Toward the end of my first year in rabbinical school, I happened to end up in two separate conversations with seminary students studying to become Christian ministers. They both asked me a variation of the same question: “How much Jesus do you study in rabbi school?”
It’s actually a great question, and I couldn’t help but to chuckle at my own answer: “To be honest, he hasn’t come up once this entire year!” I told them. It was funny because I could only imagine how strange that must sound to them. They probably don’t go one hour without the J-word coming up!
After three years in school, I can amend my answer, but only slightly. Jesus has come up in our history courses dealing with the Judaism of the 2nd Temple period and the various apocalyptic movements that were proliferating at that time.
Later on in my studies, I suspect he might come up more often, as we begin studying the impact of medieval Christianity on Jewish theology and society. And it certainly becomes a part of discussions about our contemporary Jewish world – although that tends to be more about the Big C as opposed to the Big J.
These seminary students’ question, though, still comes back to me after all these years, because it’s actually a quite interesting topic! While we don’t have the time nor the reason to do any in-depth study of Jesus the Prophet (or any other prophet) in rabbi school, our tradition has preserved some fascinating stories about Jesus, some of which date as far back as some of the earliest Christian texts.
Of course, what we identify as a “Jewish text” versus a “Christian text” becomes murky the further back we go, as some of the earliest Christians were Jews. What I am referring to are texts produced by the rabbinic communities that rejected the early Christian claims, and who were essentially responding to them in the typical modes of rabbinic literature. These are found in texts as old as the Tosefta, c 100CE.
A wonderful book was published in August 2009 by Princeton University Press on this topic, called Jesus in the Talmud. Written by scholar Peter Schafer, the book explores the fascinating references rabbinic texts make to Jesus and Mary, and offers an insightful analysis of what they were really saying. This latter point is crucial, for the cryptic, abbreviated nature of rabbinic literature can make them quite difficult to figure out!
One of the most fascinating pieces of the story is learning that the reason these rabbinic-era texts are not found in our modern day editions of the Talmud, Mishnah or Tosefta is because they were cut out during the Middle Ages – and not by Jews, but by Christians!
“The earliest available evidence for our Jesus texts is the Firenze manuscript from the late 12th century. The latest manuscript is a Yemenite manuscript from the second half of the 16th century. Altogether, the transmission history of the Bavli text is hampered by the fact that many of the earlier manuscripts are lost because of the aggressive policy of the Catholic Church against the Talmud, which culminated in the many burnings of the Talmud ordered by the Church (at first 1242 in Paris). Moreover, after the (in)famous Christian-Jewish disputation of Barcelona in 1263, the Church began (often relying on the ‘expertise’ of Jewish converts) to censor the Talmud text and to eliminate (erase, blacken, etc) all the passages that the experts found objectionable or offensive to Christian doctrine. It goes without saying that passages referring to Jesus became the prime victim of such activity. In later printed editions, many such supposedly incriminating passages were left out by the Jewish printers themselves in order not to jeopardize the publication of the Talmud (or of other Hebrew books).”
One of the great strengths of Schafer’s book is how it is organized. If you don’t have the time, interest or attention span to read a detailed analysis of each of the texts he presents, Schafer’s first and last chapters provide great thematic summaries. Just by reading those two chapters, you will walk away with a good sense of what these texts were about, and the historical contexts in which they were written.