Baraitha 1 – Sanhedrin 43a: “AND A HERALD PRECEDES HIM etc. This implies, only immediately before [the execution], but not previous thereto. [i.e. not 40 days before] [In contradiction to this] it was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed, and led Israel astray. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover (and the eve of Shabbat). Ulla retorted: Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not a Mesith [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, Do not spare him or shield him? (Deut 13:9) With Yeshu however it was different, for he was connected with the government [or royalty, or he was very influential].
Baraitha 2 – Sanhedrin 43a: Our Rabbis taught: Yeshu had five disciples, Mattai, Nakai, Netzer, Boni and Todah. – When Mattai was brought [before the court] it was said to them [the judges], Shall Mattai be executed? Is it not written (Psal 42:3), Mattai [when מתי] shall I come and appear before God? Thereupon they retorted; Yes, Mattai shall be executed, since it is written (Psal 41:6), Mattai [when מתי] shall die and his name perish. – When Nakai was brought in, it was said to them; Shall Nakai be executed? It is not written (Ex 23:7), And do not kill Naki [the innocent ונקי] or the righteous? Yes, was the answer, Nakai shall be executed, since it is written (Psal 10:8), in secret places he slays Naki [נקי]. – When Netzer was brought in, it was said; Shall Netzer be executed? Is it not written (Isa 11:1), And Netzer [a twig ונצר] shall grow forth out of his roots? Yes, they said, Netzer shall be executed, since it is written (Isa 14:19), But you are cast from your grave like the abhorred Netzer [כנצר נתעב]. – When Boni was brought in, it was said: Shall Boni be executed? Is it not written (Ex 4:22), [send out] B’ni [my son בני], my first born? Yes, they said, Boni shall be executed, since it is written (Ex 4:23), Behold I will slay Bine-kha [your sonבנך ], your first born. – When Todah was brought in, it was said to them; Shall Todah be executed? Is it not written (Psal 100:1), A song for Todah [thanksgiving לתודה]? Yes, they answered, Todah shall be executed, since it is written (Psal 50:23), One who slaughters Todah [תודה] honors me.”
This is a Tannaic Baraitha (around 3rd century CE) which is missing in most printed versions, but it has been recovered from old manuscripts and some early printed versions. There are three main opinions: One opinion is that this is the actual historical story of Yeshua of Nazareth. The other opinion is that it refers to someone else, and the third opinion is that it refers to Yeshua but in the transmission from mouth to mouth it ended up with a lot of elements from other people. So when someone tries to convince you that their point of view is “dogmatic” just remember that within Judaism itself there are two accepted opinions more. But why would scholars deny that this text talks about the Yeshua we all know?
First, because ‘Yeshu’ or ‘Yeshua’ were actually common names in those days, as archeology proves. Yeshu can be the shortened form of Yeshua. In fact, we learn from Josephus’ list of high priests that some of them were called Yeshu/Yeshua (Antiquities 20:9:1, 4). Even in the book of Acts, in the New Testament, there’s a Jewish sorcerer called Bar-Yeshu (Acts 13:6), and in the ancient manuscripts of Matthew the prisoner who Pilates releases, the one of whom is said to be an enticer of masses against Rome is called ‘Yeshu bar Abba’ (cf. Matt 27:17). It is highly possible and logical that the oral legends ended up identifying Yeshua of Nazareth with all of these other Yeshu’s due to confusion with the names.
Secondly, because there’s only one manuscript (the Munich mms) that calls him: ‘Yeshu the Nazarene’ (הנצרי); and in all the others this epithet is missing, and one manuscript alone is not a faithful witness. It is wildly assumed that “the Nazarene” here refers to the Christian one though, but in the old times there was a Jewish sect, a major monastic order, called the Nasareans, or the order of Nazareth (cf. Epiphanius, panarion 1:19), so even if we take into consideration that manuscript that identifies him as the Yeshu the Nazarene, one is not necessarily obliged to believe the text speaks of the New Testament leader.
Some may claim that this is an ingenuous approach ─ an ingenuous approach that, by the way, was taken by some of the most important commentators, such as Ramban, Yaqov Emden, or Asher ben Yehiel (in tosafot harosh sotah 47a) ─ but even if this was the case, and let’s say they took this approach in order to save their life from a Christianity that in those days arrested, expelled and even killed infidels, there are important reasons to believe that this is not a literal historical account on the Yeshua of the New Testament. It is rather metaphoric and/or something that was passed down from one mouth to another to the point that the historical event was blurred or lost among the people. There’s not a historical memory of this Yeshua among the sages, not in the Talmud, nor in the midrashim. What remains is a set of legends (aggadot) that in most cases contradict each other when exposed. And this is because Tannaic tradition ─ as well as Jewish aggadah ─ is not meant to be historical, it is meant to teach a lesson, and that’s the main point of it.
