A note on the Toldoth Yeshu

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 21

I have been studying the Toldoth Yeshu (Hebrew: “Generations of Yeshu”) for several weeks in the hope that this unusual work might shed some light on Christian origins. However, I have been disappointed and conclude that the TY is a rather poorly-written, scurrilous, and late anti-gospel composed, I suspect, by a disenchanted rabbi in distant Babylonia. Here is some of what the insightful Robert M. Price writes concerning the work:

The Toledoth Jeshu (Generations of Jesus) is the title of several variants of an anti-gospel text portraying Jesus as a false prophet and magician… The wide distribution of various language versions and manuscript fragments, together with the numerous parallels with second-century Jewish-Christian polemic preserved in Tertullian, Celsus, and elsewhere, imply… an original date of about the fourth century with numerous underlying traditions going back even further. [Hugh] Schonfield even suggests the Toledoth was based on a prior Hebrew gospel circulated among Jewish Christians. The reason for this is that the text treats Jesus with much more respect than one would expect. [Schonfield even argued that the Toldoth was so closely connected to the Gospel of the Hebrews that he attempted to reconstruct GHeb from the Toldoth.–RS]…

When we think of messianic proof texts and testimonia, we are bound to think of Matthew’s gospel, and there is probably more than fortuitous similarity between Matthew and the document presented here…

One of the chief points of interest in this work is its chronology, placing Jesus about 100 BCE. This is no mere blunder, though it is not hard to find anachronisms elsewhere in the text. Epiphanius and the Talmud also attest to Jewish and Jewish-Christian belief in Jesus having lived a century or so before we usually imagine…

Our document not only parallels the Christian gospels but goes on to add a kind of “Acts of the Apostles,” with various odd traditions that are extremely fascinating, perhaps even, one could say, valuable… [From: R.M. Price, The Pre-Nicene New Testament. Signature books, 2006, pp. 239–41. Used with permission.]

There are many versions of the TY. The version Price offers in his Pre-Nicene New Testament includes chapters 9 and 10 (missing from the online version linked above). While I agree with Price on the existence of “odd traditions” in the TY, I don’t find them particularly valuable or early. The author of the TY seems to have drawn on his fertile imagination—and to have been loosely acquainted the following:
• one or more canonical Christian gospels (including GMatthew)
• portions of the Babylonian Talmud (including Tractate Sanhedrin)
• elements of the Pseudo-Clementine literature

In the final two chapters, the author (or a later redactor) also knows:
• Nestorius (TY 9:6) who lived c. 386–450 CE
• Simon Stylites (TY 10:11 ff) who lived c. 390–460 CE
• Eleazar ben Kalir (TY 10:15 ff) who lived c. 570–640 CE

I am not sure how much weight to place on Price’s (and Schonfield’s) view that the original stratum of TY goes all the way back to the second century (Celsus flourished ca. 175 CE). However, the existence of such early parallels—even if valid—would not require an early dating for the work as a whole, or even for the Grundshrift of the document.

The TY is full of magical accounts such as one finds in the apocryphal infancy narratives of Jesus. The author is passionate in defending Israel (10:20) and misses no opportunity to call Yeshu a “Bastard” and his followers “fools”, “radicals”, and (occasionally) “Natsarenes.” Besides all the invective, the author is, unfortunately, not a gifted writer. He repeats himself (well, so did the evangelist Mark with the two feedings: 6:35 ff and 8:1 ff) by having Yeshu enter Jerusalem twice on a donkey, having Judas (then Gehazi) betray Jesus twice in the same manner, etc. Perhaps more egregious is that the author fails to observe simple logic. For example, what are we to make of the following astonishing passage?–

So the president of the Sanhedrin was named Simeon Cephas. And why was he surnamed Cephas [= “Stone”]? Because he used to stand upon the stone Ezekiel had stood on as he prophesied by the River Chebar [in Babylonia. Simeon travels to Jerusalem, and when he] saw the dire situation of Israel, he sought out the Natsarenes… [and] made them promise to build a high tower for him to serve as a retreat in which he should eat neither meat nor anything else except bread and water. He would let down a hook on a cord and they would raise up to him a basket…

So, the president of the Sanhedrin, Simeon Cephas (who lives in Babylonia), becomes Simon Stylites! This is head-spinning stuff, for sure…

While the author employs considerable artistic license, confuses sources, and apparently worked from memory, the TY does support an early first century BCE dating for Yeshu ha-Notsri—as does the Talmud (which the author specifically mentions at 1:22). The main personages in the Talmudic Yeshu saga also figure largely in TY—including Alexander Janneus, Salome Alexandra, and Simon ben Shetach. I am provisionally working on the hypothesis that the TY is dependent upon the Talmud for its knowledge of Yeshu ha-Notsri.

One point, however, is of great interest to me—and, to my knowledge, it does not occur in the Talmud. It is the mention by the author of TY that Queen Salome “was a blood relative” of Yeshu (3:2). My research has independently arrived at this conclusion, but I have until now not found independent confirmation of it. Queen Salome Alexandra and Yeshu being related would largely explain why the Queen was sympathetic to Yeshu and his ministry (TY 3:2, 11, 20–22; 3:32). If the “Salome” mentioned in the Gospel of Thomas is to be identified with the Queen, then a case can be made that she was even his disciple:

(61) Jesus said, “Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, and the other will live.”
Salome said, “Who are you, man, that you … have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?”
Jesus said to her, “I am he who exists from the undivided. I was given some of the things of my father.”
<...> “I am your disciple.”

Other points

The principal complaint that the author of TY has against Yeshu is that he follows another God (4:7). That contravenes the first commandment and merits death (1:27, 40).

The places mentioned in TY are towards the East (Tiberias, Antioch, Babylonia) which suggests the known trajectory of heretical Jesus-movements (e.g. the Mandeans) in the early Christian centuries. Antioch is considered the “principal city of the Natsarenes” (8:16).

In the TY, Yeshu is executed in Jerusalem by “the sages” (6:9 & 15). The Romans are not implicated at all. (They are not even mentioned in the work.) Yeshu is presumably stoned and then “hung on a tree.” This and other elements suggest that the author of TY cleaves to the account from the Talmud (familiar to him) and ignores many elements in the Christian gospel storyline.

Yeshu is buried (6:21), but his tomb is soon found empty (7:8). An elaborate run-around takes place (as in some apocryphal Christian texts) turning on whether the body arose from the grave (thus proving the Resurrection and divinity of Yeshu) or was merely hidden through an elaborate reburial by a gardener. The author of TY, of course, espouses the latter possibility.

In a final twist of the knife, the author of TY describes how “Paul” (originally called “Simeon” in the text) was actually sent by the Jews to the Natsarenes to effect a separation between the two groups, in order to “restore peace to Israel” (8:39–41).

In sum, it may yet be proven that some elements of the first eight chapters of the TY go back to very early, pre-canonical times. If so, this rather bizarre work would merit a more thorough investigation by Jesus mythicists.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website www.NazarethMyth.info.

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