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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Toledoth Jesus, the Gospel of Matthew and the Use of Parody
Parsing out the truth.

Alan Humm, a graduate student in Religious Studies at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, has a webpage on Ancient Jewish Accounts of Jesus which includes The Toledoth Yeshu, a derogatory version of the life of Jesus, growing out of the response of the Jewish community to Christianity. The Toledoth, according to F.F. Bruce, was an anti-Christian compilation popular in some Jewish circles in mediaeval time with an affinity to the Acts of Pilate, a writing published by Maximin II attempting to bring Christianity into disrepute by "representing the origins of Christianity in an unsavoury guise." Of course, few believe that the Toledoth account of the life of Jesus is accurate given that it even places the dates at the wrong time (Jesus is said to be born around 90 B.C.), but what is interesting is the concessions that are made in the process of parodying the Gospels. As stated by Dr. Paul Maier, the concessions found in works hostile to the Gospels are "positive evidence from a hostile source, which is the strongest kind of historical evidence. In essence, this means that if a source admits a fact decidedly not in its favor, then that fact is genuine."

Looking at the account of Jesus in the Toledoth, it is interesting to note what is admitted. Among the events in Jesus life which the authors seem to acknowledge as true are the following:

  • Jesus was from Bethlehem.

  • Jesus' mother was betrothed to a man who was of the royal house of David.

  • Jesus proclaimed, "I am the Messiah; and concerning me Isaiah prophesied and said, 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.'" He quoted other messianic texts, insisting, "David my ancestor prophesied concerning me: 'The Lord said to me, thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee.'"

  • Jesus healed at least one leper.

  • Jesus was worshipped as the Messiah, Son of the Highest, and Jesus himself claimed to be the Son of God.

  • Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah.

  • Jesus raised the dead.

  • Jesus taught in Galilee.

  • When the guards tried to take him, he instructed his disciples to not fight them.

  • Jesus wore a crown of thorns.

  • Jesus entered Jerusalem for the final time on the Eve of Passover where he was betrayed by a disciple known as Judah Iskarioto who pointed him out by a bow (as opposed to a kiss).

  • Jesus was put to death on the sixth hour on the eve of the Passover and of the Sabbath.

  • On the first day of the week his bold followers came to Queen Helene (the Jewish ruler--part of the dating problem of the Toledoth) with the report that he who was slain was truly the Messiah and that he was not in his grave; he had ascended to heaven as he prophesied.

  • The disciples went out among the nations--three went to the mountains of Ararat, three to Armenia, three to Rome and three to the kingdoms buy the sea (note, there are 12 of them). They "deluded the people", i.e., they taught the Gospel, but ultimately they were slain.

What may be of more interest is that the Toledoth shows the willingness of the Jewish teachers of the mediaeval ages to write parodies of the life of Christ. If the mediaeval scholars were willing to write such parodies, it is certainly reasonable to conclude that the Jewish teachers or leaders who lived at about the same time as Jesus would be willing to do the same, wouldn't it?

According to an article released in June 2003 by the Kansas City Star entitled "Support for authenticity of book of Matthew comes from an unlikely place" by Neil Altman, that is exactly what some scholars are saying that the Jewish teachers and leaders did. According to the article:

In an essay written for the book Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times, Israel J. Yuval of Jerusalem's Hebrew University reported a find in the Talmud that appears to show Matthew could have been written earlier than some scholars contend.

Yuval wrote that a leading rabbinical scholar of the time was "considered to have authored a sophisticated parody of the Gospel according to Matthew."

The parody, written by a rabbi known as Gamaliel, is believed by some well-respected liberal Christian scholars to have been written about A.D. 73 or earlier.

The fact the parody exists and the date when it was believed to be written "would undercut badly (biblical critics') claims of a late date of A.D. 85-90 or later," said Bob Newman, professor of New Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.

"That is very significant and very important," said Tim Skinner, associate professor of Bible and theology at Luther Rise Seminary in Georgia, because that validates the legitimacy of Matthew's Gospel...it confirms the truthfulness of the biblical account in Matthew and confirms the truth of what Jesus did."

Blomberg said a close study of the parody's wording indicates it was based on an existing text. If that text was Matthew, the Gospel existed much earlier than some scholars believe.

The conclusion that this section of the Talmud conclusively shows that Matthew was written earlier than some scholars believe does suffer a couple of problems. As noted by the author of PaleoJudaica:

. The Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli) was edited around 600 C.E. and the Palestinian Talmud (the Yerushalmi) around 400. Whichever Talmud they're talking about (probably the Bavli but they don't say - and they don't give the exact reference either) the story of the first-century saying of Gamaliel comes to us from a text edited many centuries later. How do we know that this isn't a much later legend which puts the saying in his mouth on the basis of knowing the Gospel of Matthew? Granted, the Talmud sometimes preserves early material, but earliness has to be proved, not assumed.

2. Even if Rabbi Gamaliel actually said this, the saying is not all that close to the Gospel of Matthew. How do we know that it isn't an oral tradition that Gamaliel picked up from Jesus' followers and which was later used independently by the author of Matthew?

Good points, both. As for now, these questions remain unanswered. The first point acknowledges that both versions of the Talmud preserve early material, and just as it cannot be assumed that the portion of the Talmud cited by Yuval is not early, it cannot be assumed that it isn't early either. Certainly, more study may ultimately resolve whether this portion of the Talmud (which I understand to be Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 116 a- b--don't ask me how they are parodies because I don't see it) is early or late, but for now it is not certain. On the second point, I am conservative in my dating and believe that there are several reasons to believe in an early dating of the Gospel of Matthew. Still, I recognize that this remains subject to dispute and that the parodying of some of the accounts of the Gospel does not mean that it was the Gospel itself and not some proto-Gospel or oral account that the author of the Gospel of Matthew copied. Regardless, the fact that there is evidence of parody of the Gospels in later writings by Jewish authors can be used to support the idea that these writings are also parodies.

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