Freethought Archives > G W Foote & J M Wheeler > The Jewish Life of Christ


WHEN we first announced our intention of publishing a translation of this work, we were unaware that it had ever appeared in English before it was inserted in the New York Truthseeker by "Scholasticus." This able and learned writer, who has since published his translation, with other highly interesting matter, under the title of "Revelations of Antichrist concerning Christ and Christianity," (Boston: J. P. Mendum.--New York: D. M. Bennett; 1879) supposed that he was the first who introduced it to the English-speaking world. He was, however, mistaken. We have quite recently lighted on a translation published by Richard Carlile in 1823. It was done by a Jew, who stated that it had "never before been wholly translated into any modern language." He appears to have been right in this statement, as the earliest continental translation we can trace is in German, and was published at Stuttgart in 1850, in a volume together with the Apocryphal Gospels, by Dr. R. Clemons. No copy of the Richard Carlile edition (the Hebrew translator does not give his name) is to be found in the British Museum. It is a sixteen-page octavo pamphlet, with an Editor's Preface, probably by Carlile himself, and a Dedication by the translator "To the Clergy of the Church of England." His English text is substantially the same as that now published. Some of its phrases are rough and racy, possibly owing to his strict adherence to the original; and instead of veiling in Latin the amours of Pandera and Miriam, he relates them in plain English, with Biblical naïvité.

The Sepher Toldoth Jeshu was first published in Latin, with the Hebrew text in parallel columns, by J. C. Wagenseil in his "Tela Ignea Satanae," a collection of Jewish Anti-Christian tracts, all translated into Latin, with attempted refutations. To collect these valuable tracts, Wagenseil travelled widely through Spain and into Africa, where the chief centres of Jewish learning then existed. His work was published at Altdorf in 1681.

A later and widely different version, the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu ha Nozri (History of Jesus of Nazareth), was published by J. J. Huldrich at Leyden in 1705. It is certainly a more modern version of the Jeshu story. Interpolations are found referring to Worms and the people of Germany, and the narrative abounds with capricious phantasies that belong to the superstition of a later age.

A shorter and earlier version of the Jeshu story was probably used by Luther and condensed in his Schem Hamphoras, although Mr. Gould [iv:1] considers that "the only Toldoth Jeshu he was acquainted with was that afterwards published by Wagenseil." Luther was stung by it into a characteristic fit of vituperation, as the following passage will show:

"The haughty evil spirit jests in the book with a threefold mockery. First, he mocks God, creator of heaven and earth, with his son, Jesus Christ, as you may see for yourself if you believe, as a Christian, that Christ is the son of God. Secondly, he mocks all Christendom, because we believe in such a son of God. Thirdly, he mocks his own Jews by giving them such a scandalous, foolish, doltish thing about brazen dogs and cabbage-stalks, etc., which would make all dogs bark to death, if they could understand it, at such raving, ranting, senseless, foaming mad fools. Is not this a master of mocking, who can effect three such great mockeries? The fourth mockery is that herewith he has mocked himself, as we shall one day to our joy see, thank God!"--Werke, Wittemberg, 1566, vol. v., p. 515.

Long before the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu was published, in our modern sense, it was known to the learned. The work came to light in the dawning after the Dark Ages, but, says Mr. Gould, "it was kept secret, lest the sight of it should excite tumults, spoliation and massacre." Those who know how flamingly the evidences of Christianity have been written on the tear-washed and blood-stained pages of Jewish history will appreciate this cautious reserve.

It was doubtless the Jeshu story which was denounced and prohibited by Pope Valentine in his Bull of May 11, 1514, under the title of Mar Mar Jesu [v:1]. Dr. G.B. de Rossi, in his Dizionario Storico degli Autori Ebrei, catalogues a book entitled מעשה ישו, which he considers the same as the Toldoth Jeshu, and which may also be the same as the proscribed work.

In the thirteenth century, Raymond Martini, a Dominican friar, composed a work against the Jews and Mahommedans, with the suggestive title of Pugione Fidei, the Dagger of Faith. Without naming the Toldoth Jeshu, he gave long extracts from it, or at least a good summary. A Latin rendering of Martini's Jeshu story appears in a folio volume by Porcheti de Salvaticis, published at Paris in 1520, and entitled Porcheti victoria adversus impios Hebreos -- Porcheti's victory over the impious Hebrews. As the Inquisition took part with Porcheti, the impious Hebrews did not venture to dispute the victory.

The author of "Revelations of Antichrist" gives a complete translation of Porcheti's Latin narrative. It is substantially the same as the one now published, although much shorter. It ends with the hanging of Jeshu, and makes no allusion to any of the matters in our fourth chapter.

