Jewish Suffering Human Suffering The Suffering Jesus (Nitzahon Yashan)

I don’t want to dispute David Berger who in his introduction to his translation of the critical edition of the Nizzahon Vetus calls this Old Book of Polemic a “striking example of Jewish disputation in its most aggressive mode.”  Others call it Old Book of Victory. The title comes from the Christian Hebraist Johann Christoph Wagenseil who used the term “old” to distinguish this text from the 15th century text that carries the same name (the Sefer Nizzahon of Yom-Tov Lipmann-Muhlhausen of Prague). According to Berger, what is conservatively estimated to be a late 13th or early 14th century text draws on earlier material.

While, as per Berger, the anonymous author-anthologizer, indeed, “oversteps bounds of civility” in this anti-Christian tract, what I would rather do in this post is to highlight a particular facet that is less harsh. Buried in the caustic polemic in the Nizzahon Vetus is a deep concern for human condition. What draws my own attention to the text is not just the reflection of Jewish suffering, the abuse suffered by Jews at the hands of Christendom, but also a discourse about human suffering writ large and the suffering of Jesus writ small that borders on sympathy. The text is steeped in the poetry of Psalms. Writing against the blood libel, the Nizzahon Vetus makes very moving mention of the notion from Genesis that the human person is created in the image of God.

The book is broken into two parts. The first part is theo-exegetical, touching upon points of Jewish-Christian exegetical conflct about Hebrew Scripture. The second part turns directly to the Christian Gospels, what the Nizzahon Vetus calls “sinful notations” (avon gilyon), Christian doctrine, and Christian practice, particularly in the monastaries.

About the harsh anti-Christian polemic, my own attention was drawn primarily to remarks relating to material Christian culture. The argument in the Nizzahon Vetus is that Christianity is steeped in impurity of filth and dead matter. These are the non-virgin birth of Jesus, the corpse-like character of Jesus hanging on the cross, the filthy waters of baptism, the worship of idols and relics, the celibate priests who engage in fornication. The excoriation of contemporary Christian practice in the monastaries is exemplified by this reading of Isaiah chapter 65. ”‘Those who sacrifice in gardens’ [ibid.] refers to their monasteries, and ‘those who burn incense on bricks’ [ibid.] is a reference to the high place which they call altar. ‘Those who sit among the graves’ [Isa. 65:4] refers to their custom of surrounding the graves of the ‘saints.’ ‘Who eat swine’s flesh and broth of abominable things’ [ibid.] in which the swine was cooked: they put this in ‘their vessels’ to go with bread as a relish because of its fat. ‘Who prepare a table for Gad’ [Isa. 65:11 ], and set up tables in groups like kings, and fill numberless glasses of wine; this is what they eat in another house, namely, the monastery” (section #103).

What follows is my own thematic digest of source material from Berger’s translation. My own remarks are marked in parentheses and in bold. More than plain exegesis, the dispute about Scriptural passages is a dispute about the mercy of God and human suffering.

[My digest of texts from the Nizzahon Vetus + bibliographical note to Berger’s translation is below:]


[The Nizzahon Vetus starts from the position of Jewish weakness. Bitter fate, being reviled, accused of eating Christian children and their blood. The Nizzahon Vetus will return to this libel towards the end of the text. In a relatively early passage. The sense of insult is palpable. The accusation that Christian doctrine is cruel is underscored by the experience of suffering, their eating up of human beings. Who eats whom in this world is more than clear to the Nizzahon Vetus, whichmeans that Jewish suffering is the mark that the Jews are Israel, not the Christians who live at ease.  The mention of Jewish suffering at hands of Christians includes the power of the weak, the notion that forced converts drown in baptismal waters, but that the mercy of God protects Israel in exile.]

“With good fortune I shall begin to write The Book of Polemic. My help comes from the Lord, Creator of heaven and earth [Ps. 121:2]. Blessed is he who gives power to the weak and increases strength to them that have no might [Isa. 40:29]” (section #1).

