Historical Jesus: The Talmud on the Era Preceding the Fall of the Temple
The Temple Miracles
In Jesus’ day, the Temple in Jerusalem still stood. According to the Talmud, there were several signs and miracles that people had come to expect at the Temple. One miracle was that, on the Day of Atonement, a certain scarlet-colored thread or strap would turn white in signal that the peoples’ sins had been forgiven and that the sacrifice of atonement had been accepted. Other traditional signs of God’s favor, though perhaps not properly “miracles”, were still seen to indicate God’s favor or presence. One such sign was that, on the Day of Atonement, the lots cast for the sacrifices would come up so that the lot “For The Lord” was in the right hand – it was considered a good sign indicating God’s favor. Also, the western light at the Temple would remain lit (while the others would not) even though it was given the same amount of oil to remain burning. This was seen as a sign that showed that the Shechinah (the presence of God) was over Israel.
The Talmud records the miracles and lesser signs that people looked for in the Temple:
‘R. Nahman b. Isaac said it was the tongue of scarlet, as it has been taught: ‘Originally they used to fasten the thread of scarlet on the door of the [Temple] court on the outside. If it turned white the people used to rejoice, and if it did not turn white they were sad. – Rosh HaShanah 31b.
Our Rabbis taught: Throughout the forty years that Simeon the Righteous ministered, the lot [‘For the Lord’] would always come up in the right hand; from that time on, it would come up now in the right hand, now in the left. And [during the same time] the crimson-coloured strapwould become white. From that time on it would at times become white, at others not. Also: Throughout those forty years the westernmost light was shining, from that time on, it was now shining, now failing; – Yoma 39a.
But it is a testimony to mankind that the Divine Presence rests in Israel. What is the testimony? Rab said, It was the western lamp [of the candlestick] into which the same quantity of oil was poured as into the others, yet he kindled the others from it and ended with it. – Menachoth 86b
Jesus’ Trial and Execution
The Talmud also records some things in connection with Jesus of Nazareth. While the records in the Talmud are scant, they tend to support the New Testament records. First, the Talmud records that there was in fact a long-standing plot on the part of Jewish leaders to take Jesus’ life:
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 Israel to apostacy. Any one 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! – Sanhedrin 43a (emphasis added)
The Talmud mentions that the public declarations of intent to kill Jesus began forty days beforehand – the traditional length of time for which Christians ever since have observed the Lenten Fast preceding Good Friday. It also puts into perspective the strength of the resolve which was needed for Jesus to walk into Jerusalem under the circumstances. Notice that the Talmud also here supports the Biblical accounts that the Jewish leaders had interpreted Jesus’ miracles as something evil: “he practiced sorcery” says the Talmud, or as the records of Jesus’ followers put it, the Jews accused him of performing his miracles by being in league with demons.
General Hostility towards Jesus’ followers
The Talmud also supports New Testament records of the continuing persecution of Jesus’ followers. Note that this first excerpt seems to have been told as humor, not as historical record:
Our Rabbis taught: Yeshu had five disciples, Matthai, Nakai, Nezer, Buni and Todah. When Matthai was brought [before the court] he said to them [the judges], Shall Matthai be executed? Is it not written, Matthai [when] shall I come and appear before God? Thereupon they retorted; Yes, Matthai shall be executed, since it is written, When Matthai [when] shall [he] die and his name perish. When Nakai was brought in he said to them; Shall Nakai be executed? It is not written, Naki [the innocent] and the righteous slay thou not? Yes, was the answer, Nakai shall be executed, since it is written, in secret places does Naki, [the innocent] slay. When Nezer was brought in, he said; Shall Nezer be executed? Is it not written, And Nezer [a twig] shall grow forth out of his roots. Yes, they said, Nezer shall be executed, since it is written, But thou art cast forth away from thy grave like Nezer [an abhorred offshoot]. When Buni was brought in, he said: Shall Buni be executed? Is it not written, Beni [my son], my first born? Yes, they said, Buni shall be executed, since it is written, Behold I will slay Bine-ka [thy son] thy first born. And when Todah was brought in, he said to them; Shall Todah be executed? Is it not written, A psalm for Todah [thanksgiving]? Yes, they answered, Todah shall be executed, since it is written, Whoso offereth the sacrifice of Todah [thanksgiving] honoured me. – Sanhedrin 43a
The preceding account has the names of Jesus’ disciples arranged not for historical accuracy but for the convenience of puns in the language in which it was written: it is a joke. Still, where jokes are told of the rulers killing Jesus’ followers, that reflects an environment in which Jesus’ followers were not safe.
