Hostile Witnesses

Adding to Christian and pagan testimony about what the early church believed about Jesus, hostile witnesses also rise to testify. These hostile witnesses include the Talmud. The New Testament's report of a Jewish trial extending through evening and morning sessions is more controversial than it ought to be. The Talmud itself offers legal analysis of this very trial:

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The Talmud Josephus Trypho

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The Talmud

The Talmud, a compilation important to modern Judaism representing the teachings of the rabbis who rebuilt Judaism from its ruins, subsequent to its collision with pagan Rome, confirms that Jesus was condemned by a Jewish tribunal on a charge of enticement:

  • "On the eve of Passover, Jesus (of Nazareth) was hanged. For forty days, a herald went out before him, crying aloud: Jesus is going to be stoned for having practiced sorcery and for having enticed Israel and led them astray; let anybody who has something to say in his defense, come forward and defend him. Nobody came to defend him, so they hanged him on the eve of Passover. Ulla asked: Do you think that he was one in whose favor defenders should have been called? Was he not an enticer, to whom the Divine command applied, thy eye shall not pity him, neither shalt thou spare him (Deuteronomy 13, 8-9)?"
  • (Baraitha, B Sanhedrin 43a., quoted p. 298, The Trial and Death of Jesus, Haim Cohn).

What does 'Passover eve' or 'the eve of Passover' mean? By analogy with familiar usages like 'Christmas eve,' it would be the evening before the day of the holiday. However one sometimes finds 'Passover eve' used in the Talmud for the evening after the Passover meal, for instance, "Who is the Tana who holds that after midnight on the Passover eve the remaining portion of the sacrifice is called a remainder within the meaning of the law? Said R. Joseph: R. Elazar ben Azariah." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume V., Section Moed, Tract Pesachim, Chapter X, Kindle location 21946). There is no 'remainder' of the sacrifice on the day before it is offered! Unfortunately I do not have access to these texts in the original language. If that is the meaning here, then even the detail of timing is consistent with the gospel accounts, which record that Jesus was crucified the same day, counting evening to evening, of the Passover meal (Last Supper) after which He was arrested.

Looking up the passage Ulla cites, we discover the accusation is that Jesus enticed Israel to the worship of strange gods:

"If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers, of the gods of the people which are all around you, near to you or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth, you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people." (Deuteronomy 13:6-9).

Now, when did Jesus ever entice Israel to worship any "other gods"? Who were the "other gods"? Baal, Thor, Athena? Ulla's accusation of 'enticement' becomes comprehensible in light of gospel passages like John 5:23, "That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him." Jesus here demands that Israel worship Himself. Christians object, Jesus is not any "other" god, He is the God of Israel. If, however, He is not, then He is an enticer. This interpretation that Jesus is Himself one of the "other gods" continues to this day to influence Jewish behavior, because it stands behind the habit of pious Jews of refraining from mentioning His name:

“In my neighborhood, we did not even mention his name. We said 'Yoshke,' a Hebrew play on his name, or some children learned to say 'cheese and crust' in place of 'Jesus Christ.' In a synagogue sermon, rabbis might refer to Jesus – exceedingly rarely – by saying “the founder of Christianity.” “Fundamentally, we understood Jesus as a foreign deity, a man worshipped by people. The Torah instructs us never to mention the names of other gods, as no other god exists except God.” (Boteach, Shmuley (2011-12-07). Kosher Jesus. Gefen Publishing House. Kindle Edition. Preface)

The passage in the law is, "And in all things that I have said unto you be circumspect: and make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth." (Exodus 23:13). That Jesus is Himself understood to be one of the "other gods" is striking confirmation of the New Testament. The Talmudic account of the 'Jewish trial' thus provides indirect confirmation that Jesus claimed to be God. In asserting that Jesus was crucified on Passover eve, the author may be relying upon the gospel of John, from which this chronology is a common though erroneous interpretation. However he plainly has also at his disposal records other than our gospels, because there is no account in any gospel of a forty day public comment period.

A variant tradition in the Palestinian Talmud confirms the charge was 'enticement' (Ben Stada is one of the aliases under which Jesus appears in the Talmud):

"No: as an enticer he is not a wise man; as he is enticed he is not a wise man. How do they treat him so as to come upon him by surprise? Thus; for the enticer two witnesses are placed in concealment in the inner most part of the house; but he is made himself to remain in the exterior part of the house, wherein a lamp is lighted over him, in order that the witnesses may see him and distinguish his voice. Thus, for instance, they managed with Ben Sotda [a variant of Stada or Satda] at Lud. Against him two disciples of learned men were placed in concealment and he was brought before the court of justice, and stoned." (Pal. Sanhedrin, vii. 25d ; also Pal. Jabamoth, xvi. 15d., quoted p. 177, Did Jesus Live 100 Years B.C.? by G. R. S. Mead).

