Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chazal, Galen and Nishtaneh haTeva

The concept of nishtaneh hatevah - that the nature of physical reality has changed (see Tosafot, Moed Katan 11a) - is commonly proposed by the most extreme OrthoFundies as a last resort when they cannot reconcile the current state of scientific knowledge with statements of chazal. This idea can encompass the range of everything from a relatively reasonable assertion (although still without any scientific evidence) such as a purely morphological change (cannot jive the shiur of a k'beitzah or a k'zayit with the size of an egg or olive? The size of eggs and olives have gotten (much) smaller in the last 2000 years!) to the wackiest claims of relating to astronomical phenomena (geocentrism, spheres around the earth). Lice reproduce via spontaneous generation (so that we can kill them on Shabbat)? Well they must have done so 1500 years ago when the Talmud was written down! A seven month old fetus is more viable than an eighth month fetus? Eating fish and meat together are a danger? Can't rely on the medical cures of the Talmud any longer? Nishtaneh hatevah.

But my purpose here is not to beat a dead horse. You've seen many postings over the years discussing the absurdity of such a notion, and are well aware that Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books were banned by some gedolim - in part - for suggesting that chazal relied on the science of the time and were thus often wrong in their beliefs regarding the nature of physical reality, a notion anathema to some folks.

I recently came across a fascinating parallel idea taken from the annals of the history of medicine, as described in Bill Schutt's book, Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures. (Warning: don't read if the nitty gritty details about bed bugs creep you out!)

The medical theories of Roman physician, Galen of Pergamum (CE 129 – 200, contemporaneous with Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah) dominated Western medical science for more than 1300 years. Although he proved that “blood, not pneuma (an airlike spiritual essence dreamed up by the ancient Greeks), traveled through arteries”, he also “had no real concept of blood circulation. He believed that blood ebbed and flowed like the tides, with venous blood originating from and returning to the liver… Galen's deeply flawed concepts of human anatomy and physiology would have a serious and long-lasting effect on the field of medicine— especially with regard to the circulatory system. As previously mentioned, Galen's overarching ideas on the human body were generally extensions of those proposed by the ancient Greeks, and these mistake-laden views came to completely dominate the field of medicine. Not only did Galen's take on medicine and anatomy remain pervasive for fifteen hundred years, it remained unchallenged. According to Bill Hayes, the author of Five Quarts—A Personal and Natural History of Blood, "In the early Middle Ages, church leaders declared his work to have been divinely inspired and thus infallible." Rather than experimenting or dissecting specimens (and thereby bringing down upon themselves the serious and often deadly wrath of the church), the disciples of "Galen the Divine" simply deferred to their long-deceased master and his stance on any given medical topic. Anything else would have been blasphemous…”

“One of those responsible for attempting to revive experimental medicine was Andreas Vesalius. Born into a family of Belgian physicians, Vesalius received his doctorate in 1537 from the University of Padua, where he soon became the chair of surgery and anatomy… Rather than blindly accepting Galen's well-worn teachings, Vesalius took a new and dangerous approach. He employed dissection in his classroom and preached a hands-on approach to his students… The young anatomist not only studied their anatomy but also produced a set of remarkable and highly detailed anatomical diagrams, which were included in his seven-volume On the Fabric of the Human Body. It was his master-work and it hammered Galen's inaccurate and erroneous views on anatomy into the ground like so many tent pegs. Using cadavers, Vesalius disproved Galen's concept of invisible pores in the heart. He also demonstrated that the human heart had four chambers (not three) and that half of the body's major blood vessels did not originate in the liver (as described by Galen)...”

“Understandably, Vesalius (who was not yet thirty) upset many of the Galen faithful by dismantling so many of their master's long-held claims. One outraged Galenite went so far as to publish a paper in which he asserted that the work of Vesalius didn't prove Galen wrong, it simply indicated that the human body had changed since Galen's time.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jesus the Sorcerer

The always interesting blog by Geoffrey Dennis, Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, had recent posts on Moses the Magician and Solomon the Sorcerer. For the sake of completeness, let's expand a bit on another equally famous Jewish wizard (mentioned briefly by Dennis in the aforementioned Moses post).

