An article posted on a Christian website entitled Jesus in the Rabbinic Traditions is a good example of the level to which religious studies has sunk in recent years, as carried out on the Internet. The author, one Sam Shamoun, who presents himself as one who has the knowledge to instruct us in his chosen subject, is found to be incredibly ignorant of the most basic understanding concerning his supposed area of expertise. Mr Shamoun is also fond of using the most vulgar language when addressing Muslims. I shall try not to return the favor, but cannot guarantee perfect success.
Today’s new brand of “Internet scholarship” would seem to demand very little independent thinking from researchers. There exists online a seeming embarrassment of riches in all areas of study. At the click of a mouse, we are all “authorities” on the subject of our choice. This leads to a dangerous phenomenon — the easy acceptance of anything we download, with little or no checking of sources. Many assume that those who publish material on the Internet must know what they are talking about, and are masters of their material, especially when that material supports the conclusions these “researchers” cherish.
But this is a perilous method of conducting a search for truth, especially when sources include the Talmud and other Jewish traditions. I have seen sources falsely invented outright, while the author depends on his readers’ ignorance of such arcane subject matter. Yet some go even further — they invent books (the “Archko Volume” is an extreme example), or add to books passages that coveniently contain statements or attestations which are otherwise deficient in known sources (the utterly impossible addition to Josephus is a historical example), or fake their authorship.
It is not my purpose here to refute the Talmud Jesus(P) stories — they are actually there, though usually given far too much historical credence. If these “commentators” truly knew the Talmud, they would also know that it is not to be used as a collection of historical facts ; the idea that anyone would consider that the Talmud stories about Jesus(P) are based on eye-witness or first-hand accounts, or even the New Testament, is ludicrous. Passages which refute the New Testament accounts are glided over without comment, such as the 40-day period between Jesus’(P) arrest and execution and the fact that Jesus(P) is stoned to death and only hung after he has died.1
How could the Talmud declare “Mary Megaddala” the mother of Jesus(P)2 if the rabbis had even the New Testament before them ? Are we to adjust our knowledge of Mary to include her occupation as a woman?s hairdresser on the word of the Talmud ?3 The Jewish traditions were, before they were set into writing, oral traditions, and as any student of midrash and haggada knows, subject to great flights of fancy. The gross anachronisms in many of the tales in the Talmud bring them even further from first-hand history.
Mr. Shamoun also employs sources whose dates he obediently passes on to us via the Christian authors he cites. Mr. Shamoun himself notes the religion of the authors, thus blatantly acting against the best rule for sound scholarship : “Never learn from the enemies of your subject”. Open-minded Christian scholars are one thing, but “Bible-Thumpers” are another ! His sources are all second and third-hand, and are obviously unchecked by himself. Mr. Shamoun seems to have a deep aversion to tracking down the original documents and texts he freely and uncritically cites.
If a Jewish text mentions that Jesus(P) was supposed to be, or claimed to be God, that information was certainly obtained by Jews via Christians and Christian traditions and dogma, which had had centuries to develop, and not directly through any historical events, nor as we have seen, even from the New Testament, which Jews would certainly not waste their time studying, unless arming themselves for polemical disputes. There is absolutely no reliable independent historical evidence to be found concerning Jesus in Jewish tradition, as it is all late material, set down long after the Christians themselves had already decided to make Jesus(P) into their God.
Many Christian apologists, for example, like to take the reference to Jesus(P) in Tacitus as independent proof of his existence, when in fact, with its late date, it merely supplies proof that Christians existed, along with their beliefs and dogma, which were hardly a secret — not that I am denying Jesus(P) existence !