'Stoning' isn't right, the version of this story which used to be part of the Babylonian Talmud gets the manner of execution right: "How can we abandon our God in Heaven and practise idolatry?. . .And thus they have done to Ben Stada at Lud, and they hanged him on the day before Passover." (cited as Sanhedrin 67a, Did Jesus Live 100 Years B.C.? by G. R. S. Mead, p. 178).

This third century anti-Christian exegesis of Numbers 23:19 confirms that Jesus was understood to have claimed to be God:

"'He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice' [Prov. xxvii. 14]. How strong was the voice of Balaam? Rabbi Jochanan said; (It was heard) sixty miles. . .And he looked about and saw that a man, son of a woman, will arise, who seeks to make himself God and to seduce all the world without exception. Therefore, he gave strength to his voice, that all nations of the world might hear (it), and thus he spake: Take heed that you go not astray after that man, as it is written [Num. xxiii. 19], 'God is not a man, that he should lie,'— and if he says that he is God, he is a liar: and he will fall into error and say that he is going away and will come (again) at certain spaces of time, (then) he hath said and will not do it. Look what is written [Num. xxiv. 23], "And he took up his parable and said, Alas, who shall live when he makes himself God! Balaam intended to say: Alas, who shall live from that nation  which gives ear to that man who makes himself God?" ('Jalkut Shimoni' on Num. xxiii. 7, under the name of Midrash Jelammedenu, quoted pp. 181-182, Did Jesus Live 100 Years B.C.? by G. R. S. Mead, see also Gustaf Dalman, Jesus Christ in the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, and the Liturgy of the Synagogue, p. 34).

The anti-Christian exegesis of Numbers 23:19 is a favored theme. It is noteworthy that the understanding of modern Jewish authors like Amy-Jill Levine, that Jesus never claimed to be God but his later followers made this claim, is never offered in exculpation though it would certainly be relevant:

  • "If a man says to you, 'I am God,' he lies; 'I am a son of man,' he will regret it at the end; 'I will go up to heaven,' he says so but will not fulfill it."
  • (Palestinian Rabbi Abbahu, yTaan. 65b, quoted p. 258, Geza Vermes, 'Jesus the Jew').

Heinrich Graetz expands upon Abbahu's words,

"By reason of his extensive acquirements Abbahu was well fitted to engage in polemics against Christianity. During the time of Diocletian, Christianity had strained every nerve to obtain the empire of the world. . .Like Simlai, Abbahu attacked the Christian dogmas in the most uncompromising manner, and grounded his opposition, according to the manner of the time, upon a verse in the Bible (Numbers xxiii. 19): 'If a man say of himself, "I am God," he lieth; "I am the son of man," he will repent it; "I go to heaven," he will not confirm it.'" (History of the Jews, by Heinrich Graetz, Volume II, Chapter XX, p. 539).

Of course a Rabbi of the time of Diocletian cannot offer any first-hand testimony of Jesus' claims, however, it is striking that the modern approach of denying that Jesus made such claims is taken by none of the ancients. Some interpreters explain that the Talmud's 'Jesus of Nazareth' is not ours, but a different one, though it is far from obvious who else it might be. Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, understood the reference in its natural significance:

"The first one to have adopted this plan was Jesus the Nazarene, may his bones be ground to dust. He was a Jew because his mother was a Jewess although his father was a Gentile. . . Jesus is only figuratively termed an illegitimate child. He impelled people to believe that he was a prophet sent by God to clarify perplexities in the Torah, and that he was the Messiah that was predicted by each and every seer. He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions. The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him.

"Daniel had already alluded to him when he presaged the downfall of a wicked one and a heretic among the Jews who would endeavor to destroy the Law, claim prophecy for himself, make pretenses to miracles, and allege that he is the Messiah, as it is written, "Also the children of the impudent among thy people shall make bold to claim prophecy, but they shall fall." (Daniel 11:14)." (Moses Maimonides, Letter to Yemen, Chapter III).

If Jesus is here being identified with Daniel's wicked king, then He is understood to have made claims to deity, "And the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak marvellous things against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the indignation be accomplished: for that that is determined shall be done." (Daniel 11:36).

