Yeshu ha-Notsri as founder of Christianity–Pt. 4: The ancient Jewish evidence

Note: It is no coincidence that the Mishna and Talmud preserve most of the information we have about Yeshu ha-Notsri (correctly translated “Jesus the Nazarene”!), for the prophet’s entire life was intimately enmeshed with the Jewish religious establishment of the early first century BCE. He grew up a highly-educated Pharisee groomed for the Sanhedrin, but astonishingly repudiated his Jewish heritage as a young man in Egyptian exile in favor of a foreign (some would say ‘Buddhist’) form of gnosticism. Yeshu then returned to Israel and preached with alarming success, was excommunicated by the Sanhedrin, arrested, tried, and executed for apostasy according to rigorous stipulations of Jewish religious law. All of these elements are attested in Talmudic records.
     As we have seen, the medieval Jewish scholar Ibn Daud drew upon Talmudic references for his information regarding Yeshu ha-Notsri. For his precise dating of Yeshu (100–64 BCE), however, he seems to have had access to materials that are now lost. How reliable those precise dates are is uncertain, for another tradition suggests that Yeshu/Jesus was about fifty years old when he was arrested (to be discussed in the next post).
     This and subsequent posts in this thread are an update/revision of the section in my book NazarethGate entitled “Yeshu in Jewish writings” (pp. 419–27). These posts omit some tangential material as well as footnotes. In addition, I have here added more recent material and expanded on some points for clarification/further background.
     The posts in this thread are the most complete reconstructed account to date (on the Web or in print) of the historical career of Yeshu ha-Notsri.


Yeshu in Jewish writings

     The reader perhaps may say “But, if Jesus Christ was born in the first year of our era, and Jeshu was born ninety years before, how can they have been one and the same person?” To which we reply, that there is no proof of Jesus Christ having been born in the first year of our era, and many indications to the contrary. Christian chronology has been arbitrarily established. There was great uncertainty among the early Christians, who reckoned like all Roman subjects from the reign of the Caesars, not only as to the birth, but also as to the age of their savior. Irenaeus, the first Christian father who mentions the four gospels, maintains that Jesus was fifty years old at his death, and the chronology of Luke is absolutely inconsistent with Roman history, as well as being at variance with that of Matthew.
               —G. W. Foote and J. Wheeler, The Jewish Life of Christ: Being the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu. (London: Progressive Publ. Co., 1885, “Preface.”)

The most accessible clues pointing to a prophet behind Christianity who is not Jesus of Nazareth are found in rabbinic writings. The Mishna and Talmud preserve numerous (understandably antagonistic) references to the founder of Christianity. As Frank Zindler has shown, none of these preserve historical value regarding a Jesus of Nazareth. He writes that the “only clear references to the Jesus of Christianity” are those relating to a certain Yeshu ha-Notsri (Zindler 2003:248). But this Yeshu lived in the time of Alexander Janneus (early first century BCE) and obviously has nothing at all to do with the New Testament Jesus. In fact, we will see that Jewish writings are surprisingly uniform in dating “Jesus” to this earlier time.

The most remarkable passage may be Sanhedrin 107b (partly cited below). There we read of the Pharisaic head (nasi) of the Sanhedrin, Joshua ben Perachiah who, during an unsuccessful Pharisaic uprising against Janneus fled to Alexandria with a number of disciples. We know that the uprising began in 94 BCE and lasted six years. It culminated in the infamous mass execution (by crucifixion) of 800 Pharisees by Janneus. The king then placed Sadducees in positions of power.

One of the pupils/protégés of Perachiah was Yeshu ha-Notsri. On the return trip to Israel Yeshu was excommunicated by Perachiah on the grounds of lasciviousness (for interpreting an equivocal remark in a sexual way). We can surmise that the return trip took place after the death of Janneus, when his wife and the Pharisee-friendly Salome Alexandra began her reign. There is very good reason Alexandra was friendly to the Pharisees: her own brother, Simon ben Shetach, was a leading Pharisee. He had been in hiding during the persecution but, on the death of Janneus, sent for Perachiah to return from Alexandria. A glorious few years ensued for the Pharisees—remembered by them as a golden age. On the death of Perachiah, Shetach became nasi.

