The Jewish Talmud and the Death of Christ
In one of his epistles, Paul, lifting a text from the book of Job (5:13, LXX) to emphasize the folly of human wisdom in contrast to that which is divine, observed that God “catches the wise in their own craftiness” (1 Corinthians 3:19). A fisherman “caught in his own net” is a pathetic sight. Or, as Chrysostom (c. A.D. 347-407) of Constantinople once expressed it, the soldier “is worsted with his own weapons.”
An evil contingent within the Jewish nation influenced the Romans to put Christ to death. No serious student of history can deny this reality. This is not to discount the culpability of all sinners in the death of God’s Son; it merely acknowledges the historical events that occurred in the spring of A.D. 30 in the city of Jerusalem.
For nearly two millennia Jewish writers have been attempting to revise history in an effort to rationalize their role in the death of Jesus of Nazareth. In each attempt, they pitifully ensnare themselves. Better it would have been had they treated the awful history factually and simply moved on.
In this brief article we take note of a passage in the Jewish Talmud that speaks of the death of Jesus. It sought to explain the execution of Christ against the background of Hebrew law, with the contention that the Lord’s death was implemented legally. The result, however, is a remarkable confirmation of the details of the biblical narratives.
The Jewish Text
The Babylonian Talmud is a commentary on Jewish laws composed between A.D. 500-600 (Neusner/Green, 69) Therein is a text about Jesus’ death. The Tractate Sanhedrin (43a) contains this passage:
Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve. Forty days previously the herald had cried, “He is being led out for stoning, because he has practiced sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy. Whosoever has anything to say in his defense, let him come and declare it.” As nothing was brought forward in his defense, he was hanged on Passover Eve.
An analysis of this paragraph is extremely rewarding. First, one must observe that the document is written from the Jewish viewpoint; thus, as expected, is hostile to Jesus, and is defensive of Jewish jurisprudence. This makes it all the more valuable as a document for the support of Christianity.
Jesus — A Real Person of History
The first fact readily apparent is that the Jews responsible for the Babylonian Talmud, who had every motive for wanting to eradicate Christ from history, did not. That is telling. The historicity of Jesus is conceded.
This is powerful testimony since a few modern skeptics (very much a minority within their ranks) deny that Jesus ever lived. G.A. Wells is one modern example; he has attempted to argue that Jesus was purely a mythical character, yet even he admits that “nearly all present-day scholars” do not agree with his thesis (Wells, 1.363).
The Manner of Jesus’ Death
The mode of his death was by “hanging.” This is an expression that was used for crucifixion. Note Peter’s description: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed, hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30). Literally, the text reads, “whom you killed, having hanged him on a tree.” The participle, “having hanged,” is “coincident with that of the verb” (Lenski, 225). See also Acts 10:39.
There was divine planning in the manner of Christ’s death. In his atoning act, he was bearing the “curse” of sin, i.e., the consequence of human sin — potentially available to the entire family of mankind. As Paul would later explain: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:23). More on this momentarily.
The Time of Jesus’ Death
The general time of his death is indicated: at the “Passover Eve.” John the apostle, who was present at the time of Christ’s death, writes: “Now it was the Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he [Pilate] said unto the Jews, ‘Behold your king’” (19:14). For a study of the alleged problems associated with the time element of the Passover, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, etc., see Geldenhuys (649-670).
This timing, of course, was a perfect complement to the imagery of the Old Testament that made the Passover lamb a “type,” i.e., pictorial preview, of the atoning death of the Savior (see John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7).
The Illegal Trial of Christ
The reference to a “herald” crying out for “forty days,” proclaiming the guilt of Christ appears to be an obvious attempt to cover up the illegal malfeasance that occurred in connection with the Lord’s trial and death.
Jewish legal procedure dictated that en route to an execution, a “herald” was required to: proclaim the victim’s name, state his alleged crime, provide the names of witnesses against him, and call for any exculpatory testimony (see our article on the trial of Jesus, Part 1 and Part 2. ) There is not a shred of evidence in the New Testament that such was done in connection with Jesus’ death. Christ was not even in Jerusalem until five days before his crucifixion!
