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Murcia, T.


Jésus dans le Talmud et la littérature rabbinique ancienne.


Turnhout: Brepols Publishers 2014. 810 S. m. 10 Abb. = Judaïsme antique et origines du christianisme, 2. Kart. EUR 120,00. ISBN 978-2-503-55215-6.


Catherine Hezser

This revised doctoral thesis, carried out at the Centre Paul-Albert Février (MMSH) in Aix-en-Provence, is an extremely meticulous and learned examination of rabbinic passages that are commonly considered to refer to Jesus. Although the author claims that he has never studied rabbinic texts with a »master«, his expertise in talmudic, early Christian, and Graeco-Roman literature is unques-tionable. Rather than trying to determine what rabbinic texts can tell us about the »historical Jesus«, he examines the texts within their respective redactional contexts, that is, in late antique and early Islamic times, when Middle Eastern Jews experienced a »triumphant« (4–5th century) or defeated (7–8th century) Christianity. The rabbinic texts respond to these later circumstances rather than being a »counter-narrative« or parody of the gospels, based on rabbis’ direct knowledge of these writings, as Peter Schäfer has claimed.
In many regards, M.’s study can be considered a »counter-narrative« to Schäfer’s account (Jesus im Talmud, Tübingen 2007; Jesus in the Talmud, Princeton 2007). In contrast to Schäfer, whom he charges with a subjective exegesis, imposing a homogeneous and pre-fabricated interpretation on the rabbinic texts, M. analyzes the texts in their variety and within the specific literary and social contexts in which they were composed and edited. His focus is on the image which later rabbis had of Jesus or which they created of him, that is, on perception rather than reality. Most importantly, »tous les documents rabbinique ne doivent pas être mis sur un même plan« (49), an approach which Schäfer himself advocates in his other writings.
The detailed study of all relevant rabbinic texts on Jesus is di-vided into four main parts. The first part, entitled »Yeshua Ben Panthera, Healer« (57–153), concerns mostly Palestinian texts, some of them tannaitic. M. suggests that »Panthera« might have been a patronym or cognomen of Joseph or Joseph’s father Jacob, as Epiphanius maintains. A non-Jewish connotation would therefore not have been compulsory. If rabbis had considered Panthera a soldier of foreign origin, they would probably have used this assumption in a polemical way. The name may even be considered a rare trace of historical truth within the otherwise fictive rabbinic narratives (see ibid., 671). Similarly, the presentation of Jesus and his followers as effective healers, who were consulted by rabbis sometimes (cf. the story about R. Eleazar b. Dama in T. Hull. 2:21–23 and par.; story about R. Yehoshua b. Levi in y. A.Z. 2:2, 40d and par.) may indicate good neighborly relations between Jewish-Christians and Jews in Roman Palestine at least until the third century C. E., even if later rabbis criticized this phenomenon.
In the second part, »Words of the Gospels?« (155–317), M. ques-tions the assumption of rabbis’ actual knowledge of the gospels. Although Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho might suggest that some Jews were interested in the gospels or logia collections at the end of the second century C. E., in rabbinic literature gilyonim, which seem to have been identified with the gospels in the Babylonian Talmud only, are labeled heretical, so that rabbis would have been unlikely to have studied them themselves. Only a narrative that seems to belong to the latest editorial stage of the Bavli (b. Shab. 116a–b: a story about R. Gamliel, Imma Shalom, and a philosopher) might reveal the editors’ knowledge of some gospel verses (e. g., from the Peshitta, Diatessaron, or a logia collection). This late and fictive text should be seen as a rabbinic reaction to Christian anti-Jewish arguments in the seventh or eighth century C. E., however, rather than evidence of second-century rabbis’ knowledge of the New Testament. Its historical context may have been the onset of Islamic rule and the end of Byzantine Christian power in the East.
In the third part, »From Ben Stada to Ben Pandera« (319–496), M. warns against some scholars’ assumption that the name Ben Stada (always) serves as a pseudonym for Jesus. While later rabbinic sources may merge the two, in earlier Palestinian texts Ben Stada (»son of Sotades«?) remains a distinct figure, who cannot be identified definitively with a historical personality. Babylonian Talmudic references to Jesus’ alleged sojourn in Egypt and rejection by his teacher Yehoshua b. Perahiah (b. Sanh. 107b) should be seen as late and fictitious variants of Palestinian materials directed against the Jesus-traditions of Syriac Christians whom rabbis accused of staurolatry. Misunderstandings and mutual incomprehension between Babylonian rabbis and the Syriac church seem to suggest an irreparable separation between the two communities by the seventh and eighth centuries C. E. The allegation that Jesus was stoned and hanged because he practiced sorcery, and that he was »close to the Empire« (cf. b. Sanh. 43a) must likewise be seen as the result of a gradual radicalization of polemics. They echo Christian anti-Jewish discourse which claimed that Jews had killed Jesus. At a time when the Roman Empire was Christian, the Romans could hardly be blamed. The allegation obviously stands in contrast to the gospels’ own narrative.
In his study of Balaam in the fourth part of his book, »From Balaam to Jesus« (497–669) M. emphasizes that rabbinic literature is primarily self-referential. While Palestinian tannaitic sources depict Balaam as the quintessential »enemy of Israel«, they never identify him with Jesus. An association between the two (»Jésus est bien présenté comme ›le nouveau Balaam‹, un sorte d’avatar«, ibid., 663) appears only later and especially in the Bavli, where both are accused of necromancy and placed in hell (cf. b. Git. 56b–57a). The reference to »boiling excrement« (b. Er. 21b), which Schäfer con-siders an allusion to the eucharist, seems to refer to Christianity as a form of neo-idolatry in the eyes of rabbis. Idolatry is also asso-ciat­ed with excrement and prostitution in other rabbinic texts. Ba­bylonian rabbis viewed Christianity as a heresy which had turned a man into God and prostrated before human representa-tions.
M. concludes that, with the possible exception of two details (the family name Panthera and Jewish-Christian healing activit­ies), rabbinic texts do not add anything knew to our knowledge of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. The rabbinic image of Jesus rather reflects rabbis’ image of Christians and Christianity at their own time and place. Against Schäfer, M. maintains that none of the texts provides evidence of rabbis’ direct knowledge of New Testament texts. Rabbis were probably aware of some Christian teachings from oral debates. They reacted against certain doc-trines, assertions, and ideas rather than creating polemical counter-narratives against a text: »nous n’avons pas affaire à une entreprise planifiée de grande ampleur dirigée contre un écrit mais plutôt à des réponses au coup par coup faisant suite à des échanges ponctuels ou, tout simplement, en réaction au ›discours ambiant‹« (674).
M.’s thorough and well-balanced study can be considered the definitive statement on rabbinic perceptions of Jesus. The book will constitute the basis for all further discussions of these texts. It can be highly recommended to all scholars and students of ancient Judaism, rabbinic literature, patristics, and Roman-Byzantine and Sasanian history.