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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Gospel of St. Matthew
GA 123

Appendix II. Jeschu ben Pandira

In this lecture Rudolf Steiner insists that it is not wise to ignore the Talmud when investigating the history of Christian origins and later he mentions the fact that it contains references to Jeschu ben Pandira. This literature is vast and not easy of access: the non-specialist who wishes to read the relative passages, which are few, will find the most complete collection, in English translation, in R. Travers Hertford's Christianity in Talmud and Midrash. A very informative article by the same author on ‘Christ in Jewish Literature’ appears in Hastings Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (Vol. II: Appendix). The Jewish Encyclopaedia (Vol. VII) should also be consulted.

The question of whether the Jesus referred to in the Rabbinical corpus is the historical Jesus of the New Testament arose, as Rudolf Steiner says in Lecture Five, as early as the second century and remains to this day a subject of controversy. In the light thrown by these lectures on the figure of Jeschu hen Pandira and his mission it is interesting to study aspects of the prolonged confusion that has hitherto surrounded his name. G. R. S. Mead assembled in his book Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.? a valuable collection of references drawn from many different sources and marked by his own wide erudition. The sub-title of the work is: ‘An enquiry into the Talmud Jesus stories, the Toldoth Jeschu, and some curious statements of Epiphanius—being a study of Christian origins.’

The Toldoth Jeschu (Generations of Jesus) was a scurrilous little pamphlet, inimical to Christianity. It purported to tell the story of the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth and drew its material from Talmudic sources but embellished it with further accretions. Transcribed in very early times, it circulated covertly in various versions throughout the Middle Ages and even into the present age. It appears to have been used to bolster the faith of the more uneducated Jews in the face of persecution by Christians. There was necessity to strengthen belief in the Davidic descent of the expected Messiah, and partly for this reason the alleged illegitimate birth of Jeschu ben Pandira was given great prominence. (There were many versions of this story; one, which describes ben Pandira—or Panthera—as the son of a soldier, was repudiated by Origen in his Contra Celsum and another, which asserts that the father was a Roman legionary, appears in Thomas Hardy's poem ‘Panthera’.)

The persistence of the confusion and the vigour of the controversy as it was carried on in later times is well illustrated in O. S. Rankin's learned book Jewish Religious Polemic. The difference of opinion that existed between Talmudists themselves, especially in the 13th century, and the uses to which the Talmud references were put in polemic and debate by both Jews and Christians alike to further their own cause, are curious phenomena. Those who wish to study this aspect in detail will find in this book, in English translation, the text of the famous debate that took place in 1263 between the Jew, Rabbi Moses ben Nachmann, and the Dominican, Fra Paulo, in the presence of King Jayme I and his nobles in Barcelona. It is introduced by Professor Rankin in an explanatory chapter of great value to the reader not only in following the issues at stake in the immediate debate but in showing in a wider context the importance of the Talmudic references in Judaeo-Christian discussion. The text of the debate is Nachmann's own account of what took place and he precedes it by a passage concerning the five disciples of Jeschu ben Pandira.

The discrepancies between the stories of the Talmud Jesus and the Jesus of the Christian Confession are sufficiently wide to make any attempt to identify the two figures a somewhat tortuous business. Two outstanding differences are the number of the disciples and the chronology. It is said that Jeschu ben Pandira was a pupil of Rabbi ben Parahiah, who is assumed to have been his uncle, and who fled with him to Egypt during the persecutions of Alexander Jannaeus. It has been suggested from time to time that there were two individuals of the same name, one who lived during the reign of this king and the other a century or so later. This proposition was strongly supported by Rabbi Jechiel of Paris in a debate held there in 1240. He laid stress on the tradition that the man of whom the Talmud speaks was a contemporary of Rabbi ben Parahiah and after pointing out that it was quite possible that the name of the two individuals was the same—Jesus, or Jeschu, was not an uncommon name—he added, ‘just as there are many boys in France called Louis, who are not on that account kings of France’.

Whatever the obloquy attaching to the earlier Jesus in external records he emerges as a figure of undoubted consequence who cannot be neglected in the search for clearer knowledge of Christian origins.