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6. Jesus’ Execution That Jesus was condemned to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, subsequently tortured and crucified, and on the third day after his crucifixion was resurrected and ascended to heaven is the foundation narrative of Christianity. His trial by the Roman authority and his death on the cross are described in all four Gospels, albeit with considerable variations (Mt. 27–28; Mk. 15–16; Lk. 22–24; John 18–21), and theologically interpreted by the apostle Paul. What familiarity do the rabbis, the heroes of rabbinic Judaism, show with the evangelists’ interpretations of this event, or rather, more carefully formulated: what do they care to tell us about it in their literature? The immediate and unambiguous answer is: very little. Within the vast corpus of rabbinic literature, we find but one reference to Jesus’ trial and execution, and only in passing, as part of a broader halakhic discussion that has nothing to do with Jesus as a historical figure. Hardly unexpectedly (after the evidence discussed so far), this reference is preserved only in the Bavli. There, the Mishna in tractate Sanhedrin is discussed, which deals with the procedure of the capital punishment. The Bible knows four legal modes of executing the death penalty; namely, stoning, burning , hanging (the latter is actually a postmortem hanging of the person stoned to death, a form of publication that a capital sentence has been executed),1 and slaying by the sword. The talmudic law drops hanging and adds strangling as an independent death penalty,2 but the discussions in rabbinic literature are largely academic since the rabbis did not have the power of inflicting the death sentence.3 With regard to stoning, the most common death penalty, the Mishna explains:4 If they find him [the accused] innocent, they discharge him, and if not, he goes forth to be stoned. And a herald goes before him [heralding]: So and so, the son of so and so, is going forth to be stoned because he committed such and such a crime, and so and so are his witnesses. Whoever knows anything in his defense, may come and state it. It is on this Mishna that the Bavli comments:5 Abaye said: He [the herald] must also say: On such and such a day, on such and such an hour, and in such and such a place (the crime was committed),6 in case there are some who know (to the contrary ), so that they can come forward and prove (the original witnesses ) to be false witnesses (having deliberately given false testimony ). And a herald goes before him etc.:7 indeed before him,8 but not beforehand!9 However, (in contradiction to this) it was taught (tanya): On (Sabbath eve and)10 the eve of Passover Jesus the Nazarene11 was hanged (tela>uhu).12 And a herald went forth before him 40 days (heralding): Jesus the Nazarene13 is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery (kishshef) and instigated (hissit) and seduced (hiddiah) Israel (to idolatry). Whoever knows anything in his defense, may come and state it. But since they did not find anything in his defense , they hanged him on (Sabbath eve and)14 the eve of Passover. Ulla said: Do you suppose that Jesus the Nazarene15 was one for whom a defense could be made? He was a mesit (someone who instigated Israel to idolatry), concerning whom the Merciful [God] says: Show him no compassion and do not shield him (Deut. 13:9). 64 Chapter 6 With Jesus the Nazarene16 it was different, for he was close to the government (malkhut). This is a remarkable Bavli sugya. It starts with a comment by Abaye, a Babylonian amora of the early fourth century, arguing that the Mishna’s vague “such and such a crime” must be made more precise: the herald should not just mention the crime but add the day, hour, and location of the crime. Only this more detailed description of the crime’s circumstances guarantees the validity of the testimony of new witnesses who contradict the testimony of the original witnesses which had led to the defendant ’s condemnation.17 The clear purpose of Abaye’s statement is to facilitate the acquittal of the accused. The Bavli then returns to the Mishna lemma that regulates the procedure undertaken by the herald. The anonymous Bavli author clarifies the unambiguous-looking “before him [the convicted]” and specifies: physically before the convicted on his way to...


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