(Paul) Toledot Yeshu (Parting of the Ways)

[The Wandering Jew, Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899]

The scandalous and graphic lampooning of Jesus across the entire compendia of Toldeot Yeshu manuscripts gets the most attention. It is these set of images that tend to stick in the mind. But pulling the eye forward makes clear that it is Paul (i.e. a figure identified as Paul) who stands out as the overlooked hero of the Toledot Yeshu tradition. The cast of characters is a little more complicated, but for now I want to keep it simple. The mission of Paul to the gentiles, it turns out, was a subterfuge of the sages to protect the Jews from harm at the hands of the Christians. What this suggests is that the Toledot Yeshu tradition concludes with a tense modus vivendi between Christians and Jews. The anti-Christian animus is ultimately a less chimerical, more realistic expression of intragroup and intergroup conflict.

Jesus or Yeshu, for all the putative impurity and wickedness imputed to him is, at the same time, credited with observing the law. But he almost does not matter. The three characters to look out for are a sage named Eliyahu, who turns out to be Paul, a guy named Nestor, and a sage named Shimon Kepha. They appear unevenly throughout the ms. versions.

These characters are most clearly delineated in ms. version Ashkenazi A Strasbourg BnU 3974.

–Eliyahu, identified with Paul, is a sage chosen by his colleagues to go to the Christians to remove the Christians out from the Jewish community. His “acts” come after the description of the violent schism internal to Israel with the followers of Jesus. Again, Paul, aka Eliyahu, is the hero of Toledot Yeshu.

–Nestor is identified as a violent man who tries to bring the Jews and Christians back together. He reinstates circumcision for Christians. He claims that Jesus was a prophet, not the son of God. He does not meet a happy end.

–Shim’on Kepha is then sent by the Jewish sages to the Christians. Impressed by his prophetic powers, the latter force him to convert to Christianity. He agrees on condition that Christians stop harassing Jews and that he be allowed to stay pure and separate from them, isolated in a tower until his death.

The Toledot Yeshu, which you can read here, is, for all its notoriety, an underwhelming text. In translation, even the longest versions run a mere twenty or so pages. The Toledot Yeshu exists in ms. versions. Peter Schäfer and team decided to translate and publish all of the versions together. They added a strong sense of structural uniformity by introducing section headings that guide the reader’s attention across the ms. variants.

For directly relevant material to my interest in this post, see the following section headings as they appear, not uniformly, in the ms. versions: “Apostles,” “Schism in Israel,” “First Separation” (Eliyahu/Paul), “Nestorians” (Nestor), “Final Separation” (Shimon Kepha). On the “biographies” of Eliyahu/Paul, Nestor, and Shimon Kepha, see pp.104-119 of the translation by Schäfer here.

These are the relevant passages from Strasbourg BnU 3974 as edited and translated by Schäfer et.al. I have broken up long paragraphs for ease of reading. SEE BELOW


Schism in Israel

His [Yeshu’s] disciples fled and spread throughout the kingdoms; three of them (went) to the mountains of Ararat, and three of them (went) to Armenia, and three of them (went) to Rome, and the rest of them went to different places, and they led the people astray. But in every place they came to, God, blessed be Hts name, executed His judgment on them, and they all were killed.


Many villains among our people (also) made the mistake of following him, and there was a strife between them and Israel [ … ] and confusion of prayers, and loss of property, and wherever the villains noticed the people of Israel, they were saying to the people of Israel, ” You killed the Messiah of God,” while the people of Israel said to them, “You are liable to death, because you believe in a false prophet.” Despite this, they did not separate themselves from Israel, and there was a strife and a quarrel among them, and there was no rest for Israel.

First separation

When the sages of Israel saw (this), they said, “Thirty years have passed since that villain was killed, but since then and until now we have had no rest from those who erred. Surely, this is (happening) because our sins grew bitter, for it is written, They made me Jealous with a no-god, they enraged me with their \’a11ities, etc.43 (Deut. 32:21). These are the Christians, who are nothing; with a foolish nation I will enrage them (Deut. 32:21), these are the Muslims.”

