This is the second post regarding evidence of the historicity of Jesus. My first post dealt with early secular sources. This post will deal with early Jewish sources. Many reliable references to Jesus have been found among Jewish works. There have also been references that have later on been found to be unreliable. The thing to note with these sources is that they are unfriendly toward Jesus. They do not believe the claim that He is the Messiah, but do not challenge his existence. Their references to events in Jesus’ life provides valuable testimony to the historical authenticity of those events.
So again the historicity of Jesus is on trial and in its defense, I am going to present several pieces of evidence for you, the jury, to decide.
Exhibit A: Talmudic Literature
Regarding the crucifixion, in the Babylonian Talmud:
“It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu. And an annoucer went out, in front of him, for forty days (saying): ‘He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come plead in his behalf.’ But not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of Passover,” (Sanhedrin 43a; cf. t. Sanh. 10:11; y. Sanh. 7:12; Tg. Esther 7:9).
“Yeshu” translates through Greek to English as Jesus. The word “hanged” is another way of referring to the crucifixion. The Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:13 teaches that Deuteronomy 21:23 – “for a hanged man is cursed by God,” applies to Jesus. This passage in The Talmud also can see that it agrees with John 19:14 on the timing of the crucifixion – “on the eve of Passover.”
Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” (John 19:14,ESV).
It affirms that Jewish authorities were involved, but does try to justify their actions. It also attests to Jesus’ miracles, but tries to explain it away as sorcery. This type of response to Jesus is mentioned in the Gospels:
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (Mark 3:22, ESV).
But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons,” (Matthew 9:34, ESV).
But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons,” (Matthew 12:24, ESV).
Regarding Jesus and His disciples, a later Talmudic passage regarding Jesus’ crucifixion reads:
“Yeshu had five disciples – Mattai, Nakkai, Netzer, Buni, and Todah,” (b. Sanh. 107b).
Mattai may be a reference to Matthew, while no one is certain if the other names can be linked to any of other disciples.
Regarding the Virgin Birth:
Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner in his 1925 book, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times and Teaching explained the use of the titles, “Ben Pandera (or “Ben Pantere”) and “Jeshu ben Pandera” in the Talmud:
“The Jews constantly heard that the Christians (the majority of whom spoke Greek from the earliest times) called Jesus by the name ‘Son of the Virgin,’… and so, in mockery, they called him Ben ha-Pantera, i.e., ‘son of the leopard,’” (pg. 23).
One passage in the Babylonian Talmud says:
“R. Shimeon ben Azzai said [concerning Jesus]: ‘I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress,’” (b. Yebamoth 49a; m. Yebam. 4:13).
Another passage reads:
“His mother was Miriam, a women’s hairdresser. As they say… ‘this one strayed from her husband,’” (b. Sabb. 104b).
And yet another passage says that Mary, “who was the descendent of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters,” (b. Sanh. 106a). This is an attempt at an explanation of the Christian’s confession of a virgin birth. There is also a likely reference to Mary’s ancestors in “descendent of princes and governors.” Joseph is obviously referred to in the phrase, “played the harlot with carpenters.”
John 8:41 records that the scribes and Pharisees leveled the charge of being an illegitimate son at Jesus.
Exhibit B: Flavius Josephus
Born Josephus ben Mattathias in approximately 37/38 AD, he was involved as a rebel commander in the Jewish Revolt (66-73 AD) after being captured by the Romans in 67 AD he served as mediator and interpreter during the rest of the revolt. He was brought to Roman afterwards and there composed two works – The Jewish War finished in the early 70s, and Jewish Antiquities finished around 93/94 AD.
There is quite a bit of debate regarding a passage in his Jewish Antiquities:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again on the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day, (Antiquities, pg. 780 italics added).
The passage is in debate because Josephus being a non-Christian Jew makes some statements within this passage about Jesus that an orthodox Jew could not affirm such as referring to Jesus as the Christ and claiming that he rose from the dead. I agree, it would be unlikely. So while some Christian additions (in italics) have been made to the text that doesn’t fit, it does contain truth which Josephus could affirm.
Read this passage in Antiquities without the italics:
Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.
Josephus calls him by the generic title “wise man.” Then shares two components of being a wise man in the Roman world: miracle working and effective teaching. As a result he had a large following. He then is brought before Pilate even though no reason is given, it could be as a result of his popularity had become a threat. Even though Jesus was crucified as a common criminal his followers did not give up on him, and Christians at the time Josephus wrote this still had not died out.
Josephus later on refers to James, the brother of Jesus:
But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned, (Antiquities, pg. 877)
Josh McDowell in his book, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict defends the authenticity of second passage of Josephus that is commonly cited:
Louis Feldman, professor of classics at Yeshiva University and translator for the Loeb edition of Antiquities, states, “Few have doubted the genuineness of this passage,” (Josephus, Antiquities, Loeb, 496). The passing reference to Jesus as the “so-called Christ” does not make sense unless Josephus had provided a longer discussion about Jesus earlier in his Antiquities. This is yet another indication that the earlier and more extensive treatment in Antiquities is genuine, excluding the obvious Christian interpolations, (pg. 126).
So a approximately 60 years after Jesus’ life and crucifixion, Josephus provides testimony that Jesus was not just a figment of Christians’ imagination, but an actual historical figure.
But you the jury decide. Next round of “witnesses” will be early Christian sources.