The learned Rossi, in his work already cited, after referring to Wagenseil and Huldrich, says that besides their editions several manuscript copies are to be found in various libraries. Some, he says, bear the different title of Maasi Jesù, or that of Storia di Gesù o del Crocifisso--The History of Jesus the Crucified. Rossi goes on to say that the most pronounced Deists, who have drawn from the Hebrew writings, and from the Chissuk Emuna of Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham, arguments against Christianity and its founder, agree that this book is a mass of Rabbinical sophisms and revolting false inventions; the celebrated Mendelssohn, whom he places among these Deists, protesting that it is one of those books which no sensible Hebrew reads or knows. It may be remarked, however, in opposition to Rossi, that the anonymous Jew who translated Carlile's edition of our work says "it is considered of authority by the wise men of our nation." Even Mr. Gould throws no doubt upon its having been widely and honestly accepted by the chosen race.

Perhaps the Deist whom Rossi had principally in his mind was Voltaire. The Heresiarch of Ferney, in his Lettres sur les Juifs, says that "Le Toledos Jesu est le plus ancien écrit Juif qui nous ait été transmis centre notre réligion. C'est une vie de Jésus-Christ, toute contraire à nos Saints Evangiles: elle parait être du premier siècle, et même écrite avant les évangiles."-- "The Toldoth Jeshu is the most ancient Jewish writing that has descended to us against our religion. It is a life of Jesus Christ, altogether different from our Holy Gospels. It appears to be of the first century, and even to have been written before the Gospels." Voltaire's error seems to have arisen from his supposing that Celsus "cited" the work, whereas he merely cites the story of Pandera, which forms its nucleus. In his "Philosophical Dictionary," article Messiah, Voltaire writes on the Toldoth Jeshu in a delicious vein of grave irony, which appears to have deceived "Anti-Christ" himself, who is certainly no fool, nor devoid of humor.

Mr. Gould devotes a chapter to "The Jew of Celsus." Celsus wrote, about A.D. 170, a work called "The True Word (Logos)," of which, as well as of the author, Mr. J. A. Froude gives a very interesting account in his fourth volume of "Short Studies on Great Subjects." The writings of this early opponent of Christianity, like those of others, such as Porphyry, who would not bow to the Nazarene, were ruthlessly suppressed, so that nothing remains of them except the extracts given by Origen in his refutation. In a passage which will be found among our foot-notes, Celsus describes Jesus as a bastard, born of a Jewish countrywoman and a soldier named Panthera. The genealogy of Jesus, given by St. Epiphanius, induces Mr. Gould to say that "it shows that in the fourth century the Jewish stories of Panthera had made such an impression on the Christians that his name was forced into the pedigree of Jesus." Basnage, in his "History of the Jews" (Taylor's translation) has an extremely interesting passage on this subject:

"Celsus is excusable in having upbraided Christians with the virgin being forced by a soldier called Pandera, but how can St. Epiphanius [A.D. 367] be excused, who assures us that Jesus was the son of Jacob surnamed Panthera? Or how can John of Damascus [A.D. 760] be justified, who is indeed of another opinion, but for all that makes him come into the genealogy of J. Christ? for he maintains that Panthera was great-grandfather to Mary, and Barpanther her grandfather. Raban Maur [A.D. 874] doth also speak of these two men; and the learned Grotius [A.D. 1640] made an advantage of this tradition, as if it had been well grounded, that so the romance invented about the virgin might appear more probable. And indeed the name given here to the soldier, Panther, is a Greek one; how then can it be introduced into the genealogy of J. Christ as the surname of a family? There is good reason to believe that it was invented only to make the birth of the Messiah more odious. The panther, or male of the panther, is a savage and cruel beast that couples with a lioness, and from thence proceeds the leopard ... The manuscript of a Rabbi is also quoted, wherein it is said that as the leopard is produced by the mixture of different species, so J. Christ sprung from a Greek soldier and a Jewish woman. Those who reckon Panthera among Christ's ancestors, fall into the snare which the most inveterate enemies of the Christian religion have laid for them. Emanuel de Tesauro is one of these, for he blesses the fate of Marham and Panther because Jesus Christ came from them." (B. iv., ch. 27).

The learned Basnage rather hobbles than walks out of the difficulty. We leave it to the Christians to explain satisfactorily why Panthera crept into the ancestry of their Savior.

Mr. Gould's treatment of Celsus we should be obliged to consider disingenuous if we did not think it confused. Mr. Gould, in fact, is far from being an accurate writer. He sometimes forgets on one page what he has written on another; his chronology is often full of gross and obvious blunders; and his proofs have been read with remarkable carelessness. For instance, through thirty-six successive headlines he has allowed "Jewish Ante-Gospels" to stand for Anti-Gospels, which is exactly what he is laboring to disprove. In short, with a great appearance of scholarship, Mr. Gould is a very untrustworthy guide.

With respect to Celsus, Mr. Gould says it is "remarkable" that "living in the middle of the second century and able to make inquries of aged Jews, whose lives had extended to the first century, he should have been able to find out next to nothing about Jesus and his disciples except what he read in the Gospels." Now there is no proof that Celsus ever saw our Gospels, and his account of Jesus is very unlike theirs. And is the story of Christ's birth, which involves the central doctrine of the Incarnation, "next to nothing"? Besides, Mr. Gould had staring him in the face the declaration of Celsus, as quoted by Origen, that he "could relate many things more concerning Jesus, all which are true, but which have quite a different character from what his disciples relate touching him." To this Origen replies, in short, You cannot. But as Celsus had no opportunity of rejoining, having incontinently died a century before his opponent took the field, it is hardly fair to assume that he was lying.

