Debate: The External Evidence for Jesus – Part 1
Joe Hinman’s first argument for the existence of Jesus is based on references to Jesus in the Talmud:
We know Jesus was in the Talmud and that is a fact admitted by Rabbis. Some references use his name (Yeshua) some use code words such as “such a one” or “Panthera”. The reason codes are used, is that the commentators censored the works and removed overt reverences [sic] to Jesus (although they missed some) to prevent Christians from inflicting persecution. We have many of the out takes in various libraries such as Cambridge.
According to Hinman, it is not merely the fact that there are several references to Jesus in the Talmud that confirms the existence of Jesus but also the way that those passages speak about Jesus:
The point is he is always taken as a historical figure.
Since there are allegedly multiple (more than one) references in the Talmud that “use his name” and there are allegedly multiple references in the Talmud that “use code words” to refer to Jesus, and since there are allegedly “many” references to Jesus that can be shown to have been censored, and also some (a few?) additional references that were NOT censored, Hinman is implying that there are several references to Jesus in the Talmud, at that ALL of these several references speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood “historical figure”.
Here is how I would summarize Joe Hinman’s first argument:
1. There are MANY references to Jesus in the Talmud that were censored but that were preserved in some texts.
2. There are A FEW references to Jesus in the Talmud that were not censored.
3. ALL of the references to Jesus in the Talmud speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure.
4. IF (1), (2), and (3) are true, THEN the external evidence from the Talmud is sufficient to make it reasonable to believe that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure.
5. The external evidence from the Talmud is sufficient to make it reasonable to believe that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure.
In order to show that premise (1) is true, I would expect Hinman to produce at least five or six quotations from the Talmud that have references to Jesus that can be shown to have been censored. In order to show that premise (2) is true, I would expect Hinman to produce at least three or four quotations from the Talmud that have references to Jesus that were not censored.
If there were only about a dozen references to Jesus in the Talmud, then in order to show that premise (3) is true, I would expect Hinman to show that in each one of those references, Jesus was spoken of in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure. If, however, there were dozens of references to Jesus in the Talmud, I would not expect Hinman to walk through each and every such reference, but I would expect that he would discuss a significant sample of those references (perhaps a dozen passages) that included a number of passages from various areas of the Talmud, and that included both censored passages and non-censored passages.
Looking over the evidence that Hinman presents about the alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud, it seems to me that his evidence is too skimpy to adequately support his factual premises (1), (2), and (3). I also think that premise (4) is false or dubious, at least as it stands. The principle stated in premise (4) will, I believe, need to be modified to be made plausible, and if it is modified to make it plausible, there may be some additional claims or premises required to make this argument work. I suspect that repairing premise (4) will reveal a gap in Hinman’s first argument, and that he will have more work to do to fill in that gap. We shall see.
Before we start to examine specific passages from the Talmud, let’s review some background information about the Talmud from the N.T. scholar Bart Ehrman:
The Talmud is a collection of disparate materials from early Judaism: legal disputes, anecdotes, folklore, customs, and sayings. Most of the material relates directly to teachings of and stories about the early rabbis, that is, Jewish teachers. The collection was put together long after the days of Jesus.
The core of the Talmud is the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teachings about the Jewish law, based on oral traditions that had long been in circulation, and written in the early third century, some two hundred years after Jesus would have died. Most of the Talmud, however, consists of a series of commentaries by later rabbis on the Mishnah, called Gemara. there are two different sets of these commenaries, one produced in the fourth century by Jewish scholars who lived in Palestine, the other produced in the fifth century by scholars of Babylon. (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 66-67)
So there are two main categories of writtings in the Jewish Talmud:
- the Mishnah (written in the early third century)
- the Gemara (commentaries by later rabbis on the Mishna)
The Gemara contains two different sets of commentaries:
- one produced in the fourth century by Jewish scholars who lived in Palestine
- another produced in the fifth century by scholars of Babylon
In order to provide sufficient evidence to support the factual premises of his argument, Hinman needs to provide about a dozen quotations from the Talmud that refer to Jesus, at least five or six passages that can be shown to have been censored, and at least three or four passages that were not censored, and a total of about twelve passages (if there are that many) that are ALL shown to speak of Jesus in a way that assumes or implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical person.