“‘They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs’ [Num. 9:11; cf. Exod. 12:8] refers to the fact that the nations subject us to hard work, embitter our lives, and revile us by saying that we eat human beings and the blood of Christian children. Indeed, the heretic may attempt to bolster this last assertion by arguing that Ezekiel refers to such a practice when he says to the land of Israel, ‘Thus said the Lord, Because they say unto you, You devour up men, and have bereaved your nations …’ [Ezek. 36:13]. The people of Israel are also called ‘land,’ as it is written, ‘You shall be a delightful land’ [Mal. 3:12]; thus, the verse in Ezekiel must refer to the people of Israel. The answer to this argument is that Scripture can be cited to prove that they too eat human beings, as it is written, ‘For they have eaten up Jacob’ [Jer. 10:25]. ”But that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire’· [Exod. 12:10]. This means that one should not remain without the sufferings of the exile, for one who does “remain” without suffering “until the morning,” i.e., the morning of the redemption, shall “burn with fire,” i.e., he will fall into hell. “And thus shall you eat it: with your loins girded etc.” [ Exod. 12:11]. The purpose of this commandment was that they be prepared to leave quickly, but they were not commanded to eat it this way in future years. “Nor shall you break a bone of it” [ Exod. 12:46] signifies that although the Jews will be in exile, the Holy One, blessed be he, will preserve and save them, as it is written, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous man, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones, etc.” [Ps. 34:20-21]. Even the bone, then, will be guarded. (section #16).

Now, the children of the living God should study the following and make no mistake. First, ask them from what people they come. If they answer that they are of the seed of Israel, silence them by asking: How do you explain Isaiah’s statement, “Who caused Jacob to be despoiled and gave Israel to the robbers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk nor be obedient to his law” [Isa. 42:24]? And he said, “Therefore I have profaned the holy princes and have given Jacob to the curse’ [Isa. 43:28]. It follows that if you are from Jacob, then you must be sinners. Moreover, when were you despoiled or given over to robbers? Why, you have been living comfortably and quietly since your youth and have not been “emptied from vessel to vessel,” nor have you been exiled.” It is also regarding us that the prophet concluded, “Return, 0 Israel, unto the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity” [Hos. 14:2]; where, then, did you stumble? We, on the other hand, have stumbled in many exiles. Furthermore, it is concerning us that it says, “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for my anger is turned away from them” [Hos. 14:5]; you, however, do not require healing since you were not afflicted like us. It is then written, “I will be as the dew unto Israel” [Hos. 14:6]. [The Nizzahon Vetus goes on to threaten the nations with the blood soaked and fat sated vengeance of God] (section #156)

 “We find, moreover, that David prayed for those forced converts in the exile who would be baptized against their will, for it is written, ‘Save me, 0 God, for the waters have come unto my soul’ [Ps. 69:2]. Now, when was David drowning that he had to pray to be saved from water? Furthermore, what sort of water reaches the soul? After all, if a man drowns in the sea or in a river, his soul is not destroyed even though his body dies. What, then, was the water concerning which David prayed? He must have been referring to baptismal water which does, indeed, reach the soul. Similarly, he says near the end of the book of Psalms, ‘Save me, and deliver me out of much water’ [Ps. 144:7]. He also says, ‘Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me’ [Ps. 69:16]; this refers to the water of their baptismal stain, while the pit refers to hell. David also prayed concerning the forced converts in the following verse, saying, ‘For this shall everyone who is godly pray unto you in a time when you may be s found; surely in the flood of great waters they shall not come near to him’ [Ps. 32:6] (section #157)


[The Nizzahon Vetus pans out to consider the cruelty of Christian doctrine in relation to human suffering writ large. Strange and harsh, even war-like sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and cruel Christian dogma about damnation in hell do not comport with God’s mercy.]

[Don’t bury your father?] It is written in the same place in their book of Mark that ” the 10 scribe told him, Master, I will follow you. One of his disciples then said to him, Allow me first to bury my father. But Jesus answered him, Follow me, and refrain from burying the dead [Matt. 8:21-22]. Now, that man was rich, and Jesus told him, Sell all your possessions and follow me. But the man went to his home and buried his father; he did not sell his possessions and follow Jesus [ cf. Matthew 19:21-22]. And Jesus entered a ship, and his disciples followed him. And, behold, there was a great tempest in the sea, and the ship was about to break. The wind came across the sea with great force, yet Jesus was asleep. His disciples came and awoke him … and Jesus told them, You are men of little faith; why are you fearful of a little storm” [Matt. 8:22-26]? Now, is there anything worse than what he told that scribe, i.e., “Refrain from burying your father”? Why, there is no greater good deed than burying even those dead who are not one’s relatives, and this is certainly the case with regard to one’s own father. Furthermore, it says that he was asleep; but if he were God, how could he sleep? It is, after all, written, “Behold, the guardian of Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” [Ps. 121:4]. (section #172)