For example, Mr. Shamoun writes :
“God saw that a man, son of a woman, was to come forward in the future, who would attempt to make himself God and lead the whole world astray. And if he says he is God he is a liar. And he will lead men astray, and say that he will depart and will return at the end of days.” (Green, Who is this Jesus ? [Nashville : Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992], p. 60- cited in We Believe Series-Basics of Christianity, Jesus Knowing Our Savior, author Max Anders [Nashville : Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995], p. 136)
“Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kappar said : God gave strength to his (Balaam’s) voice so that it went from one end of the world to the other, because he looked forth and beheld the nations that bow down to the sun and moon and stars, and to wood and stone, and he looked forth and saw that there was a man, born of a woman, who should rise up and seek to make himself God, and to cause the whole world to go astray. Therefore God gave power to the voice of Balaam that all the peoples of the world might hear, and thus he spake : Give heed that ye go not astray after that man, for is written, ‘God is not a man that he should lie.’ And if he says that he is God, he is a liar ; and he will deceive and say that he departed and cometh again at the end. He saith and he shall not perform. See what is written : And he took up his parable and said, ‘Alas, when God doeth this.’ Balaam said, Alas, who shall live- of what nation which heareth that man who hath made himself God.” (Yalkut Shimeon, [S alonica] sec. 725 on wayissa mishalo [Num. 23. 7], according to Midrash Y’lamm’denue)”
The sections of this passage referring to Jesus(P) certainly read like late accretions to the Balaam material.
Note that Mr. Shamoun (or his source for the source?) believes that this Balaam story was told in the year 160 by Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kappar, as mentioned in Yalqut Shim’oni, and “according to Midrash Yelammedenu”, whatever “according to” is supposed to mean. Yalqut Shim’oni dates from the 13th century, though as its name “yalqut” (gleaning, or selection) indicates, is a collection of earlier midrashim.
As for the Midrash Yelammedenu (completed 8th?-9th ? c.), I checked my own copy (Amsterdam, 1733) and find only the mention (and not ascribed to Eleazar ha-Kappar) that the Blessed Holy One caused Balaam’s voice to go from one end of the world to the other so that the Gentile Nations would hear, connecting this with a verse in Proverbs (27:14) which states that if a person blesses his friends with a loud voice early in the morning, it will be counted as a curse upon himself. There is no mention of or allusion to Jesus(P) in Midrash Yelammedenu. The passage in the Yalqut seems to be a late medieval expansion on Yelammedenu.
I would welcome conflicting evidence. Unlike Mr. Shamoun, I welcome corrections, as I find that I may learn that way ! Perhaps Mr. Shamoun (that is, the book he copied) meant “based on” Yelammedenu.
Individual haggadot may exist in many forms and lines of transmission. Whether the attribution to Eleazar ha-Kappar in the Yalqut is correct or not I could not say. Eleazar ha-Kappar is recorded to have referred to Balaam, in another context, in the Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan (XXIX:4). Maybe the ascription of the present story is by association. Who knows ?
Just because a certain Rabbi is mentioned, he did not necessarily play a role of any sort. If we took the mention of the rabbis of the Jewish Jesus stories literally, Jesus(P) would end up living anywhere from the second century BCE to the third century CE !
To underline this point, immediately following the quote from Yalqut Shim’oni, the Shamoun article has :
“Rabbi Abahu said, If a man says ‘I am God,’ he lies ; if he says, ‘I am the Son of man’ he shall rue it ; ‘I will go up to heaven,’ (to this applies Num. xxiii 19) he saith, but shall not perform it.” (Jerusalem Talmud Taanith-65b)”
Here we have essentially the same commentary on Numbers 23:19, featuring strikingly similar wording, attributed to two different Rabbis — Eliezer ha-Kappar in Yalqut Shim’oni, and Abahu (late 3rd-early 4th c.) in the much earlier (late 4th c.) Talmud Yerushalmi. One is tempted to assign priority to R. Abahu, who was known for his disputations with Christians, explaining the later Eliezer ha-Kappar ascription by his mention of Balaam in the Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan — yet another example of the dangers inherent in approaching Talmud and Midrash as reliable historical texts.
In fact, Balaam is mentioned elsewhere in Yelammedenu4 as flying through the air with the King of Midian, and being caused to fall by the Name of God which was displayed on the forehead of the High Priest, a story which has a connection with the Toledoth Yeschu, as well as to the pseudo-Clementines, with reference to Peter and Simon Magus.
Therefore, the earliest source for this Balaam story would seem to be the 13th century, and is based on the teachings of Christianity, not any historical memory of Jesus(P) per se. I am quite prepared to be corrected in this, but it would take, of course, some research, which we are all, apparently, not equally prepared to perform.