Ideally, all of the quoted passages would be from the Mishna, which is the oldest part of the Talmud that was written down early in the early third century. But if there are not that many references to Jesus from the Mishna, then as many as possible should be from the Mishna, and the remainder of the quoted passages would be from the commentaries on the Mishna that make up the Gemara.
So how many passages does Joe Hinman quote from the Talmud? How many of those passages are from the Mishna? There are zero quotes from the Talmud on Hinman’s initial (overview) web page. If you click the link for his details about references to Jesus in the Talmud, you will go to a lengthy blog post that contains numerous quotations, but only a few quotations in that post are from the Talmud. More specifically, only FOUR passages are quoted from the Talmud by Hinman. Hinman fails to provide the dozen or more quotations that are needed to do an adequate job of supporting the factual premises of his argument.
Furthermore, TWO of the quotations from the Talmud consist of a single brief sentence that is (apparently) found in two different sections of the Bablylonian Talmud. Hinman provides a block quote from Encyclopaedia Hebraica that contains the one-sentence quotation from the Talmud. Here is the relevant portion of that block quote:
From the stories about Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, it is evident that he was regarded as a rabbinical student who strayed into evil ways: “May we produce no son or pupil who disgraces himself like Jesus the Nazarene” (Ber. 17b; Sanh. 103a; cf. Dik. Sof. ad loc.).
I’m generously counting this as TWO quotations, since it appears to be a sentence found in TWO different parts of the Babylonian Talmud.
Since the Bablyonian Talmud was produced in the 5th century, these two passages were produced hundreds of years after the death of Jesus. So, there is an OBVIOUS issue of historical relevance here, and an OBVIOUS issue of independence. First, how do we know that these passages reflect the views of rabbis from the first or second century (as opposed to the third, fourth, or fifth century), in order for the passage to be of historical relevance?
Second, even if it could be shown somehow that these two passages accurately reflect the views of rabbis back in the 2nd century or even near the end of the first century, since the Gospel of Mark was written around 70 CE, how can we know that this view of those rabbis was not indirectly based on Christian beliefs and traditions that were in turn based on the Gospel of Mark (or one of the other 1st century writings contained in the NT)?
There is no argument provided by Hinman on these obvious issues, so these two passages cannot be taken seriously as historically relevant and independent information that supports the claim that there was a flesh-and-blood historical Jesus.
Thus, if we set aside this initial dubious set of two meager one-sentence passages from the Babylonian Talmud, we are left with ONLY TWO substantial quotations from the Talmud in Hinman’s lengthy blog post. This is an insubstantial effort in relation to the dozen or more quotations that are needed to provide adequate evidence in support of Hinman’s factual premises. Hinman has clearly failed to adequately support the three factual premises of his argument.
Before I proceed to examine the two substantial quotations from the Talmud that Hinman provides, let’s consider the views of some well-informed N.T. scholars about references to Jesus in the Talmud.
First, here is what Bart Ehrman has to say about the external evidence from the Talmud:
In order to complete my tally of early references to Jesus, I need to say a few words about the Jewish Talmud. This is not because it is relevant but because when talking about historical references to Jesus, many people assume it is relevant. (Did Jesus Exist? p.66)
For a long time scholars treated the Talmud as if it presented historically accurate information about Jewish life, law and custom from a much earlier period, all the way back to the first century. Few critical scholars take that view today. In both its iterations, it is a product of its own time, even though it is based on earlier oral reports.
Jesus is never mentioned in the oldest part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, but appears only in the later commentaries of the Gemara. … (Did Jesus Exist?, p.67)
These Talmudic references to Jesus were written hundreds of years after he would have lived and so are of very little use for us in our quest. By the time they were set down, Christianity was a major force in the Roman Empire, and every single Christian telling stories about Jesus naturally assumed that he had really existed as a historical person. If we want evidence to support the claim that he did in fact once exist, we therefore have to turn to other sources. (Did Jesus Exist?, p.68)
Ehrman firmly believes that Jesus did exist as a flesh-and-blood historical person, and he argues strenously for this conclusion in his book Did Jesus Exist?. So, Ehrman is not rejecting the Talmudic evidence on the basis of prejudice against the conclusion that Jesus existed. He is rejecting this evidence because he believes it is too late and of dubious independence.
