October 9, 2003
Jesus’ Death Now Debated by Jews
The controversy over Mel Gibson's upcoming film about the death of Jesus has spurred painful exchanges between Jews and Christians and progressive and traditional Catholics in recent days. To date, the debates have centered on the "proper" interpretation of the role of Jews in Jesus' Crucifixion, as presented in the four Gospels.
But this week, Gibson's $25 million biblical epic, which the director insists is about love and forgiveness, has triggered a new squabble -- among Jewish scholars.
The texts in question are not in the Christian Bible but rather passages long-censored (by Christian authorities) about Jesus from the Talmud, the encyclopedia of Jewish law and tradition considered sacred by traditional Jews.
Raising the issue is an article by Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee's (AJCommittee) national director of contemporary Jewish life, which declares that Jews must face up to the fact that the talmudic narrative "does clearly demonstrate...fourth century rabbinic willingness to take responsibility for the execution of Jesus."
"Jewish apologetics that 'we could not have done it' because of Roman sovereignty ring hollow when one examines the talmudic account," Bayme said.
He contends that Jewish interfaith representatives are not being honest in dialogue if they ignore the explicit talmudic references to Jesus.
His article was posted on the AJCommittee's Web site last week, then removed after a Jewish Week reporter's inquiry.
Ken Bandler, a spokesman for the AJCommittee, said the article was taken down to "avoid confusion" over whether it represented the organization's official position. AJCommittee officials now refer to the article as "an internal document."
Some Jewish scholars and interfaith officials were upset with the article, either questioning Bayme's scholarship or his timing -- saying this was a particularly delicate time to call attention to Jews' role in Jesus' death -- or both.
But Bayme was unswayed. Citing the continuing controversy over Gibson's "The Passion," which has reignited concern over Christianity's ancient charge against Jews as "Christ-killers," he wrote that it is also important "that Jews confront their own tradition and ask how Jewish sources treated the Jesus narrative."
Bayme cites a passage from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, which relates the fate of a man called Jesus who is hanged on the eve of Passover for practicing sorcery and leading the people of Israel astray.
When no one comes forward to defend the accused sorcerer during a 40-day reprieve, Jewish authorities put him to death, despite Jesus' "connections with the government." The Talmud cites this incident during a discussion of due process and capital punishment in Jewish law.
Bayme acknowledges that the passage was written by talmudic scholars in Babylon, who lived about 400 years after Jesus.
"To be sure, historians cannot accept such a text uncritically," Bayme wrote.
But he says the passage is significant because the talmudic text "indicates rabbinic willingness to acknowledge, at least in principle, that in a Jewish court and in a Jewish land, a real-life Jesus would indeed have been executed.
"No effort is made to pin his death upon the Romans," Bayme said. "Pointedly, Jews did not argue that crucifixion was a Roman punishment and therefore, no Jewish court could have advocated it."
Bayme told The Jewish Week he wrote the piece for two reasons: to educate Jews and promote honest dialogue with Christians.
He cited the Catholic Church's 1965 statement that Jesus' death "cannot be blamed upon all Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today."
Bayme said Gibson's movie "has alienated many Jewish leaders who correctly worry whether the movie's graphic description of the Crucifixion and its alleged overtones of a Jewish conspiracy to kill Jesus may ignite long-dormant Christian hostilities to Jews."
That's why the Gospel and its association with anti-Semitism need to be confronted as well as Jewish sources, he said. But Bayme stressed that he is not suggesting a moral equivalency between problematic anti-Semitic Gospel passages "which have caused the death of Jews" and the talmudic Jesus references.
Indeed, the Catholic Church, which burned copies of the Talmud in the Middle Ages, officially censored the Talmud's Jesus references in the 13th century. Even today the standard Vilna edition of the Talmud omits any discussion about "Yeshu," Jesus in Hebrew.
The Jesus omissions began to be restored in the last century, Bayme said. And the passages "are now included in most of the new printings of the Talmud," said Yisrael Shaw of Daf Yomi Discussions, an on-line Talmud service.
"If you do an Internet search for Sanhedrin 43a, you will find that it is one of the favorite sources of the Christians to use as proof of the Jewish murder and hatred of their god," Shaw said.
But Bayme is concerned that Jews know nothing about the censored texts.
"Whenever I talked about the origins of Christianity with fellow Jews, I discovered massive ignorance of Jewish narratives concerning the death of Jesus. It's something I thought Jews ought to confront fairly," he said.
Bayme contends the talmudic text resonates with the Gospel accounts for several reasons. He said the talmudic charge of practicing sorcery and seducing Israel into apostasy, a biblical capital crime, matches recently discovered "hidden Gospels" that "a historical Jesus was indeed a first century sorcerer."
"A mature relationship between two faiths should allow for each faith to ... uncover these texts and view them critically," Bayme said.
But some disagreed with Bayme's analysis and policy suggestion.
His own organization pulled the piece only a couple of days after it was posted, though AJCommittee Associate Executive Director Shula Bahat defended it as a teaching tool.
Rabbi David Rosen, the group's director of interreligious affairs, said Bayme's views were not the "official AJC position" concerning the trial of Jesus.
He called the talmudic text historically "dubious" and questioned Bayme's connecting the text with the Gospel stories, noting the actual charge against Jesus and the nature of the court "is in conflict."
Some outside specialists also refuted Bayme's article.
Brooklyn College history professor Rabbi David Berger, a specialist in Christian-Jewish issues, said it would be a mistake and diversion to bring the talmudic texts into the interfaith dialogue.
"The Second Vatican council properly rejected collective Jewish guilt for the Crucifixion, even though it affirmed that some Jews were involved," he said. "Consequently, raising the question of the historical involvement of Jews, with or without reference to talmudic texts, diverts us from the key issue, which is the denial of contemporary Jewish culpability for these events."
He noted that in the Middle Ages, "most Jews assumed that Jews executed Jesus of Nazareth based on these talmudic passages, though some asserted that the Jesus of Talmud is not the same as the Jesus of Christianity."
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, whose Talmud edition has been translated into English, Russian and Spanish, said he believed the talmudic Jesus is probably not the Christian Jesus.
"It could very well be somebody else" who lived 100 or 200 years earlier because the stories don't match the Gospel account, he said.
Steinsaltz noted that the Hebrew name Yeshu was popular back then and that "stories about the resurrection of dead leaders are a dime a dozen, before Jesus and after him. This is not a historical issue."
In any case, Steinsaltz said Christians would do best to avoid these texts because there is nothing politically or theologically significant to them in Jewish tradition.
Ellis Rivkin, professor emeritus of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of the seminal book "What Crucified Jesus," said dragging in the Talmud text is "dangerous, utterly meaningless and irrelevant."
But Dr. David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, supported Bayme's call for honesty about Jewish texts and Jesus.
"I think it's very relevant to bring up evidence of the difficulty of our relationship with Christianity," he said, contending that it is indeed Jesus of Nazareth in the text. Kraemer believes the text was written at a time of fierce competition between the early rabbis and Christian leaders in the early centuries of the Common Era.
"The attitudes expressed [in the Talmud] can be pretty hateful attitudes," he said. "It's not about comparing them [with the anti-Semitic Gospel passages]. Just because you can't equate them doesn't mean you can't raise the issues."
Originally printed in The Jewish Week, www.thejewishweek.com .