It is well known that Jesus(P) could never have claimed to be Very God, as Jews are monotheists. Therefore, recourse to the New or Old Testaments would be fruitless, necessitating a perversion of plain meaning to support such a conclusion. How handy it would be if we could “discover” another book, written by a contemporary of Jesus(P), wherein the author could document such a claim by Jesus(P) first-hand ! Such material would be eagerly swallowed, with no thought of independent confirmation as to the veracity of the statement, nor of even the existence of the wonderfully useful book. Such is the “new scholarship”, which appeals to lazy minds which do not desire to be troubled with original research. “Why bother?”, our scholar imagines, “Someone else has already done the research, and he is so much smarter than I am. Why, he even wrote a book on the subject!”
Mr. Shamoun’s article is merely a gleaning of notices by others, a veritable “YALQUT SHAMOUNI“5 But the brave new Internet scholars forget that when one cites or quotes anything in an article of his own compilation, his name is thereby attached to it, and he is to be held responsible for the material he has quoted. This is why dispassionate scholars, men of intelligence, check their sources. An author who relies on others for confirmation is merely playing “the scholarship game”, with no concern for truth, just as long as his own cherished opinions may be seen in black and white.
This is precisely the trap into which Mr. Shamoun has stumbled. In “his” article on Rabbinic views of Jesus(P), he quotes a book purportedly written by the 1st century Judaean Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, a figure of monumental importance in Judaism, the man who escaped (as tradition has it) the Roman siege of Jerusalem in a coffin, to establish the Rabbinical Academy at Yavneh, responsible for the collation of laws leading to the Mishna, as well as for the survival of Judaism following the Destruction of the Temple.
Mr. Shamoun (or rather, his all-knowing source) says :
“The king and the Jewish rabbis had condemned Jesus to death because he blasphemed when he claimed that he was the Son of God… and God.”
Then he added :
“When Christ was on his way to death the Jews shouted in front of him, ‘May You destroy Your enemies, O Lord!’ ” (cited in Faris al-Qayrawani’s Was Christ Really Crucified?, p. 49)
Compare the preceding statements on the deity of Christ and his ascension with the following NT passages : Mark 14:61 – 62 ; John 10:27 – 39, 14:1 – 3, 16:28, 20:17 ; Acts 1:9 – 11, 7:55 – 56.”
Note how thrilled Mr. Shamoun is with this book supposedly written by Yochanan ben Zakkai, as he proceeds to associate it and other pastes with no fewer than seven New Testament passages ! Yes, the “ben Zakkai” book is clearly a bonanza for him
Too bad it does not exist. Well, it does, but it is certainly not the work of Yochanan ben Zakkai !
Now, I am quite sure Mr. Shamoun does not intend to deceive us here, though I could not say the same for Mr. Qayrawani with any certitude. In the case of Mr. Shamoun, he stepped into what he thought was a pleasant lake for a wade, and promptly got sucked away over his head. He presumed to discuss Judaism. He should not do that. Anyone who could for a fraction of a second imagine that Yochanan ben Zakkai wrote a book called “Biography of Jesus the Nazarene” clearly has no concept of the canvas of Jewish history or its leading characters, and has no business fraudulently implying otherwise.
But please allow me to solve the mystery :
The book referred to is the late medieval “Toledoth Yeschu ha-Notzri” in the recension published by Johann Jacob Huldrich (Leiden, 1705). This is the second publication of the Toledoth Yeschu, after the Wagenseil edition (Altdorf, 1681), and is a different recension.
In the Huldrich recension, Jesus claims to be God and the Son of God, and it is declared, as Jesus is led to his punishment, “So may all thine enemies perish, O Lord!”
The various recensions of the Toledoth Yeschu are a “mix-and-match” of ingredients. The most complete study of all the motifs can be found in the work of Gunter Schlichting6. This is the best study since the ground-breaking work of Samuel Krauss.