Another N.T. scholar who has studied this issue closely is Robert Van Voorst, who wrote a widely-used book on the external historical evidence about Jesus. Van Voorst also has significant doubts concerning the evidence about Jesus from the Talmud:
All this raises the issue of how the rabbis gained this information about Jesus. Did they have independent chains of tradition on Jesus, passed from rabbinic master to rabbinic disciples, reaching back into the first century? The evidence points to a negative answer. While we cannot be sure, given the paucity and difficulty of the evidence, the third-century rabbis seem to have had no traditions about Jesus that originated in the first century. Besides the rabbis typical disinterest in history and confused knowledge of the first century, what the rabbis say about Jesus appears to be the product of at least the second century. (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.120)
All the general information that the rabbis have on Jesus could have been derived from Christian preaching. …
The more specific information given by the rabbis that diverges from the New Testament shows no sign of being from the first century. They proceed instead from creative imagination, which ran free in rabbinic storytelling. (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.121)
Perhaps the most telling indication that the rabbis had no independent, early traditions about Jesus is their failure to place him in the right century. A chain of tradition from the first century would have set this error straight. The better explanation of all the rabbinic information on Jesus is that it originated in the second and third centuries. (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.121-122)
Like Ehrman, Van Voorst firmly believes that Jesus existed as a flesh-and-blood historical figure, and he argues against the mythicist position (see Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.6-16), so Van Voorst does not reject the evidence about Jesus from the Talmud out of prejudice against the historicity of Jesus. He has serious doubts about the Talmudic evidence because in his scholarly judgement this evidence is too late and of dubious independence to be of historical significance.
Finally, John Meier, one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st century, has carefully reviewed the various alleged Talmudic references to Jesus and found them to be of dubious historical significance:
In my opinion, apart from the texts of Josephus we have already seen, this vast literature [i.e. ancient Jewish literature from around the time when Jesus allegedly existed] contains no independent reference to or information about Jesus of Nazareth. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.93)
…scholars of rabbinic literature do not agree among themselves on whether even a single text from the Mishna, Tosefta, or Talmud really refers to Jesus of Nazareth. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95)
In my opinion, Maier’s arguments are especially convincing for the Mishna and other early rabbinic material: no text cited from that period really refers to Jesus. … Jesus of Nazareth is simply absent from the Mishna and other early rabbinic traditions. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95)
The Talmud does not record even one talmudic teacher who lived at the time of Jesus or in the first half century of the Christian era as mentioning Jesus by name. As for the rabbis of the 2nd century A.D., they were reacting to the Christ proclaimed by Christianity, not the historical Jesus. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.95-96)
I tend to the view of Morris Goldstein, who finds no certain reference to Jesus in this passage [a passage from the Mishna cited by Joseph Klausner], and indeed in the Mishna and the tannaitic midrashim in general. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)
…in the earliest rabbinic sources, there is no clear or even probable reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, I favor the view that, when we do finally find such references in later rabbinic literature, they are most probably reactions to Christian claims, oral or written. Hence, apart from Josephus, Jewish literature of the early Christian period offers no independent source for inquiry into the historical Jesus. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.98)
So, one of the leading Jesus scholars of the 21st century is on my side concerning this issue about alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud. Joe Hinman has a serious uphill battle to fight here.
This post is now complete (as of Sunday, June 25, 2016, at 6:22 pm, pacific time).
Instead of providing a dozen substantial quotations from the Talmud that refer to Jesus, Hinman only provides four quotations from the Talmud. How many of the four quotations are from the Mishna, the oldest part of the Talmud? ZERO. All four of the quotations provided by Hinman are from the Bablylonian Talmud, which was produced in the 5th century.
In his case for the existence of Jesus, N.T. scholar Bart Ehrman limited his review of non-Christian references to Jesus to sources that were written close to the time of Jesus:
I will restrict myself to sources that were produced within about a hundred years of when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died since writings after that time almost certainly cannot be considered independent and reliable witnesses to his life but were undboutedly based simply on what the authors had heard about Jesus, probably from his followers. (Did Jesus Exist? p.50, emphasis added)
All of the quotations that Hinman provided were written down not 100 years after the time of Jesus, not 200 years after the time of Jesus, not 300 years after the time of Jesus, but about 400 years after when Jesus is traditionally thought to have died. This is called “scaping the bottom of the barrell”. It is reasonable to approach such “evidence” with a high degree of skepticism, as the leading Jesus scholar John Meier urges:
Our earliest collection of rabbinic material, the Mishna, comes from the end of the 2d or the beginning of the 3d century A.D.; all other collections are still later. It would never occur to most Christian commentators to claim that early 3d-century Fathers of the Church had direct historically reliable knowledge of Jesus that was independent of the NT. Likewise, one must be wary a priori of claims that a 2d- or early 3d-century Jewish document contains such independent traditions. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.94-95)
If we ought to be skeptical about references to Jesus from the Mishna because it was written down 150 to 200 years after the time of Jesus, then we clearly ought to be skeptical about references to Jesus from the Bablyonian Talmud, which was produced about 400 years after the time of Jesus.
