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The Book of the Life of Jesus (in Hebrew Sefer Toledot Yeshu) presents a chronicle of Jesus from a negative and anti-Christian perspective. It ascribes to Jesus an illegitimate birth, a theft of the Ineffable Name, heretic activities, and finally, a disgraceful death. Perhaps for centuries, the Toledot Yeshu circulated orally until it coalesced into various literary forms. Although the dates of these written compositions remain obscure, some early hints of a Jewish counter history of Jesus can be found in the works of Christian authors of Late Antiquity, such as Justin, Celsus, and Tertullian. Around 600 CE, some fragments of Jesus’ biography made their way into the Babylonian Talmud; and in 827, the archbishop Agobard of Lyon attests to a sacrilegious story of Jesus that circulated among Jews.
In the Middle Ages, the book became the object and tool of a most acrimonious controversy. Jews, Christians, and atheists, such as Ibn Shaprut, Luther, and Voltaire, quoted and commented on Toledot Yeshu, trying to disprove the beliefs of their opponents and revealing their own prejudices. Eventually, in 1681, a Christian Hebraist, Johann Wagenseil, published one manuscript of many in a two-volume edition titled Tela Ignea Satanae (Flaming Arrows of Satan), one volume containing the text, and the other a refutation of its blasphemies. More editions, commentaries and translations have followed; most of them are more tendentious than accurate.
Due to the offensive nature of the book, scholars have until recently paid little attention to Toledot Yeshu. In academic circles, the book has been dismissed as a reliable source for historical events and was at best considered as “a polemical satire against Christianity based on inversions of New Testament narratives” (David Biale), or, at worst, as “an instructive evidence of a regrettable popular psychosis” (Bernát Heller).
Das Leben Jesu nach Jüdischen Quellen, published by Samuel Krauss in 1902, still remains the standard reference for every researcher of the Toledot Yeshu manuscripts. Krauss’ book was the first to convincingly demonstrate that instead of lamenting the Toledot as a pitiful medieval fabrication it would be more fruitful for historians of religion to trace the book to its sources. As a result of Krauss’ work, it has become clear that Toledot Yeshu is not a single composition but rather the product of a long literary history, the result of many “distinct – though occasionally converging – strands of tradition” (Hillel Newman). Yet the newly discovered manuscripts have multiplied the number of those included in the edition of Krauss, asking for a renewed and fresh approach. Thus, since the autumn of 2008, Peter Schäfer, Michael Meerson, former research associate Adina Yoffie, and a group of undergraduate students have been engaged in collecting and transcribing all the available Toledot Yeshu manuscripts. Due to the large number and variety of versions of Toledot Yeshu, the current project presents an extraordinary challenge, making it very difficult to predict its final results and how they will be published. At this point we are leaving it deliberately open whether it will be an electronic database, similar to the “Princeton University Sefer Hasidim Database (PUSHD),” or a synoptic edition of its multiple versions. After the establishment of a firm textual basis it will be possible to trace the reception history of the book among Jews and Christians.
Project Director: Peter Schäfer
Assistant Director and Editor: Michael Meerson