Toledot Yeshu

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TOLEDOT YESHU (Heb. "The Life of Jesus"), medieval pseudo-history of the life of *Jesus. The inherent nature of the Christian version of the birth, life, and death of Jesus called forth a "Jewish" view. Beginnings to an approach can be found in the talmudic tractates Sotah (47a) and Sanhedrin (43a; 67a; 107b). When confronted by Christian critics and censors, however, Jewish scholars explained that these references were to another Jesus who had lived 200 years before the Christian era. From the geonic period at the latest, and throughout the Middle Ages, many versions on the life of Jesus were written and compiled by Jews. The authors used as sources talmudic sayings and Christian stories. The different writings merged into a single narrative of which nearly a dozen versions are extant. Most of these were printed by Samuel *Krauss, whose Das Leben Jesu nach juedischen Quellen (1902) includes a detailed study of nine versions of the story, and has remained the main scholarly work in the field.

The complete narrative, which could not have been written before the tenth century, used earlier sources, some of which have been preserved in the Cairo *Genizah documents. A chronological examination of the various fragments and versions reveals the development of the narrative. The complete medieval story has versions which are so different from each other in attitude and in detail that it is impossible that one author could have written it. Undoubtedly, several storytellers wove their separate tales out of the same early material; these were then compiled. In all the versions, Miriam (Mary), Jesus' mother, is described in a favorable light. She is of a good family and marries a nobleman whose ancestry goes back to the House of David. According to the narrative, Jesus' father, a neighbor of the household, was a bad man. Some versions state that he raped Miriam, others relate that he succeeded in pretending to be Miriam's husband. The names of the husband and the villain vary in the different versions. If the husband is Joseph, the villain is Johanan, and in those which name Johanan as the husband, Joseph is the villain. All versions concur that when it became known that Mary was raped, the husband ran away, and the infant was born to his lonely mother.

The narrative in all its versions treats Jesus as an exceptional person who from his youth demonstrated unusual wit and wisdom, but disrespect toward his elders and the sages of the age. This part of the story bears some similarities to Ben Sira's youth described in Alphabet of *Ben Sira, leading some scholars to believe that the latter was also an anti-Christian satirical medieval work. The narrative does not deny that Jesus had supernatural powers; these, however, he obtained when he stole a holy name from the Temple. After a long struggle, in which conflicting magical powers contested for preeminence, Jesus' magic was rendered powerless by one of the sages. Naturally, the narrative intends to divest Christian tradition of any spiritual meaning. Some of the miracles, therefore, like the disappearance of Jesus' body after death, are explained either as acts of deception or as natural phenomena. In the more developed versions of the narrative, the hatred toward Jesus and his followers is not the only motif in the story. Many unnecessary details were added, secondary characters were developed, and the story became a romance about the tragic fate of a young man mistaken in his ways.


S. Krauss, Das Leben Jesu nach juedischen Quellen (1902); J. Jacobs, Jesus as Others Saw Him (19252), contains How the Jews will Reclaim Jesus (introductory essay by H.A. Wolfson); H.G. Enelow, A Jewish View of Jesus (19312); G. Brandes, Jesus a Myth (1926); W. Fischel, Eine juedisch-persische "Toledoth Jeschu"-Handschrift (offprint from mgwj, vol. 78, 1934).

[Joseph Dan]