Two of the four quotations provided by Hinman are just a single sentence (the same sentence in two different passages) from the Bablylonian Talmud, and Hinman provides no reasons to believe that those two passages derive from an independent oral tradition that stretches back into the 1st Century. So, I will ignore those two brief quotes.
Hinman does provide two more substantial quotes, both also from the Babylonian Talmud, and he gives some reasons for viewing these quotes as deriving from ancient oral rabbinic tradition. Before we take a look at those specific passages, there are some further general considerations that support a skeptical view of references to Jesus in the Talmud. Here are several such considerations from Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament; hereafter: JONT):
- “history is not a main concern anywhere in the rabbinic literature.” (JONT, p.104)
- “the Talmud rarely mentions historical events from the Second Temple period, at the end of which Jesus appeared. ” (JONT, p.104)
- “those few events mentioned are more often than not garbled and unreliable.” (JONT, p.105)
- “we have no rabbinic writings from the first or even the second century C.E.” (JONT, p.105)
- In the rabbinic writings there is only “scant mention of Jesus by name.” (JONT, p.106)
- Censorship of Jewish writings beginning in the Middle Ages led to “text-critical problems” concerning apparent references to Jesus or Christianity (JONT, p. 106)
- There has been “continued scholarly disagreement…on the proper use of rabbinic materials to understand the New Testament.” (JONT, p.106)
- “Scholarly conclusions have varied widely on whether Tannaitic layers of rabbinic literature have any genuine reference to Jesus. (JONT, p.108)
- “modern scholars are correct to discount most ‘code’ references to Jesus, especially ‘a certain one’, Balaam, Ben Stada.” (JONT, p.114)
- “creative imagination…ran free in rabbinic storytelling.” (JONT, p.121)
- “Perhaps the most telling indication that the rabbis had no independent, early traditions about Jesus is their failure to place him in the right century.” (JONT, p.121-122)
I will repeat the basic conclusions arrived at by Van Voorst:
All the general information that the rabbis have on Jesus could have been derived from Christian preaching. (JONT, p.121)
The more specific information given by the rabbis that diverges from the New Testament shows no sign of being from the first century. (JONT, p.121)
There are more general reasons for skepticism, but I will just throw in one more key point: “Jesus” was a common name for Jewish males in the Second Temple period, so a reference to “Jesus” might well be reference to a person other than the “Jesus” of the canonical Gospels.
First let’s consider the passage that is allegedly about the trial and crucifixion of Jesus:
It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days [proclaiming], “He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover. (b. Sanhedrin 43a) (JONT, p.114)
The canonical gospels indicate that the Jewish trial of Jesus was rushed and unfair, and that the Jewish council sought false witnesses to make sure there was evidence to justify his condemnation. This passage asserts the very opposite: that there was a lengthy effort to find witnesses who would support and defend Jesus. As Van Voorst suggests, this “is a strong indication that we have here an apologetic response to Christian statements about an unjust trial.” (JONT, p.118)
This passage does not fit with “the facts” Christians believe about the trial and death of Jesus. There was no lengthy Jewish inquiry into Jesus innocence or guilt. Jesus was not charged with practicing magic. Jesus was not stoned to death. “Hanging” is thought to be a reference to crucifixion, but the passage does not say Jesus was crucified. In fact, the passage indicates that Jesus was executed by his fellow Jews, but Christians believe that the Romans executed Jesus.
What matches up with the “Jesus” of the Gospels is (1) the name “Jesus”, (2) the execution of this person, (3) the timing of execution close to Passover. The charges are plausible ones that Jews would apply to the “Jesus” of the Gospels, but they don’t match up to the Gospel accounts.