[Wars] “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder” [Isa. 9:5]. The heretics say that this refers to the cross which was nailed to him. “And his name shall be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace” [ibid.]. Answer him as follows: If this understanding of the verse were correct, then it should have said, “and his names shall be called,” for there are four or five names according to you. Moreover, how could Jesus be called wonderful counselor when Judas frustrated his counsel? One can also reply: He was not mighty for he was killed; he was not an everlasting father, for he died in his prime; and he was not a prince of peace, for there was strife throughout his lifetime, and from then on the world has not rested from wars. Moreover, it is written immediately afterwards, “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom, to order it and to establish it with judgment … from henceforth even for ever” [Isa. 9:6]. This shows that you cannot refer the passage to Jesus, for Jesus was born three hundred years and more after this prophecy, and the prophet said, ” From henceforth even for ever.” Furthermore, it is written in their Gospels that Jesus said, “I came not to send peace on earth, but a sword” [Matt. 10:34]; thus, their words contradict each other. If he will then ask, “Concerning whom was this verse said?” answer him: He is prophesying concerning the downfall of Sennacherib which was accomplished by this child, i.e., by Hezekiah. Thus he says, “And he called his name”; i.e., God, who is a “wonderful counselor, mighty, and an everlasting father,” called him “prince of peace,” as it is written, “And he said, Good … for there shall be peace and truth in my days” [Isa. 39:8] (section #85).

[God does not desire the death of sinners], “Because they sold the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes” (Amos 2:6). The heretics say that this refers to Jesus whom the Jews sold for thirty pieces of silver which was sufficient 15 for each of them to buy a pair of shoes. The answer is: Is it proper to call God poor so that the verse could say, “And the poor for a pair of shoes”? Moreover, if he considered the sale sinful, why, if he was God, did he not protest and prevent them from carrying out their plan? And if you will say that this sale was in accordance with his will, then this would show that Jesus wants the death of one who dies, while Ezekiel said, “For I do not desire the death of one who dies” [Ezek. 18:32]. And in Psalms it says, “For you are not a God who desires evil” [Ps. 5:5]. Now, if he was God, why did he set up a situation in which they would be likely to sin? You can say that he was content to die because his death would enable him to bring souls out of hell, but how did this sale help the souls so much that he was willing to cause punishment to Israel because of it? The proper interpretation of this passage would undoubtedly refer it to a different matter (section #124).

Children What impurity or sin can be found in the small children whom they baptize (section #157)?

Hell “No, I will go down mourning to my son in sheol” [Gen. 37:35]. On the basis of this verse the heretics say that Jacob descended to hell, for because of Adam’s sin it was decreed that all men, good or evil, must descend there. The answer is: If so, they contradict their own books, for it says in their book of errors that Jesus told his students, “I have come for sinners and not for the righteous since they do not need me” [Matt. 9:11]. Thus we see that even according to their own words written in their own books Jacob and other righteous men did not descend to hell nor did they need Jesus’ advent and salvation. Moreover, the view that all were damned is untenable in light of the verse, “I will praise you, 0 Lord my God, with all my heart, and I will glorify your name for evermore; for great is your mercy toward me, and you have delivered my soul from the lowest hell” [Ps. 86:12-13]. One can also answer as follows: Does every sheol in Scripture mean hell? After all, it is written, “What man lives, and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the hand of sheol?” [Ps. 89:49]. Similarly, it is written, “For the living know that they shall die” [Eccles. 9:5], for they shall all become dust, as it is written, “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return” [Gen. 3:19]. Now, according to their view, is it possible that everyone is worthy of going to hell with no possibility of escaping? Is there no righteous man on earth who is not worthy of escaping? Moreover, can it be that Job, who said, “O that you would hide me in sheol” Uob 14:13], was desirous of descending into hell? Job, rather, wished that he would be buried and hidden in the earth until the Lord’s wrath would pass. Similarly, we must say that the word sheol used by Jacob also means grave (section #23).

