Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Addendum I: In Search Of The Historical Jesus

Jesus Pathocrator
Ancient mosaic from Hagia Sophia (Istanbul)

As we said in the first Easter post, sacred scriptures such as the New Testament have seven levels of interpretation and understanding. We focused on two, and now it´s time to deal with its historical protagonist, for the existence of Jesus have been called into question from different viewpoints and none of them seems rigorous or convincing. 

In order to deny the existence of Jesus many researchers simply focus on the few well-known early historical sources that only allude to christians, Christ or Chrestus (i.e Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, etc), and of course on the testimony of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (1st century A.D), which despite mentioning “Jesus”, calling him “wise man”, his text is full of “Christian interpolations” that could never be attributed to a Jewish, and it is thereby regarded as a “forgery” (although one could also argue that the expression “wise man” is unthinkable in the mouth of fervent Christians who thought he was, not just the son of God, but God himself, and therefore some parts of the text would really belong to Flavius.)

Other researchers venture to take the astro-theological interpretation as the definitive proof that Jesus did not exist. Probably because many ignore that it is “logically impossible” to prove that something does or did not exist; the laws of reason are very clear in this regard. At most one can suggest “unlikeliness”, but this is not precisely the case here.

We won´t make this too long and will simply mention a few points that are crucial but mostly ignored. 

First of all it would not be serious to discard what seem to be references to Jesus in the Talmud and other Jewish texts. Since these would require extense reflections, we will only mention a few and focus on the one which seems more clear. It is contained in a treatise of the Mishnah, which constitutes part of the Talmud (the Babylonian version in particular) and gathers events and traditions that go far back in time, such as the trials of the Jewish tribunal, the Sanhedrin [1,2,3]:

And it is tradition: On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus the Nazarene [Jeshu ha-Notzeri]. And the crier went forth before him forty days saying: [Jeshu the Nazarene] goeth forth to be stoned, because he hath practiced magic and deceived and led Israel astray. Anyone who knoweth aught in his favor, let him come and declare concerning him. And they found naught in his favor. And they hung him on the eve of the Passover (Sanhedrin 43a). 

This passage, recorded on the 2nd century A.D., is followed by a later commentary  dating from 300 A.D:

Ulla said: 'Would it be supposed that [Jeshu the Nazarene] a revolutionary, had aught in his favor?' He was a deceiver and the Merciful [God] hath said (Deut XIII, 8), ‘Thou shalt not spare, neither shalt thou conceal him’. But it was different with [Jeshu the Nazarene] for he was near the kingdom (Sanhedrin 43a).

Some scholars have argued that the name Jeshu the Nazarene would correspond to a rabbi of 100 B.C that is mentioned in Sanhedrin 107b, but this has been questioned, because the case of such a rabbi appears in other texts without his name. On the contrary, the apellative Nazarene is one of the famoust epithets of Jesus, mentioned in the New Testament (Matthew 2:23), and the Christians were also called Nazarenes in ancient historical texts.

Furthermore, the last sentence of the commentary  may be interpreted as an ironical remark related to one of Jesus´claims: My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).

It is also remarkable that this Jeshu of the Talmudic text was “hung” (expression that in those days could perfectly refer to the Roman crucifixion), and right at the same time indicated in the Gospels (John 19:14): the eve of Passover, and due to the same reasons (for attracting the attention of Jews, claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of God, etc).

In 1930 the German scholar Hans Lietzmann published a paper rejecting the historical value of the “trial of Jesus” described in the Gospels. His principal argument was that the Jewish tribunal, the Sanhedrin, was in possession of the ius gladii, namely, the right to execute capital punishment, and since the Gospels state Jesus was crucified by the Romans –forced by the Sanhedrin– the question would be: why didn´t the Jews stone him to death if they had they right to do it? However,  the reason is very simple: 

After the destitution of Herod the Great, governor of Judea (who died in the year 4 B.C), such a province started to be ruled completely by the Romans, and for a long period of time the power of the Sanhedrin was limited. In fact, the Talmud (both the version of Jerusalem and that of Babylon) confirms that “40 years before the destruction of the Temple” –event that happened in 70 A.D–, the “sentences of death” were not passed by the Sanhedrin, for it was forbidden. And the execution mentioned by H.Litzmann, based on an inscription, was an exceptional concession granted by the Romans, as it follows from chronicles of Flavius Josephus (Jewish Ant. XV, 417-Bellum Jud. VI, 124-126). Moreover, this Jewish historian reported a case in which another man called Jesus, son of Ananias, was arrested by the Jews and sent to the Romans to be executed (B.J VI, 300-309).

