10 02 2007

Originally appearing on folio 43a of tractate Sanhedrin in the Babylonian Talmud, the following brief narrative was one of many that was expunged by Christian authorities. Curiously, Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (the Ramban) commenced his account of the famous “Disputation at Barcelona” with this very passage. The individual against whom the Ramban disputed, a convert to Christianity who adopted the name Fray Pul, was a man who had been raised within the Jewish faith but who, for reasons of his own, had seen fit to become an antagonist of the same. It was undoubtedly a person similarly educated who had been responsible for recognising this passage within the Talmud and who had recommended its deletion. I reproduce it below as it appeared in the Venice edition of 1520.

ת”ר חמש’ תלמידים היו לו לישו מתאי נקאי נצר ובוני ותודה אתיוה למתי אמ’ להו מתי יהרג הכתי’ מתי אבוא ואראה פני אלקים אמ’ לו אין מתי יהרג דכתי’ מתי ימות ואבד שמו אתיוה לנקאי אמר להו נקאי יהרג הכתי’ ונקי וצדיק אל תהרג אין נקאי יהרג דכתיב במסתרי’ יהרג נקי אתיוה לנצר אמ’ נצר יהרג דכתיב ונצר משרשיו יפרה אמ’ ליה אין נצר יהרג דכתיו ואתה השלכת מקברך כנצר נתעב אתיוה לבוני אמ’ בוני יהרג הכתי’ בני בכורי ישראל אמרו לו אין בוני יהרג דכתיב הנה אנכי הרג את בנך בכורך אתיוה לתודה אמ’ תודה יהרג הכתיב מזמור לתודה א”ל אין תודה יהרג דכתיב זובח תודה יכבדני

The Sages said,
Jesus had five disciples: Mattai, Nakkai, Neitzer and Buni, and Todah.
They camed to Mattai and he asked them, Must Mattai be put to death? Is it not written “When will I come [or, Mattai I will come] and see the face of God?” (Ps 42:3). They answered them, Yes – Mattai must be put to death – for it is written, “When will he die [or, Mattai will die] and his name be erased?” (Ps 41:6).
They came to Nakkai and he said to them, Must Nakkai be put to death? Is it not written, “Do not murder the pure one [or, Nakkai] or the righteous one”? (Ex 23:7). Yes – Nakkai must be put to death – for it is written, “In hidden places he slays the pure one [or, Nakkai]” (Ps 10:8).
They came to Neitzer and he asked, Must Neitzer be put to death? It is written, “[A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse,] and a sapling [or, Neitzer] will sprout from his descendents” (Isa 11:1). They said to him, Yes – Neitzer must be put to death – for it is written, “But you were cast forth from your grave like a loathsome protrusion [or, like a loathsome Neitzer]” (Isa 14:19).
They came to Buni and he asked, Must Buni be put to death? Is it not written, “Israel is my firstborn son [or, Israel is Buni, my firstborn]”? (Ex 4:22). They said to him, Yes – Buni must be put to death – for it is written, “Behold I slay your firstborn son [or, your Buni, your firstborn]” (Ex 4:23).
They came to Todah and he asked, Must Todah be put to death? Is it not written, “A psalm for the thanksgiving offering [or, a psalm for Todah“? (Ps 100:1). They said to him, Yes – Todah must be put to death – for it is written, “The one who slaughters the thanksgiving offering [or, slaughters Todah] honours Me” (Ps 50:23)”

Aside from the obvious connection between Mattai and Matthew, the other names appear to be somewhat arbitrary. Jastrow suggests Luke as the meaning of both Nakkai and Neitzer, but I do not know from where he gets this idea. He also argues that Todah was an adaptation of Thaddaeus, but has no similar suggestion for Buni. It would seem rather probable that the names had been chosen on the basis of their proximity to either real names or real personality attributes that were used in order to identify the individuals in the narrative as individual followers of Jesus. Whatever the case, the exposition is an interesting one.

One after another, the followers of Jesus are led to death – by Jews, we must presume. One after another they utilise similarities between their (nick-)names and phrases in the Bible in order to alleviate their sentence and, one after another, a similar passage (sometimes even from the same book) is then utilised in order to nullify their defence. While simplistic in many ways, there is something endearing about a disenfranchised community who must resort to childish name-calling and vain fantasising in order to reassert their own dominance. This type of narrative is also a hallmark of the Babylonian Talmud: the communities residing in Tiberias who were responsible for penning the Palestinian Talmud were brought under the yoke of Christianity at so early a stage that such passages were impossible to compose directly.

For those who came to revere the Babylonian Talmud (as all Jews came to do, irrespective of culture or geography), the lesson was learned swiftly. Passages were altered (references to Christians became references to עכו”ם, an acronym for “worshippers of stars and planets”) and some were forcibly removed. In many respects, the desire to eradicate these passages was born of a similarly childish perspective on the part of those who found offence. I cannot help but feel that the Catholic inquisition burst upon the scene with all the grand sensationalism of one child messing up another child’s game.




6 responses

12 02 2007
Joe in Australia

What reason do you have for thinking that this passage is talking about followers of the same Jesus as the one which features in Christianity? And why would the writers of the Babylonian Talmud have been interested in writing about him? In fact Jesus is supposed to have had twelve disciples, not five. They are not supposed to have been dragged off to death. And by the laws of chance alone, it’s remarkable that only one name can be found in common between the five and the twelve.

I’ve seen more than one Christian writer incensed at the fact that Jewish texts mostly ignore Christianity: perhaps the “vain fantasising” is to be found among modern writers and not the ancient ones.

12 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Jesus is mentioned numerous times within the Babylonian Talmud; why wouldn’t he be? The sages of the Talmud despised him and thought lowly of his followers. The fact that the names are different is not really to be remarked upon, there might have been any of a number of reasons behind the fabrication of their names (not least of which may have even been an unfamiliarity with what the real names were). I am not aware of a single scholar who would argue that the Jesus in this passage is not the Christian messiah, nor am I aware of anyone who feels that Christianity has been “ignored” by Judaism.

As for the disciples not being dragged off to death, there are traditions of martyrdom concerning both Matthew and Thaddaeus (although not, to my knowledge, Luke), as well as others amongst the 70 apostles sent forth by Jesus (one of whom was also Thaddaeus). They were not necessarily slain by Jews (although Stephen was – cf: Acts 7), but the Babylonian Talmud is rarely concerned with history, as we think of it today.

27 02 2007

I think you are over-interpreting when you assume that the text indicates that the killers of these disciples were Jews. The literary tricks employed by the executioners are typical of the things the classic Jewish texts said that the Romans cooked up in order to martyr the great Rabbanim. If you read the classical martyrology, the Roman official asked the 10 MartyredSages about the punishment for kidnapping, and then tortured and executed them for the kidnapping of Joseph. I think that an ancient Jewish reader of this text would have recognized the techniques of the Romans.

27 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Gandalin, you are quite right: there is no reason to suppose that the executioners must have been Jewish. I presumed that they were on the basis of their methods, so I thank you for having drawn similar passages regarding the Romans to my attention. Where would I find the passage of which you speak? The only account of the martyrdom with which I am familiar is in the Machzor.

28 02 2007

Robert Chazan’s Disputation In Barcelona is an absolutely brilliant background to the circumstances of the Talmud’s censorship. At the risk of telling something you already know, I would note that as Chazan points out that the censorship was the result of converted Jews participating in the Dominican Order’s attempts to using the Talmud as a tool to undermine the validity of Jewish beliefs. The direct knowledge of Hebrew (and Aramaic) was the direct result of these converted Jews becoming prominent in conversion attempts. Also, those attempts generated the first systematic polemics rather than scattered disparaging remarks about Jesus.

28 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Ah, the version of the Disputation that I have is the one by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel (and it lacks a proper introduction and commentary). I’ll have to have a look at Chazan’s, although you do realise that the Ramban’s disputation was not the first? The Talmud had been censored, put on trial, and burned (its advocates being likewise censored, put on trial, and burned) prior to the incident with the Ramban and Fray Pul.

As you say, Jews were often their own most bitter antagonists. I think this may constitute a psychological phenomenon: the reformed smoker often being more offended by smoke than those who never lit up, for example. You are most certainly correct that the efforts of those Jews developed the most structured anti-Jewish polemics that the church had (based on the Talmud, at least), but the Talmud was banned even before its content was understood.

For the record, there’s a fabulous essay in Cultures of the Jews: A New History (ed. David Biale; New York: Schocken Books, 2002), entitled “Childbirth and Magic: Jewish Folklore and Material Culture” (671-722). The author, Shalom Sabar, argues that Jews played up to the reputation that they had for practising witchcraft and that if the Christians perceived Jewish texts to be dark and foreboding, that was because the Jews wanted them to be perceived in that manner. It’s an interesting idea, and was probably the cause of more book-burning than the references to Jesus and the testimony of converts.

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