non-oriental comprehension. To relieve ourselves, then, of the intolerable burden of the absurdities which the literal meaning of the story imposes upon us, I venture to suggest that we are here face to face with an instance of Deutsch's "cap and bells" element in the Talmud, and therefore make bold to offer my mite of speculation as to the underlying meaning.

    Evidently the main point is that Jeschu was formally excommunicated for heretical tendencies from the school or circle over which Joshua presided. The 400 horns, trumpets or trombones may be taken simply to mean that the excommunication was exceedingly formal and serious. The reason for excommunication was plainly doctrinal. Now Jewish tradition invariably asserted that Jesus learned "magic" in Egypt. The kernel of this persistent accusation may perhaps be reduced to the simple historical element that Jesus went to Egypt and returned with far wider and more enlightened views than those of his former co-disciples, and in this connection it is to be remembered that many scholars have argued, from the strong resemblance between the general features of the earliest Christian churches of canonical tradition and those of the Essene communities, that Jesus was an Essene, or let us say more generally a member of an Essene-like body. I therefore venture on the speculation that the "inn" of our story may cryptically refer to one of such communities, which Joshua considered very excellent, but which Jesus considered to have a too narrow outlook from the standpoint of a more liberal view of things spiritual. It is also of interest to recall to mind that excommunication from the Essene community required the votes of no less than 100 brethren; can the 400 "horns" by any possibility refer to the voices or votes of some specially convened assembly for a very important and formal decision against one whose superior knowledge refused to be bound down by the traditional limitations of the order? Perhaps also there are some who may ask themselves the question: Has the "birth" of the "little one" in the "inn" of the familiar Gospel story any new meaning looked at by the light of these mystic and cryptic expressions?
    As we are, then, in the highest probability dealing with a story which conceals an under-meaning, it may further be conjectured that some precise detail of history underlies the extraordinary expression "he set up a brickbat," which has hitherto been invariably construed as a contemptuous or humorous way of saying "he became an idolater." This may be the meaning, but, on the contrary, we have to remember that in the general formal charge at the end taken from the same authority from which the Gemara derives the story, there is no mention of idolatry in this gross sense, nor, if I mistake not, do we anywhere else in the Jewish Jesus stories, Talmudic or Mediaeval, meet with this grossly material charge. Has this strange expression, then, any hidden connection with the "rock" and "peter" symbolism, or with the "corner-stone," and therefore originally with Egyptian mystic "masonry" and its initiations -- the "hewn-stone" of a Grand Master?

The Talmud Ben Stada Jesus stories (pp. 167-70, 176-80)