The Talmudic accounts that are sometimes ascribed to Jesus (Yeshu) are both obscure and problematic. Possible confusion of personalities (e.g., Ben Stada vs. Ben Pandira, Miriam the mother vs Miriam Magdalena), chronological issues (e.g., Yeshu as a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, the latter born ca. 50 CE), are a few of the many problems in ascribing one or more individuals to Yeshu. Nevertheless, one common thread in the various rabbinic works on the individual ostensibly claimed to be Yeshu is that he was an accomplished sorcerer (an appellation usually reserved to denigrate someone outside of the mainstream, otherwise one is called a miracle-worker whose wondrous acts are ascribed to God rather than dark forces). For example, the Talmudic account in Shabbat 104b has Ben Stada bringing witchcraft out of Egypt by means of scratching incantations into skin (see also Rashi there). Toledot Yeshu has Yeshu accomplishing his magic by the use of God's Ineffable Name, also surreptitiously removed from the Temple's Foundation Stone by writing it onto a parchment and hiding it within a cut on his thigh. Please also refer to my previous (very long) post discussing Toledot Yeshu. A number of relevant references can be found at the end.

Early Christian accounts in which Jesus is described as a sorcerer include The Gospel of Nicodemus, a composite pseudepigraphic work whose earliest sections date to the 2nd century CE. In it, the Jews accuse Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate of healing on the Sabbath by means of sorcery: "He is a sorcerer, and by Beelzebub the prince of the devils he casteth out devils, and they are all subject unto him." By the way, there is considerable anti-Jewish rhetoric in this book, including the claim that the Jews - not Pilate - crucified Jesus and by doing so "have punished themselves and their posterity with fearful judgements of their own fault". May the author(s) be posthumously cursed for this calumny!

Apparently Jesus learned his magic at a very early age, long before his travels to Egypt (not including his supposed initial stay as an infant prior to the death of Herod, as described in Matthew 2). In the apocryphal work, The First Gospel Of The Infancy Of Jesus Christ, we have a 7-year old boy being accused of sorcery. In chapter 15, he does a very cool trick of making little animal golems out of clay, even succeeding in getting the bird-golems to fly away!

That Jesus was a proponent of "white magic" has long been in vogue among New Age spiritualists. Theosophist Helena Blavatsky developed this idea in her magnum opus, Isis Unveiled (p. 147ff). Indeed, there was nothing unique about Jesus in this respect. He was an initiate in the esoteric doctrine and was accused of black magic and sorcery by "the intolerant clergy of opposing religions".

Among modern scholars, Morton Smith was a major proponent of the theory of Jesus as sorcerer in his book Jesus the Magician. Quoting his obituary in the NY Times, "Professor Smith was best known for his report in 1960 of what he said was a secret Gospel of the Apostle Mark, from which he theorized that Jesus might have been a magician rather than a Hebrew rabbi and that magic rituals played an important role in fledgling Christianity." For more on Smith, which includes a detailed account of his decades-long relationship with Gershom Scholem, see this article in The Nation. (Thanks to the Michtavim blog for pointing out this fascinating article.)

Recently, during an excavation of the underwater ruins of Alexandria, a bowl dating to between the late 2nd century BCE and the early 1st century CE was discovered which may be the world's first known reference to Jesus. And what is engraved on this bowl? The words "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which has been interpreted by the excavation team to mean either, "by Christ the magician" or, "the magician by Christ."! Team leader French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio explained, "It is very probable that in Alexandria they were aware of the existence of Jesus and of his associated legendary miracles." Based on Biblical texts, these included transforming water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread, conducting miraculous health cures, and the story of the resurrection. It should be noted that there has been some criticism of the original report by Jennifer Viegas, as described here and here.

By the way, in contrast to the typical "European white boy" image of Jesus used in my post Jesus and the Kuzari Proof, the Semitic-featured visage of Jesus (in the Hogwarts hat) in this one is a more likely representation.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Fast of the 9th of Tevet

No, not the 10th of Tevet, the 9th!

Most of the next section is taken from a lecture by Shnayer Leiman entitled Jewish Perspectives on Early Christianity - Nittel, the Ninth of Teves and Pope Simon Peter. He begins by discussing the a puzzling gemara from Tractate Avodah Zarah that states that Rome possesses "neither script nor language"; Rashi adds to this an even more puzzling statement that "others wrote their books for them." Only part of the story is recounted here; I highly recommend listening to the whole lecture, as Leiman weaves together a fascinating story using both well-known and obscure sources. It is available at YUTorah here.

Shulchan Aruch OC 580 describes a number of fast days that correspond to various yarhzeits (Nadav & Avihu, Shmnuel haNavi, etc). The list is taken from a much earlier b'raisah (circa 8th century). Yet the author, Yosef Karo, states in his earlier work - the Beis Yosef commentary on the Tur - that he doesn't know anyone that actually observes these fasts! Indeed, on some of these days one is halachically proscribed from fasting (e.g., Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah). So why does he included this section in the Shulchan Aruch? Furthermore, there is one fast day for which he states that we don't know what tragedy befell us: the 9th of Tevet.

