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Frank B. Zindler's
The Jesus the Jews Never Knew

American Atheist Press, 2004

Reviewed by Robert M. Price




This fascinating survey of ostensible Jewish sources of tradition regarding Jesus of Nazareth reminds us of the pivotal role once played by Deist, Atheist, and Freethought skeptics in starting the engine of the Higher Criticism. One would almost be disappointed not to find frequent religion-bashing cracks and epithets in Zindler’s pages, but they are there, and they are effective. That is, his potshots inject a welcome note of levity into a massive and complex scholarly analysis, and they should be no more off-putting to the reader who congratulates himself for being neutral than are the conventional pietisms of scholars who write from the standpoint of the Church.

          Let none dismiss The Jesus the Jews Never Knew as partisan apologetics, as if those who do not believe in God must pursue a scorched-earth policy, erasing Jesus from the page of history as they have already erased his Father from the page of metaphysics. No, Zindler, in whose debt we already stand for his English translations of works by Arthur Drews, is setting forth specimens of the research and thinking that have led him to an admittedly radical position, not trying to adjust inconvenient facts into conformity with a position already held. Or at least that is how it reads to this reviewer.

          A word about the point of the work as a piece of Zindler’s larger project: I used to read (much more rudimentary) accounts of the lack of Jewish evidence for Jesus and dismiss them on the grounds that such arguments appeared to prove too much. If the silence of Philo, Justus of Tiberias and (probably) Josephus implied there was no Jesus for them to record or report, mustn’t that imply there was no Christianity there, either? And that would, I supposed, be absurd. No one would doubt the presence of Palestinian Jewish Christians available to Josephus and the rest! Or would they? Zindler’s point is precisely that such a Christianity in the Holy Land was indeed unknown because Christianity did not start there. It would have begun in Alexandria or Antioch (and other places as well, a phenomenon, like Mithraism, with several roots). It would have reached Palestine (and Judaized) later. Pardon my ignorance of a major component of the Christ-Myth theory. Now I get it.

          Zindler has bitten off quite a bit to chew. He has determined to make it through something of a dark continent of obscure and turgid material, including the history of the debate over the Testimonium Flavianum, the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, and the Toledoth Jeschu in its variations. It is necessarily slow going, but Zindler is a pleasant and capable guide through the jungle. Nor does he fail to engage the opinions of major scholars of each body of material.

          The origin of The Jesus the Jews Never Knew is manifold. First, Zindler was preparing a new reprint edition of the Foote and Wheeler translation of one version of the Toledoth Jeschu, weeding out some errors that had crept into Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s 1982 booklet edition. But other questions had been raised by the original publication, as when numerous Jews protested that such a vicious Christian-baiting gospel satire could never have been the (suicidal) work of Jews, any more than the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It must rather be a hoax blamed on Jews in order to incriminate them (in the same manner that one might well judge Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing a propaganda reel for the Ku Klux Klan if one didn’t know better). But this skepticism was ill-founded, and Zindler needed to set the record straight. Plus, conservative Christian apologists are now busy dusting off all manner of bad historical arguments amply refuted and forgotten long enough ago that they sound brand new, so Zindler figured he’d better enter the lists to set things straight as far as one book can. The result is an introduction that grew and grew till it dwarfed the original booklet it introduced.

In The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, Zindler carries the debate on both Josephus and (for good measure) Tacitus much farther along, making all apologetical appeal to these interpolations no longer credible even to the wishful thinkers. He combs through numerous Mishnaic and Talmudic texts which have often been set forth as implicit or coded references to Jesus, showing in virtually every case how the characters mentioned (e.g., Elijah’s disciple Gehazi or the post-biblical Ben Stada) have nothing to do with Jesus, and that only someone laboring under the assumption that the Rabbis must have had something to say about Jesus could ever have thought they did. In several cases, Zindler needs do no more than supply the immediate context of the disputed passages to show either that they are obvious interpolations or that they have been grossly misread outside of their natural setting. In this, Zindler renders the same service performed for us by various second-generation biblical feminists (like Kathleen Corley) who have shown that supposed Rabbinical put-downs of women are nothing of the sort, convenient as the old readings might have been for feminist Christian apologetics.