The other argument that has been proposed against the historical validity of the “trial and crucifixion of Jesus” is based on later comments of the Mishnah, which state the Sanhedrin could not judge and execute offenders in the same day, specially if it was a festive day or the eve of Passover, because the executions had to be done a day after the judgement of death. However, some scholars have realized this law is not applicable at the time of Jesus, because the Jewish leaders were not the Pharisee –who intriduced such a law– but the “strict” Sadducees (with which Jesus argued, according to the gospels; in fact, Caiaphas, the High priest of the Sanhedrin that condemned him, was  a Sadducee). And their law allowed them to judge and execute on the same day. This is, again, supported by Flavius Josephus, who reports about the trial of Herod the Great and his espouse. Herod could only escape because a priest of the Sanhedrin was a good friend of his and postponed the execution for the following day, but his wife was judged and killed on the same day (J.A XIV, 163-184). [5]

It is important to bear in mind that the “Jewish chronicles” are much better testimony than the Roman ones, since the Jews were the enemies of Jesus and did not have any interest in exalting his figure or supporting his existence. As the ancient texts say, for them he was simply a “crank” like those false prophets who walked on those days, and because of his miraculous deeds he was regarded as “a man possessed by devils”. Passages like the following (collected in the 3rd century A.D) seem an echo of this view (in connection with Mark  14:62):

“Rabbi Abahu said: If a man says 'I am God,' he lies; if he says, 'I am the Son of Man' he shall rue it; 'I will go up to heaven,' he saith, but shall not perform it” (Jerusalem Talmud Taanith-65b) [2]

Given such a negative attitude, the Jewish philosopher of religion Pinchas Lapide writes the following: 

“It is quite surprising that the famoust son of Israel, whom the West has regarded as its God, has left scarce, obscure, and often negative traces, in the religious annals of Judaism. In the Talmudic writings –more than 15.000 pages– the figure of Jesus, the Jewish believer, Jesus, is only mentioned in about 15” [4]. 

These allusions were so “incendiary” that in 1631 the Jewish Assembly of Elders in Poland banned the publication of any reference to Jesus of Nazareth in the Mishnah and Gemara, as if they were afraid of them. In this regard, a scholar has written [2]:

At first, deleted portions of words in printed Talmuds were indicated by small circles or blank spaces but, in time, these too were forbidden by the censors. As a result of the twofold censorship the usual volumes of Rabbinic literature contain only a distorted remnant of supposed allusions to Jesus..." (pp.58-59)

"Thankfully, copies of the uncensored pre-1631 texts can be found in Oxford University and several other European libraries. Thus the statements about Jesus were never actually ‘lost’. (Ibid, pp.1-2)

There are other ancient quotes and elements which fit perfectly into the historical nature of Jesus and his circumstances, including passages of the Gospels, but this has been to some extent exposed in books. Although there are profound aspects of the history of Christianity that are usually avoided by most scholars.

In the next article we will see other ancient quotes, including one from Syria, and then we will draw conclusions, some of which can even be supported from sacred traditions.
[1].Jesus of Nazareth. Joseph Klauser. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1925.

[2].Jesus in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Dr. Robert A. Morey (short essay)

[3].He Walked Among Us: Evidence For The Historical Jesus, Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson. Thomas Nelson Publishers-Nashville TN, 1993.
[4].¿No es este el hijo de José? Jesús en el judaísmo actual, Barcelona, 2000, p.90. P.Lapide. 
[5].Los Orígenes Históricos del Cristianismo. José Miguel García, Ediciones Encuentro, S.A. 2007  
[6].Der Prozess Jesu. J.Blinzer, Regensburg, 1969.
[7].Article concerning Jewish references about Jesus:

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