A summary of opinions from Jewish literature follows:
  • Raavad (ibn Daud from the 12th century) - in his Sefer Ha-Qabbalah
    - states that this was the day that Yosef haLevi haNagid (son of Shmuel haNagid) was martyred in 1066 and that "he was mourned in every city and in every town. (Indeed, a fast had been decreed for the ninth of Tebet as far back as the days of our ancient rabbis, who compose Megillat Ta'anit; but the reason had not been known. From this [incident] we see that they had pointed prophetically to this very day)." (Translation by Gerson Cohen, p 76.). Leiman says that this suggestion cannot be taken seriously because of a much bigger problem than the assertion of prophecy: so many other gedolim that were martyred were not included on this list.
  • The next source to discuss this fast day is Rama (16th century) in his commentary on Megillat Esther. In 2:16, Esther was taken by Achashrevosh in the month of Tevet. Rama states that this very sad day occurred on the 9th day. The weakness with this is that the 9th is never stated. Another problem is that there is no reason why this explanation should have been omitted as the basis of the fast day.
  • Next we have Taz and Magen Avraham (17th century) who both state that the 9th of Tevet is the yarhzeit of Ezra, but they don't explain why the reason was hidden in the enumeration of fast days.
  • Finally, Yonaton Eybeschutz (18th century) in Ya'arot Devash states that it commemorates the yarhzeit of Ezra, but states that in actuality we don't know the day he died. Eybeschutz makes a connection between not knowing where Moshe Rabbeinu was buried and how Ezra is likened to Moshe. The problem with this explanation is that we do know the date that Moshe died, plus there is no reason why the proper date would be hidden.
Thus we are left with no traditional Jewish sources that give a reasonable explanation for the fast of the 9th of Tevet. Leiman then discusses Christological interpretations of Jewish texts in order to understand the original passage.

19th century Jewish Wissenschaft scholars (Zunz, Rapoport, et al) point to Spanish philosopher & astronomer Avraham bar Chiya (d. 1136) whose work - although written in 1122 - was first published in 1851. He states that the founder of Christianity was born on December 25, and calculated that this date in the year in which he was born fell on the 9th of Tevet! The scholars thus state that the fast commemorates the birthday of Yeshu, and the rabbis chose not to reveal the reason for the fast as a matter of prudence. (Leiman opines that this was to avoid problems in getting manuscripts with offensive passages published "once printing was invented", which is puzzling since the original b'raisah long-predated the earliest block printing in Europe.) This then became the accepted explanation for the fast of the 9th.

Leiman is unsatisfied. First, did the author of the original b'raisah know that December 25 in 3 BCE was on the 9th of Tevet? But even more important, bar Chiya bases the 25th of December birthday on the traditional Christian date, yet he also states that nowhere in the New Testament is this date mentioned. Nobody knows the date that Yeshu was born; many days have been proposed and three different days are currently observed by various Christian groups (see Wikipedia here.)

R. Baruch Frankel Teumim (rav in Leipnik, author of Baruch Taam, d 1828) writes that he found a manuscript in which it says Shimon haKalpos died on the 9th of Tevet; Shimon saved the Jews from a great tragedy in the days of the sinners. His yarhzeit became a permanent fast in Jerusalem.

R. Aharon Worms (rav in Metz, France and successor to Shaagat Aryeh, d. 1836) writes in his Me'orei Or that he found a memorial book that Shimon haKalponi wrote a pact with the Jews that was hidden from them, and in Megillat Taanit the rabbis did not state why.

Thus there are two disparate references discussing what is certainly the same person. These two names of Shimon occur nowhere else in Talmudic literature.

So who is this Shimon haKalpos/haKalponi? He is the hero of Toledot Yeshu. This is a manuscript containing what is ostensibly the Jewish account of Jesus. Although Leiman states that it contains a somewhat sympathetic view of Christianity, I don't see how it can be considered anything other than derogatory. Toledot Yeshu appears in various forms and was apparently written sometime prior to the 8th century. The following is the relevant excerpt (see the sources section at the end of this post.)

The Sages desired to separate from Israel those who continued to claim Yeshu as the Messiah, and they called upon a greatly learned man, Simeon Kepha, for help. Simeon went to Antioch, main city of the Nazarenes and proclaimed to them: "I am the disciple of Yeshu. He has sent me to show you the way. I will give you a sign as Yeshu has done."

