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9. Jesus in the Talmud The Jesus passages in the rabbinic literature, most prominently in the Babylonian Talmud, reveal a colorful kaleidoscope of many fragments—often dismissed as figments—of Jesus’ life, teachings, and not least his death. They are not told as an independent and coherent narrative but are scattered all over the large corpus of literature left to us by the rabbis. Even worse, only very rarely do they address Jesus, the object of our inquiry, directly; in many cases the immediate subject of the rabbinic discourse has nothing to do with Jesus and his life: he is mentioned just in passing, as a (minor) detail of an otherwise different and more important subject, or else he and his sect are carefully disguised behind some codes that need to be deciphered. Nevertheless, our close reading of the relevant texts yields a number of results that can be summarized and put in their appropriate context. First and foremost, the fact must be emphasized that our texts, despite their scattered and fragmentary presentation, cannot be rejected as nonsense and sheer fiction, as the fantasies1 of some remote rabbis who did not know and did not want to know anything about the Christian sect and its hero. Such a rash judgment can only be reached—and indeed has been reached much too often—if the wrong standard is applied, that is, if the rabbinic stories are combed for scraps of their historicity, for the historical truth concealed under the rubble and rubbish of lost or misunderstood information. Time and again I have argued that such an approach does not yield much (if anything at all), that it is simply the wrong question addressed to the wrong texts. Our rabbinic texts do not preserve, and did not intend to preserve, historical information about Jesus and Christianity that can be compared to the New Testament and that throws new (and different ) light on the New Testament narrative. Such a naive attitude—which dominates most, if not all, of the relevant research literature, although to different degrees and with different conclusions—must be dismissed once and for all. This applies to the positivistic attempt to rediscover and justify the rabbinical texts as historical sources for the life of Jesus (for which stands, as the most prominent exponent, Travers Herford) as well as to the no less positivistic attempt to prove the opposite and to conclude from this that the rabbinic stories are worthless and in most cases do not even refer to Jesus at all (for which stands, as the most extreme proponent, Johann Maier)—neither approach leads very far and is a futile exercise in sterile scholarly erudition. Moreover, either approach misjudges the literary character of both the New Testament and the rabbinic sources and underestimates the acumen of their authors. It has long been accepted in most camps of New Testament scholarship (except for its fundamentalist and evangelical branches) that the New Testament is anything but a report of “pure” historical facts, of what has “really” happened—although, of course, this does not mean that it presents just fiction. Rather, it is a retelling of “what happened” in its own way or, more precisely, in quite different ways by its different authors . And it has been equally accepted by most scholars of rabbinic Judaism that the same is true for rabbinic literature, namely that the rabbis were not particularly interested in “what happened”—for such a historistic and positivistic approach they reserved the disparaging judgment mai de-hawa hawa (“what happened happened”)—but tell a story of their own: also, not just fiction but their interpretation of “what happened” in their peculiar and highly idiosyncratic way.2 This is precisely what takes place in our rabbinic stories about Jesus and the Christian sect. These stories are a deliberate and carefully phrased retelling—not of what “really happened” but of what has come to or captured the rabbis’ attention. And the source to which they refer is not some independent knowledge of Jesus, his life, and his followers that has 96 Chapter 9 reached them through some hidden channels; rather, as I could show in detail, it is the New Testament (almost exclusively the four Gospels) as we know it or in a form similar to the one we have today. Hence, the rabbinic stories in most cases are a retelling of the New Testament narrative, a literary answer to a literary text.3 Let us now summarize the major motifs that appear...


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