Many Jewish men were named “Jesus” at that time. Many Jewish men were executed in the century before, during, and after the time when the Jesus of the Gospels is thought to have lived. According to Van Voorst the conclusion that this passage refers to the Jesus of the Gospels is “almost universally agreed.” (JONT, p. 118). It might be correct to conclude that it is PROBABLE that this passage refers to the “Jesus” of the Gospels, but given the several disagreements between this account and the Gospels, and given the fact that the name “Jesus” was a common name, and given the fact that executions were common, even execution by crucifixion, I don’t see how one could conclude that it is HIGHLY PROBABLE that this passage refers to the “Jesus” of the Gospels. There is at least a significant chance that this passage refers to a “Jesus” other than the “Jesus” of the Gospels.
The primary problem with this passage, however, is that (assuming it is about the “Jesus” of the Gospels) it clearly appears to be an apologetic response to Christian accusations that Jesus was given a rushed and unfair trial by Jewish leaders. If that is so, then it is very likely that this accusation was based upon one or more of the accounts of the trials of Jesus from one or more of the canonical Gospels. In that case, this passage from the Babylonian Talmud would be indirectly based on one or more of the canonical Gospels. So, given that this passage is about the “Jesus” of the Gospels, it is very probable that this passage was indirectly based upon the canonical Gospels.
Bart Ehrman, Robert Van Voorst, and John Meier do not believe this passage represents an early and independent tradition about Jesus. We can add to these N.T. scholars, the agreement of the great N.T. scholar Raymond Brown:
According to Brown, it is clear enough that the passage does not give reliable early information about Jesus, but it does indicate that some Jews in the early third century saw their ancestors as responsible for the death of Jesus. (JONT, p.106)
Like Ehrman, Van Voorst, Meier, and Brown, I think it is improbable that the Babylonian Talmud passage about the trial and “hanging” of Jesus is both early and independent.
Hinman has provided some reasons in support of this passage from the Babylonian Talmud, and I will now review those reasons.
…it is likely that these formulae are accurate [in indicating an early rabbinic tradition] because this helps to explain why the rabbis regarded this Jesus tradition as if it had comparable authority to Mishna.
I don’t see the force of this consideration. Hinman needs to say a bit more to explain this point.
…an indirect attestation [by Justin Martyr about a Jewish claim that Jesus practiced magic and led Jews astray from their religion] brings the most likely date [of the origin of this tradition] before 150…
The fact that there was an early (i.e. before 150 CE) Jewish claim about Jesus practicing magic and leading Jews astray does not show that a Jewish tradition involving such a claim was also early. In fact, this does not even make it PROBABLE that such a tradition was also early (i.e. before 150 CE). It merely shows it to be POSSIBLE that the tradition involving this claim was early.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we KNEW this tradition to have originated before 150 CE. That still does not put the tradition in the clear. The Gospel of Mark was written about 70 CE, which is 80 years before 150 CE. Even if this tradition originated in 100 CE, that would have been three decades after the Gospel of Mark was written.
Kirby: “Since the New Testament gives no account at all of a charge of sorcery at the trial of Jesus…it is difficult to see this account as deriving from the Gospel story.”
Obviously, the charges were not derived DIRECTLY from “the Gospel story”, but it seems fairly clear that the charges were based INDIRECTLY on “the Gospel story.” The Gospels include many stories about Jesus performing miracles. An OBVIOUS Jewish response to such stories would be to characterize Jesus as practicing magic or sorcery.
The Gospels also include many stories about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher who attracted devoted Jewish followers and sometimes even large crowds of interested Jewish listeners. An OBVIOUS Jewish response to such stories would be to characterize Jesus as a deceptive heretic who promoted religious beliefs and practices that were contrary to the Jewish religion.
Although it is clear that the charge of sorcery and the charge of leading the people of Israel astray did not come directly from the Gospels, it appears very likely that these charges were an apologetic response of Jewish rabbis to Christian preaching about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher, and about Jesus’ crucifixion, and about a Jewish trial of Jesus, and such preaching was in turn probably based upon one or more of the canonical Gospels.
Instone-Brewer argues: “The origin of this tradition is also unlikely to be rabbinic or Pharisaic. …First, a rabbinic author or their Pharisee predecessors would want the order of the charges to mirror Torah and rabbinic halakha.”
This seems like a fairly weak point. I see this as relevant, but not as a strong or compelling consideration.
Instone-Brewer argues: “The origin of this tradition is also unlikely to be rabbinic or Pharisaic. …Second, rabbinic traditions and the Pharisaic schools tried to dissuade people from working on Passover Eve, so they would not have invented a tradition which said that they decided to try Jesus on this date.”
