If Jesus Christ caused so much trouble in first century Israel, certainly the Jews would have written of Him, right? So, what ancient Semitic writings are extant that mention Jesus of Nazareth? Does the rabbinical literature corroborate Biblical accounts and, if not, why? First, we need to understand the primary source documents from that time period, which are contained in the Talmud.
What is the Talmud?
Briefly, ancient Jews passed down large amounts of Biblical (Old Testament) commentary and tradition from generation to generation. Rabbi Akiba, before his death in A.D. 135, and Rabbi Meir, organized and revised the material. Around A.D. 200, Rabbi Judah completed the project, which became known as the Mishnah (literally “teaching” or “repetition”). This was known as the Tannaitic Period. Commentary on the Mishnah was labeled the Gemaras 1 and was compiled from the third through the sixth centuries, during the Ammoraic Period. Gemara is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “to finish”.
During the Ammoraic Period, two schools existed, one in Babylonia and another in Palestine. From approximately A.D. 350-425, the Mishnah and Gemara were combined in the first school at Jerusalem, called the Palestinian Talmud. The second school, in Babylonia, also included the Mishnah and Gemara, but continued to be compiled until around A.D. 500, so was a larger collection. This became known as the Babylonian Talmud. The word Talmud literally means “learning”.2 Volumes could be written on this subject, but that will suffice as a short introduction.
Jesus in the Talmud
A highly significant quotation is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. Translated into English, it reads:
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.' But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!”3
Yeshu (sometimes, Yeshua) is derived from the Aramaic or Hebrew and translated into English as Jesus. But, someone might question whether this refers to Jesus Christ, because this person was “hanged”, not crucified, as the Bible states. Actually, the New Testament twice refers to Jesus being hanged: Galatians 3:13 (Greek kremamenos) and Luke 23:39 (Greek kremasthenton). The term “hang” does not strictly refer to the modern notion of hanging by a rope noose around the neck, but can include other methods of attachment to a wooden pole, as evidenced by Paul and Luke's usage of the term.
From this Talmudic passage, several significant points may be understood. Gary Habermas, Ph.D., Michigan State University, History and Philosophy of Religion, lists these as follows:
- The fact of Jesus' death by crucifixion
- The timing of the event, twice mentioned as occurring on the eve of Passover
- No witnesses came forward to defend him, and he was killed
- Jesus was judged by the Jews to be guilty of “sorcery” and spiritual apostasy
- It was publicly announced beforehand that Jesus would be stoned. This was the standard method of execution by the Jews, though not specifically mentioned in the Bible. However, Jesus was threatened with this fate on other occasions (John 8:58-59, 10:31-33, 39)4
So, what significance can we derive for a modern day understanding of the Bible from this passage written from 1,500 to 2,000 years ago? Josh McDowell graduated from Wheaton College and Magna Cum Laude from Talbot Theological Seminary. Concerning this writing, he and Bill Wilson noted:
“This passage is significant because of what it does not deny. First, it does not deny Jewish involvement in Jesus' death. In fact, it does not even mention the Romans. Rather, it seeks to demonstrate the Jewish authorities carried out the sentencing, but in a just manner. The result is a clear affirmation of the historicity of Jesus and his death. Second, this passage does not deny that Jesus performed miracles. Rather, it tries to explain them away as being accomplished through sorcery or magic. The same response to Jesus' miracles is reported in Mark 3:22 and Matthew 9:34; 12:24. Once again, there is a clear affirmation of the historicity of Jesus, and this time of his miracles as well.”5
Comments in this passage are just about what one would expect of a Jewish rabbinical writer who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah.
On the subject of a precise mention of the time period Jesus was sought by the authorities, McDowell proposes the possibility that “The forty days may only be an apologetic device designed to deny that the trial was a speedy one.”6 The reference to 40 days may be an indicator that the authorities were seeking an opportunity to dispose of this troublemaker from Nazareth. In fact, the Bible mentions this in several places, without providing an exact time frame (John 5:18 and John 11:53-57).
Paul L. Maier, Ph.D., is Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University. His research includes a variety of methodologies involved in manuscript and textual analysis, archaeology, and comparison of sacred and secular sources from the first century A.D. Dr. Maier makes several points regarding the authenticity of this reference:
“Four items in this statement strongly support its authenticity as a notice composed before Jesus' arrest: 1) The future tense is used; 2) Stoning was the regular punishment for blasphemy among the Jews whenever the Roman government was not involved; 3) There is no reference whatever to crucifixion; and 4) That Jesus was performing "sorcery"— the extraordinary or miraculous with a negative spin—is quite remarkable. This not only invokes what historians call the "criterion of embarrassment," which proves what is conceded, but accords perfectly with how Jesus' opponents explained away his miraculous healings: performing them with the help of Beelzebub (Luke 11:18).”7
The bottom line is this: The Talmudic reference to Jesus is another in a long line of extra-Biblical documentary records that corroborate information found in the Bible. Many valid reasons exist for the authenticity of the Bible and this is one more piece of evidence showing that the Biblical accounts of Jesus of Nazareth can be trusted.