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




THE references to Jesus in the Talmud being binding on every orthodox Jew, we think it well to transcribe from Lightfoot's "Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations" (Oxford, 1859), the following passages upon Matt. ii., 14:

"There are some footsteps in the Talmudists of this journey of our Savior into Egypt, but so corrupted with venomous malice and blasphemy (as all their writings are), that they seem only to have confessed the truth, that they might have matter the more liberally to reproach him; for as they speak: 'When Jannia [Bab. Sanedr., fol. 107, 2], the King, slew the Rabbins, R. Joses ben Perachiah and Jesus went away into Alexandria, in Egypt. Simeon ben Shetah sent thither, speaking thus: "From me, Jerusalem, the holy city, to thee, O Alexandria in Egypt, my sister, health. My husband dwells with thee, while I, in the meantime, sit alone." Therefore he rose up and went.' And, a little after, 'He brought forth four hundred trumpets, and anathematised' (Jesus). And, a little before that, 'Elisaeus turned away Gehazi with both his hands.' 'And R. Joshua Ben Perachiah thrust away Jesus with both his hands.'"

"Did [Schabb., fol. 164, 2] not Ben Stada bring enchantments out of Egypt in the cutting which was in his flesh?" Under the name of Ben Stada they wound our Jesus with their reproaches, although the Glosser upon the place, from the authority of R. Tam, denies it: for thus he, R. Tam saith, This was not Jesus of Nazareth, because they say here, Ben Stada was in the days of Paphus, the son of Judah, who was in the days of R. Akiba: but Jesus was in the days of R. Josua, the son of Perachiah, etc.

Wagenseil continues the story from the Gemara. While Jesus and Joshua Ben Perachiah were at Alexandria, they were hospitably treated by a rich and learned lady, who, in Madame Blavatsky's opinion, personifies Egypt. Joshua praised her hospitality, and Jesus found her beautiful, notwithstanding a "defect in her eyes." Upon declaring so his master, Joshua cursed and drove him away, it being forbidden by the Rabbis to look with admiration on female beauty.

Lightfoot, upon Matt. xxvii., 31, says: "These things are delivered in Sanhedrim (cap. vi., hal. 4) of one that is guilty of stoning. If there be no defence found for him, they led him out to be stoned, and a crier went before, say aloud thus : 'N., the son of N., comes out to be stoned, because he hath done so and so. The witnesses against him are N. and N.; whosoever can bring anything in his defence, let him come forth and produce it. On which the Gemara of Babylon: "The tradition is, that on the evening of the Passover Jesus was hanged, and that a crier went before him for forty days, making this proclamation: 'This man comes forth to be stoned, because he dealt in sorceries, and persuaded and seduced Israel; whosoever knows of any defence for him, let him come forth and produce it.' But no defence could be found, therefore they hanged him on the evening of the Passover. Ulla saith, 'His case seemed not to admit of any defence, since he was a seducer, and of such God hath said, Thou shalt not spare him, neither shalt thou conceal him' (Deut. xiii., 8)."

On v. 56, which speaks of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses, Lightfoot notes that the name מבדלא Magdalene, which is several times applied in the Talmud to Miriam, the mother of Jeshu, means a plaiting or curling of the hair, a profession which it appears was resorted to by harlots, so that the word, like Stada, was used as an euphemism for a coarser term. Bab. Sandhr., fol. 67, 1: 'They stoned the son of Stada in Lydda, and they hanged him up on the evening of the Passover. Now this son of Stada was son of Pandira.'" ... As they say in Pombedetha, she departed from her husband."

In the Jerusalem Talmud the following occurs: "A child of a son of Rabbi Joses, son of Levi, swallowed something poisonous. There came a man who pronounced some words to him in the name of Jesus, son of Pandera; and he was healed. When he was going away Rabbi Joses said to him: 'What word did you use?' He answered, such a word. Rabbi Joses said to him: 'Better had it been for him to die, than to hear such a word.' And so it happened that he instantly died." Upon which Lardner remarks: "Another proof this of the power of miracles inherent in the disciples of Jesus, and at the same time a mark of the malignity of the Jewish rabbins."

In another place the Jerusalem Gemara Avoda Sara, fol. 27, says: "A son of Dama was bitten by a serpent. There came to him James of Sechania to cure him in the name of Jesus, son of Pandera, but the Rabbi Ismael would not suffer it."

The Gemara Tract, Sanhedrim, fol. 48, mentions that Jeshu had five disciples, Matthai, Nakai, Nezer, Boni, and Thoda.

Mr. Gould remarks, "That there really lived such a person as Jeschu Ben-Pandira, and that he was a disciple of the Rabbi Jehoshua Ben-Perachia, I see no reason to doubt. That he escaped from Alexander Jannaeus with his master into Egypt, and there studied magical arts; that he returned after a while to Judaea, and practised his necromantic arts in his own country, is also not improbable. Somewhat later the Jews were famous, or infamous, throughout the Roman world as conjurors and exorcists. Egypt was the head-quarters of magical studies. That Jeschu, son of Pandira, was stoned to death in accordance with the law, for having, practised magic, is also probable. The passages quoted are unanimous in stating that he was stoned for this offence. The law decreed this as the death sorcerers were to undergo."