[For what terrible sin did Adam have to suffer in Hell??] Ask the heretic: After all, you believe that God shows mercy toward all his creatures, and all his attributes reflect kindness and justice toward them. Indeed, it is with confidence in these attributes that we come before him daily, as David said, “Have mercy upon me, 0 God, according to your loving-kindness; according to the multitude of your mercy blot out my transgressions” [Ps. 51:3]. [This is the Latin: ”Miserere mei Deus secundum magnam misericordiam tuam et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitatum meum. ”] Moreover, God said, ”For I do not wish the death of him who dies, but rather that he return from his ways and live” [Ezek. 18:32, 23], and you too believe that because of his great mercy his hand is stretched out to accept those who repent. If so, how can it even enter your mind that God behaved so cruelly toward Adam, catching him as a result of a minor accusation-the biting of a single apple-and removing him from both this world and the world to come? And this applied not only to him but to all those born after him, including all the righteous and just men who ever lived. Furthermore, Adam sinned inadvertently since he had no discernment yet, as it is written, ”And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” [Gen. 3:7]; this refers to the opening of the eye of wisdom. In addition, the murder of Abel was a thousand times worse than this transgression, yet no such punishment resulted from it. Finally, look what is written regarding the six hundred thousand men who denied God and made the calf: “But he is full of compassion and he forgave their iniquity, etc.” [Ps. 78:38]. [ And this is the Latin: “Et ipse est misericors et propitius fiet peccatis eorum et non mitterit repudium eis et abundabit ut averterit iram suam et non accendet omnem iram suam. ”] Now, since God is merciful and does not destroy a man because of his sins, how can you believe that he destroyed and threw into hell, into the pit, all the souls that were born from Adam until the advent of Jesus (section #228)?

[The nations testify to the truth of Judaism] It is written in the Torah, “Follow the majority” [Exod. 23:2], and this is the general custom. Now, only eleven nations have erred after the belief in Jesus, and all of them together do not equal the one nation of Ishmaelites. Thus, sixty nations including the Ishmaelites all testify that their religion is vanity, and we, the children of Israel, also testify that the hanged one was a human being born of a mother and father. Now you contend that he was the Creator, that he had mercy upon his creatures who were in hell because of Adam’s sin, and that he took upon himself suffering and death to save his creatures from the judgment of hell, God forbid. If so, then he should have overridden his stern judgment in favor of his mercy-for he may do this-and caused all nations to believe in him so that they would be saved; as it is, only a minority believe in him. Thus, it is evident that their assertions are false. One can also point out that “a matter is established by two witnesses” [Deut. 19:15], and there are two witnesses for our Torah since both you and the Ishmaelites admit that our Torah is true. However, neither we nor the Ishmaelites admit to the truth of your Torah, and neither we nor you admit to the truth of the Torah of the Ishmaelites. Consequently, there are two witnesses that our Torah is true and that our God is true and eternal. Blessed is he who chose us (section #204)


[The Nizzahon Vetus is caught regarding the person of Jesus between anger and contempt and maybe something like human pity. On the one hand, the Nizzahon Vetus calls him a sinner, rebel, and heretic. On the other hand, the Nizzahon Vetus returns repeatedly to the notion that Jesus himself was a just a human being. It could very well be that the Nizzahon Vetus is rubbing salt into an open theological wound, and that is probably true in part. But not simply that.  The Nizzahon Vetus observes that Jesus himself says of himself in the Gospels that he was a man and not God, that he did not know the end of time, and that he did not abrogate the Torah but followed the law. The Nizzahon Vetus contends that it was Paul not Jesus who was responsible for Christianity uprooting the law. Above all, Jesus is a man who suffered torture and did so unwillingly. Jesus was not shielded, not protected. Jesus was vulnerable, frightened, afraid of human kings. He was poor and suffering. Why should Jesus have had to suffer, die, and endure such shame? Christian belief is preposterous, not the suffering of Jesus. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In citing psalms that Jesus is said to have cried out, the Nizzahon Vetus suggests an underlying sympathy for the suffering of a human being before God.]

“But you, 0 Lord, are a shield for me … “[Ps. 3:4]. The heretics say that Jesus said this psalm when he was seized and tried. The answer is in this very verse. How did he shield him? He was hanged! God cried unto the Lord with my voice and he answered me” [Ps. 3:5]. But it says, “My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? 0 my God, I cry in the daytime, but you answer not” [Ps. 22:2], and they say that Jesus said this chapter when he was seized. Thus, their words are contradictory; here he said, “And he answered me,” and there he said, “But you answer not.” “I lay down and slept” [Ps. 3:6]. Elijah mocked a sleeping god, saying, “Perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened” [1 Kings 18:27]. “Salvation belongs to the Lord” [Ps. 3:9]. About what did Jesus say this? What salvation was wrought for him? It must be, then, that David recited this chapter because God saved him from his son Absalom, who had pursued him, and the beginning of the chapter supports this view. (Section #129)

“Into your hand I commit my spirit” [Ps. 31:6]. They say that Jesus said this when he expired. “I hate those who guard worthless vanities” [Ps. 31:7]. This refers to those who guarded his grave. “You have seen my suffering” [Ps. 31:8]. They wrote, “My humility.” “Have mercy upon me, 0 Lord, for I am in trouble” [Ps. 31:10] when handed over to be crucified. “For my life is spent with grief, and my years in sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity” [Ps. 31:11]. They wrote, “My strength fails because of the suffering,” for they could not bring themselves to say that there was iniquity in Jesus. “I was a reproach among all my enemies … when they took counsel together” [Ps. 31:12-14]. They wrote, “When they came together.” “My times are in your hand” [Ps. 31:16]. They wrote, “My fate is in your hand.” (Section #148).