The basic point here is reasonable. I agree that the rabbis and Pharisees probably “would not have invented a tradition” placing the execution of Jesus (by Jews) on Passover Eve. However, if this tradition was, as it appears to many NT scholars to have been, an apologetic response to Christian preaching about the trials and crucifixion of Jesus, then it is PARTIALLY an invention of rabbis or Pharisees that is constrained by the content of the preaching of Christians about this subject.
So, the Jewish trial and Jesus’ crucifixion occurring near Passover, even on Passover Eve, may have been part of Christian preaching (derived from one or more of the canonical Gospels), while the charges involved in the Jewish trial are an apologetic response to Christian preaching about Jesus performing miracles and about Jesus being a charismatic religious teacher with devoted Jewish followers and crowds of interested Jewish listeners.
Because the Jewish leaders of the first century were in a position to know the circumstances of such an execution, which would have been remembered for taking place on an unusual date, it is plausible to see this rabbinic tradition as stemming from the historical Jewish memory of Jesus on Passover Eve with charges of sorcery and leading Israel astray.
The Jewish leaders were “in a position to know the circumstances” of a Jewish trial of Jesus ONLY IF there was in fact a Jewish trial of Jesus. But many leading NT scholars believe there was no Jewish trial of Jesus, so there is a significant probability that the Jewish leaders of the first century were NOT “in a position to know the circumstances” of a Jewish trial of Jesus.
The week of Passover brought large crowds of Jews to Jerusalem every year, and this made the Roman prefect nervous about Jewish troublemakers and about the potential for a Jewish rebellion. I doubt that crucifixions were uncommon during the week of Passover.
Perhaps “it is plausible to see this rabbinic tradition as stemming from the historical Jewish memory of Jesus on Passover Eve with charges of sorcery and leading Israel astray.” that does NOT mean that this is PROBABLE. What is plausible is not necessarily what is probable. Based on the considerations for and against this hypothesis, I believe it is much more PROBABLE that this tradition was partially invented by rabbis in response to Christian preaching about Jesus, which was in turn based upon the information about Jesus from one or more of the canonical Gospels.
Another substantial quote from the Babylonian Talmud that was provided by Hinman is from the tractate Aboda Zara (16b – 17a). In that passage Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is portrayed as telling the story of hearing a saying of “Jesus the Nazarene” from a disciple of Jesus:
I was once walking in the upper-market of Sepphoris when I came across one of the disciples of Jesus the Nazarene Jacob of Kefar-Sekaniah by name, who said to me: It is written in your Torah…. Said he to me: Thus was I taught by Jesus the Nazarene, For the hire of a harlot hath he gathered them and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return. They came from a place of filth, let them go to a place of filth. … (quoted by Hinman on his web page about Jesus in the Talmud)
Assuming that this is a correct quotation of a good translation of the Talmud, then it does seem likely that this passage is talking about the “Jesus” of the Gospels. The passage talks about “Jesus the Nazarene” who is a teaches wise sayings to his disciples. Nazareth was a small town, so there were probably not many people named “Jesus” from that town in the first century, and add to that the characteristic of being a person who teaches wise sayings to his disciples, and that makes it probable, even very probable, that this passage is about the “Jesus” of the canonical Gospels.
But the Babylonian Talmud was produced in the 5th century, so we still have issues about the reliability and independence of this tradition.
John Meier says about this passage:
I am skeptical about a tradition in which Eliezer ben Hyrcanus hears about Jesus’ teaching that the wages of a prostitute should be used to buy the high priest a latrine… (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)
Joseph Klausner argued for the reliability of this passage, but Meier is not impressed by his argument:
To establish the reliability of this passage, Klausner must engage in a contorted argument that includes an appeal to Hegesippus’ account of the martyrdom of James–something that would not inspire confidence in many scholars today. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)
Meier also notes that another leading N.T. scholar, Joachim Jeremias, is also skeptical about this reference to Jesus:
Joachim Jeremias weights the pros and cons of the argument about authenticity and decides in the negative–rightly, in my view. The saying is a polemical invention meant to make Jesus look ridiculous. (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.97)
Rabbi Eliezer was the brother-in-law the Patriarch Gamaliel II, and became a member of the Sanhedrin while Gamaliel II was the leader of the Sanhedrin. The above story supposedly relates to when Rabbi Eliezer was kicked out of the Sanhedrin for being a heretic. Gamaliel II became the leader of the Sanhedrin about ten years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, so he became leader of the Sanhedrin about 80 CE. Rabbi Eliezer joined the Sanhedrin sometime after 80 CE, and was removed from the Sanhedrin sometime after that. So, the above remarks, if made by Rabbi Eliezer after he was removed from the Sanhedrin, were probably made around 85 CE, at the earliest. If these remarks were made no earlier than 85 CE, then Rabbi Eliezer might have met the “disciple” of Jesus about 80 CE. If so, then this “disciple” of Jesus is unlikely to have actually learned anything directly from Jesus.