The liturgy of the synagogue also identifies the followers of the 'hanged one' as worshipping, as God, Jesus the branch (netser), who is made abominable though understood to receive adoration from His people:

"Unclean are they who mean to spoil thy inheritance, that it may barter away thy glory and become entangled after their vanity, to accept the "abominable branch" (Is. xiv. 19) as God, and to cast away and to spoil thy holy fear. . .Command the salvation of those that search thee with appeasing, destroy in thy wrath those that bow to a hanged one!" (Chapter XXV, Jesus in the Liturgy of the Synagogue, Gustaf Dalman, Jesus Christ in the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, and the Liturgy of the Synagogue, pp. 40-41).

Recall that the modern-day critic of Christianity, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, confirms his predecessors' legal analysis. In its own way, the Jewish preference for substituting 'JC' for Jesus' name testifies that He is not understood to be any run-of-the-mill itinerant preacher, but is recognized as an aspiring "foreign deity:"

"In my neighborhood, we did not even mention his name. . .Fundamentally, we understood Jesus as a foreign deity, a man worshipped by people." (Boteach, Shmuley (2011-12-07). Kosher Jesus. Gefen Publishing House. Kindle Edition, Preface.)

It is striking that this understanding has survived, for thousands of years, as an essentially independent testimony of Jesus' claims. If it is a simple error, as they are now claiming, it is a wonder it was not 'caught' centuries ago.


Josephus offers a few comments which have been endlessly discussed and over-analyzed, and finally dismissed by most readers as a Christian interpolation, which mythicist Robert Price calls the "Testimonium Flimsyanus." Is it true that this passage "cannot have been the work of a non-Christian Jew like Josephus"? (Debate, Robert Price vs. Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? 51:06-51:10)

  • "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."
  • Τίνεται δε κατα τουτον τον χρόνον Ιησους, σοφος ανήρ, ει γε ανδρα αυτον λέγειν χρή. Ην γαρ παραδόξων εργων ποιητής, διδάσκαλος ανθρώπων των ηδονη ταληθη δεχομένων• και πολλους μεν Ιουδαίους πολλους δε και του Ελληνικου επηγάγετο. Ο Χριστος ουτος ην. Και αυτον ενδείξει των πρώτων ανδρων παρʼ ημιν σταυρω επιτετιμηκότος Πιλάτου, ουκ επαύσαντο οι το πρωτον αυτον αγαπήσαντες• εφάνη γαρ αυτοις τρίτην εχων ημέραν πάλιν ζων, των θείων προφητων ταυτά τε και αλλα μυρία θαυμάσια περι αυτου ειρηκότων. Εισέτι τε νυν των Χριστιανων απο τουδε ωνομασμένων ουκ επέλιπε το φυλον.
  • (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 3, section 3).

Those who assert this passage is a Christian interpolation insist Josephus, a Jew who did not believe the gospel, cannot possibly have written the words, "He was [the] Christ." There is, however, nothing in the world more common than for writers summarizing the beliefs of a sect or a party to slip into natural diction, and express these beliefs in declarative sentences about the world. For instance, Epiphanius, the orthodox Christian bishop of Salamis, says,

"Leucippus the Milesian -- though some say that he was an Elean -- was also a controversialist. He too said that everything is in the infinite, and that all events take place in imagination and appearance. There are no real events; they are apparent, like an oar in the water." (Epiphanius, Panarion, De Fide VII, 9, 17, p. 647, Frank Williams translation).

Gasp -- can this orthodox bishop really have believed that "there are no real events; they are apparent, like an oar in the water"? Presumably Epiphanius is evoking the broken appearance of the oar in water, though the oar is not broken. Can Bishop Berkeley really have that long a pedigree? Not very likely, because Epiphanius can hardly keep track of all the philosophical sects among the Greeks, much less does he wish to espouse the cause of one of them: "For who can count the variety of this world? How many other sects have not grown up among the Greeks after the four most famous ones which we have mentioned -- and further, after those sects and the ones after them, how many individuals and ideas keep arising of themselves, with seeming 'youth,' in accordance with the opinion of each?" (Epiphanius, Panarion, De Fide VII, 9, 2, p. 646, Frank Williams translation). The section in which he explains Leucippus' view is prefaced with the modest ambition, "Since I have learned of many I shall give their names and their opinions in order below, but this is a fraction of the ones in the world." (Epiphanius, Panarion, De Fide VII, 9, 3, p. 646, Frank Williams translation). Just because he does not remember to say, "they say" or "they believe" in front of every clause, is no reason to saddle him with the views he is summarizing. It gets even worse:

"Zeno of Citieum, the Stoic, said that we must not build temples for gods but keep the Godhead in our minds alone -- or rather, regard the mind as God, for it is immortal. We should throw the dead to wild beasts or consign them to fire. We may indulge in pederasty without restraint." (Epiphanius, Panarion, De Fide VII, 9, 40, p. 650, Frank Williams translation).

