Yeshu ha-Notsri as founder of Christianity–Pt. 6: Flight to Alexandria

      Our rabbis teach, ‘Ever let the left hand repel and the right hand invite, not like Elisha who repulsed Gehazi with both hands, and not like R. Yehoshua ben Perachiah who repulsed Yeshu ha-Notsri with both hands…
     What of R. Jehoshua ben Perachiah? When Jannai the king killed our rabbis, R. Jehoshua ben Perachiah and Yeshu fled to Alexandria of Egypt. When there was peace, Shimon ben Shetach sent to him [i.e. Perachiah], “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.]

The above passage is the locus classicus for the thesis that Yeshu ha-Notsri (literally “Jesus the Nazarene”!) lived in the time of King Alexander Janneus (r. 104–76 BCE). Several other Talmudic passages point to the same dating. In fact, the Talmud does not know a founder of Christianity living in the time of the Herods! This should give us pause, for which would likely know Jewish history better: Greek records written by pagan Christians, or Hebrew records written by Jews themselves?

The above citation is chock full of information—including the role of Simon ben Shetach, the excommunication of Yeshu, and reasons for that excommunication. But here I want to focus on the words in red font. Those words tell us several things: (1) the rabbis dated Yeshu to the time of the great pogrom of King Janneus against the Pharisees; (2) the leader of the Pharisees and head (nasi) of the Sanhedrin, Joshua ben Perachiah, fled from Israel along with Yeshu ha-Notsri; and (3) Perachiah and Yeshu fled to Alexandria in Egypt. Lets very briefly look at each of these points in turn:

(1) Dating Yeshu to the time of King Janneus. We saw in the preceding post that the medieval Jewish scholar Ibn Daud considered Yeshu ha-Notsri to be the actual founder of Christianity. He dated Yeshu to the time of Janneus. He also maintained that ‘Jesus of Nazareth in the time of the Herods’ was purely a Christian invention. Furthermore, Ibn Daud offered information that precisely dates Yeshu’s lifespan: 100–66 BCE. We don’t know the source(s) that he used to arrive at that dating, but his dating does happen to match the traditional lifespan for Jesus given in the gospels: 33–34 years.

(2) Yeshu ha-Notsri accompanies Perachiah into exile. As head of the Sanhedrin, Joshua b. Perachiah was probably the most powerful religious figure in Israel. Though the Sanhedrin during the early first century BCE was not yet the 71-member body that it would later become, it already had important political, legislative, and judicial powers. Of course, such an important figure as Perachiah would not have fled into exile alone. No doubt he did so at the head of a contingent of other important Pharisees who feared for their lives. The contingent would have included many other pharisaic members of the Sanhedrin, along with their families, relatives, and servants. The above citation tells us that Yeshu ha-Notsri was among them. The pharisaic flight into Egypt took place at the beginning of the pogrom against the Pharisees, 94 BCE. According to Ibn Daud, Yeshu would have been only six years old at the time.
     We don’t know Yeshu’s ancestry or family affiliation. (The ‘bastard son of the Roman soldier Panthera’ is a late Jewish caricature and obviously hostile propaganda.) I suspect that Yeshu was the son of a member of the Sanhedrin, and that the lad was perhaps destined to become a member of that elite assembly himself. He may even have been a favorite of Perachiah, showing the makings of a particularly promising religious scholar.
     In any case, since he accompanied Perachiah into exile, Yeshu would necessarily have come from a reputable and prestigious Jewish family. The Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin (IV:2) states that the Sanhedrin was to be recruited from the following sources: Priests (Kohanim), Levites (Levi’im), and ordinary Jews who were members of those families having a pure lineage such that their daughters were allowed to marry priests. Some clues (to be discussed in another post) lead me to the suspicion that Yeshu was, in fact, of levitical descent.

(3) The exiles flee to Alexandria in Egypt. One readily understands why Perachiah, his retinue of the Sanhedrin, as well as other important Jews (including the young Yeshu) would have fled to Alexandria to escape King Janneus’ pogrom against the Pharisees. The Jewish districts of Alexandria were like a slice of Jewish territory on foreign soil. In fact, Alexandria possessed the largest Jewish population outside of the Holy Land. Emil Shürer has written:

The Ptolemies assigned [the Jews] a separate section, two of the five districts of the city, to enable them to keep their laws pure of indigenous cultic influences. The Alexandrian Jews enjoyed a greater degree of political independence than elsewhere. While the Jewish population elsewhere throughout the later Roman Empire frequently formed private societies for religious purposes, or organized corporations of ethnic groups like the Egyptian and Phoenician merchants in the large commercial centers, those of Alexandria constituted an independent political community, side by side with that of the other ethnic groups. (“Alexandria,” Jewish Encyclopedia)

As we’ll see in the next post, the choice of Alexandria as place of exile had momentous consequences on the young Pharisee, Yeshu ha-Notsri.

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