‘Tis The Season
My friendship with, and admiration of, David Klinghoffer will survive his latest book. I hope that the good feeling is reciprocal, because I am going to have to respectfully disagree with his thesis. This snippet from the AP story on it will explain why.
During the Lenten season of 2004 there was considerable fury over Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion” and its depiction of Jewish leaders conspiring to hand Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion.
A year later, just in time for Good Friday of 2005, a book by Jewish writer David Klinghoffer says of course that’s what the Jewish authorities did: “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).
He bases that not only on the New Testament – whose history he distrusts to a fair extent – but on the Talmud, Judaism’s authoritative compilation of Bible commentary and rabbinic law, and later Jewish sages such as Maimonides.
The Talmud says that “on the eve of Passover they hung Yeshu (Jesus)” on charges that he “performed magic, enticed and led astray Israel.”
Since that’s Jewish tradition, “to say that Jewish leaders were instrumental in getting Jesus killed is not anti-Semitic,” Klinghoffer insists.
It is certainly not Jewish tradition, which is decidedly divided about the stories in the Talmud.
The single most famous Yeshu story in the Gemara casts the protagonist as a student of R. Yehoshua ben Perachya, who became the Nasi in 140 BCE, a century and a half before the Jesus known to history. In the story of Yeshu/ Yosi Pandera, he was executed in Lod by stoning, not in Jerusalem by crucifixion.
So many details just don’t match, that when four sages were forced to debate the apostate Nicholas Donin in 1240 in front of Louis IX, R. Yechiel of Paris (one of the Tosafists) swore to the queen that the Talmud could not have been speaking of the Christian Jesus. (An incredulous monarch asked, “Do you really mean to say that there was not one, but two or more Yeshu’s around in the ancient world?” R. Yechiel responded, “And is every Louis the King of France?”)
The Meiri and the Tosafos HaRosh concurred that the Yeshu of the gemara was another.
To be sure, there were those who looked at the similarities in the stories, and adjudged the two figures to be one and the same, albeit without offering fixes for those nasty details that didn’t match.. The most that can be said about the issue IMHO reads like the old joke about the wise old rabbi: “You’re right; you’re right; you’re right, too.” Consensus, there isn’t. Neither is there anything resembling a tradition.
The different opinions in rabbinic literature shouldn’t surprise anyone. No need to be more pious than the Pope, as the old saying goes. The authors of the Gospels aren’t exactly all on the same page. With none of the Gospels written until decades after the death of Jesus, and none by anyone who had actually met him, it is hardly unexpected that some of the details – including rather important ones – were going to come out fuzzy around the edges. Jews could hardly be expected to do a better job.
Worthwhile considering is the analysis of one of the first Jewish writers to deal with the entire corpus of rabbinic literature from a traditional standpoint, J.D. Eisenstein in his Otzar Vikuchim. (OK – let’s call it traditional-lite. He was a bit of a maskil.) Basically, he argues that in his lifetime, Jesus was not particularly significant to most Jews. By the time Christianity had picked up steam and became a force to be reckoned with, so much time had elapsed that we did not have a very strong memory of who Jesus really was. If the authors of the Gospels really lacked an unequivocal tradition, how could we expect Jews to have one?
My friend David is certainly correct in arguing that the most important question is not what our forebears did to Jesus, but why they rejected him. Nonetheless, I fear that by accepting a narrative of the crucifixion that is not really ours, there will be lots of unfriendly fingers gleefully pointing away from heretical documents like Nostra Aetate, and pointing towards the Jews, saying “We told you so!”