Yeshu ha-Notsri as the founder of Christianity, Pt. 2: The witness of ibn Daud

     The historical works of the Jews state that this Joshua b. Perachiyah was the teacher of Jesus the Nazarene [ישׂו הנצרי]. If this is so, it follows that he lived in the time of King Janneus. However, the historical works of the gentiles state that he was born in the days of Herod and crucified in the days of his son Archelaus. Now this is a significant difference of opinion, for there is a discrepancy between them of more than 110 years… [The gentile historians] argue this point so vehemently in order to prove that the Temple and kingdom of Israel endured for but a short while after his crucifixion. However, we have it as an authentic tradition from the Mishna and the Talmud, which did not distort anything, that R. Joshua b. Perachiyah fled to Egypt in the days of Alexander, that is, Janneus, and with him fled Jesus the Nazarene. We also have it as an authentic tradition that he was born in the fourth year of the reign of King Alexander, which was the year 263 after the building of the Second Temple, and the fifty-first year of the reign of the Hasmonean dynasty. In the year 299 after the building of the Temple, he was apprehended at the age of thirty-six in the third year of the reign of Aristobulus the son of Janneus. (Ibn Daud, The Book of Tradition, II.95—114, pp. 20–21)

Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo was a Jewish scholar living in Moorish dominated Spain. He was born about 1110 CE and died—some would say a martyr—about 1180. Though he was a past-master of Hebrew, Arabic was his mother tongue. We know very little of Ibn Daud’s life, but his scholarship survives in two influential works:

The Book of Tradition (Hebrew, Sefer ha-Qabbalah, 1161 CE), a historical chronicle from the creation of the world by Yahweh to his day.
The Sublime Faith (Arabic, Al-ʿaqida l-Rafiya, 1168 CE), a philosophical work.

The Book of Tradition is in three parts: (a) the historical treatise (primarily a history of rabbinic tradition); (b) an excursus on the rulers of Rome; and (c) an abridgment of the Josippon. In all his writings Ibn Daud “was most concerned with defending and validating orthodox Jewish dogma and practice” (Cohen, xxix).

All the passages I will be citing regarding Jesus the Nazarene/Yeshu ha-Notsri are from the first part of Ibn Daud’s Book of Tradition. The English translation (as well as the Hebrew original) can be found in Gerson Cohen, The Book of Tradition by Abraham ibn Daud (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1967).

Some critical implications of the above citation

Ibn Daud’s citation at the top of this page is unequivocal that Jesus the Nazarene lived in the time of Alexander Janneus (r. 103–76 BCE). This is, of course, explosive information that goes against tradition, as Ibn Daud was well aware.

In the above citation I have bracketed the Hebrew for “Jesus the Nazarene.” In fact, that is not precisely what Ibn Daud wrote, but what the editor, Gerson Cohen, translates. When one consults the Hebrew original (in the same edition, Hebrew section p. 15, lines 64–65) we find that Ibn Daud actually wrote ישׂו הנצרי—which transliterates as “Yeshu ha-N[o]tsri” (or conceivably, “Yeshu ha-N[a]tsri,” because the vowel between the nun and tsade is not written in unpointed Hebrew). In other words, Cohen is using “Jesus the Nazarene” as a convention, perhaps because that moniker is familiar to all. We should be clear, however: Ibn Daud is not actually writing about “Jesus the Nazarene.” He is writing about a man called Yeshu ha-Notsri who lived in the time of Janneus.

Thus, readers would be wrong to suppose that Ibn Daud knows two different people: Yeshu ha-Notsri and Jesus the Nazarene. He clearly has only one person in mind, shown by the fact that Ibn Daud claims that Yeshu ha-Notsri lived in the time of King Janneus, and that the Christians falsely dated him to the time of Herod. This proves that for Ibn Daud there was no Jesus of Nazareth in the time of Herod. There was only Yeshu ha-Notsri, who lived in the first decades of I BCE. This is the first critical implication of the above passage.

