I just finished reading Peter Schafer's new book, Jesus in the Talmud. Previous discussions on this theme have revolved around whether or not the rare appearances of Jesus in Rabbinic literature can contribute to our understanding of the "historical Jesus." Notable in this respect is the highly erudite and ultimately fruitless study by Johann Maier entitled, Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Ueberlieferung. Schaefer seeks to move beyond such questions and discuss why Jesus is portrayed the way he is in the Talmud (basically, and to no one's surprise, in a very negative light). His thesis is that the Talmud's occasional discussions of Jesus--when Jesus usually is NOT the primary topic under discussion, but is merely used as an example for another point--provides a "devastating counternarrative" to the gospels. "Counternarrative," by the way, is Schaefer's favorite word in this book. To demonstrate this, he engages in close readings of all the relevant passages (the proverbial drop in the yam ha-Talmud), divided in terms of theme of Jesus' lifecycle (birth and family, growth and maturity, as a disciple, as a teacher, Jesus' magical powers, execution, Jesus' disciples, and Jesus' afterlife in hell). Throughout, he makes insightful observations, tracking down the context of the verses quoted by the rabbis to demonstrate often very clever polemics in the war of verses. At the same time, sometimes one feels that his claims are not necessarily wrong, just a bit exaggerated--how, for example, can a few really short passages in the entire rabbinic corpus be a "devastating counternarrative." Devastating to whom? Sometimes his close readings are very tenuous, but he admits as much himself. But the final chapter is where he makes his most important observations. He notes, for example, that most of the evidence and the most vociferous "counternarrative" (I would have used the word polemic) comes from Babylonian sources and not Palestinian sources. The Palestinian sources that do discuss Jesus focus upon his magical abilities or the magical power inherent in his name. In contrast, the Babylonian sources portray Jesus as a wayward disciple, a heretic, an idolator, who was the sexually immoral bastard son of an equally sexually improper mother. He is also portrayed here as suffering in hell, sitting in boiling excrement. Schaefer relates this to the historical situation of Jews living in Palestine after the rise of Constantine and the ever-increasing power of one branch of Christianity that become more and more oppressive to Jews living in the Roman Empire; thus, it would have been dangerous for them to be critical of Jesus himself. In Persia, however, in the century after Constantine came to power, Persia' number one enemy, the Romans, became identified with Christianity. Judaism and Christianity had been tolerated (or not tolerated) to roughly an equal extent, but, in such an environment, opposition to Christianity would not have only been tolerated, but probably encouraged. His second, equally interesting observation, is that these passages, especially when going back in looking up the context of verses cited, show familiarity with parts of all four canonical gospels, but a heightened familiarity with John, the most anti-Jewish gospel. This is why he uses the word, "counternarrative," because the Talmudic passages invert the claims made in the gospels, often alluding to specific details, such as the date of Jesus' crucifixion (preferring John here), mocking parthenogenesis, and even pouncing upon tensions within the gospel texts themselves. He postulates that they probably gained familiarity through either Tatian's diatesseron (a harmonization of the gospels that shows a preference for John) or the Peshitta, both being Syriac documents.
Schaefer does a good job of taking the conversation beyond the sterile question of whether or not this or that passage contributes to an understanding of the historical Jesus. And while he puts things into context, and presents a clever inversion of gospel events, I am still left waiting for the next step--addressing the purpose of these few scraps of "counternarrative." For example, in b. Sanh 43a, which discusses Jesus' execution, it says that Jesus was close to the government (malckut). In his analysis of gospel narrative and talmudic counternarrative, this must be commenting on something in the gospels. He suggests the reluctance of Pilate to execute Jesus as suggesting that Jesus was close to the government. I find this unsatisfying, especially when reading back from his last chapter. If these texts were written or at least incorporated into the Bavli in a post-Constantinian period, then they probably reflect that context in some ways. Saying that Jesus was close to the goverment at this time period probably reflects the role Christianity was beginning to play in the Roman Empire, becoming not only tolerated, but primary, and then oppressively dominant (it was close to the Malchut). This gets me back to an earlier question--to whom is this devastating? To whom is this addressed? Perhaps it is addressed to Christians (especially Jewish Christians) living in Persia, saying that their leader was nothing better than a heretic and idolater that led people astray, now suffering in hell, and their fate would be the same if they did not repent. On the other hand, the stories about Jesus as a wayward disciple and a bad teacher seem to be directed inward (as polemics often are) at people within the rabbinic movement. He is the extreme negative exemplar of what can happen if you do not behave correctly, if you challenge rabbinic authority (this is where the discussion of magic is prominent), or if you do not forgive your students' behavior (one story is that Jesus wanted to repent of a minor infraction, but his rabbinic teacher would not let him, and THAT is what led him to idolatry). Schaefer, to be fair, does occasionally bring this up, but I wonder if oftentimes monitoring insiders' actions is not just as an important aspect of these "counternarratives" as the clever literary exercise that Schaefer lays out.