Hanging on Erev Pesakh
Let’s skip the first part of the text for a moment and begin with the second one.
The text says that Yeshu was executed on “the eve of Passover”. The Florence manuscript adds: “and on erev-Shabbat”. Obviously here the Yeshua of the New Testament was meant; his historical execution was remembered in oral tradition, although the details of the story have been mixed up with other different criminals. Probably there was a Yeshu who was stoned, and that’s the reason for the stoning story. According to the Mishna only a blasphemer and a Jew who entices to avoda Zara is stoned (Deut 13:7; Sanhedrin 45b). But then they remember that there was a Yeshu who was hanged on a tree, on erev-Pesakh. This pretty much agrees (or almost agrees) with the later Christian oral tradition which was recorded in the mystical Gospel of John. However, the approach in John is not historical either. It contradicts the three synoptic Gospels, which clearly state that Yeshua celebrated a Passover meal before being arrested and subsequently executed.
Why would the sages judge someone and sentence him to death at the eve of Passover – let alone on the very day of Passover? That’s completely against hallakha! It’s totally illegal in Jewish Law. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:1) says: “In case of capital crimes no trial can commence on Friday or in the eve of any major holiday”. In the same manner, the same Mishna states that one cannot delay for a long period of time a death penalty once it has been established.
In the Gospels Yeshua was not executed for sorcery, or for enticing people to idolatry. In fact if you read the Gospels without a biased lens, he never gave praises to anyone but to the God of Israel, and never taught his followers to do something contrary to that. The Christianity that came later did it, but not Yeshua. He was judged in a Sadducee sanhedrin and was charged with a political (not religious) crime: That’s is, violating the Roman peace (the Pax Romana) by proclaiming himself king of the Jews (or Messiah, or Son of God… etc). That’s why they would later say: “we have no king but Caesar”. His crime was a blasphemy against Caesar, not against God. The Romans put to death anyone who seemed to be inciting a revolt, and that’s a historical fact.
Stoning Versus Hanging
This baraitha appears within the laws of stoning and wrongdoers. The baraitha begins by saying that Yeshu was going to be stoned in 40 days. But then it says he was hanged. Besides, the text itself says this event was contrary to hallakha. It is not according to Jewish Law for a herald to increase the martyrdom of a prisoner for 40 days, telling everyone that he’s going to be stoned. Once the sentence is established, delaying the death sentence more than one day is considered cruelty (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:1, and its gemara). When the Mishna says that a herald precedes him, the sages explain it means immediately before the execution in order to find someone who speaks in his behalf, because executions were not normal in Jewish Law; they always found ways to avoid executions, as the sages say, ‘a tribunal that executes even one person in 70 years is a murderous court’ (Mishna Makkot 1:10). But not content with that, at the end of the story he was not stoned, in the last minute they changed the manner of execution. Does it make any sense?
The Talmud reconciles the apparent contradiction by explaining that when someone is stoned, his body is hanged afterwards as a warning (Sanhedrin 45b). So the manner of his execution was actually lapidation. From a positive point of view, prolonging the heralding for 40 days may be seen as an act of mercy, in a desperate attempt to avoid the execution.
For a Jewish reader that knows nothing of Yeshua and takes this at face value this makes sense. But for someone who knows the story of Yeshua and hears that he was “hanged on the eve of Passover”, the connection is made automatically and the contradictions begin (The Gospels do not actually use the word “cross” or “crucify”, but to “hang” on a tree, and without any reference to the method of hanging, one will automatically infer that ‘hang’ refers to crucifixion). Again, we have no historical record of Yeshua of Nazareth being stoned, which is a Jewish execution, but the 1st century historian Josephus – even in the unaltered Arabic manuscripts – claims that Pilate executed Yeshua on a cross (Josephus, Antiquities 18:3, as per Agapios “Kitab al-unwan”). The Talmud tells the story of another Yeshu, who was in fact stoned to death, who brought witchcraft from Egypt by means of scratches in his flesh (Sanhedrin 67a, Shabbat 104b). Depending the Talmudic legend, this Yeshu appears to have lived 100 years before the Nazarene, in the days of king Yannai. The legend probably mixed up the two characters.