Celsus's contemporary, Justin Martyr, one of the early Fathers, in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew, bitterly complains that the Jews had sent persons into all parts of the world to publish blasphemies against Jesus. Of what value, then, is Origen's denial of these things a century later?

In the Babylonian Gemara of the Talmud, which, although not completed until about A.D. 500, represents the authoritative traditions of the Jews, the name of Pandera is given to the father of Jeshu; and the same parentage is given in the Jerusalem Gemara, which was compiled independently a century earlier. Amidst a great deal of confusion, by Mr. Gould worse confounded, this one fact shines out incontestible and unquestioned.

Mr. Gould's theory of the origin and development of the Jeshu story supposes on the part of the Jews a flagrant ignorance of their own language, traditions and history; and what, except the necessity of supporting a theory, could lead him to state that "The Jew of Celsus had already fused Jesus of Nazareth with the other two Jehoshuas" of the Talmud? The Jew of Celsus relates nothing of Jesus at all resembling the later Talmudic confusions of the two Jehoshuas; and those confusions probably arose through the discordant opinions of different rabbis of various ages being cited indifferently. In his anxiety to prove that the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu is entirely a production of the Middle Ages, Mr. Gould maintains that "the Jews in A.D. 500, when the Babylonian Gemara was completed, had no traditions whatever concerning Jesus of Nazareth." But his contention may be opposed by the weightier opinion of Lardner and Lightfoot, that the Talmudic references to Jeshu clearly point to Jesus Christ.

In discussing the date of the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu, Mr Gould says (p. 69) that neither Wagenseil's nor Huldrich's version "can boast of a greater antiquity than, at the outside, the twelfth century. It is difficult to say with certainty which is the earlier of the two. Probably both came into use about the same time." But with his usual laxity he advances a very different opinion later on (p. 115), where he says "That this second version of the Life of Jeshu is later than the first one, I think there can be little doubt." He even goes to the length of suggesting that the Huldrich version may have "been composed after the Reformation."

The centre of Mr. Gould's theory, around which his orbit is extremely eccentric, may be found in the following passage:--

"The persecution to which the Jews were subjected in the Middle Ages from the bigotry of the rabble or the cupidity of princes, fanned their dislike for Christianity into a flame of intense mortal abhorrence of the Founder of that religion whose votaries were their deadliest foes. The Toledoth Jeschu is the utterance of this deep-seated hatred,--the voice of an oppressed people execrating him who had sprung from the holy race, and whose blood was weighing on their heads."

This appears to us a very lame theory. In our opinion the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu betrays no vehement malignity; it narrates everything with an air of candor; and we confidently leave the reader to judge for himself. We perceive in this work many marks of antiquity, and evidences of a far closer acquaintance with the manners, customs and opinions of the Jews in Palestine than is betrayed in our Greek gospels.

If we except the fourth chapter, which forms no part of the Life of Jeshu, but is related to it very much as the Acts of the Apostles is related to the Gospels, the only indication of a late authorship is the reference to the Talmud. But that may have been originally a marginal gloss, afterwards incorporated with the text, like so many "interpolations" in the New Testament. Even, however, if the date of the work was slightly subsequent to the compilation of the Talmud, we are still within measurable distance of the earliest Christian manuscripts.

If, as Mr. Gould maintains, the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu is a 'Counter-Gospel' written to asperse the character of Jesus Christ, it is a singular thing that the authors did not keep closer to the gospel story? How, for instance, came they to place the birth of Jeshu in the reign of Janneus, at least ninety years before the alleged birth of Christ? How came they to make him contemporary with Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach, who flourished about 90 B.C.? Satire is futile unless it adheres to familiar features, and we can scarcely imagine sane men so stupid as the satirists of the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu must have been if Mr. Gould's theory be true.

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. It might likewise be effectively argued from the only chronological reference in Paul's Epistles (ii. Cor., xi., 32) that the Great Apostle himself flourished at least sixty-two years before our era. According to his own statement, he escaped arrest at Damascus while the city was "under Aretas the King," who must have ruled there before the city was captured by Pompey (B.C. 62) and made a part of the Roman empire.

We would not dogmatise, but we venture to think that the Christian legend of Jesus may have originated in the Jewish story of Jeshu. This theory at any rate accounts for the hero's introduction to the world. The two Hebrew versions of a career similar to that of Jesus, as well as the Talmud, agree in making Jeshu the illegitimate son of Pandera and a Jewish maiden; and Celsus flung the same charge at the Christians before our present Gospels can be proved to have existed. That both the Jewish and the Christian story are largely fabulous, we cheerfully concede, but no advantage can be derived to either from that fact. We now leave the question with the reader. It is for him to decide whether it is more probable that the father of Jesus was a human being or the intangible third person of a hypothetical Trinity.


March, 1885. 




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