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I came here searching for a question regarding ancient Jewish rabbis view regarding Jesus. Are there any Jewish sources or authoritative ancient texts that show that Jesus never claimed divinity (saying "I am God") but rather only claimed to be messiah, or not even that?

Update :

As the question has migrated to history from Judaism i would like to re formulate my question for History.SE as follows:

What are the historical accounts preserved and authenticated which indicate Jesus's Claims about himself and not what others think or ascribe to Jesus.

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migrated from Feb 8 '13 at 19:35

This question came from our site for those who base their lives on Jewish law and tradition and anyone interested in learning more.

You've basically jinxed your own question by preloading it with a bunch of conditionals that preclude quality answers. In order for ancient texts to be authoritative, they usually need to be undisputed or at least have good attestation. In this case, the majority (and most credible) of the historical evidence contradicts your premise, so what you are really looking for is minority sources. Almost anything you get will be dubious. Answering this question with "none of texts X/Y/Z say anything of the kind" is only going to improve the case for the texts that DO cover the issue. Like the Bible. –  Caleb Feb 9 '13 at 9:30
@caleb I think that has something to do with the question was originally asked in then migrated here. Feel free to improve it so that it fits our SE –  Louis Rhys Feb 9 '13 at 9:54
@Caleb there was no assumptions \ premise on my part its just a sincere question , if you feel you have the answer then please answer it in a format and criteria history.SE accepts. I had not at all intended to ask this question in history.SE and i expected answers only from Jewish sources. –  hist Feb 9 '13 at 14:08
@Ali: Saying you make no assumptions and have no premises doesn't help your case. Everybody does, and it's much better to recognize them than to ignore them. Among other things, you've brought your believe that the four authors of the NT gospel accounts of Jesus life are not authoritative ancient texts that have a valid voice in describing Jesus statements and the reactions of Jewish Rabbis. Secondly you've made this question about proving a specific position without without engaging the evidence for the opposite position. –  Caleb Feb 9 '13 at 14:24
@hist - The question of what Jesus believed in regards to his possible divinity or messianic status is hotly debated in the academic community. As a student in the field, I tend to believe that he didn't claim to be divine, much less that he was God himself. He may have told his disciples that he was the messiah, but it seems unlikely that he proclaimed it publicly. I would say that the majority of scholars in the field don't think Jesus claimed to be divine. –  Wad Cheber Aug 15 at 15:52

2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The historical Jesus is completely irrelevant to Judaism or Jewish life or history. (As contrasted with Christianity, which has had a very big impact on the most recent two millennia of Jewish history.)

There are Jewish texts in the Talmud that refer to someone named something like “Jesus”, but it is not clear whether they refer to differing traditions about the historical figure (Toledot Yeshu follows this view), whether they refer to someone else (see Rabbi Gil Student’s essay on the subject here), or whether they were intended as anti-Christian polemic.

(I came across an article quoting scholars who made this last claim, but don’t recall where.)

In none of these texts is mention made of Jesus’ claim to be a messiah, nor any sort of divine figure.

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Are Jewish texts in the Talmud considered historical evidence? I'm asking out of curiosity because you mention the historical Jesus, and for what I know in the analog Christian case texts in the Bible are not normally considered such. For what I know historical evidence about Jesus is mainly confined to Josephus' account. –  Drux Feb 8 '13 at 20:19
@Drux: I’d originally written the answer for ✡.SE (where the question originated), then adapted it as best I could for this site. The question as asked does not ask about evidence for what the historical Jesus did or didn’t say, but what “Jewish sources or authoritative ancient texts” record. The Talmud is such a source, but I included caveats regarding the historical usefulness of its stories about Jesus. It’s possible that this question, as currently written, is not a good fit for this site either; if the question is changed, I’ll try to adapt my answer. –  J. C. Salomon Feb 8 '13 at 20:40
I agree and did not want to criticize your response. So I take it from your comment that texts in the Talmud and texts in the Bible have a similar status relative to "historical evidence" when considered from outside the contexts of their respective religions. –  Drux Feb 8 '13 at 20:46
...even if you were drug in here unwillingly. :-) –  T.E.D. Feb 9 '13 at 2:25
@Vector, not necessarily; it’s quite possible to undermine someone’s story without making explicit reference to his claim. The scholarly view that the Talmudic “Yeshu” passages are anti-Christian polemic take that view: that the stories present derogatory details about “Yeshu” which (in passing) undermine any claims to his being a messiah—but without directly addressing such claims. –  J. C. Salomon Sep 17 '13 at 20:45

The closest thing we have to a Jewish text in which Jesus makes claims about himself - whether as the messiah, the son of God, or anything else - is Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews.