          One especially good example of traditional over-interpretation concerns the passage j. Taanit 65b: “R. Abahu said: ‘If a man say to thee, “I am God,” he is a liar; if [he says, “I am] the son of man,” in the end people will laugh at him; if [he says:] “I will go up to heaven,” he saith, but shall not perform it.’” Mustn’t this be a reference to extravagant claims made by Jesus such as we find in the Gospel of John? It would certainly seem so—until a look at the context makes plain that it is rather a cumbersome play on Numbers 13:19: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and he will not do it? Or has he spoken and will he not fulfill it?” (And see Isaiah 14:13, “I will ascend to heaven.”) The point may simply have been equivalent to 1 John 1:8 (“If we say we have no sin, we are only deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”) plus Matthew 11:23 (“And as for you, Caphar-Nahum, do you imagine you will be exalted to heaven? Ha! You shall sink into Hades!”). The self-righteous one would usurp God’s glory and will find himself shut out of heaven. What we would seem to have here, then, on the part of Christians searching for Jesus-references in Jewish sources is another case of what early Christian scribes and sayings-transmitters did: taking a generic reference to human beings, “the son of man,” and turning it into a Christological reference to Jesus.

          I found minor points where I could pause to gag on a gnat. For instance, does Mark 12:32, where the people esteem John the Baptist as a prophet, really imply that John was understood to have lived long previous to Jesus? Just the opposite: it seems to suppose the issue of the status of a popular martyr is still a raw nerve, hence a recent matter. Similarly, does Mark 8:28 include John among the ranks of the ancient prophets? No, the point is rather that the crowd imagines the healer Mark knows as “Jesus” to be the resurrected Baptizer. (On the other hand, Matthew 11:12//Luke 16:16 does seem to place John a generation or so before Jesus, just as Robert Eisler argued.)

          Zindler opens the door on an intriguing mystery when he quotes Augustine as describing his beholding headless Ethiopians with eyes in their chests, as well as Abyssinian Cyclopes. Zindler has the text from Joseph Wheless, Forgery in Christianity and Robert Taylor’s Diegesis. In the former, the citation is of “Sermon 37,” while the latter credits “Sermon 33.” Zindler admits he can find no such text in any printed edition of Augustine’s works and infers it has been censored by ecclesiastical spin-doctors (p. 34), but I wonder if he is not rather unwittingly perpetuating a bit of libelous Freethought apocrypha. Are the unbelievers pulling the same trick with Augustine (to make him look like a blatant deceiver) that early believers played when they interpolated Josephus?

          Zindler points to certain little known statements by various Church Fathers and scribes to the effect that Jesus died in the reign of Claudius (p. 128 ff.), as well as Jewish legends placing him a century earlier than the gospels do, in Alexander Jannaeus’ era. Such data imply that the pinning down of the Jesus character to a particular historical niche was haphazard and did not stem from historical memory. A Jesus of unknown and contradictory date is likely to be a mythical Jesus badly historicized.

          I find myself not quite convinced, with Zindler, that “Jesus ben Pandera” is not even supposed to be Jesus. He’s got me persuaded that Ben Stada is more likely Simon Magus, certainly not Jesus, and that Balaam is simply the Old Testament prophet, not a cipher for Jesus, but the Pandera business is so early a piece of anti-Christian lore that, when we find what sounds like the same thing in somewhat later Jewish writings, it is likely we are dealing with the same tradition. Even at that, the Jesus Pandera citations appear to be later interpolations reflecting Christian virgin birth claims.

Previous delvers into these matters took literally all the Rabbinic attributions of Talmudic and Mishnaic sayings. Writing in the wake of Jacob Neusner’s pioneering work, Zindler demonstrates what a genuinely higher-critical (source and redactional) treatment of the texts reveal. For instance, it turns out that Christian scholars had simply accepted very late statements of pre-critical Rabbis that Ben Stada and Ben Pandera were the same, when now it seems plain that the old scholars were simply trying to force some economy on a mass of confusing traditions by harmonizing them. Likewise, Zindler shows how traditional stories about Ben Stada, etc., were only later made to refer to Jesus. “Jesus the Nazorean” appears only in very late redactions of earlier texts which originally mentioned Jesus ben Pandera or other characters entirely.

          The discussion of the Toledoth Jeschu (two versions of which appear as appendices) amply demonstrates that, as an integrated literary work, it does not go back very early but instead represents an oral tradition variously crystallized again and again in many written forms. Zindler shows that, while certain motifs of this gospel-parody go back very early, the later text versions with their peculiarities stem from long after the entrance of Christianity into Palestine and do not represent any native Jewish historical memory of Jesus.

          With this book as a foretaste, we can only look forward eagerly to Zindler’s planned work on the origins of Christianity, Inventing Jesus.



Copyright©2007 by Robert M Price
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