Then, the sages said, “For how long will the villains desecrate the Sabbath and the appointed days, and will kill each other? We should rather choose one sage who will separate those who err from the congregation of Israel. It is thirty years now since we have admonished them, and still they do not return to God because they embedded into their hearts that Yeshu was the Messiah. Let them perish, and let us have some rest.”

The opinion of the sages agreed with the opinion of one man, whose name was Eliyahu. He was a great sage. They said to him, “We agree to pray for you, that you should be considered as a pure (member of the congregation of) Israel in the World to Come. Go and do an act of mercy for Israel: Take these villains away from us, and let them perish!” Eliyahu went (from) the Hadrianeum in Tiberias to Antioch and gave a warning throughout the Land of Israel, “Everyone who believes (in) Yeshu should join me!” He also said to them, “I am the messenger of Yeshu. He sent me to you, and I will make a sign for you, like Yeshu did.”

They brought him a leper; he put his hand on him, and (the leper) was cured. They brought him a cripple; he said the Ineffable Name, put his hand on him, and (the cripple) was cured and got up on his feet. Immediately (the villains) fell prostrate and said, “Obviously you are the messenger of Yeshu, because you also showed us the miracles like he (did).”

He said to them, “Yeshu is greeting you and saying, ‘Here I am with my Father in heaven at his right hand until he takes revenge on the Jews.” Eliyahu said to them, “Yeshu said to you, ‘Everyone who wants to be with me in the World to Come should abandon the congregation of Israel, and should not associate with them since my Father in heaven already abhorred them, and from now on He does not want their worship because He said so through Isaiah, Your new moons and holidays my soul hates, etc. (Isa. 1:14).’ But Yeshu said to you, ‘Everyone who wants to be with me should desecrate the Sabbath,’ because the Holy One, blessed be He, already abhorred it, and should observe the first day of the week instead ofit because on this (day) the Holy One, blessed be He, illuminated the world. And instead of Pesach, observed by Israel, appoint for yourself the day of Resurrection on which he rose from his grave, and instead of Shavu’ot (celebrate) the Ascension, which is the day on which he ascended to heaven, and instead of Rosh ha-Shanah (celebrate) the Passing Away of the Cross, and instead of the Great Fast (celebrate) the Day of(his) Circumcision, and instead of Hanukkah, (celebrate) the Calendae. Moreover, the foreskin and the circumcision (mean) nothing, for everyone who wants to be circumcised, let him become circumcised, and who does not want, let him not become circumcised. Also, everything that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in his world, from a small mosquito to an elephant, which is big, you may spill its blood upon the earth (and) eat it, since so it is written, Like the green grass I gave it all to you (Gen. 9:3). If (some of them) would trouble you (asking) to go with him one mile, (go) two miles; and if a Jew would strike you on the left side, turn to him also your right side; and if a Jew would offend you, you should tolerate him and do not return him (the offence), like Yeshu who suffered. In humility he presented himself (to you) in order to teach you humility too, so that you suffer, like he did, everything that they may do to you. And at the Day of Judgment, they will pray to Yeshu, while you shall have hope thanks to (your) humility, because so it is written, Seek God, all the meek of the earth, etc.” (Zeph. 2:3).

(So Eliyahu spoke) until he separated them from Israel. And this (was) Eliyahu who demonstrated to them those laws which are no good, (and) who did (this) for the sake of the religion of Israel, and the Christians call him Paulus. After Paulus established these laws and commandments for them, the erring ones separated from Israel and the quarrel ceased.


After some time, there arose the kingdom of Persia. One man of the nations came forth from them (and) he separated from them, like the heretics separated from the sages. He said to them, “Paulus made a mistake in his writings, saying to you that you should not be circumcised, for Yeshu was circumcised. Yeshu also said, ‘I did not come to remove a single word from the teaching of Moses, not even one letter, but rather to affirm all his words, and this is their disgrace what Paulus did to them.”‘ Paulus said, “Do not circumcise yourself.”