Lightfoot and Lardner, our two great English authorities, translating from the Talmud, say that Jeshu was hanged. We have ourselves, in a footnote, shown that stoning was the Jewish method of execution, and that numerous passages in the New Testament refer to Jesus as having been hung on a tree and therefore accursed. Mr. Gould arbitrarily changes "hung" into "crucified," in order to bolster up his theory that the Jews confused their Jeshu with the Christian Jesus. Far more probable theories of the origin of the Crucifixion legend may be ventured. Rabbi Wise considers that it may have arisen from the story of Antigonus. He writes: "Dion Cassius says 'Antony now gave the Kingdom to a certain Herod, and having stretched Antigonus on the cross and scourged him, which had never been done before to a king by the Romans, he put him to death.' The sympathies of the masses for the crucified King of Judaea, the heroic son of so many heroic ancestors, and the legends growing, in time, out of this historical nucleus, became, perhaps, the source from which Paul and the Evangelists preached Jesus as the crucified King of Judaea." (History of the Hebrew's Second Commonwealth, p. 206 ; Cincinnatti, 1880.)

The Roman cross was not, as Christian painters have universally represented it, shaped thus . Its real form was a T, the upright portion being a fixture in the place of execution, and the cross-piece, or patibulum, being carried from the court or prison by the culprit, less as a burden than as a mark of ignominy. The true Cross was an ancient phallic symbol, and it was used in Egyptian hieroglyphics as the sign of life. Derived from immemorial ages before Christianity, its extensive use in religious symbolism would naturally prompt the founders and propagators of new creeds and sects to adopt it in their systems. The early Christians, beginning with Paul, deserted the story of Jesus being hung, and transferred the rope to Judas. Then by developing the story of the Crucifixion, and slightly varying the form of the Roman Cross, they elevated their Savior to a position whence he radiated the mysticism of all religions.



Dr. Lardner, in his "Jewish Testimonies" (chap. vii., p. 558, Works, vol. vi.; 1838) after citing from the Talmud, says in a note, "Some learned men have of late appealed to a work entitled Toldoth Jeschu. I am of opinion that Christianity does not need such a testimony nor witnesses. I have looked over it several times, with an intention to give some account of it; but, after all, I could not persuade myself to attempt it; for it is a modern work, written in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, and is throughout, from the beginning to the end burlesque and falsehood; nor does the shameless writer acknowledge anything that has so much as a resemblance to the truth, except in the way of ridicule."

We have shown in our Preface that the Jeshu story is very ancient, and in substance was quoted by a Christian author in the thirteenth century, and even then without being referred to as a recent composition. As for "ridicule," the miracles of the New Testament are fully as absurd as those of the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu, only we are accustomed to them, and this is one of those instances in which familiarity does not breed contempt. How Dr. Lardner would have laughed at finding in the Jeshu story a lively narrative of devils' adventures in men and pigs, or of the hero's being lugged through the air by the Devil and perched on a pinnacle. Such fables are "burlesque," "false" and "shameless" to every man who finds them in another's faith.



We have already in our Preface referred to Mr. Froude's essay on Celsus. The famous "infidel's" reflections on the birth of Jesus have also been dealt with in one of our footnotes. The title of his work was Logos Alethes, which Dr. Donaldson translates as "The True Discourse" and Mr. Froude as the "True Account." "The book is now lost to us," says Professor Luthardt, "having been destroyed by the Christian zeal of the following centuries." Mr. Froude says of it: "The book was powerful and popular, and it proved a real obstacle to the spread of Christianity among the educated classes. Origen's answer decided the controversy in the Church's favor; but in the reconsideration of the theological position which has been forced upon the modern world, what Celsus had to say has become of peculiar interest to us, and I have endeavored to reconstruct, in outline, his principal positions. His arguments lie under every disadvantage; the order is disarranged, the objections are presented sometimes in his own words, sometimes in paraphrases and epitomes, and are brought forward in the attitude in which they could be most easily overthrown. Often we are left to discover what be must have said from details of the rejoinder."

Mr. Froude likewise gives a summary of the charge against Jesus which Celsus puts into the mouth of a Jewish adversary of Christianity. Apostrophising Jesus, he says: "You were born in a small Jewish village. Your mother was a poor woman who earned her bread by spinning. Her husband divorced her for adultery. You were born in secret, and were afterwards carried to Egypt, and were bred up among Egyptian conjurors. The arts which you there learnt you practised when you returned to your own people, and you thus persuaded them that you were God. It was given out that you were born of a virgin. Your real father was a soldier, named Panther."

It may be added that from his reference to St. Epiphanius, John of Damascus, and the Talmud, Mr. Froude appears to attach some weight to these taunts of Celsus.