If you will argue that no impure thought assailed Jesus’ flesh because of the holy spirit within it, then why did that spirit not have the power to save the flesh from fear and hunger? The fact is that we know that he was fearful, hungry, and sorrowful, for he said, “My soul is sorrowful,” not “my flesh” but “my soul.” Consequently, I am amazed by their contentions in light of the fact that Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who were human beings and were thrown into a burning furnace ( which is the most painful sort of death), were neither fearful nor sorrowful; indeed, they remained completely unharmed in both body and soul, and even their clothing was unaffected, as it is written, ” … upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was a hair of their head singed, neither were their garments changed, nor had the smell of fire been passed on to them” [Dan. 3:27]. Jesus, on the other hand, did not save his soul and body even from fear. If you say that this was in accordance with his will and desire, then why these supplications? (Section #176)

Moreover, I am surprised by the whole story of this Jesus. Why did he have to be born to a woman, why did he suffer all the pain, tribulations, and shame which they inflicted upon him, and why did he die?  (Section #189)

It is written in their books: “When Jesus came with his disciples to a village which was named Gethsemane, he said to his disciples, Sit here until I pray. He took with him Peter and James and John and began to be fearful and to tremble. And he said, My soul is sorrowful unto death; sit here and watch. And he went past them a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed: If possible, let this cup pass from me at this hour. And he said, My father, you are omnipotent; take away this cup from me, but let it be not as I will, but as you will. And he came to his disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter and Simon, Could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation; the spirit is ready, but the flesh is weak. And again he went away and prayed the same prayer, and he returned and found them asleep (for their eyes were heavy with sleep), and they knew not what to answer him. He came a third time and told them, Sit and rest, for this is the hour when the son of man is given over into the hands of evil men. Rise up, let us go, for he that will betray me is at hand” [Mark 14:32-42; cf. Matthew 26:36-46]. Now, to whom was Jesus praying? Did he have need of prayer and supplication? Why, it is written, “He speaks and carries out; he decrees and fulfills,” and yet it says that Jesus began to be fearful and to tremble and that he told his disciples, “My soul is sorrowful unto death.-:’ You may argue that he is referring to the flesh, which was fearful, but it says, “My soul is sorrowful.” Moreover, you always argue that this sort of thing refers to the flesh, but is it really possible to maintain such a position? Everyone knows, after all, that the flesh itself does not speak or know anything; it would be like a stone except for the impetus it receives from the spirit. Furthermore, Jesus prayed that his father remove the cup from him; in effect, then, he was saying, “You can remove it from me, but I cannot.” He also said, “Let it not be as I will, but as you will.” If so, then the wills are not the same, and if they have two wills, then Jesus could not be God. You also maintain consistently that Jesus accepted all these troubles willingly in order to redeem his children. Well, if that was his, then why these supplications? On the other hand, if he did not wish to accept all this, why did he not save his body? In fact, he told them, ”The spirit is ready, but the flesh is weak.” (It is written in their books: “Jesus said at the time of his crucifixion, My soul hurts unto death, and the flesh is in turmoil” [ cf. Mark 14:34]) (Section #176).

It is written in their book of Luke: “When Jesus was brought to be hanged, they hanged him between two thieves; one was to his right and the other to his left, and he was in the middle …. The one who was hanged to his left mocked him, saying, If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us. But the one who was hanged to his right said, You did not fear God, and that is why you are enduring this suffering; we are being judged according to our deeds, but this man between us did nothing wrong. And he said to Jesus, My lord, be kind to me when you come to heaven. And Jesus said to him, “Verily I say unto you, today you shall be with me in my place” [Luke 23:32-43]. Now, if he was divine, why did he allow himself to undergo such a peculiar shame of being hanged between thieves and on a stalk of cabbage? (Section #202)

[Jesus in Mark and Matthew recites the psalm My, God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:2). The phrase repeats throughout the Nizzahon Vetus. On one hand, the biblical text shows to the Nizzahon Vetus that Jesus was a sinner and not righteous; there is also an anti-trinitarian thrust to the polemic. On the other hand, is the piteous sight of Jesus abandoned and forsaken by God and by men.]

