Christian apologists frequently turn to sources beyond the New Testament to support the existence of Jesus and verify historical aspects of his life. Among these sources, although less commonly cited than Tacitus or Josephus, is the Talmud.
For those of you who don’t know, the Talmud is a central text in Judaism, consisting of rabbinic discussions and teachings on Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history. It comprises two main parts: the Mishnah, which presents legal discussions and principles, and the Gemara, which contains commentaries and analysis on the Mishnah by various rabbis. The Talmud was composed over several centuries, primarily between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD, but its origins trace back to earlier oral traditions and discussions among Jewish scholars.
Is the Talmud a good source for the historical Jesus?
Here’s a real quick nutshell version of what the Talmud says about Jesus: Most passages from the Tannaitic period thought to refer to Jesus might not actually do so. Only those directly naming Jesus or using the code “Ben Pantera” come from this time. “Ben Pantera” refers to the belief that Jesus had a Roman soldier as his father and that Mary was, well, considered to be a woman of loose morals.
Interestingly, these sources align with certain details found in the New Testament: Jesus was born to Mary, claimed Davidic descent, performed magic, had disciples, and faced execution before Passover. (b. Sanhedrin 43a; cf. t. Shabbat 11.15; b. Shabbat 104b, b. Sanhedrin 103a; cf. b. Berakhot 17b)
However, the Jewish accounts offer other unusual ideas not found in early Christian writings: Mary’s profession as a hairdresser, her husband named Pappos ben Yehuda, Jesus studying under a rabbi, traveling to Egypt as an adult where he learned to practice witchcraft, and facing excommunication during his life for practicing idolatry. (Shabbat 104b, Sotah 47a, Sanhedrin 43a, etc.)
What’s quite odd is that Jesus is placed in the first century BC within the Talmud. This appears to be a significant chronological error. Some scholars suggest that this deliberate shift might have been an attempt by Jewish communities to distinguish their discussions from the Jesus of Christian belief, indicating, “Hey, we’re talking about a different Jesus, not the one you follow.” This was possibly done to evade persecution during the Middle Ages, a time when there was a lot of Christian anti-Semitic sentiment.
But most likely, the rabbis’ inaccurate placement of Jesus in the wrong century reveals a significant point: their lack of early, independent traditions about him. If they had a direct chain of tradition from the first century, this mistake would likely have been corrected. The conspiracy to change the Talmud is possible but seems a bit far-fetched.
It seems more plausible that the rabbinic information about Jesus actually emerged in the second and third centuries. While it does hint at Jewish disagreements with Christians during that era, its primary purpose in rabbinic writings was likely to reinforce the view of Jesus as a deceptive apostate and to highlight why his followers were considered to be heretics.
The Talmud as extrabiblical corroboration of the Gospels
While the Talmud might not provide a direct backup for the New Testament stories about Jesus, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely useless when it comes to the historical Jesus. While external sources might only give us a general picture of the Gospel stories, there are some indirect, less obvious references that unintentionally support the historical reliability of the Gospels. This is where the evidence is much stronger, and it’s where my focus lies.
Jesus and the widow of Nain
So for starters, Luke is the only one who tells us about Jesus raising the widow of Nain’s son from the dead. (Luke 7:11-17) Nain, a town in lower Galilee near Nazareth, is where this happened. As Jesus and his disciples approach the city gate, they spot a funeral procession leaving. Jesus feels compassion for the grieving mother, who is among the mourners. He comforts her by saying, “Do not weep.” Then, he goes to the bier, touches it, and brings the young man back to life with his words.
What’s interesting is that in Judea, mourners followed the bier, which is different from how Jesus encounters them here. While this doesn’t majorly challenge the story’s truth, it is peculiar.
But interestingly, the Talmud explains that in Galilee, mourners led the procession, aligning with how Luke describes the scene. This detail adds authenticity to Luke’s account, especially as a non-local writer. Luke captures this Galilean tradition by depicting Jesus speaking to the widow before approaching the bier. (Shabbat 153a)
Additionally, if Luke had fabricated the story, he might have chosen a more prominent city than Nain and depicted crowds acclaiming Jesus as more than just a prophet.
What’s the dill with the Pharisees’ tithes?
Or how about this? In Matthew 23, Jesus lets loose on the scribes and Pharisees, unleashing a long tirade: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23)
Tithing… herbs? Counting or weighing them? Really, Jesus? Sounds incredibly cumbersome. Did devout Jews actually go that far?
