Debunking the Misattribution of "Toledoth Yeshu" to Yochanan Ben Zakkai 1

Yalqut Shamouni : Debunk­ing the Mis­at­tri­bu­tion of Tole­doth Yeshu” to Yochanan Ben Zakkai

    Debunking the Misattribution of "Toledoth Yeshu" to Yochanan Ben Zakkai 2

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 :

Chris­t­ian Author Michael Green quotes a rab­bi named Eliezar, writ­ing about AD 160, who 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 :

Anoth­er rab­bi, writ­ing a hun­dred years after Eliez­er, states :

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 SHAMOUNI5 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 :

In his book, Biog­ra­phy of Jesus the Nazarene, Yochanan Ben Zakkai, a dis­ci­ple of the famous Rab­bi Hil­lel, wrote :

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 :

  1. Nev­er fear cor­rec­tion, even if it comes from some­one you instinc­tive­ly detest with a pur­ple pas­sion, because you will always gain from more knowledge.
  2. Always check sources when you are deal­ing with a sub­ject about which you know absolute­ly nothing.
  3. 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 !Endmark

Cite this arti­cle as : Mah­mud Ali Abdal Chabir, Yalqut Shamouni : Debunk­ing the Mis­at­tri­bu­tion of Tole­doth Yeshu” to Yochanan Ben Zakkai,” in Bis­mi­ka Allahu­ma, Octo­ber 7, 2005, last accessed Feb­ru­ary 28, 2024, https://​bis​mikaal​lahu​ma​.org/​c​h​r​i​s​t​i​a​n​i​t​y​/​y​a​l​q​u​t​-​s​h​a​m​o​u​ni/
  1. b. San­hedrin 43a[]
  2. Tosaphoth Chagi­ga 4b ; Tosaphoth Shab­bath 104b[]
  3. 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.[]
  4. Par­shat Roshei ha-Mat­tot[]
  5. We might observe here that one mean­ing of leqet” is, fit­ting­ly, the poor man’s share of the crop”![]
  6. 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).[]

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *