Jesus in the Talmud: Reviewing a Review

27 06 2007

Iyov has a new post, in which he produces the response of Gershom Gale to Peter Schäfer’s, Jesus in the Talmud. Gale’s critique, while well-written, is somewhat obnoxious. He criticises Schäfer for never having read the Talmud “from start to finish” and assumes that, since Schäfer claims little competence in New Testament studies, he has never read that book either. Both claims are completely insubstantiated by the criticism that Gale proceeds to produce, for the evidence that Schäfer apparantly misses (the “elephants” that were looked over in favour of the “flies”) is so inherently ridiculous that Gale may possibly stand alone in delineating it as such.

There is a passage in the Babylonian tractate of Baba Metzia that speaks of the manufacture of an oven. The sages all disagree with Rabbi Eliezer in regards to its construction and Rabbi Eliezer calls upon miraculous intervention as a means of proving his case. Despite the existence of miracles to support the lone Rabbi’s claim, the other sages continue to disagree. They state that the “Torah is not in heaven” and that the law must be decided on more pragmatic grounds than these. This is stated even after Rabbi Eliezer produces the voice of God, telling them that he is correct, to which they respond and say that the voice of God is useless in a case of law. Enter Gershom Gale.

Gale commences by referring to the Sanhedrin as “a pride-infected body that had arguably been moving away from God and toward humanism since before Jesus was born”. Such rhetoric does not belong in the review of an academic text and reveals its author to be most ignorant indeed. Gale then vacuously proceeds to note that the quote, “Torah is not in heaven”, is a misappropriation of a Biblical quote. Perhaps Gale has failed to read the Talmud from start to finish, for he would otherwise be more familiar with Rabbinic methods of hermeneutics. Of course this is a reappropriation of a Biblical quote; such removals from context feature prominently in both the Talmud and (*gasp*) the New Testament.

Speaking of the New Testament, Gale has a religious motivation for perceiving the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion literally. He is neither an historian nor a Biblical scholar, and the manner in which he discounts the Mishna’s version of the process reeks of bias. Apparantly, despite the fact that every single piece of legislation in the Mishna must have been contravened in order to try and punish Jesus as the gospels say, such was certainly done. Gale does not say why, although we might defer to several centuries of Christian polemic in order to answer that one for ourselves.

But, by far, the most ridiculous element of Gale’s “review” is the super-literal manner in which he reads both the Talmud and the New Testament. Like the Islamic-Christian so recently ridiculed on the same blog, Gale seems intent on having his cake and eating it too. Contrary to just about everybody else in the world, Gale really thinks that God did laugh at the end of the Talmudic story and declare that “my children have defeated me”. This obviously fictitious element to a narrative whose purpose is to elevate scholars above prophets is understood literally by Gale and taken as an ominous harbinger of exile. Gale, who would rather live in the pre-modern age of gibbering prophecy than in an era ruled by law is perhaps right to perceive the story’s conclusion as tragic. Those of us who feel uncomfortable with a hierarchy of priests making decisions for us based on revelation may instead note the triumph of reason over absurdity.

In any case, Gale’s super-literalism is discared as soon as it fails to work. While the Talmudic narrative in Baba Metzia reflects an historical reality (as does the smorgasbord of details that makes up the final chapters of all four gospels), the Mishnaic narrative in Sanhedrin does not. Or, at least, the Mishnaic narrative was not put into practise with the zeal that one may expect of a legalistic community, but was rather contravened when we take into consideration the writings of, excuse me for the quote, “simple men who were likely unaware of the existence of these bylaws”. I think Gale may have answered his own conundrum.

As the editor of the Jerusalem Post Christian edition, I expect that Gale is not an uneducated man. He is correct in suggesting that references to “Ben Stada” and “Ben Pandera” are not necessarily references to Jesus, and he is also right in asserting that the laws propounded in the Mishna were not necessarily upheld – certainly not 200 years before its traditional date of redaction. Nonetheless, he would also do well to note the highly tendentious nature of the New Testament gospels and (please!) the obviously allegorical nature of the Talmudic narrative. It is Gale’s curiously amalgamated theology that drives him to conclude sadly that the exile will continue until such time as the Jews repent for what they have done. Thankyou, Mr Gale, for your timely concern.

[Iyov’s blog features many wonderful posts and the above is not meant to be misconstrued as a criticism of its administrator, nor do I suggest that Gale’s opinions are shared by the same]




3 responses

27 06 2007

Simon: Thanks for your insightful remarks. I’ve highlighted a link to this entry on my blog.

27 06 2007
Peter Kirk

I understand that you presuppose the modern, rather than pre-modern or post-modern, world view in which human reason is the measure of everything, so it is a waste of time for me to try to argue you out of it into a belief that the Creator God is actually active in the world. But before you accuse Gale of “a religious motivation for perceiving the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion literally” (rather than perhaps being naive), perhaps you should look at the log in your own eye, whether you have any religious or anti-religious motivation for referring to “the highly tendentious nature of the New Testament gospels”.

28 06 2007
Simon Holloway

I wouldn’t call my assumption (anti-)religious, although it is a tacit assumption and one for which I’ve not seen much that would sway my mind. It does not only go for the New Testament, you understand, but pretty much for any piece of writing that intends to put forward a point of view. By necessity, that same piece of writing is going to need to either assimilate, debate or ignore opposing positions. The authors of the gospels do this, as do the Rabbis who authored the Mishna, the Midrash, and both Talmuds. My point is merely that somebody who believes in the literal nature of a text is hardly a candidate to respond to that text in an unprejudiced manner. I do not think that Mr Gale’s review was an academic one so much as it was a polemic one.

You have a very nicely set-out blog, by the way; thanks for taking the time to comment on mine.

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