Celsus was a man of learning, acuteness and wit, and writing in the second century, he was in a much better position than any modern apologist of Christianity to judge of its originality and its miraculous pretensions. He knew that it was primarily an offshoot of Judaism, afterwards strengthened and improved by large derivations from Greek theosophy; and he pointed out what the early Fathers never denied, that the Christian miracles were intellectually on a level with the prodigies of Paganism, the only dispute being as to the character of the supernatural power they manifested. Unfortunately, nothing of this great sceptic's work survives, except the extracts preserved in Origen's refutation; and however honest this celebrated Father may have been, it is impossible, especially in view of Mr. Froude's objections, to take his reply as a complete statement of his opponent's positions.

Mr. Gould starts an original argument on this subject. "Had," he says, "any of the stories found in the Toldoth Jeschu existed in the second century, we should certainly have found them in the book of Celsus." Our answer to this is threefold. First, Christian bigotry has left us no copy of "the book of Celsus," which is therefore an unappealable authority. Second, Celsus does twit the Christians with worshipping as God a bastard Jew, born of Pandera and a Jewish woman, and who worked miracles by magic, which is the very nucleus of the Jeshu story. Third, where the Christian Father distinctly challenges another "calumny" as to Jesus being a carpenter, Celsus is right and Origen clearly wrong. Had the Sceptic himself been able to peruse the Father's answer, it is probable that, instead of being converted, he would have found fresh food for mirth, and been convinced of the hopelessness of attempting to turn Christians from their favorite superstition.



Strange as the charge of magic may sound to us, it was common to both sides in the early controversy between Christianity and its opponents. That was not an age in which miracles were denied. The modern habit of criticism, resulting from long acquaintance with the methods of physical science, scarcely existed then. Miraculous stories were not investigated, but accepted or rejected as they favored or opposed existing beliefs. Gibbon satirically remarks than an Athanasian is obdurate to the force of an Arian miracle; and neither the Christians, the Jews, nor the Pagans could succeed in convincing each other by the greatest display of miraculous power. When Tertullian, in the name of the Trinity, challenged the deities of Paganism to a public contest, he was only attesting the universal belief in magic. Jesus himself, as we read in the gospels, was accused by the Jews of casting out devils by the power of Beelzebub; and in reply, he simply retorted the charge on his adversaries.

From this time until the Christianity was victorious and Paganism finally suppressed, the charge of magic was constantly preferred against Jesus. According to the Apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus, the Jews "said to Pilate, Did we not say unto thee, He is a conjuror?" Justin Martyr, in the middle of the second century, says the Jews of his time still asserted that the miracles of Jesus were performed by magical arts. This charge he also, like his master, retorted on his opponents. He even appeals to "necromancy, divination by immaculate children, dream-senders and assistant spirits" in proof of another life. We may safely assert that all the Christian Fathers, as well as Justin Martyr, believed in magic and necromancy. The Clementine Recognitions allude to the same charge against Jesus; and Arnobius, writing at the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth, says: "My opponents will perhaps meet me with many other slanderous and childish charges which are commonly urged. Jesus was a magician (sorcerer); he effected all these things by secret arts. From the shrines of the Egyptians he stole names of angels of might, and the religious system of a remote century" (Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Vol xix., p. 34).



King Janneus, in whose reign Jeshu is placed, was a Sadducee. He persecuted the Rabbis, and Joshua ben Perachiah, the President of the Sanhedrim, fled to Egypt, leaving Simeon ben Shetach as his deputy. With respect to this persecution, Rabbi Wise writes--"The Pharisees being persecuted in the days of Alexander Jannai, the number of Nazarites increased. Three hundred of them came at one time to Jerusalem to fulfil their vows. Simon [ben Shetach] was enabled so to construe the law that it was unnecessary for one half of them to make the prescribed sacrifices."

Can these Nazarites have been the Nazarenes referred to in the Jeshu story? Such a confusion of names is more than possible, for the author of our first Gospel has actually perpetrated it. He sends Jesus home to Nazareth to fulfill the prophecy "He shall be called a Nazarene." But the only prophecy of that kind in the Old Testament is in the angel's diction of the birth of Samson, who was neither to shave nor to drink strong drink, but to be "a Nazarite. from the womb." The Nazarite was an ancient teetotaller, and had no connexion whatever with Nazareth.

On the death of Janneus, his wife succeeded him on the throne. Josephus gives her name as Alexandra. She may, however, have had the second name of Helena. She was perhaps the Queen Helena of the Jeshu story; for the Martini version represents this personage as "governing all Israel," a function which was never performed by Helena of Adiabene nor by Helena the mother of Constantine. It is, however, quite possible, as we have said in a footnote, that the tradition confused her name with that of the celebrated proselyte.

Simeon ben Shetach was of great repute among the Jews, being called a second Ezra. He restored the traditional law, and made attendance at public schools compulsory. He is said to have refused to save his own son, condemned on the testimony of false witnesses, because it had been done according to the letter of the law.



< Previous Section