As it turns out, the Talmud backs Matthew’s account up: “He who husks barley may husk each [grain] singly and eat [without tithing], but if he husked and put them into his hand, he is liable [to tithe]. . . If coriander was sown for the sake of the seed, the plant is exempt [from tithe]. But if sown for the sake of the plant then both the seed and the plant must be tithed. R. Eliezer said: As for dill, tithe must be given from the seed and the plant and the pods. But the sages, however, say: Both the seeds and the pod are tithed only in the case of pepperwort and Eruca.” (Maaseroth 4.5)
Ah, so Jesus wasn’t exaggerating. The Talmud confirms that these zealous religious Jews really did this! Also, notice Jesus’s play on words. He mentions their meticulous tithing on lightweight items like mint, dill, and cumin but highlights their neglect of weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Flute players…at a funeral?
Furthermore, in the story of Jairus’s daughter being raised, only Matthew talks about flute players among the mourners, whom Jesus sends away (Matthew 9:23). Matthew wasn’t in the group Jesus took into the house (that was Peter, James, and John), so he likely heard this detail from one of them. Interestingly, this detail finds external confirmation. The Jewish historian Josephus talks about pipe players in mourning, and a rabbi in the Talmud mentions a husband’s obligation to hire two flute players for his wife’s funeral. (Ketubot 48a, Josephus, Jewish War 3.9.5)
Those hick Galilieans
But there’s more. First, let me back up and give a bit of an illustration. I grew up near St. Louis and every now and then, we’d bump into folks from the southern part of the state who, well, spoke a little differently. They liked to roll down their ‘winders’ of their pickup on the way to the car ‘worsh’, if y’all know what I mean.
We St. Louisans called them ‘hoosiers’, but much of the country labeled them as rednecks, tagging them with many unfortunate stereotypes.
It’s no surprise that even in ancient times, people had their own stereotypes. In the Gospels, you can see a Judean bias against the people from the northern region of Galilee. A few verses reflect this.
When Philip told Nathanael they found the Messiah, Nathanael sniffed, saying “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:44-46)
During debates in Jerusalem about Jesus’ identity, some doubted, wondering, “Can the Christ really come from Galilee?” Nicodemus stood up for Jesus, saying he at least deserved a chance to speak for himself. But their response showed prejudice, saying “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (John 7:41-52)
Also, in the story of Peter denying Jesus, people in the courtyard knew Peter was from Galilee because of his accent. (Matthew 26:73)
Then in Acts, when Peter and the disciples boldly talked about Jesus, Jerusalem’s leaders assumed they were uneducated, probably partly because of their funny accents. (Acts 4:13)
These cultural details are a bit lost on us, just like it was for the Greco-Roman Christians reading John’s stories back then. The Gospel writers don’t stop an explain themselves, but we see this prejudice referenced directly in the Talmud. It makes fun of the Galilean way of speaking, telling stories of how their weird way of talking created some rather hilarious misunderstandings.
One story is about a Galilean asking for wool but sounding like they wanted a donkey or wine. People couldn’t understand what he was asking for. Another story involves a woman inviting someone for milk, but her accent made it sound like a wish for a lioness to eat them. There’s another story about a woman accusing thieves of stealing wooden board, but her accent made it sounded like she said the thieves stole the judge!
Furthermore, a rabbi from Jesus’ time complained that Galileans “ignore the law.” Why? He lived among them for years, dealing with only two legal cases! Clearly, Judeans saw Galileans as sacrilegious, unsavory hicks with funny accents. (Eruvin 53b)
Including these cultural biases in the Gospels and Acts makes you wonder: who could weave these elements into these different stories so naturally if they weren’t based on truth?
Rivers of living water
Here’s one more example: Towards the end of John 7, Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him for a drink, speaking about “rivers of living water” for those who believe. This aligns with the Feast of Tabernacles, known for its daily water-drawing and lighting ceremonies. The Talmud even highlights the importance of witnessing this celebration: “One who did not see the Celebration of the Place of the Drawing of the Water never saw celebration in his days.” (Sukkot 5.1)
But these customs ceased after Jerusalem’s fall in AD 70. This context adds weight to Jesus’ metaphor, yet it’s hard to believe an author would invent this reference without a clearer connection to the ceremony. If John were creating this, why not describe the ritual? Not everyone in his audience would immediately link it. Within the Gospel of John, this connection remains subtle, unexplained, and not contrived. It reads more like a historical account than a crafted literary invention.
The Talmud helps confirm the Gospels
There are more instances like these, but I’ll hold off for now. Searching for a big, flashy mention of Jesus in the Talmud or other early Jewish writings might not give us much, but we’ve got plenty of indirect tidbits about customs and traditions in the Gospels that the Talmud backs up. Other Jewish writings, like Josephus, do the same. These are casual references to obscure facts. The Gospel writers didn’t have the luxury of checking libraries or Wikipedia to cross-check whether their story seemed plausible. These little details hint that the Gospel writers knew their stuff, were honest, and weren’t scribbling down tales from a distant time long after the events.
Sources and helpful resources:
- The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Craig Blomberg
- Testimonies to the Truth, Lydia McGrew
- Can We Trust the Gospels?, Peter J. Williams
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.