Simeon, having gained the secret of the Ineffable Name, healed a leper and a lame man by means of it and thus found acceptance as a true disciple. He told them that Yeshu was in heaven, at the right hand of his Father, in fulfillment of Psalm 110:1. He added that Yeshu desired that they separate themselves from the Jews and no longer follow their practices, as Isaiah had said, "Your new moons and your feasts my soul abhorreth." They were now to observe the first day of the week instead of the seventh, the Resurrection instead of the Passover, the Ascension into Heaven instead of the Feast of Weeks, the finding of the Cross instead of the New Year, the Feast of the Circumcision instead of the Day of Atonement, the New Year instead of Chanukah; they were to be indifferent with regard to circumcision and the dietary laws. Also they were to follow the teaching of turning the right if smitten on the left and the meek acceptance of suffering. All these new ordinances which Simeon Kepha (or Paul, as he was known to the Nazarenes) taught them were really meant to separate these Nazarenes from the people of Israel and to bring the internal strife to an end.

The first Christians were observant Jews in all respects except for their belief in Jesus as the messiah (sound familiar?). There was thus a crisis in the first century whereby it was difficult to tell a Jew from a Christian Jew. The tannaim came up with a solution: one of their own would join the Christian Jewish faction, rise to a leadership position as a result of his knowledge & stature, and ultimately abrogate certain ceremonial laws while maintaining essential mitzvot (the 10 Commandments and the 7 Noachide laws). Thus, this fifth column would clandestinely institute new practices to ultimately result in a schism between the two groups, creating a distinctly separate religion from Judaism. Shimon (no family name is given) volunteers for the mission after being guaranteed that he won't lose his portion in the world to come.

Shimon joins the group, became bishop of Jerusalem and ultimately is elected first pope in Rome. He was Shimon Kepha, also known as Simon Peter! ("kepha" = "rock" = "petros" = "Peter", alluding to the rock on which the Church was built.)

There is one manuscript of Toledot Yeshu (the Huldreich edition printed in 1705 in Holland) that is no longer extant although we have the printed edition. It is in Hebrew and is different from every other manuscript in that it mentions the name of the bishop that became pope - Shimon haKalponi! It further states that he died on the 9th of Tevet and that the day was made a fast day to commemorate the death of a Jewish hero who was responsible for separating Judaism from Jewish Christianity.

But how do we bridge the gap between a document from 1705 and a passage from the 8th century? We don't have the original manuscript of the former that would help us determine its provenance. This is a critical question for Leiman. He continues.

The Huldreich edition explains how Simon was able to abrogate the laws: he codified the Christian laws and customs as commanded by the sages of Judea; he transformed the alphabet by creating the Latin alphabet for Christianity (original a secret alphabet known only by Christian priests); he composed for them many books, books that are part of the New Testament and which teach abrogation of Jewish law.

Leiman then returns to the Rashi which he began the lecture with. That Rashi is a censored version. He now quotes the original, uncensored text (available in Dikdukei Sofrim).
"...others wrote their books for them. Namely, John, Paul and Simon Peter, all of them Jews. Language refers to grammatika, the Latin spoken by priests. They, the Jews, transformed the language of the Romans into an obscure one, in order to separate them from Israel. They, the Jews, were not apostates; rather they acted from the best of intentions so as to benefit the Jews. They saw that the Jews were oppressed by the deceitful acts of the followers of Jesus, they impersonated priests, and ordained all the Christian laws and customs and books as is stated explicitly in the Toledot Yeshu narratives".
Thus, this 1705 version of Toledot Yeshu was available in the time of Rashi, in the 11th century. And it is reasonable to assume that the 8th century author of the lists of fasts also had a copy, but could not state the reason for the fast.

Have an easy fast.

Some References

There are a number of sources that discuss Toledot Yeshu. I recommend searching Google Books using the following spelling variations: "toldoth jeshu", "toldoth yeshu", and "toledoth yeshu". In particular, check out these references:

The Wagenseiliana version can be seen here (Hebrew/Latin).

One translation in English can be found here.

Two accounts of Simeon Ben Kepha taking on his subversive task can be found here and here. Other references can be found by Googling the terms "simeon kepha".

There are a number of books that discuss the primary Jewish sources relating to Jesus, including Toledot Yeshu and various Talmudic passages:

The "most radical attack ever made on Christianity" (in the author's words) can be found in Revelations of AntiChrist, an 1879 work available in its entirety on Google books.

Bernhard Pick's 1910 work, The Personality of Jesus in the Talmud, can be found this issue of the Monist. It begins on page 4.

Finally, recently reprinted by Ktav as an "augmented edition" is R. Travers Herford's classic work Christianity in Talmud & Midrash. Unfortunately, Herford translated some of the Hebrew passages into Latin as he found them too offensive to translate into English.

As an aside, there is an early Jewish Christian leader, Shimon son of Clopas, who was the second Bishop of Jerusalem and who lived 100 years later than Simon Peter. See the Wikipedia article here. Could there be some historical confusion between these two names? I'd be interested in hearing from anyone knowledgeable in Greek regarding the etymological relationship between Kepha, Clopas, Kalpos, and Kalponi.