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Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: Toledot Yeshu – insult or entertainment? With Miriam Goldstein

T-S NS 298.58
T-S NS 298.58 (recto): an early Judaeo-Arabic fragment of Toledot Yeshu.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Miriam Goldstein
Wed 20 Oct 2021

Miriam, what are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished a book devoted to the Judaeo-Arabic versions of the Helene narrative of Toledot Yeshu.

You gave a talk on Toledot Yeshu in Toronto at the end of 2019 (it’s available to watch now on YouTube). That must have been one of your last trips abroad before the pandemic took hold.

Yes! I did manage to participate in a conference in February 2020 but that one was in Jerusalem and then our world changed.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Toledot Yeshu narrative, can you tell us a bit about it and its different versions?

It’s a parody on the life of Jesus, composed by Jews at some point in Late Antiquity, originally composed in Aramaic and dealing only with the very last part of Jesus’ life (known as the Pilate version). It was subsequently translated into Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic, and the narrative was expanded to include an account of Jesus’ birth and childhood, as well as parodies on later events in the spread of Christianity. It was well known in Europe, mostly in the expanded version known as the Helene version. I’ll try to describe the different versions that were in circulation, and their relationship to each other. The Aramaic versions are definitely the earliest, that is clear. The Pilate version exists in Aramaic and then appears in Judaeo-Arabic as well as in Hebrew. There are no Helene versions in Aramaic, but the Helene version appears in Judaeo-Arabic as early as the 11th century in Genizah sources, and appears in a number of different versions in Judaeo-Arabic in the 11th and 12th centuries. The way I would explain it (I’ve published this in a JQR article earlier this year), is that the Helene version was actually developed first in Judaeo-Arabic, likely somewhere around the 9th century, at which point it had enough time to develop into a number of different versions and appear in surviving manuscripts by the time the 11th century rolls around. The difference between the Helene and Pilate versions is great – Helene adds on a birth narrative as well as lots of parody on the later history of Christianity. This birth narrative had earlier been thought to be a European product but because of the manuscripts I was able to show that they are a product of the Near East in Judaeo-Arabic. European versions of the Helene version are mentioned in Jewish and non-Jewish sources beginning in the 14th century but the first manuscripts we have are quite late. In the Near East it is clear that once the Helene version developed – a version that was much spicier and with the highly parodical birth narrative as well as making fun of the history of Christianity – it took off and replaced the Pilate version. Near Eastern copies of the Pilate version can’t be found after the 13th century, except particular versions that circulated in Yemen, which is a totally different case and something I’m hoping to work on later.

How did you come to be interested in Toledot Yeshu?

I became interested in it when I had begun to work on interreligious polemical texts in Arabic and Judeo-Arabic right after my doctorate, and I was asked to catalogue the polemical texts in the Firkovich collections of the Russian National Library. And I found that some of the texts that were catalogued generally (in the Harkavy catalog) as polemical or anti-Christian, could be identified as Judaeo-Arabic Toledot Yeshu. In 2009 I wrote an article on my findings, and thought that was the end of that. Then, when I was on maternity leave in 2015 a conference took place in Switzerland and people started literally calling me from the conference to ask me questions about the Judeo-Arabic versions, so I realized that I should probably do more with them. My dear colleague Gideon Bohak was already working on the other main variant of Toledot Yeshu (Pilate), but I found the Helene texts interesting because of the very interesting developments that had gone on in Judaeo-Arabic, and my belief (now presented more fully in my book) of the importance of the Judaeo-Arabic versions in the shaping of the Helene version as a whole. My work is currently devoted to Helene although of course Pilate plays a role because I like to think and write about the way the text as a whole developed. My first step in diving back into the research on Toledot Yeshu was to begin by teaching on the topic, where I introduced the MA students in our department to these strange texts I’d identified years before, many of which were in a very late Judaeo-Arabic – 15th century and later. The Judaeo-Arabic of many of the fragments is quite different from the classical texts that I usually teach (a lot of Egyptian dialect, and dialect in general). One of the things that has been really fascinating about the work is to be able to find certain lines of connection between the Hebrew versions of Toledot Yeshu that were published in 2014 in the important two-volume work by Peter Schaefer and Michael Meerson, and to be able to divide the Judaeo-Arabic texts into families. One family which became the most popular version in Judaeo-Arabic beginning around the 14th century, shows clear lines of connection with Hebrew versions in Italy which are very, very well attested. It’s a little bit mysterious but I’m hoping to be able to trace some of the lines of contact in future research. And I make note of the lines of connection in my forthcoming book so that others know what I’m talking about!

What does your forthcoming book cover?

I deal with the sum total of the manuscripts that I have identified, some of which are Genizah manuscripts and some of which are from the Firkovich collection. The book has an introduction to the fragments as well as general introductions to Judaeo-Arabic literature, and then has an edition and annotated translation of all of the fragments.

The Helene version covers quite different subject matter to the Pilate version. What was the impetus, do you think, for the text to be developed in that direction?

The initial narrative was pretty bare-bones, based on a number of Talmudic sources that were woven together into a story of Jesus’s last days – apparently intended as  a parody of the Gospels. I believe that during the early Islamic period, which was a highly charged polemical time between Christians and Jews, some Jews saw the possibility of adding to this text. One way that I look at it is that Jews wanted to describe their own Jesus story given that they were surrounded by Christian and Muslim stories about Jesus. I lay this out in detail in my 2021 JQR article.

Do we know how the Muslim authorities felt about Toledot Yeshu, as Jesus was considered to be a prophet by Muslims?