The account in tractate Shabbat (which doesn’t appear in the censored versions) actually has some fun with the different oral legends about Yeshu being Ben Stada. And I mean they literally have some fun. The text basically goes like this (paraphrasing to our modern language):
“Wait! Was he the son of Stada? I’ve heard he was the son of Pandira! Pandira… Stada.. they are the same! Well, you know, his mother’s husband was Stada and her lover was Pandira. What? It can’t be, I’ve heard his father was Pappos ben Yehuda! So Stada was his mother, right? No, no! His mother was Miriam haMagdalit! It was, as we say in Pumbeditha, this one Stath-da (i.e. turned away) from her husband” (Shabbat 104b).
What we learn from this is that the Tannaim had no historical memory whatsoever of Yeshua’s life. They had only a bunch of mocking legends they didn’t know how to put together. In fact, Pumbeditha means exactly that: ‘Having fun with the mouth’, or ‘mocking at someone’. It is not coincidence that the name “Pumbeditha” is stressed in this portion. Miriam haMagdalit was not Yeshua’s mother, of course, we all know this. She was one of his followers, and according to some other traditions she was his wife, but certainly not his mother. But the name “Miriam”, which was common in that time, was brought in order to make us think of the Nazarene, whose mother’s real name was Miriam, but the conversation here demonstrates that they don’t even know for certain what was his mother’s name. Here they are making fun of the Christian tradition of the virgin birth; they claim that she had an affair with someone called Pandira, which is the name of a Roman soldier; given, not by history, nor by Jewish or Christian sources, but by a pagan Greek philosopher called Celsus in the 2nd century, in his book “the True Word”. Obviously there were Romans with the name of Pandira (which means panther), but it seems that a pagan agenda was interpolated into this Talmudic tradition.
The anachronism is great, since the Roman occupation began in the 63 BCE, and Alexander Yannai reigned until the 76 BCE, and as we know, the Talmud says that Yeshu lived in the days of Alexander Yannai, but it then says that his father was a Roman soldier. Not happy with this, they also say that his Jewish father was Pappos ben Yehuda, who actually lived in the days of Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom! that is, the 135 CE (Berakhot 61b). Please, someone explain to me how the father of Yeshu live 300 years after Yeshu himself was even born. If this is not anachronistic I don’t know what else will be more fun:
The fun on Yeshu doesn’t end here. In a second Baraitha (Sanhedrin 43a) it says he had five disciple (obviously the Gospels say he had 12, which he chose by himself in accordance to the 12 tribes, and this was also similar to what the Qumran community did with their council of 12 members). The Baraitha is ancient, but then there’s an anonymous commentary in Amoraic-period Aramaic. The five disciples are sentenced to death through a biblical gymnastic that cannot and is not historical, nor reliable. How can the Sanhedrin have fun on people in the middle of a death penalty trial? How could they execute them all together at the same time, which is against hallakha? Did they judge them by the biblical meaning of their names as the text says? In fact, did Judaism sentence to death to those who belonged to a different sect? It seems to me entire story is just a manner to have fun with how Christians twist verses from Scripture in order to apply them to Yeshua, and this seems to be the teaching here, that without a proper foundation on Scripture and hermeneutics one can deduce almost anything from any Biblical verse.
Some Talmudists have tried to recover the historical truth from this passage, some have tried to identify the five disciples with the historical disciples of Yeshua, but no one except Mattai can be recognized. A second one is relatively recognized; he is called Boni, and the Talmud itself says that Boni is Naqdimon, i.e. Nicodemus the Galilean, a righteous sage, a character that also appears in the book of John as a Pharisaic elder who followed Yeshua (Taanit 21a). The Talmud has this character in high standards and there’s no evidence whatsoever that Nicodemus was executed, let alone by the sages. Mattai, Nakai, Netzer, Boni and Todah seem to be code names: Motei (the death of) Naki (the innocent) Netzer (the branch) Beni (my son) Todah (is a thanksgiving offering). The thanksgiving offering is one that causes peace in the world [cf. Rashi on Leviticus 3:1]).
