Gospel and Talmud
Herbert W. Basser
There are stories in Rabbinic literature of Jesus' arguing certain legal points, the exegesis of which was so good the Rabbis feared they could attract too much appreciation (Basser, 75–77). The Gospels also present material suggesting that Jesus bests his various Jewish opponents in legal argumentation. And while some might have been surprised at his control of the material, we should not be. For had it been otherwise, why would anyone have bothered to pay close attention? Undoubtedly, Jesus spoke the same language and used the same methods current with the other synagogue preachers of his day. We can demonstrate that what we have of his discussions with his interlocutors conforms to the manner now preserved in Rabbinic literature.
Jews have preserved an extensive literature throughout the ages. Their sacred books contain a considerable number of oral and written traditions that stretch back into the periods before Jesus. For instance, Michael Stone (1996) has shown how an eleventh-century Rabbi in Provence copied a document from a source at his disposal, Testament of Naphtali, that corresponds almost word for word with a scroll found near the Dead Sea that antedates the first century. (See also I. M. Ta-Shma, Rabbi Moses Hadarshan and the Apocryphal Literature [in Hebrew], Jerusalem 2001.)
For our purposes I refer to the methods of this vast literature as found in the Mishnah (m.), which dates to 200 CE, give or take a decade or two, and the Talmuds (one produced in the Galilee, called the Palestinian Talmud, or the Yerushalmi [y.], and another produced in Babylonia, called the Babylonian Talmud or Bavli [b.]), that discuss the Mishnah. The final date of editing of the Babylonian Talmud is thought to be around the sixth century, whereas that of the Palestinian Talmud is certainly a century or more earlier. I also draw upon sermonic materials based on Hebrew Scriptures: these constitute the midrashim of which we have a number of works. What we use here, Exodus Rabba and Tanhuma, are closely related and considered to be both edited after the seventh century, but they contain huge chunks of material that are hundreds of years older.
The tractates this chapter cites from the Mishnah and the two Talmuds are as follows: Yadaim deals with purity issues concerning hands, Ketubot deals with