Josephus was a well educated, relatively well-to-do Jewish man, who became an officer in the Jewish rebel army during the Jewish Revolt. He led a unit of soldiers until they were captured by the Romans; Josephus wisely chose to become a turncoat in order to save his neck. He began to work with the Romans as an advisor, ultimately going so far as to attempt to negotiate an end to the prolonged siege of Jerusalem. The negotiations failed, the city was sacked, the Temple was torn down, and everyone inside the city walls was slaughtered. Many Jews have held this treachery against Josephus ever since.

After the end of the war, the Jews were scattered and diminished in numbers, and Josephus, probably realizing that he was persona non grata, moved to Rome, where he became a court historian to the Emperor. He was contracted to write a history of the revolt, and later, a general history of the Jewish people. These records are incredibly important, and provide an insight into a period of time which is difficult to study due to the mass carnage and destruction caused by the revolt.

Josephus' works contain two alleged references to Jesus, but one of them is almost universally regarded as a forgery inserted by later Christian scribes who were tasked with copying the manuscript. I won't include the spurious passage here, but I can summarize the reasons for it being dismissed as a fake. Everything we know about Josephus suggests that he remained a committed Jew his entire life, and had no relationship with the followers of Jesus. Yet the spurious passage would have us believe that Josephus believed that Jesus was indeed the messiah, he performed miracles, he was divine, and he was resurrected. There is absolutely no chance whatsoever that Josephus would have written such a thing. If he had actually believed these things, he would have joined the Jesus Movement, rather than remaining a Jew. The scholarly consensus is nearly unanimous in saying that this passage, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, is a later forgery.

The other reference to Jesus in Josephus, on the other hand, is widely regarded as authentic. For starters, it doesn't say anything that would be problematic for a Jewish author; it also rings true because it mentions Jesus only in passing, and he is not the focus of the story.

A little background information will be useful to provide the necessary context of the story. It appears that the only person who was authorized to order an execution in Roman Judaea was the proconsul - in Jesus' time, this office was held by Pontius Pilate. The Romans understood that the political situation in Judaea was complex, and frequently quite tense. Therefore, they chose to use the Temple priests as intermediaries between the Roman government and the Jewish people in the province. The priests were appointed by the Romans, usually through shady exchanges of money and influence.

Josephus' account describes a chain of events set in motion by the death of the proconsul, a man named Porcius Festus. It took some time for word of the proconsul's death to reach Rome - probably a couple of months - and a similar amount of time for the replacement, Lucceius Albinus, to arrive in Jerusalem.

In the interim, the High Priest, whose name was Ananus, decided to exploit the power vacuum by disposing of some troublemakers. It seems that Ananus had come into conflict with James, the brother of Jesus, who had replaced Jesus as the leader of the disciples following the crucifixion. It is thought that Ananus may have tried to convince the Romans to have James killed, but the Romans refused on the grounds that James hadn't broken any laws. With the Romans now out of the picture for the time being, Ananus had James executed, along with other unnamed parties.

The people of Jerusalem seem to have been fond of James, probably because of his reputation for being committed to charity and collecting alms for the poor, widows, and orphans. They were also upset that Ananus had exceeded his lawful authority. When Albinus finally arrived in Jerusalem, the people complained about Ananus' actions during the absence of a proconsul. Albinus responded by deposing Ananus and appointing a man named Jesus son of Damneus (no relation to the Christian Jesus, of course).

But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.
- Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 9, 1

Obviously, Jesus never makes any kind of claims about his divinity or messianic status, but we see something close to it - a Jewish writer making reference to the fact that Jesus "was called Christ". The specific use of the word "called" implies that Josephus doesn't necessarily share this assessment, but it does make it clear that he was aware that other people had called Jesus "Christ".

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