    [O]ne of the most persistent charges of the Jews against Jesus was that he had learned magic in Egypt. . . .
    Thus in the Palestinian Gemara we read:
    "He who scratches on the skin in the fashion of writing is guilty, but he who makes marks on the skin in the fashion of writing, is exempt from punishment. Rabbi Eliezer said to them: But has not Ben Stada brought (magic) spells out of Egypt just in this way? They answered him: On account of one fool we do not ruin a multitude of reasonable men." ["Pal. Shabbath," 13d.]
    The same story is also handed on in the Baylonian Gemara, but with a very striking variant:
    "There is a tradition: Rabbi Eliezer said to the wise men, Has not Ben Stada brought magic spells from Egypt in an incision in his body? They answered him, He was a fool, and we do not take proofs from fools." ["Bab. Shabbath," 104b.] . . .
    [T]he Palestinian Gemara seems plainly to have preserved the earlier account, namely the inscribing of some figures, or more probably hieroglyphs, on the skin. The idea in the mind of the Palestinian Rabbis was presumably that the Egyptians were known to be very jealous of their magic lore and did all they could to prevent books of magic being taken out of the country; Jeschu, then, according to the oldest Rabbinic tradition, was said to have circumvented their vigilance by some such subterfuge as that which has been handed on in the story in the Palestinian Gemara. . . .
    What the real inwardness or nucleole of the nucleus {of the legend} may have been we shall perhaps never know, but it may possibly have been derived from some such mystical expression as the "circumcision of the heart," or the hiding of wisdom in the heart. . . .
    [Mishna:] "In the case of all the transgressors indicated in the Torah as deserving of death, no witnesses are placed in concealment except in case of the sin of leading astray to idolatry. . . ."
    The Mishna apparently approves of lying to the enticer to compass his legal condemnation . . . It is also to be noticed that the legal punishment twice referred to for the offence of seducing to idolatry is stoning.
    To the above quoted passage from the Mishna the Palestinian Gemara adds:
    "The enticer is the idiot, etc. -- Lo, is he a wise man? No: as an enticer he is not a wise man; as he is enticed he is not a wise man. How do they treat him so as to come upon him by surprise? Thus; for the enticer two witnesses are placed in concealment in the innermost part of the house; but he is made himself to remain in the exterior part of the house, wherein a lamp is lighted over him, in order that the witnesses may see him and distinguish his voice. Thus, for instance, they managed with Ben Sot'da [a variant of Stada or Satda] at Lud. Against him two disciples of learned men were placed in concealment and he was brought before the court of justice, and stoned." ["Pal. Sanhedrin," vii. 25d; also "Pal. Jabamoth," xvi, 15d.]
    The Babylonian Gemara is somewhat different, and runs as follows:
    " 'And for all capital criminals who are mentioned in the Torah they do not lay an ambush, but (they do) for this criminal.'
    "How do they act towards him? They light the lamp for him in the innermost part of the house, and they place witnesses for him in the exterior part of the house, that they may see him and hear his voice, though he cannot see them. And that man says to him: Tell me what you have told me when we were alone. And when he repeats (those words) to him, that man says to him: How can we abandon our God in Heaven and practise idolatry? If he returns it is well; but when he says: Such is our duty, and so we like to have it, then the witnesses who are listening without, bring him to the tribunal and stone him. And thus they have done to Ben Stada at Lud, and they hanged him on the day before Passover." ["Sanhedrin," 67a.]
    Both these accounts are part and parcel of the Lud tradition. The accusation in both cases is the sin of leading away into idolatry; the death in both cases is by stoning, clearly stated in the Palestinian Gemara, and clearly inferred from the Babylonian, which, however, adds that Jeschu was hanged on the day before the Passover; that is to say, apparently, that after stoning, his body was hanged or exposed for a warning; at any rate this would be the only meaning attached to the statement by a Jew who had never heard the Christian tradition (and the Talmud Jews evidently refused to listen to a word of it), for the Jewish custom was to expose the body of an offender who had suffered the penalty of death by stoning, on a post as a warning to all.
    The name "Lud," however warns us against seeking for any historical basis in the details of the story, and we should, therefore, dismiss it with the rest of the Lud legends were it not that there exists still another Talmud tradition referring to the subject, and in this the name Lud does not appear. This tradition runs as follows:
    "But there is a tradition: On the Sabbath of the Passover festival Jeschu was hung [sic, ? hanged]. But the herald went forth before him for the space of forty days, while he cried: 'Jeschu goeth forth to be executed because he has practised sorcery and seduced Israel and estranged them from God. [This formal charge is repeated twice in the Babylonian Gemara, "Sanhedrin," 107b, and "Sota," 47a.] Let any one who can bring forward any justifying plea for him come and give information concerning it.' But no justifying plea was found for him, and so he was hung on the Sabbath of the Passover festival. Ulla has said, But dost thou think that he belongs to those for whom a justifying plea is sought? He was a very seducer, and the All-merciful has said [Deut. xiii. 8]: 'Thou shall not spare him, nor conceal him.' However, in Jeschu's case it was somewhat different, for his place was near those in power." ["Bab. Sanhedrin," 43a.]
    Here there is no mention of Lud, but on the contrary there is no mention of stoning but only of hanging. Laible supposes that "Sanhedrin," 43a, was originally a continuation of "Sanhedrin," 67a, and that therefore the omission of "Lud" is quite understandable, seeing that it had occurred immediately before. It is, however, exceedingly difficult to believe in such a slicing up of an originally consecutive account, and therefore I am inclined to think that in the passage just quoted we have, if not the original form of the later Lud legend, at any rate an entirely independent account. The story seems to be in the nature of an apology for the execution of Jeschu. The hanging is admitted, but not the crucifixion (of which both Talmud and Toldoth know nothing), and it is interesting in this connection to remember that "hanging" is also preserved in the Christian tradition as an equivalent of crucifixion. Whether or not this "hanging" in the minds of the Rabbis was at this time thought of as the immediate method of death, and they intended further to admit this infringement of the canonical penalty of stoning, is difficult to decide. The formal charge, however, brought against Jeschu is given as that of "having practised sorcery and seduced Israel and estranged them from God." These words can only refer to leading away to "idolatry," and the penalty for this was, as we have seen, stoning.
    But Ulla, a Palestinian Rabi of the beginning of the fourth century, objects: Why all this precaution when Jeschu was plainly guilty of the charge? We have nothing to apologise for. On this the compiler of the Gemara remarks that Ulla is mistaken in taking this old tradition for an apology or a plea that every possible precaution was taken that Jeschu should have the fullest possible chance given him of proving his innocence. The real reason for all those precautions was that Jeschu was a person of great distinction and importance, and "near those in power" at the time, that is to say presumably, connected by blood with the Jewish rulers -- a trait preserved in the Toldoth Jeschu . . .