So, what we can reasonably conclude from this passage, even assuming it to accurately report the words of Rabbi Eliezer near the end of the first century (or beginning of the second century), is that a learned Jewish Rabbi believed near the end of the first century that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood historical figure. But by 85 CE, the Gospel of Mark had been available for more than a decade, so Christians would already believe and preach that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood Jewish teacher who taught wise sayings to his Jewish disciples and followers. Thus, Eliezer’s belief that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood Jewish teacher who taught wise sayings to Jewish disciples and followers may have been based on more than just this one incident where he met a man who called himself a “disciple” who had learned a saying from Jesus.
So, some leading NT scholars who have reviewed the relevant evidence, have concluded that this passage is NOT early and reliable. Furthermore, even if the passage accurately describes the words of Rabbi Eliezer on the occasion of his being condemned as a heretic, it would still be doubtful that he spoke to a person who was directly taught by the “Jesus” of the Gospels.
Hinman quotes Origin’s quoting from the book True Doctrine, an attack on Christianity by Celsus. Here is the key part of the quote:
Let us imagine what a Jew…might say to Jesus: “Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumourss [sic] about the true and insavoury [sic] circumstances of your origins?…Is it not the case that when her [your mother’s] deceit was uncovered, to wit, that she was pregnant by a roman soldier called Panthera she was driven away by her husband…
Hinman comments that some of “the material of the Talmud” about Jesus “was around in at least the second century”, and that since Jewish sources would not have been readily available to Celsus, “it seems reasonable to assume that this information had been floating around for some time…”. Hinman concludes that this material “at least went back to the early second, late first century.”
Celsus composed the book True Doctrine about 175 CE. According to Celsus, he obtained his understanding of Jewish objections to Christianity from a contemporary Jewish person. If Celsus was being TRUTHFUL, then all this passage shows is that there was a Jewish polemic response to the story of the virgin birth in the canonical Gospels (Matthew and Luke) that was in use about a century AFTER the composition of the canonical Gospels. On this scenario, there is no implication that the sources of the Talmud about Jesus go back to the “early second, late first century”, unless we count the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as being among those sources!
On the other hand, if Celsus was being UNTRUTHFUL about how he obtained his understanding of Jewish objections to Christianity, then he might well have invented this objection on his own, based on his knowledge of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
He had read widely in Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and had a passing knowledge of other Christian books… (JONT, p.67)
Celsius might have just used an imaginary Jewish contemporary as cover for his own derogatory comments about Jesus.
According to Hinman,
Celsus was obviously reading the Talmudic sources…
It is not obvious to me that Celsus obtained this particular view of Jesus from “the Talmudic sources”, even if the Talmud contains a similar view about Jesus being the illegitimate son of a roman soldier called Panthera.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Celsus obtained this Jewish view from “the Talmudic sources”. True Doctrine was written about 175 CE. So, if Celsus found this view in “the Talmudic sources” in 170 CE, that would be adequate to explain his writing about them in 175 CE. If “the Talmudic sources” had this view of Jesus’ birth in 170 CE, that is completely to be expected even if Jesus never existed, for the canonical Gospels were composed about a century BEFORE 170 CE, allowing several decades for Christians to preach about the virgin birth and for Jewish rabbis to develop this Jewish polemic in response to that preaching.
Even if “the Talmudic sources” about Jesus being an illegitimate child had been in existence for 50 years before Celsus learned about this Jewish viewpoint, that would still place the origin of the tradition in 120 CE, which is three to four decades AFTER the composition of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In that scenario, it would be very probable that this Jewish tradition about Jesus has no historical basis, but is merely an apologetic response of Jewish leaders to Christian preaching and storytelling, which was in turn based upon “information” from the canonical Gospels.