But Nestor said to them, “Do circumcise yourself, since Yeshu was circumcised.” Nestor also said, “Heretics are those who say that Yeshu is God, for he was born by a woman, but the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the same way as was the case with the prophets.” And it was (this) Nestor, who started to dissent from the Christians, enticing their women. He said to them, “I shall make a legal restriction that no Christian would be permitted to marry two wives.” But when they despised Nestor, a quarrel fell between them: Therefore, neither did a Christian pray to the abomination of Nestor, nor did the fellows of Nestor to the abomination of Christians.

After that, Nestor went to Babylonia, to another place, the name of which is Hatsitsa, and everybody ran away from him and women hid themselves, because Nestor was a violent person. The women said to him, “What do you want from us?” He said to them, “There’s nothing I want from you, except for the sacrifice of bread and wine.” And it was a custom of the women of Hatsitsa to carry big keys in their hands. He gave to one of them the sacrifice, but she cast it to the laws of their ancestors. the ground. (Nestor) bent to the ground, and the women threw the keys (that were) in their hands, struck him and he died.

Final separation

A quarrel arose between them for a long time. Shim’on Kepha (was then) the head of the Sanhedrin. Why was his name Kepha? Because he used to stand on the stone on which Ezekiel prophesized at the River Chebar, and on that stone the Divine Voice from heaven answered to Shim’on. When (the) Christians heard that Shim’on Kepha was one of those who can hear the Divine Voice and (that) he had great wisdom that cannot be fathomed (Job 9: I 0), they became jealous with Israel because there was (such) a great man in Israel. And the Lord, blessed be His name, had put into the heart of Shirn’on (the desire) of going to Jerusalem in order to pray (there) on Sukkot.

All governors and the Great Elder of the Christians assembled and came to Shim’on Kepha at the Mount of Olives on the day of Hosha’na Rabbah. When they saw his wisdom, they all agreed that a man like him should not (remain) in Israel, and to convert him to Christianity. They forced him, saying “If you do not return to our faith, we will kill you, and we will not spare anyone of Israel who goes to the Temple.”

When Israel saw this, they implored him, “Agree to their conditions and use your wisdom, and you will not be liable for sin and transgression.”

Therefore, when (Shim’on) realized that the ordeal was too hard for Israel, he returned to the Christians and said to them, “On this condition I return to your law: You may not kill a Jew, nor may you beat him. But allow him to exit and enter the Temple.” And the Great Elder and the Christians accepted all these conditions. (Shim’on also) made the condition that they should build for him a tall tower; and he would come into it, and would eat no meat and nothing else except for bread and water: He would drop for them a basket on a rope and they would give him only bread and water and would (allow) him to live in that tower until the day of his death. He did all this so that he would not become impure and unclean by them, and would not intermingle with them, for the sake of heaven. But to the Christians he said that, according to their opinion, he mourned Yeshu, and (therefore) he did not eat meat or anything else except for bread and water.

They built a tower for him and he dwelled inside it and was not polluted with food, nor did he prostrate himself to the idol. After a while, he composed in the tower Kerovot, Yotserot, and Zultot in his name, like Eliezer ben Qalir did.

He sent and summoned the elders of Israel and gave them everything that he produced by his wisdom, and he commanded them to teach those (poems) to cantors so that they would read them in prayers, and he would be remembered in good (memory). They also sent it to Babylonia, to Rabbi Natan , the Exilarch, and showed it to the heads of the schools, to the Sanhedrin. They said it was good, and they taught it to the cantors of all Israel.

Everyone who wanted to commemorate the name of Rabbi Shim’on in his song was praying with these (poems). Commemorate his memory for the World to Come! And the Lord, blessed be His name, in his mercy will provide him a good advocate! Amen, Selah! So says Moses, the extremely humble.

The end.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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