Another Jesus story (pp. 189-91)

    [W]e believe that the original charge against Jesus is to be found in the following passage preserved in the Babylonian Gemara.
    " 'There shall no evil befall thee' (Ps. xci. 10]. (That means) that evil dreams and bad phantasies shall not vex thee. 'Neither shall any plague come nigh thy tent'; (that means) that thou shalt not have a son or disciple who burns his food publicly, like Jeschu ha-Notzri." ["Bab. Sanhedrin," 103a.]
    What is the meaning of this strange phrase, "to burn one's food publicly"? . . .
    The main point of the accusation is evidently contained in the word "publicly." It was the doing of something or other "publicly," which apparently might not only have been tolerated privately, but which was presumably the natural thing to do in private. Now the main burden of Christian tradition is that Jesus went and taught the people publicly -- the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the sinners, to all of whom, according to Rabbinical law, the mysteries of the Torah were not to be expounded unless they had first of all purified themselves. These ignorant and unclean livers were 'Amme ha-aretz (men of the earth), and the Torah was not for them. And if it was that no 'Am ha-aretz was admitted to the schoolhouse, much more strictly were guarded the approaches to those more select communities where the mysteries of the "Creation" and of the "Chariot," the theosophy of Judaism, were studied. To some such community of this kind we believe Jeschu originally belonged; and from it he was expelled because he "burnt his food publicly," that is to say, taught the wisdom to the unpurified people and so violated the ancient rule of the order.

The Toldoth Jeschu (pp. 317-8, 415)

    It is to be remarked that Miriam the mother is in nearly every form of Toldoth exonerated from any conscious breaking of her marriage vows. The bastardy of Jeschu was the result of a trick played upon her. Can we assign any motive for this? Can it possibly be that the original framers of this legend knew that it was no handing on of history, but the popularization of a doctrinal controversy? Indeed, not only is Mary excused from any conscious breaking of the Law, but from several forms of the Toldoth we glean that she was regarded as a woman of distinction. Not only is she said to have been the sister of a certain Joshua, who is presumably to be identified with Joshua ben Perachiah, but she is also said to have been related to Queen Helene, that is, if our argument holds good, to Queen Salome, whose brother was Simeon ben Shetach. Here we have the close relationship of Jesus to the most distinguished Rabbis of the time.
    It is further to be remarked that Jesus is throughout always represented as a learned man, and so generally are his disciples. This might seem at first sight to be accounted for by the fact that much space is given in the Toldoth to the "proof from scripture." But in my opinion these Messianic disputations seem to be due to later developments, and to be part and parcel of doctrinal polemics between Jews and Judaeo-Christians; for I have never been able to believe that historically Jesus himself could have made any claim to be the Messiah. If the power of the great teacher, round whose transcendent person all these marvellous traditions and disputes have grown up, is rightly held to have been the power of a Master of Wisdom, not to speak of still more transcendent claims put forward on his behalf, then it can hardly be believed that he would have claimed to be what he could have foreseen would never be admitted by those to whom the Messianic tradition chiefly belonged. True, he may well have taught a more universal view of Messianism, but that he should have claimed to have been the Messiah of prophecy, in any sense in which the Jews could have understood the idea, without that prophecy turning out to be a bitter mockery, can hardly be believed of a wise and merciful Teacher. . . .
    [W]e have endeavoured to show that an analysis of Talmud passages and the Toldoth forms produces the impression that the 100 B.C. date element goes back to the floating mass of tradition from which both Talmud and Toldoth drew, and reveals this date as a persistent obsession which even the most glaring contradictions of both Talmud and Toldoth could never oust from its secure asylum in the national consciousness of Jewry.

The origins of Christianity

Who was the real Jesus?