My, God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Furthermore, it is written, “He who justifies me is near” [Isa. 50:8]. All of his justifiers, however, were far away, while his accusers were near, for they say that even his father in heaven was too far away to save him in his time of trouble, as it is written in a chapter which they refer to Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?” [Ps. 22:1; cf. Matt. 27:46]. It goes on to say, “But be not far from. me, 0 Lord; 0 my strength, hasten to help me” [Ps. 22:20]; you see, then, that salvation was far from him. Know, then, that this passage was written to teach Israel how to answer the heretics. (Section #96)

My, God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It is written in their books: “And in the sixth hour there was darkness in the land until the ninth hour, and at the ninth hour he cried out, My Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me” [Mark 15:33-34]? If he was God, why did he cry out that way? Why, all the tribulations came upon him in accordance with his will and were proper in his eyes; he accepted everything with love, and all these things befell him through his own will. (Section #178)

My, God, my God, why have you forsaken me? “But you, 0 Lord, are a shield for me … “[Ps. 3:4]. The heretics say that Jesus said this psalm when he was seized and tried. The answer is in this very verse. How did he shield him? He was hanged! ‘I cried unto the Lord with my voice and he answered me” [Ps. 3:5]. But it says, “My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? 0 my God, I cry in the daytime, but you answer not” [Ps. 22:2], and they say that Jesus said this chapter when he was seized. Thus, their words are contradictory; here he said, “And he answered me,” and there he said, “But you answer not.” “I lay down and slept” [Ps. 3:6]. Elijah mocked a sleeping god, saying, “Perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened” [1 Kings 18:27]. “Salvation belongs to the Lord” [Ps. 3:9]. About what did Jesus say this? What salvation was wrought for him? It must be, then, that David recited this chapter because God saved him from his son Absalom, who had pursued him, and the beginning of the chapter supports this view. (Section #129)