The Talmud also reflects a general hostility towards Christians (often called simply “Minim” or heretics). Note that “Minim” can also refer to any group that the ruling Jewish groups considered heretical, but in some passages it refers specifically to Christians. The passage below shows the rabbis at Jamneh arranging the composition of the traditional eighteen “blessings” or “benedictions” – to which one more “benediction” is added, the “benediction” of the Minim which then became part of the traditional Jewish prayers. Since the “benediction” itself includes the prayer “May there be no hope for the Minim”, in the case of the Minim “benediction” is a euphemism for a curse:
Our Rabbis taught: Simeon ha-Pakuli arranged the eighteen benedictions in order before Rabban Gamaliel in Jabneh. Said Rabban Gamaliel to the Sages: Can any one among you frame a benediction relating to the Minim? Samuel the Lesser arose and composed it. The next year he forgot it and he tried for two or three hours to recall it, and they did not remove him. Why did they not remove him seeing that Rab Judah has said in the name of Rab: If a reader made a mistake in any of the other benedictions, they do not remove him, but if in the benediction of the Minim, he is removed, because we suspect him of being a Min? – Samuel the Lesser is different, because he composed it. But is there not a fear that he may have recanted? — Abaye said: We have a tradition that a good man does not become bad. – Berachoth 28b to Berachoth 29a
Notice that there is also mention above that the “blessing” against the Minim was also used as a litmus-test to determine if someone reciting the blessings in the synagogue was a Jewish-Christian, in which case he could be removed.
Another record in the Talmud of general hostility towards “Minim” runs as follows:
It was stated in the text: The blank spaces and the Books of the Minim, we may not save them from a fire. R. Jose said: On weekdays one must cut out the Divine Names which they contain, hide them, and burn the rest. R. Tarfon said: May I bury my son if I would not burn them together with their Divine Names if they came to my hand. – Shabbath 116a
R. Meir called it (the Gospel) ‘Awen Gilyon [the falsehood of blank paper]; R. Johanan called it ‘Awon Gilyon, [the sin of etc]. – Sanhedrin 116a
Notice the puns in the text above on “evangelion” (Greek evangelion = gospel). This passage is found in uncensored texts of the Talmud.
In this historical context, it is easy to see why the writers of the New Testament occasionally mention Jesus’ followers hiding in fear of their safety. Against this background, the New Testament records of various of Jesus’ followers suffering officially-ordered floggings and even death seem fairly probable.
At this point, simple responsibility requires that I mention a few things. First, the days when the Jews were the ruling power and the Christians the persecuted minority are long gone. Second, it is not much to our credit that some who claim the name Christian have repaid the ancient enmities in turn by persecuting Jews. Third, for any true followers of Jesus, the right response to enmity and even persecution is taught by Jesus: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45) and again “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:27-28) While we look at the enmity Jews have directed at Christians through the centuries, it is important that we remember that this is not a true part of Judaism, just in the same way that Christians persecuting Jews is not a true part of Christianity. A person who paid any notice to what Jesus said would never do such a thing. There are some who might argue that we should never mention the ancient enmity of Jews towards Christians, but I disagree on the simple basis that it is a historical fact; it is brought up here only to mention that, historically, the accounts in the Talmud agree on that point with the accounts in the New Testament. The valid concern is whether we handle this knowledge responsibly.
The Temple Miracles Cease
The Talmud acknowledges that there was a drastic change in the signs and miracles associated with the Temple beginning forty years before the destruction of the Temple. Readers may remember that scholars give different possible dates to Jesus’ ministry, some saying that Jesus began his ministry 40 years before the destruction of the Temple, others saying that Jesus died 40 years before the destruction of the Temple.
Here the Talmud records the following in regards to the traditional signs and miracles of the Temple:
For forty years before the destruction of the Temple the thread of scarlet never turned white but it remained red – Rosh HaShanah 31b
Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves, until R. Johanan b. Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Hekal, Hekal, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning thee: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars. – Yoma 39b
Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the customary signs associated with God’s favor, God’s presence, and God’s forgiveness based on Temple sacrifice – all ceased. The rest, as they say, is history.