NOTE: In the preceding post we began to construct a biography of the early first century BCE prophet Yeshu ha-Notsri from Jewish rabbinical records. Though Jewish/Talmudic references to Yeshu are few, when viewed together they permit one to construct the outline of a radical, courageous, and successful prophet in Judea who was so hated and feared by the Jewish religious authorities that they arrested him, tried him for apostasy, and executed him.
Parallels with the later Jesus of Nazareth of the New Testament are obvious. Not only did Yeshu’s biography certainly influence the canonical storyline, it may also surprise readers that the names are identical: Yeshu ha-Notsri translates directly to “Jesus the Nazarene,” as I explain here.
This post continues to mirror the content of pages 419–27 in my book NazarethGate (American Atheist Press, 2015) with, however, considerable added material.
As we saw in the immediately preceding post, Yeshu fled to Alexandria in Egypt with the Pharisaic leader Joshua ben Perachiah in order to escape the intense persecution of Pharisees by King Alexander Janneus. As a young disciple and associate of Perachiah, Yeshu was evidently an up-and-coming, well educated Pharisee being groomed for the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious body of Israel, of which Perachiah was the head (nasi). While in exile, however, Yeshu encountered ‘foreign’ influences (almost certainly Buddhism) and made a wholesale renunciation of his Jewish religious heritage. Upon learning of this, Perachiah excommunicated Yeshu for apostasy. This event was so significant that it is recorded in the Talmud in several places. This post expands on what we know from those records, and what we can infer about the early years of Yeshu ha-Notsri.
The young Yeshu according to the 33 year timeline
Lk 3:23 reads: “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age.” This information, together with a one to three year ministry for Jesus (some variation exists between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John) leads to the traditional lifespan of Jesus of Nazareth of about thirty-three years.
With time, the 33-year lifespan of Jesus became the majority position, reflected in most writings of the Church and inherited down through the centuries. A minority view has also existed that posits a roughly 50-year lifespan for Jesus, based on Jn 8:57, “The Jews therefore said unto him, You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” The church father Irenaeus of Lyon (c. 200 CE) took this verse to mean that Jesus was approaching fifty years of age when he died:
Now that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a teacher…
(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Chp. 5. Passage cited in full and discussed at Zindler 2003:127 f.)
It is interesting that Abraham Ibn Daud—the Jewish scholar of the twelfth century who proposed that the ‘real’ Jesus was Yeshu ha-Notsri in the time of King Janneus—gave this earlier Jesus/Yeshu a lifespan of thirty-four years (100–66 BCE), thus reinforcing the majority position. Ibn Daud’s witness is particularly strong because he in an independent source quite outside the stream of Christian writings.
When we superimpose a lifespan of 33–34 years on what we know about Yeshu ha-Notsri from rabbinical writings, a unique and interesting timeline results. Before giving that timeline, let’s review the most revealing citation from the Talmud regarding Yeshu:
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.”
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.”
[b. Sanhedrin 107b; R. Herford, Christianity in Talmud & Midrash, p 51.]
King Alexander Janneus, arch-enemy of the Pharisees, died in 76 BCE. This was likely the year of Perachiah’s return to Israel, and hence probably also the year of Yeshu’s excommunication for, according to the above rabbinical account, it was on the return trip to Israel from Egypt that Joshua b. Perachiah excommunicated Yeshu. We can doubt the immediate context of the excommunication—the entire scene at the inn appears contrived, and misunderstanding a single word is hardly cause for such a drastic, life-changing action as excommunication. But it is in keeping with the style of the Talmud, for the rabbis wrote cryptically and tersely for insiders, often in a sort of code. The real explanations were reserved for students at the rabbinical colleges: Lydda (Lod, Lud), Jamnia, and Sepphoris in Palestine, and Pumbeditha in Babylonia.