My, God, my God, why have you forsaken me? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me and from the words of my cry?” [Ps. 22:2]. The heretics say that Jesus said this psalm at the time of his hanging. Indeed, in their books it says, “My God, my God, remember me; why have you forsaken me?” and it is also written in the heretics’ books, “My God, my God, look at me. Why have you forsaken me? Why are the words of my transgression far from my salvation?” You see then that Jesus himself admits that he is a sinner, and so how can you say that he is God? We see also that Jesus was complaining that God forsoak him; consequently, he could not have been a righteous man, for Ecclesiastes said, “I have never seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread” [Ps. 37:25]. Ask the heretics who say that Jesus came to redeem the world by his death why he cried out for help. Did he forget why he came to the world or did he change his mind and regret his decision when he experienced his tribulations? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Ps. 22:2]. The heretics say that he addressed two powers-the father and the spirit-and that is why he cried out, “My God, my God,” when he was hanged, as is explained in the text. If so, then he was a wicked man since he was forsaken, as the saying goes, “What God does not want and forsakes is taken by the demons.” Moreover, if he was God, why did he cry out as he did? Why, all of these troubles came upon him in accordance with his own will; they were proper in his estimation, and he accepted everything with love. “I am a worm, and no man” [Ps. 22:7]. They say that he said this because of his great modesty. “But you are he who took me out of the womb” [Ps. 22:10], i.e., from my mother, Mary. “Many bulls have surrounded me” [Ps. 22:13]; these are the Jews who judged him. “Like a lion my hands and my feet” [Ps. 22:127]. In their books it says, “Foderunt my hands and feet,” and they say that this refers to the nails, for he was nailed to the cross through his hands and feet when he was hanged. The answer is: The practice of pushing nails through the hands and feet of people who were stoned and hanged did not exist among the Jews. “I may tell all my bones” [Ps. 22:18]; in their books it says, “They counted all my bones.” “They divided my garments among them” [Ps. 22:19]; they say that when they hanged him they divided his clothes among them. “All those that are fat on earth shall eat and worship; all those that go down to the dust shall bow before him, and none shall keep alive his own soul. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be recounted to the Lord for a generation. They shall come and declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he has done this” [Ps. 22:30-32]. These verses are written in their books as follows: “All they that have gone down to the dust shall bow before him and he shall keep his soul alive for himself.” (They read lo instead of lo’). This, then, is how they explain it: Jesus said, ”For the kingdom is the Lord’s and he is ruler among the nations” [Ps. 22:29] and not only among the Jews as had been the case until now, and just as the Gentiles were permitted to eat all the fat things on earth until now, so they are still permitted to do so provided that they bow down to their father in heaven. “All those that have gone down to the dust shall bow before him” refers to Jesus, who redeemed the souls which descended to hell. And the apostles will “declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born.” The answer is: How can you say that Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” After all, it says in the Gospels that the spirit came from heaven, entered Mary, and took on flesh. According to this, when God left that body what speech or spirit would remain within it? If, however, you will say that Jesus had a body and soul like ordinary men and possessed divinity in addition, then why should the divinity have had to enter Mary in the filthy place? The spirit could simply have entered him after his birth. If it is true that it entered after his birth, then a similar phenomenon is found among other men as well such as Moses, Elijah, and other prophets. Similarly, it says with regard to David, “Do not take your holy spirit from me” [Ps. 51:13]. Now, should we say that they were divine because they possessed the holy .spirit? If you then say that you affirm Jesus’ divinity because of the public miracles he performed, then we may point out that Moses also performed many miracles. Similarly, Elijah ascended to heaven in a storm in the presence of all, something that Jesus did not do; indeed no one saw his ascent, except that they maintain that Mary Magdalene and Peter the ass saw it and testified that he ascended. You may then argue that you believe in his divinity because the prophets spoke of him, but the fact is that you will not find a single instance in all the prophets of a prophet speaking of Jesus son of Mary. Even in those places where you maintain that a verse speaks of Jesus, such as the verse in Jeremiah, ”And his powerful one shall come from himself, and his ruler shall proceed out of his midst” O er. 30:21], and “A woman shall compass a man” Uer. 31:22], indeed in all those places where you claim to have found even the name of a deity, you cannot show that it refers specifically to him. You may then point to the fact that Isaiah said, “Behold, the young woman is pregnant … and she shall call his name Immanuel” [Isa. 7:14] and argue on this basis that he is called God. On the basis of this sort of argument, however, I could find you other gods, such as Samuel son of Elkanah. Samuel, after all, was born to Hannah, who had been barren, in accordance with God’s decree, and Samuel can mean “his name is God” (in the language of the priests, nomen sum Deus). Similarly, Ezekiel means strong God –in their language, omnipotenti Deo –Uzziah means forte Deo, and the same can be said of many other names in Scripture. You may then argue that his name indicates his nature, for Jesus means savior in Hebrew. The answer is: It never was nor can it ever be that a Hebrew word without an ‘ayin should be derived from the word meaning savior. Furthermore, you could apply a similar argument to the name Joshua and say that it means “God saves.” If you then maintain that there is a distinction because we find that all of these had fathers while Jesus did not, then the case of Elijah can prove the contrary, for you will find no mention of his father in all of Scripture. Consequently, I could maintain that he was born without a father and ask you to accept him as a god, for this characteristic is not more typical of Jesus than of other men. “My God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not respond” [Ps. 22:3]. They say that Jesus said this. Thus, their own words contradict each other, because in the previous psalm it says, “You have not withheld the request of his lips” [Ps. 21:3], while here it says, “But you do not respond.” “But you are holy, 0 you who dwell amid the praises of Israel” [Ps. 22:4]. Thus, Jesus himself taught that God, who is holy and sacred, dwells amid the praises