Removing the clear anachronisms and realizing that the stories are not to be taken literally, now it is actually interesting to notice that Yeshu was hanged in Lud (Sanhedrin 67a). Lud (or Lydda) is a place near Tel-Aviv that has absolutely nothing to do with the historical Yeshua. However, it is said (Bava Bathra 10b) that there’s a glorious heavenly reward for those Jews who were killed by the Romans, and they are defined as “the martyrs of Lud“. Rashi attempts to identify these martyrs with Lulianus and Pappus, but he’s mistaken because these two were executed in Laodicea, not in Lud. The term “martyrs of Lud” remains unexplained, except for the fact that they are “Jews killed by the Romans”. What a nice concealed compliment then, to say that Yeshu was hanged in Lud, because that means he’s one of the “martyrs of Lud”, a saint whose reward is great.
a deeper explanation:
So from all of this we know that this Baraitha originated when Christianity had already began to praise their “Jesus” as a god, and not earlier. At that moment, when Christianity began to worship Jesus, the Tannaim turned this character called Yeshu into the cosmic or metaphoric leader that led Christianity astray. They were “executing him” now, in their present, retrospectively, so in a sense the text is real, it tells the truth, it’s just not a historical truth. His teachings were now enticing people to worship a man, and therefore, all of his miracles were displaced outside of the Jewish Pharisaic framework, and therefore, they could be nothing but sorcery. Do you see the logic here?
The main legend (aggadah) teaches the early relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and it also shows the reason that Yeshua had to be a taboo in Judaism. It was because we cannot praise something or someone that leads people astray (whether intentionally or not), for those heretics will think that we agree with their idolatry. This is also the reason that Yeshu had to suffer this cosmic excommunication, being expelled to the gentile world, and that’s why when Onqelos calls him from the netherworld (Gittin 57a), Yeshu ─ who is actually praised in this text for his good words towards the people of Israel ─ he depicts himself as being in “Tzoah Rotakhat” (boiling filth – צואה רותחת), which is the punishment to those who mock at the sages of Israel ─ and that is Christianity ─ Yeshua actually commanded his disciples to “Do and observe everything they tell you to do, because they sit in Moshe’s seat”. A different mdirash says that the Messiah of HaShem (MBY) is “imprisoned in the house of filth (בית החורף), in the mighty Rome”. According to the original manuscripts, he is imprisoned in a “Church” (בית התורף) (Sefer Zerubbabel, cf. see Jellinek’s rendering and commentary on Sefer Zerubbabel’s manuscripts).
Yeshu’s soul is in Tzoah Rotakhat (boiling filth), because it has fallen into the Qlippa of the nations, and that is done in order to elevate their sparks and correct them. In the words of Rambam, who obviously had not any kind word for Christianity, “the Christian [version of] Yeshua has caused the Jews to be slain by sword, their remnants to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be changed for something else and the majority of the world to follow a god that is not the God of Israel” But also because of Yeshua “the entire world has become filled with the mention of Messiah, Torah and Mitzvot”; and obviously with the knowledge that there’s only one true God (Mishne Torah, Melakhim uMilkhamot 11:4). When we perceive the aggadah this way, it is actually kind of beautiful.
At the end of our first Baraitha it says that Yeshu was – as we usually translate it – connected with the government. The text actually says he was “close to Malkhut”, close to the kingdom. We can explain it in a negative manner, of course, but I don’t even need to explain the positive implications of this claim. I leave it to your “holy” imagination.
Why then the connections between Yeshua and the other Yeshu’s? First, as I have explained in this essay, there’s a lack of historical memory within the Jewish oral tradition. Rabbi Hai Gaon says: “We know that the words of aggadah are not like hallakha; rather, everyone darshans whatever comes to his mind, like saying: It could be, It’s possible; these are not exacts things… therefore we are not to rely upon them… they are merely estimations” (Otzar HaGeonim, Hagiga 13). But, and this goes together with Kabbalistic thought, the sages saw a connection in the soul-level of these characters, and so they speak of them/him in the soul-level as well. This we can and have to accept it as “Oral Torah”, and it is absolutely ok to accept it. The Vilna Gaon says “It is the way of the sages to speak in non-literal parables and allegories”. The Talmud contains some historical facts, but it’s certainly not a history book, especially when it comes to aggadah. So our primary source of information for Yeshua’s life is still the collection of independent books which were later called “the New Testament”, but these were neither intended to be history books; they are mostly religious books about a Jewish sect and their Rabbi, whom they considered to be their Messiah. As in all things that have to do with aggadah and midrash, we have to capture and absorb from all of these accounts the essence of the things, the intended teaching that can apply to our lives, and then use critical analysis and a lot of unbiased scholarly study in order to infer the actual historical account out of those events.