From this, it is clear that, for Ibn Daud—a Jewish scholar writing in the Hebrew language—the name for the invented Christian prophet from Nazareth is the same as the name of the prophet in the time of Janneus. This fact may appear trite, but it is important to grasp, for the moniker “Jesus the Nazarene” in all languages linguistically signals the Hebrew “Yeshu ha-Notsri.” Let me repeat that, for it is a ground-shaking revelation: the moniker “Jesus the Nazarene” in all languages linguistically signals the Hebrew “Yeshu ha-Notsri.” This, of course, will have important implications for the Markan evangelist’s use of Gk. Iesou Nazarene. That name, when retrojected into Hebrew, refers to none other than “Yeshu ha-Notsri.” We shall see that the same can be said for the Mishna and Talmud—they know “Yeshu ha-Notsri.” Furthermore, they also date Yeshu to the time of King Janneus. Thus, there is no reason to suppose that the “Yeshu ha-Notsri” of ancient rabbinical writings refers to Jesus of Nazareth in the time of Herod. Rather, as Daud points out, it refers to a prophet who lived in the time of King Janneus, about one century earlier. This is a second critical implication.

Ibn Daud was exquisitely acquainted with the Mishna and the Talmud. Those ancient writings mention Yeshu ha-Notsri a number of times. Yeshu/Jesus was a renegade prophet in the time of King Janneus, someone who repudiated his heritage and was excommunicated by Joshua b. Perachiyah. The rabbinical writings know only that prophet. They know nothing of the Christian “Jesus of Nazareth” (the toponym “Nazareth” does not appear even once in the Mishna or Talmud). I will be exploring the relevant passages in subsequent posts. Incidentally, these rabbinical collections are highly critical of the prophet Yeshu/Jesus in the time of Janneus. They often resort to euphemisms and hidden names to refer to him (on this, see R. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash, 1903).

Yeshu, Perachiyah, and Janneus

Thus, the relevant passages in the Mishna and Talmud conform to what Ibn Daud asserts about Yeshu/Jesus: he lived in the time of Alexander Janneus and he was associated with the important Pharisee Joshua ben Perachiyah. This is powerful confirmation that Ibn Daud was not simply going rogue. Joshua ben Perachiyah is well known to history. He was Nasi, that is, head of the Sanhedrin, arguably the most powerful religious figure in Israel (the High Priest notwithstanding). The position of nasi was created in 191 BCE when the Sanhedrin lost confidence in the ability of the High Priest to serve as its head. The Romans recognized the nasi as Patriarch of the Jews and required all Jews to pay him a tax for the upkeep of his office. Perachiyah (nasi) and his colleague Nittai of Arbela (Av Beit Din, second in command of the Great Sanhedrin) were one of the five pairs (zugot) of scholars who received and transmitted Jewish tradition in Second Temple times.

Janneus feared the Pharisees and their growing power. As Josephus recounts, the king was actually at war with the Pharisees and was, at one point, in grave danger of losing his kingship. However, through a strategic blunder, the Pharisaic side lost its advantage. When Janneus regained power, he had 800 Pharisees crucified in front of their wives and children while he looked on consorting with his concubines. This was in 86 BCE (see NazarethGate 420).

During the Jannean disturbance, Perachiyah fled to Alexandria along with a number of important Pharisees. Among the refugees was Jesus, known to history as Yeshu ha-Notsri.

Ensuing posts will flesh out what we can piece together of the astonishing career of this ‘early’ Jesus the Nazarene. We note that Ibn Daud ascribes a lifespan of 36 years to the prophet: he was born in 100 BCE (“the fourth year of the reign of King Alexander”), and he was apprehended in 64 BCE (“at the age of thirty-six in the third year of the reign of Aristobulus the son of Janneus”). However, there is much more we can learn about his astonishing career from the rabbinical records.

NEXT: The strange witness of Epiphanius

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