of Israel and not of Christendom. If he then says that ”Israel” is Christendom, the answer is: We have been called-by this name since the days of Jacob our” father; indeed, the name Israel is derived from him. They, on the other hand, are not descendants of Jacob but children of Edom. Some of them, incidentally, say that they have a tradition that they are descendants of Japheth while we are descended from Shem, but in any case they were never called Israel. If you argue that they are called Israel because they are princes of the Lord (sarei el) and believers, then all the generations who were called Israel before the advent of Jesus must have been princes of the Lord and believers; why, then, did they all go down to hell? You may then maintain that they are called Israel because of their vision and belief, but the fact is that we behold and believe in the God of heaven and not they. Moreover, the name is read Yisrael and not Yishrael. “Our fathers trusted in you” [Ps. 22:4]; this shows that he had a father. “I am a worm and no man” [Ps. 22:7]. Thus, he admits that worms will cover his flesh, and if he were God he should not have said something that is not so even out of modesty. This, rather, is what he should have said: I am God and no man, but I suffer all this in my humility and permit all those who behold me to mock me in order that I may redeem you. In this way, there would have been both humility and revelation of his name. “I was cast upon you from the womb; you are my God from my mother’s stomach” [Ps. 22:11]; but not in the womb or in the stomach. Moreover, if this were said about the hanged one, the problem would be their belief that he was born out of the forehead of a harlot, for the verse says that he was born out of a woman like all children; thus, your books lie when they say that the spirit entered Mary. “Be not far from me, for trouble is near; for there is none to help” [Ps. 22:12]. This indicates that if there were someone to help, he would have gladly agreed to be saved; thus, his death occurred against his will and was regarded as “trouble.” How, then, can you say that he willed it? “Bulls have surrounded me” [Ps. 35 22:13]; now, where do we find that the people of Israel are called bulls? The Romans and other nations are called that, as Isaiah said, “For the indignation of the Lord is upon all the nations …. And the wild oxen shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls” [Isa. 34:2-7]. Similarly, Daniel explained all the animals and beasts in the book of Daniel as symbols of the nations. “My heart is melted like wax” [Ps. 22:15]. Why was he afraid? After all, they say that this was his will. Furthermore, he could have objected had he wished. “Like a lion (ka’ari) my hands and my feet” [Ps. 22:17]. They are mistaken when they say that what is written is karu) foderunt in the priests’ language, and this is explained in the interpretation of the psalm. “Deliver my soul from the sword” [Ps. 22:21]. This would be the prayer concerning which it was said above, “I cry in the daytime, but you do not respond,” for he was certainly not answered since he was not saved from them. It is, of course, necessary to explain this cry of deliverance as a plea for help during his life, for after his death he was not given over into their hands. Moreover, they contradict themselves, for earlier it said, “You have not withheld the request of his lips” [Ps. 21:3]. “From the horns of the wild oxen have you answered me. I will declare your name unto my brethren; in the midst of the congregation will I praise you” [Ps. 22:22-23]. Thus, the hanged one had brothers. Indeed, even in the Gospels it says that he had brothers named Simon and Jacob; consequently, Mary was not a virgin. Moreover, would God express himself this way? ”My name will be declared” is what it should have said. Moreover, does God have brothers? And when was the verse “In the midst of the congregation will I praise you” fulfilled? After he was killed, he never entered the congregation again. “You that fear the Lord, praise him; all the seed of Jacob, glorify him; fear him all the seed of Israel” [Ps. 22:24]. According to their belief that Jesus came to save the world and to call a halt to a situation in which all men, good and evil, descended to hell, why did he warn the seed of Jacob and Israel more than other nations? “All those who go down to the dust shall bow down before him” [Ps. 22:30]. According to the view that Jesus said this, it should have said, “Shall bow down before me,” since he and not his father redeemed them by sacrificing his life. As for the phrase, “And he did not keep alive his own soul” [ibid.], if it refers to his lifetime, we know that this was true since he died and was buried. If, on the other hand, it refers to his soul, then we must conclude that the same was done for his soul as for the others which he took out of hell, and he did not bring them to life either. “Descendants shall serve him” [Ps. 22:31]. Does God have descendants? You may argue that he says this of his believers, but nowhere in all of Scripture does God call his believers seed, for that term is applicable only to physical descendants, as it says, “The seed of Abraham my friend” [Isa. 41:8]. The true explanation of the psalm is that David said it of his war with the Amalekites after they invaded and despoiled both the land of the Philistines and that of Judah and left Ziklag in flames. (Section #145)


The heretics anger us by charging that we murder their children and consume the blood. Answer by telling him that no nation was as thoroughly warned against murder as we, and this warning includes the murder of Gentiles, for in connection with “Do not covet,” it says “your neighbor,” but in connection with ”Do not murder,” ”Do not commit adultery, and do not steal,” it does not say “your neighbor.” This shows that “Do not murder” refers to any man; thus, we were warned against murdering Gentiles as well. What is the reason for this? “For in the image of God did he make man.”…Moreover, we were also warned against blood more than any nation, for even when dealing with meat that has been slaughtered properly and is kosher, we salt it and rinse it and bother with it extensively in order to remove the blood. The fact is that you are concocting allegations against us in order to permit our murder; this is in accordance with David’s prophecy in Psalm 44 that you would abuse us, permit our murder, and kill us because of our fear of God, and he prayed for us saying, “You are my king, 0 God; command the deliverance of Jacob [Ps. 44:5]” (section #244).

[translated by David Berger in The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages: A Critical Edition of Nizzahon Vetus, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979)]

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.
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1 Response to Jewish Suffering Human Suffering The Suffering Jesus (Nitzahon Yashan)

  1. dmf says:

    how does he square this ” since God is merciful and does not destroy a man because of his sins” with his own scriptures?

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