The Talmud records the figurative but joyous words with which ben Shetach advised Perachiah to return to Jerusalem:

What of R. Jehoshua ben Perachiah? When Jannai the king killed our rabbis, R. Jehoshua ben Perachiah fled to Alexandria of Egypt. When there was peace, Shimon ben Shetach sent to him, “From me the city of holiness, to thee Alexandria of Egypt. My husband stays in thy midst and I sit forsaken.” —b. Sanh. 107b.

The return of Perachiah to Jerusalem would have been c. 75 BCE. Thus, it would appear that Yeshu spent as many as twenty years in Alexandria (c. 94–c. 75 BCE).

As is well known, at the time Alexandria was the intellectual center of the western world. Not even Rome or Athens compared with it. The city was the crossroads of East and West, continually trading with faraway India and (by proxy) even with China. Buddhist monks had been in Alexandria since about 250 BCE, when the Emperor Asoka sent them, together no doubt with a goodly number of sutras written on palm leaves. (Interestingly, Dositheus reputedly wrote on palm leaves—NazarethGate:454).

Asoka’s religious mission to the West is memorialized in his rock edict no. 13. As for the king of Egypt who received Buddhist missionaries and their texts, he was the extravagant and cosmopolitan Ptolemy II Philadelphus (d. 246 BCE), known himself to have already sent embassies to Asoka in India. Philadelphus founded the Alexandria library and, according to legend, mandated that no ship could dock without bringing texts for its library.

During his long Egyptian exile, if the young Yeshu ha-Notsri were of an inquiring mind—and indications suggest as much—he would have been exposed in Alexandria to the most vital and diverse intellectual currents of the age. An open, well-educated Jewish scholar in the great city would have been challenged to acquaint himself with the most far-reaching and provocative insights of the era.

The literary record attests that two decades in Alexandria witnessed a sea change in the young man’s thought, for—according to the Talmud—he was excommunicated by his master upon their return to Israel. The above citation b. Sanh. 107b continues:

     Rabbi Perachiah came, and found himself at a certain inn; they showed him great honor. He said, “How beautiful is this Acsania!” [“Acsania” denotes both inn and innkeeper. Perachiah used it in the first sense; the answering remark implies the second meaning, “hostess.”] Yeshu said to him, “Rabbi, she has narrow eyes.” R. Perachiah said, “Wretch, do you employ yourself thus?” He sent out four hundred trumpets and excommunicated him.
     Yeshu came before him many times and said to him, “Receive me.” But he would not notice him. One day when R. Perachiah was reciting the Shema, Yeshu came before him. R. Perachiah was minded to receive him and made a sign to him. But Yeshu thought that he repelled him. Yeshu went and hung up a brick and worshipped it.
     R. Perachiah said to him, “Return.” Yeshu replied, “Thus have I received from you, that every one who sins and causes the multitude to sin, they give him not the chance to repent.”
     And a teacher has said, “Yeshu ha-Notsri practiced magic and led astray and deceived Israel.”
                    [R. Herford, Christianity in Talmud & Midrash, p 51.]

The foregoing is the locus classicus dating Yeshu/Jesus to the time of Janneus. The passage takes it for granted that Yeshu lived in the time of Rabbi Perachiah, that Perachiah was Yeshu’s teacher/mentor, and that the two had fled to Alexandria in Egypt (the latter from the first part of the passage at the top of this page). The crux of the passage has not to do with dating but with Yeshu’s apostasy. For now, we note that a major change took place in Yeshu’s thinking during his time in the Egyptian capital. The rabbinic records indicate that the change led to his excommunication from Judaism.

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