Accusation of Collusion with Satan
Christ was accused of practicing sorcery, which, in effect, was a charge that he was in league with the devil. The term “sorcery” represents a perversion of truth regarding Jesus; nonetheless, in a subtle way, it concedes that he was doing extraordinary things (his miracles) that were inexplicable from a strictly natural vantage point.
As support for the Lord mounted, the Hebrew leaders were frantic.
The chief priests therefore and the Pharisees gathered a council, and said, “What are we to do? For this man is doing many signs. If we let him alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:47-48).
Their ploy, therefore, was this: they would attribute his amazing deeds to the devil. After the Savior had healed a man who was both blind and mute as a consequence of being demon possessed, the Pharisees charged: “This man does not cast out demons except by [the power of] Beelzebub” (Matthew 12:24). This is what the Talmud characterized as “sorcery.” Sorcery indeed! Christ exploded the argument by demonstrating that if their theory was true, Satan would be divided against himself!
Stoning or Crucifixion — Which?
The Sanhedrin text notes that he was led away for “stoning” (as with the later cases of Stephen and Paul – Acts 7:58; 14:19). Stoning was a Hebrew method of execution. This is amazing since the same Talmudic text says Christ was “hanged.” See above on the “Manner of Jesus’ Death.”
From a legal standpoint, the Jews could not execute a person by stoning, for the Romans had taken from them the option of implementing capital punishment directly (see John 18:31b); they were required to go through the Roman judicial system for executions, and for a non-Roman, that meant crucifixion.
This, of course, ultimately was of divine planning. His “hands and feet” were to be “pierced” (Psalms 22:16b), and his “soul” [Heb. nephesh; “life,” resident in the blood; cf. Leviticus 17:11] was to be “poured out” (or “laid bare”; Isaiah 53:12b; cf. Zechariah 13:1). The Savior had to die in some fashion involving the profuse loss of blood. Crucifixion accommodated that requirement much more effectively than stoning (cf. John 19:34). It is incredible that the Talmud should provide such an unintended confirmation of the biblical record.
The Lack of Defense
The claim that Jesus lacked any “defense” is noteworthy in that it corroborates the prophecy of Isaiah. “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (53:7).
Reflect upon the testimony of the Gospel records: “And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he answered not a word…. And he gave him [Pilate] no answer, not even one word” (see Matthew 27:12, 14; cf. Mark 15:5; Luke 22:67; 23:9). These texts reveal that while Christ made a few brief comments in the course of his several “court” appearances, he offered no formal defense for his innocence.
This Jewish document also takes note of the influence of the Lord Jesus. He was said to have led “Israel astray … into apostasy,” a circumstance which the chief priests and Pharisees anticipated with fear (cf. John 11:48).
It has been estimated that by the time Stephen was martyred (Acts 7:60), the Jerusalem church consisted of no fewer than 20,000 souls (Kistemaker, 148). This represented more than one-third of the estimated 55,000 citizens in Jerusalem at that time (Jeremias, 83).
How strange it is (dare we say “providential”?) that Jewish writers of the post-apostolic age ended up providing the sort of evidence that does not undermine the New Testament accounts; rather, unwittingly it supports them!
The commentary, Acts of the Apostles—From Jerusalem to Rome, by Wayne Jackson is available from Christian Courier Publications. Call 1-888-818-2463 for information.
Scripture references: 1 Corinthians 3:19; Acts 5:30; Acts 10:39; Galatians 3:13; Deuteronomy 21:23; John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7; John 11:47-48; Matthew 12:24; Acts 7:58, 14:19; John 18:31; Psalm 22:16; Leviticus 17:11; Isaiah 53:12; Zechariah 13:1; John 19:34; Matthew 27:12, 14; Mark 15:5; Luke 22:67, 23:9; John 11:48; Acts 7:60
- Geldenhuys, Norval (1956), Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
- Jeremias, Joachim (1969), Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (London: SCM Press).
- Kistemaker, Simon J. (1990), Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Baker).
- Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Augsburg).
- Neusner, Jacob & Green, William Scott, Eds. (1999), Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
- Wells, G.A. (1985), Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Historicity of Jesus,Ã¢â‚¬Â The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Gordon Stein, Ed. (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books).