The other day I was thinking about Jesus. No, not the one who was elevated to divine status at Nicaea three hundred years after his supposed sojourn on earth; I mean the Jesus I met in Canada.
He was a fellow engineer in the company for which I worked and he hailed from a deeply religious country in South America, which, I suppose, goes without saying. With his Spanish good looks and the bearing of a toreador, he couldn’t fail to attract sneaking glances from the female office staff.
I then began to reflect on what turn of mind could have induced his parents to burden their newborn child with the same name as the Son of God. Whereas it is almost unheard of in this day and age, such an appellation was quite common in biblical times. To be more precise, ‘Jesus’ was the Greco-Roman derivative of the Semitic ‘Yeshu’, a name frequently found in the ancient Jewish Talmud. The early historian Josephus refers to many Jesus’ in his Antiquities, not least, Jesus son of Phiabi, Jesus son of Dumnew, Jesus son of Sec and Jesus son of Gamaliel, just to name a few. In other words, it was a most common name of the era.
But what do we know about the Jesus of the Gospels, assuming, of course, that he did exist? What did he look like? Christian artists, through the centuries, ran hot with their imagination, often portraying him as tall, slender and beardless, with chiselled, handsome features much like my former colleague in Canada.
Oh dear! This was a case of wishful thinking. The Jesus of the first century AD, being of Semitic descent resembled, more than likely, a five foot, three inch Yassar Arafat. Moreover, by tradition, he would most certainly have worn a beard. And just as an aside, those artists who depicted him with a halo, borrowed this sacred symbol from the age-old portrayals of the Pagan sun-god.
The next vexing question is, how can we identify the Jesus of the gospels from all the others? The canonical gospels which were written 60 to 100 years after the events they recount are contradictory, geographically incorrect, misrepresented and embellished. From them, it is practically impossible to find any factual evidence that reveals the historical Jesus.
However, there is one source of enquiry that escaped the suppression and burning of Jewish literature by the Christians in the Middle Ages. It is the Jewish Talmud, a collection of writings that chronicled the daily events following the Old Testament. Unlike the gospel scribes and subsequent Christian historians who were hell-bent on creating a new religion to oust the Gnostic movement, the Talmud writers had no reason to invent or distort their accounts of actual happenings.
Daily events were recorded in simple, almost childlike language, without pretence; for example: It happened with Rabbi Elazor ben Daman, whom a serpent (snake) bit, that Jacob, a man of Kefar Soma came to heal him in the name of Yeshu ben Pantera, but Rabbi Ishmael did not let him. He said, ‘You are not permitted, ben Daman.’ He answered, ‘I will bring you proof that he may heal me.’ But he had no opportunity to bring proof for he died.
Yet again, that name ‘Yeshu’ crops up. Could this be the one? The ‘ben Pantera’ patronymic which translates to ‘son of Pantera was then Jewish custom of identifying antecedents through the blood-line of the male parent. The question that must arise is; why is there no mention of Yeshu ben Joseph (the father of Jesus)?
Outside of the conflicting gospel stories that borrowed heavily from the Old Testament, we know very little of the Jesus we are seeking. This is quite surprising even that he has been the world’s most revered figure from the time of Nicaea up to the present day. We learn far more about the lives of less prominent contemporaries from the detailed accounts of Josephus, which have been borne out by modem research and archaeological findings.
The meticulous annals of the Roman historians make only brief reference to somebody who might, at a stretch of the imagination, be construed as the ‘real’ Jesus. So too, Josephus in his colossal Antiquities once we strip away the later Christian embellishments from it.
But of all the sources that purportedly allude to the Jesus of the Christian faith, none are more tantalising than the Jewish Talmud. This is most surprising, all things considered.
One would think that just the mere mention of the name would be abhorrent in view of the catastrophic events that were to befall the Jewish people. But no, they told it like it was with the utmost candour: Yeshu had five disciples – Mattai, Nakkai, Netzer, Buni and Todah… Once I was walking on the upper street of Sepphoris (the capital of Galilee) and found one of the disciples of Yeshu the Nazarine. On the eve of Passover (the last supper) they hanged Yeshu because he practised sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray. . . *
Apart from the wide discrepancy in the number and names of the disciples, there does seem to be a distinct correlation between the Talmudic and gospel accounts. Perhaps then, we can assume that an obscure identity did exist, possibly one of the many minor insurrectionists rebelling against the Roman yoke who was rejected as the Messiah by the Jews and adopted as the Christ by later converts to Christianity.
So here we could conclude our search for the real Jesus. But before we do, there is the embarrassing allegation during the first and second centuries AD regarding his parentage. Earlier I mentioned Yeshu ben Pantera. It was reputed that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman archer, Pantera and his mother, the Mary of the gospels. It seems it was no idle rumour intended merely to discredit Jesus’ supernatural birth. The story was firmly entrenched throughout the Roman dominions. Whether the assertion is true or not, we will probably never know. Suffice it to say, we know nothing about the Jesus of Christianity, but for the believer, it doesn’t matter. They are consoled by the Christ of Faith.
* My emphasis and parentheses.
This is the standard collection of texts and commentaries on Jewish religious law as developed from the Pentateuch or Torah. It consists of two parts, the Mishnah, which deals with the Mosaic legislation and the Gemara which is a commentary on the Mishnah. Two versions exist. In orthodox Jewry the authority of the Talmud is held second only to the Old Testament.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica states: “It is certain that before the second century AD the various manuscripts of the Old Testament differed very materially from one another and that the official Hebrew text was probably fixed in the second century AD. Thereafter it was scrupulously preserved.”
By Tony Lee