Interestingly enough we have little to no evidence that Muslims were aware of the story. It’s very clear that Muslims were aware that Jews said nasty things about Jesus and Mary – that is very clear from the Quran itself as well as Quranic exegesis and elsewhere, but I haven’t found any evidence that Muslims were aware that Jews were telling this particular story, let alone a mention of its title. The story would have been incredibly insulting to Muslims as well as to Christians, so I assume that Jews kept it under wraps, even in the Middle East.

Were any similar narratives composed about Islamic figures, like Muhammad?

There are Jewish parodies on the beginnings of Islam as well, parodies on the way Muhammad received his revelation, etc. Nothing that achieved the circulation of Toledot Yeshu in the Near East, though. It is a surprising fact that Toledot Yeshu is nearly as well attested in the Near East as it was in Europe, despite the fact that pressures from Christians or to convert to Christianity were nothing compared to what they were in Europe.

What does it tell us about the relationship between Jews and Christians living in Islamic lands in the Middle Ages?

I think that in order to understand the function of the narrative and to be able to answer the question of why it was so popular, we have to think about a number of different contexts.

One certainly could have been interaction with Christians in their communities, etc. Certainly there were periods in the Near East (most notably, the time during the Abbasid period when the Pilate narrative was expanded into the Helene narrative, in my opinion) in which insulting stories about Jesus could have been something Jews wanted to read for polemical reasons. But it seems that in the Near East Jews began to view the story as a humorous and entertaining one, albeit with a polemical core, and that in later periods, especially the Mamluk and Ottoman period, Jews were more reading the story for its entertainment value – obviously together with some awareness that this text was an anti-Christian one.

So, it becomes a scurrilous story, that’s entertaining in its own right?

Yes! I concluded my textual analysis in the 17th century but the story is well attested in the 18th century and beyond, oftentimes in Hebrew, in the Near East but also in Judaeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian, and it is included with popular narratives and stories. This is a great contrast to its European circulation which is always with other anti-Christian polemical works. One similarity between the two geographical contexts, though, is that I do think Jews were aware that the composition should be kept private. In Europe, Jews certainly knew that this was a very dangerous work. It seems like they weren’t sharing it with their neighbours in the Middle East either. One of the very interesting aspects of its circulation in the Middle East is that it is very well attested in Yemen, more than 20 copies, out of 60 total including Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic. I haven’t explained this yet and I’m hoping to address it in a future project! I should also note that in Yemen there at least four different versions of the text.

What you tell us about the Genizah manuscripts of Toledot Yeshu? How many different copies are preserved?

I’ve identified 18 fragments of the Helene narrative in Judaeo-Arabic from Genizah collections including the Firkovich. That is, 15 distinct manuscripts of the work – which represent nearly the entire narrative – and including a variety of different versions. It’s important to say that at least from the 15th or 16th century there are also Hebrew versions of Toledot Yeshu attested in the Near East. There also Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts in Genizah collections of the Pilate version – 4 to be precise.

Does Toledot Yeshu ever crop up in book lists?

Not often. I’ve only found it once, in the Allony/Frenkel book, where it is referred to as ‘Khabar Yeshu’. It was very short compared to other works, of course, and likely was included in collections rather than as a single volume, anyway. Interestingly, is actually appears in the Yemenite Tiklal – their prayer book – and it’s not exactly clear to me how it got in there or whether it had some function in the synagogue service? Some reading material for if one has spare time, perhaps? I’m not sure how aware of it people were, though.

You mentioned that from the Mamluk period onwards Toledot Yeshu possibly acquires an entertainment aspect. Do you think it was ever recited or performed in front of an audience? When I spoke to Michael Rand a few weeks ago for this blog we talked a bit about shadow puppets, and it sounds like Toledot Yeshu might have made good material for such a performance.

There certainly was a Middle Eastern tradition of performing literary works publicly. Toledot Yeshu would certainly not have been performed on the street because of the incendiary nature of the content, but there are certain texts that indicate a ‘live’ nature, with rhetorical questions to the audience – or what sounds like an audience. From the 14th century onwards the dialectical character of the text certainly makes it sound as if it was spoken, but I don’t have firm evidence of how it might have functioned in public contexts.

We can only imagine. Can you tell us a bit about some of the Genizah fragments containing Toledot Yeshu?

The fragment T-S NS 298.58 is relatively early – 12th century at the latest – and it includes a section that has very interesting literary parallels with some Hebrew versions of Toledot Yeshu. The Judaeo-Arabic in it is written with certain classical elements which is one reason it can be dated early. And it is also the only Judaeo-Arabic fragment to include a certain plot element – Jesus’s escape, his return to Jerusalem and betrayal. T-S NS 298.57 is a little bit later, dating approximately to the 13th century, and it joins with T-S NS 164.26. It includes one of the most parodical sections of the plot, where the rabbis interrogate Jesus’s mother in order to understand about his birth story. It’s an interesting fragment because it is one of a number of early fragments that preserve different versions of the conversation between Jesus’s mother Miriam and the rabbis. I wrote about it in an article that was published in 2019, comparing the different versions. It’s one of the important fragments in showing that the plot element of the birth and youth of Jesus most likely existed first in Judaeo-Arabic and only later was transmitted to Jewish communities who rendered it in Hebrew.

T-S NS 298.58 and T-S NS 298.57 were both copied by professional scribes. Is that the case for all manuscripts of Toledot Yeshu in the Genizah?

The earliest manuscripts, 11th through 13th century, are definitely copied by professional scribes and some of them are really beautiful! The later ones seem also to have been copied by professional scribes, but without the same degree of care. They all seem to be the work of professional scribes though.

Thanks Miriam – we'll enjoy reading your book when it comes out next year. 

Dr Miriam Goldstein is Associate Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the Hebrew University.

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