To actually ascribe authorship of the Toledoth Yeschu to a man like Yochanan ben Zakkai is nothing short of a travesty. Oh yes, the Huldrich recension of Toledoth Yeschu is a wonderful source book for the life of Jesus(P), written by the people who should know best, the Jews, who were first-hand witnesses. Would you like to hear a few more excerpts from the Huldrich recension ? No problem !
Here are a few paraphrases and summations :
In the reign of “King Herod the Proselyte”[meaning Herod the Great, who was not a proselyte, died 4 BCE], the beautiful Miriam was betrothed to Rabbi Pappos ben Yehuda [died ca. 150 CE], who kept Mary locked up in a house, but she escaped through a window and ran away to Bethlehem with her exciting boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks, Joseph Pandera. We all know what happened next. Then…
Yeschu grew up and went to school at the academy of Joshua ben Perachia (early 1st c. BCE). One day, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos [d. 2nd c.CE], Rabbi Akiva [d. 135 CE] and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi [d. 220 CE] overheard Yeschu talking. They went together to the school of Joshuah ben Perachia and there cut off Jesus’ hair in a circle (medieval monk style). Jesus, ashamed, went back to Mary his mother and bit her breast, as in 2 Alphabet of Ben Sira, where Ben Sira is born with the power of speech, and when presented with his mother’s milk says “I don’t want that. Give me meat!!!” and proceeds to bite his mother’s breast. [Translation of 2 Alph Ben Sira is my own]
King Herod wrote [more than a quarter century after his death] letters to many towns, including Worms, in Germany[!] asking for advice concerning what to do with Yeschu, etc…
How about it, Mr. Shamoun.…any New Testament parallels spring to mind yet ?
Now I certainly do not expect Mr. Shamoun to thank me for saving him from any further embarrassment at attributing the Toledoth Yeschu to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai ! In fact, he will probably let it remain on his website as it stands.
No, Mr. Shamoun will never admit his error. Perhaps he will be happy with attacking me personally, for holding pseudo-scholars with vulgar tongues in contempt, and will offer other personal comments. I recently wrote to him under my given family name, as I often do in various circumstances, depending on the subject matter. He has surely already made the connection. I come from a Jewish family, and have been a Muslim for 34 years, alhamdulillah. This “cultural/religious” bond affords me a unique perspective, and I am grateful for it.
It will be instructive to observe his response, if any, to this statement I have just made. In any case, Allah is my only guide.
Or perhaps I do not give him enough credit. Maybe he truly repents of his shoddy methods. If he wishes to repent, I will be happy to provide assistance.
Mr. Shamoun, place your hands on your television screen and repeat after me :
“I am a sinner. I truly repent of my poor methods of so-called “research”, allowing others to do the work I should have done myself, while never checking their sources. With contrite heart I place my life and soul in the hands of the Lord of Knowledge, and ask Him to find me a good encyclopedia, or at least a library card, so I may never again make a fool of myself by uncritically following any author who calls himself a Christian. Amen!”
However, just in case, let me offer some words of advice :
- Never fear correction, even if it comes from someone you instinctively detest with a purple passion, because you will always gain from more knowledge.
- Always check sources when you are dealing with a subject about which you know absolutely nothing.
Get rid of that ben Zakkai reference right now, it’s for your own good ! On the other hand, allowing it to remain will serve as a signpost and a warning to all readers : “I know nothing!”.
And Allah knows best !
- b. Sanhedrin 43a
- Tosaphoth Chagiga 4b ; Tosaphoth Shabbath 104b
- Professor Shamoun has the meaningless word “Tosah” for Tosaphoth, but what difference does that make for him ? He surely does not know the difference between the Tosaphoth, which are 13th century French glosses on the Gemara (mostly recorded in the Talmud by Eliezar of Touques) and the Tosephta, tannaitic additions to the Mishna.
- Parshat Roshei ha-Mattot
- We might observe here that one meaning of “leqet” is, fittingly, “the poor man’s share of the crop”!
- Gunter Schlichting, Ein Judischer Leben Jesu. Die vershollene Toledot-Jesu-Fassung“Tam u‑Mu’ad”, Tubingen : JCB Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1982 (Hebrew text with German notes).