Gasp -- a bishop who proposes to "indulge in pederasty without restraint"! Sue him! Or perhaps it is an 'interpolation' perpetrated by those devious Stoics. Or perhaps, like a cop who forgets to insert 'allegedly' before every single clause, he just forgot to say 'they say.' Another instance: "Satan fell from heaven, created the visible universe, and will finally return to glory." (Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Book II, Chapter IV, Kindle location 17407). Though this author does not wear his convictions on his sleeve, I sincerely doubt he shares the Catharist belief that Satan created the world. Like others, he simply falls into natural narrative diction, though the surrounding context makes clear he is describing the beliefs of a particular sect.

In 'Kingdom Ethics' by David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, we learn that, "Some pacifists have argued that Jesus's way is only for Christians. Christians must follow Jesus and renounce violence, but we cannot expect non-Christians to renounce violence. The gospel is only for Christians, and we have nothing to say to non-Christians." (Kingdom Ethics, David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, Kindle location 8171). Notice please that these statements, "we cannot expect non-Christians to renounce violence" and "we have nothing to say to non-Christians" are written in natural diction; they are simple statements about the world. But do the authors believe they are true? Evidently not, because they go on to explain, "But". . .and this itself is a 'tell,'. . ."just like the argument for just war theory that marginalized Jesus as relevant only to private relations, this way of arguing for pacifism ultimately makes Jesus something less than fully Lord." So if you want to 'marginalize Jesus' and make Him less than Lord, you are welcome to adopt the view of "Some pacifists"; the authors do not endorse this view. So why did they express the viewpoint? Because how else would you know what view they intended to rebut? If we followed the approach of the higher critics, we would explain that the passage following upon "But" was a later interpolation, because the later authors plainly do not agree with the earlier ones who said "we cannot expect non-Christians to renounce violence." But this is obtuse. Nothing is more normal, in a survey of ethical systems, philosophies, or political systems, for the authors to bring up a faction or tendency, summarize their views, often in simple, declarative statements about the world, even though they themselves do not share the viewpoint in question. You can multiply examples endlessly. "We proceed thus to the Third Article: It seems that God does not exist." (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, P(1) Q(2) A(3).) So Thomas was an atheist! No, actually he wasn't. Some minimal degree of intelligence is asked of the reader.

Did Princeton Calvinist Charles Hodge believe Christ's flesh was uncreated? So he says; speaking of the mystic Schwenkfeld, Charles Hodge says, "Christ is not, even as to his human nature, a creature. His body and soul were formed out of the substance of God." (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Kindle location 1787). Of course anyone with any sense understands he is summarizing what the mystic Schenkfeld believed, not his own views on this score. Or was he a godless materialist: "All life, whether animal, vegetable, or spiritual, is due to the working of physical and chemical forces in matter. As no power exists but in matter, there can be no divine Being with creative power nor any created human soul." (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Kindle location 5262).  The reader who takes the time to flip back will see it's the materialist Berger, not the theist Hodge, who thinks this way just as the patient reader realizes that in Josephus it's the Christians who think these things. "The Transfer of Guilt or Righteousness Impossible" (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Kindle location 21732). It's a chapter heading, for Pete's sake! But still the people who say that are not with Hodge but against him, as with the next chapter heading, "Expiation a Heathenish Idea." You don't have to say 'allegedly' every time.

Or when Louis Berkhof tells us, "Mental phenomena can be reduced to material phenomena, and in science man cannot get beyond these. . .No positive affirmation can be made respecting the existence of God. . ." (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Kindle location 610), does the reader wonder, 'Wow, if this is what Christians believe, why pick on Daniel Dennett?' No, because he's talking about Auguste Comte. He does not have to repeat every time, 'Auguste Comte says. . .' This is what Comte believes, not Berkhof. The literary complaint against the phone book has been made, that it introduces all manner of interesting characters, and then just drops them. Couldn't the same complaint be made of Berkhof, if indeed he starts talking about Comte, and then just drops him and starts telling us his own opinion? It's not his own opinion, any more than Josephus is giving us his opinion in his summary of Christian beliefs.