Ibn Daud’s chronology. According to the medieval Jewish scholar, Yeshu was born in 100 BCE [→ here]. Yeshu would thus have been twenty-four years old at the time of his excommunication from Judaism. If Ibn Daud was correct, one can provisionally construct the following very revealing timeline for Yeshu ha-Notsri:
Year Yeshu’s age
100 BCE Yeshu born
94 Age 6 Pharisaic uprising against Jannaeus (civil war); Perachiah & inner circle (incl. Yeshu) flee to Egypt
88 Age 12 Janneus prevails in civil war and crucifies 800 pharisees (see P. Schäfer, Hst. of the Jews 2003:75)
76 Age 24 Janneus dies; Salome Alexandra becomes queen and champions the Pharisees;
Perachiah and Yeshu return to Israel; on the way, Perachiah excommunicates Yeshu
76–66 Age 24–34 Yeshu teaches/preaches in Israel with great success
66 Age 34 Yeshu is arrested by the Sanhedrin, tried, stoned, and hung/crucified for apostasy
I caution the reader that the above is provisional. While it conforms to the lifespan of Jesus in the canonical gospels, the application of 34 years to Yeshu ha-Notsri actually depends on a single passage from a Jewish scholar writing more than a millennium after the events he is describing. Nevertheless, I can think of no reason for Ibn Daud to have invented his very precise lifespan of Yeshu. It seems more likely to me that he was drawing on sources now lost. Furthermore, as noted in a prior post, Ibn Daud correctly anchors Yeshu’s chronology to now-verified datings for Janneus, Alexandra, and Aristobulus II. In other words, historically, Ibn Daud’s chronology checks out.
Joshua (or Yehoshua) ben Perachiah was nasi, head of the Great Sanhedrin and arguably the most powerful man at the time in the Jewish religious establishment. Talmudic records remember him fondly as one of the zugot (pairs) who transmitted the Torah from Moses down to later Pharisees/rabbis in an unbroken chain. In other words, he was a very important man during his lifetime. Joshua ben Perachiah would have been one of the most sought after victims of King Janneus—had he stayed in Israel.
Several interesting points emerge from Ibn Daud’s 34-year chronology. First of all, Yeshu was but a boy when he went into exile. This must give us pause. Why would Perachiah take a mere boy into exile? There is only one possible answer: Yeshu belonged to an important Pharisaic family, important enough that he was part of the general exodus of Pharisees to Egypt under their leader, Joshua ben Perachiah. Yeshu was a blue-blood. Though but a boy, Yeshu was sufficiently promising and/or important that Perachiah protected him from the monstrous, merciless pogrom of King Janneus by including him in his retinue of Pharisaic exiles to Egypt.
As the heir of a powerful, well-placed Pharisaic family, Yeshu ha-Notsri (certainly not his real name, but an epithet later given him by his disciples and by history) would himself probably have been groomed for the Sanhedrin, the assembly consisting of judges who meted out justice and interpreted the law for all of Israel. The Sanhedrin administered justice according to the Word of God, the Torah, for the Pharisees (later to become the rabbis) were expert interpreters of Jewish scripture—and the Sanhedrin was their ultimate religious and civil council, with the ability to level penalties up to and including death.
Being groomed for the Sanhedrin, Yeshu would have been consummately schooled in what we would term ‘Jewish religious scholastics,’ that is, the Tanach (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) that make up Jewish scripture (the ‘Old Testament’), as well as the minutiae of applied Jewish jurisprudence. It is quite astounding to realize that the founder of the Christian religion (for this is who we are really discussing) was actually an expert in Jewish religious scholastics. But is this not obvious, in any case, from the canonical gospels? After all, Jesus of Nazareth engages with “scribes and Pharisees” repeatedly—and he always bests them in argumentation. This suggests to me that the canonical gospels have faithfully reflected this aspect of Yeshu ha-Notsri. At the same time, his erudition places in great doubt that Jesus of Nazareth could have been raised in a backward hamlet in Lower Galilee, one that—had it existed at the turn of the era—would even have lacked a school.
According to Ibn Daud’s chronology, Yeshu ha-Notsri spent no less than eighteen years in Egyptian exile in Alexandria. Not only is this a very long time, but it also represents the formative years of Yeshu ha-Notsri. Though born in Israel, the scion of an eminent Jewish family, Yeshu was raised in the foreign culture of Egypt. We should not suppose, however, that the young Yeshu was in a non-Jewish milieu. Far from it. Alexandria at the time had a vibrant Jewish community—the largest outside of the land of Israel. Nevertheless, his extended foreign sojourn is critical to understanding the development of Yeshu’s subsequent career. Might it not also have influenced the canonical gospels, namely, Jesus of Nazareth’s sojourn in Egypt as a boy (Mt 2:14)?
To leap forward in our story a little, it is an astonishment, an exquisite irony, that Yeshu—an intelligent, promising lad from a noble Jewish family, groomed for the Sanhedrin, the highest religious body in the land—would himself eventually become the Sanhedrin’s greatest victim, would be arrested for apostasy, tried, convicted, and murdered according to rigidly correct Jewish religious dicta.
And therein lies the real pathos of Yeshu’s story. His resoluteness to speak truth to power, his tenacity, intelligence, profound grasp of life, and above all his willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice—these in combination produced astonishing results not only in his life, but also in world history.
In fact, his sacrifice ultimately produced Christianity.