Cherrick lecturer finds clues of early Jewish responses to Jesus

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

A little-known story in the Jerusalem Talmud may be a coded “counter-message” of Jewish response to the threat posed by the emergence of Christianity and a separate, rival faith to Judaism, according to Princeton University Professor Peter Schafer.

Schafer, a noted scholar and Ronald O. Pearlman Professor of Judaic Studies at Princeton University, was this year’s Adam Cherrick Lecturer for the Program in Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies at Washington University. More than 100 people attended the lecture last week at Washington U.

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Schafer, whose most recent book is Jesus in the Talmud (2007), focused his talk, “Why Did the Baby Messiah Disappear? The Birth of Christianity from the Spirit of Judaism” on a tractate in the Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud, edited in the fifth century BCE. It is not as well-known as the Babylonian Talmud edited in the seventh century BCE.

“We are talking about a time frame from about 70 C.E. (when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple) through the seventh century C.E., when the Babylonian Talmud was edited. During this time there were two major Judaic centers-Jerusalem and Babylonia. The two Jewish communities lived under different circumstances which affected their response to early Christianity.

“The Romans suffocated the community in Judea, and in Babylonia, Christianity was seen as a fifth column…Jews in Babylonia could make more open attacks on Christianity, including allegations that Jesus was born not of a virgin, but had a Roman soldier father. This was not the case for Jews in the Palestinian community of the Jerusalem Talmud. Jews witnessed Christianity at it very birth process.”

Schafer discussed a specific story in the Jerusalem Talmud, in which a Jew was plowing when his “cow lowed.” An Arab passing by said the lowing of the cow indicated that “the King Messiah has been born.” Schafer added that in Rabbinic tradition, Arabs are often described as having a strong intuition about animal behavior. Later, the same Jew had become a peddler and attempted to sell some swaddling clothes (diapers) to the mother of a newborn child in the city of Bethlehem. She declines saying, “I would rather like to strangle the enemies of Israel, for on the day he was born, the Temple was destroyed.” The beggar tells the woman that she can pay him later. When he comes back, the woman says that the baby had been “snatched from her hands by a whirlwind.”

Schafer, describing the story as “strange,” interprets the tale as a “counter-narrative” to the story of the birth of Jesus as the Christian Messiah. He offers the possible explanation of the story as an alternative interpretation to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, which was also the birth city of King David, from which the Messiah is supposed to be descended, according to the Jewish messianic tradition.

Schafer pointed out that in the Book of Matthew in the Christian New Testament, the ancestry of Jesus is traced all the way back to King David, through Joseph, the husband of Mary and putative father of Jesus, “even though the Christian belief is that Jesus is the son of a virgin and the Holy Spirit.”

Nevertheless, Schafer said, pains were taken to establish the ancestral link between Jesus and King David with a detailed genealogy from Joseph back to David. “So the Messiah in this story is the Messiah of David, from the city of Bethlehem,” he said.

The annual Adam Cherrick Lecture in Jewish Studies was established in 1993 by Jordan and Lorraine Cherrick of St. Louis in memory of their loving son Adam.

Thus, according to Schafer, the Jerusalem Talmud provides a “counter-narrative” to refute the basic premises of the Christian interpretation of the birth of Jesus in the city of Bethlehem as the David Messiah.