A contemporary example, from an author described on the book jacket as a professor at "Reformed Theological Seminary:" "At each stage of its descent, the soul lost more of its original heavenly characteristics and acquired more defects associated with the sphere of the body." (Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, p. 145). Wow, so 'Reformed' folks believe in the descent of the soul through the celestial spheres? No, he is talking about Mithraism, as the prior sentence makes clear: "Mithraism taught that the human soul has fallen or descended from its original home in heaven through seven layers of reality, each identified with one of the seven known planets." The next sentence continues the exposition of what those people believed, not what 'Reformed' people believe; the author finds it time-consuming, redundant and unnecessary to keep repeating, 'they believe, they believe.' (No doubt he does not expect to be read by 'scholars'!) This tendency is so common there is no difficulty finding examples: the author begins the exposition of the beliefs of a named sect with 'they believe,' then continues with simple, declarative statements of fact which, however, continue to be understood by the discerning reader as the beliefs of the sect under examination, not the author's own beliefs. Sometimes it is too taxing to expect the policeman to say 'alleged' before every significant word. Really if he's said it once that should be enough.



'Trypho' is a character who turns up in Justin Martyr's 'Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew.' Generally speaking, characters in philosophical dialogues run the gamut from sock-puppets expressing opinions they certainly never held in life, such as Plato's 'Socrates,' to real people painted with the colors of verisimilitude, who may not have said the exact words which the author puts in their mouths, but might have said something similar. If Justin's Trypho, whom some readers have identified as Rabbi Tarphon, did engage in real exchanges with Justin and did say some of the things Justin relates of him, then there is some small amount of evidentiary value to his perception of Christian teaching:

“For you utter many blasphemies, in that you seek to persuade
us that this crucified man was with Moses and Aaron, and spoke to them in the pillar of the cloud; then that he became man, was crucified, and ascended up to heaven, and comes again to earth, and ought to be worshipped.” (Trypho, Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew, Chapter 38).

Trypho, around the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, understood that the Christians were identifying Jesus as Jehovah. In fact this has a lot to do with why he finds Justin's views offensive.



John the Baptist is revealed in the New Testament as the precursor to Jesus Christ, but not all of John's followers jumped onto the bandwagon of the crucified king. This gnostic sect, which still counts followers in Iraq to this day, magnifies John and disparages Jesus:

  • "For nine months Nbu Christ is in the womb of his mother, the virgin, and he is hidden there. Then he came out of her body, along with blood and menstrual discharge, and grew up at her breasts and sucked her milk. When he was grown, he entered the temple of the Jews and became perfect in all wisdom. He perverts the Torah and alters its doctrine and all its work. . .He tells them,
  • 'I am the true god. I have been sent here from my father.
    I am the first messenger and I am the last.
    I am the father, I am the son, I am the holy spirit.
    I came out of the city of Nazareth.'
  • "He demeans himself humbly, goes to Jerusalem, and there captivates some Jews through sorcery and deceit, showing them great deeds and magical forms. Some devils who are with him he inserts in a dead body, and they speak in the dead body."
  • (The Ginza, p. 549, The Gnostic Bible, edited by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer).

"Nbu" is reportedly the planet Mercury. Mercury was the messenger of the pagan gods, and thus a likely identity for the 'logos' in pagan minds. While Christ's followers do not recall Him saying "I am the father, I am the son, I am the holy spirit," Simon the Samaritan is recalled as having said something like that.

It is difficult to know how early or how late this testimony is. The Mandaean faith is not a fly preserved in amber, but a living, growing religion. It does seem, however, that the split between this group and the Christians occurred in the first century. According to the pseudo-Clementine 'Recognitions,' the opinion that John, not Jesus, was the Christ began with dissident followers of John: "Yea, some even of the disciples of John, who seemed to be great ones, have separated themselves from the people, and proclaimed their own master as the Christ." (Recognitions of Clement, Book 1, Chapter 54). Unfortunately, this pseudepigraphic work is not a very reliable source.


Philo Judaeus

One intriguing non-testifier (he has nothing whatever to say about Jesus of Nazareth) is Philo Judaeus, a famous and highly esteemed Jewish scholar of Alexandria. Though he offers no useful testimony, his ideas about the Word of God contributed to the 'Logos Christology' of the early church fathers:


Christian Testimony
Pagan Testimony

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