Shlomo Zuckier on reading from the margins
Central to Christian theology is the concept of the “evangelion” (εὐαγγέλιον), literally the good news, used to refer to the gospels on the life and teachings of Jesus. Throughout history, Jews under Christian persecution or otherwise frustrated with Christianity have proffered alternative interpretations and etymologies of the term “evangelion” that are less favorable, in what might be described as an act of resistance.
Possibly the most famous of these accounts appears in the Babylonian Talmud, in a passage censored from the print editions to Shabbat 116a.
In context, the Talmud is discussing which ritual texts may be saved from a fire on Shabbat even if doing so involves normally prohibited activities. This serves as a jumping off point for discussion of which texts should and should not be studied, and which should be hidden. One matter that is discussed is the margins of a Torah scroll (gilyonin shel sefer torah), which do not qualify as possessing sufficient sanctity to be saved on their own, but which should be saved when attached to a functioning scroll.
This leads to a question about the possibility of saving another sort of gilayon, by homonymic association:
It was taught: The gilayons (margins/revelations) and books of sectarians are not to be saved from a fire [on Shabbat]… Rabbi Meir would call it aven gilyon (און גליון, false revelation) and Rabbi Yohanan would call it avon gilayon (עוון גליון, sin revelation). [Some editions of this text have instead the phrase even gilayon (אבן גליון, stone revelation; see the Arukh, entry אבן גליון.]
After teaching, rather unsurprisingly, that sectarian books of these sorts do not attain the special status of Jewish scripture in terms of violating Shabbat, the Talmud goes on to offer several different etymologies and associations for the term evangelion in Hebrew. First is the playful use of the term gilayon. While gilayon in its earlier appearances means a Torah scroll margin, by the end of the passage it clearly used to refer to Christian scripture. The Hebrew term gilayon appears to doubly describe the gospels: Both the term’s meaning – gilayon stems from legallot, “to reveal” – and its phonetic value, with aven gilyon approximating evangelion, mark the term as describing Christian scripture. Thus the Talmud deftly toggles from discussing Jewish scripture to Christian holy writings while using the same term.
There is also significance to each of the words the Talmud couples with the term gilayon in order to arrive at a phonetic approximation of evangelion – evil (aven), sin (avon), and stone (even). All have clearly negative connotations – but distinct implications. Following the commentary of the sixteenth-century R. Judah Loew of Prague, we might say that the difference between aven-evil and avon-sin is the difference between asserting the falsehood of the religion or the sinful ways of its practitioners. Referring to the evangelion as a “stone revelation” presents an entirely different critique, as it describes the gospel not as false or sinful but as dead, stone-like, in an inversion of Christian supersessionist formulations. The fact that this discussion appears in a broader Talmudic discussion about Jewish scripture, questions about changes to the law, and theological debates has not been lost on scholars, as this presents a fascinating discussion.
This Talmudic passage is emblematic of certain functions of midrash, or Jewish creative-interpretive reading prevalent throughout rabbinic literature. The use of word play, unexpected (inter)textual connections, and drawing of legal implications all represent this Jewish literary discursive style.
And the Talmud’s playful reading of evangelion is just the beginning of this story of creative textual interpretation.
Among the many forms of Jewish writing over the centuries is an intriguing corpus of texts parodying the New Testament known as the Toldot Yeshu (lit., “the life of Jesus”) tradition, a loosely connected constellation of stories inverting, subverting, and ridiculing the life of Jesus and his disciples. Multiple distinct versions and sub-versions of the text exist, each with different narrative and polemical details. The Huldreich recension of Toledot Yeshu from 1705 (published in Leyden, Holland, and based on an earlier manuscript) picks up where the Talmud left off, presenting yet another Midrashic reinterpretation of evangelion.
The broader context of this lists some of the false teachings of Simon Kalfus, a fascinating figure in his own right. Sometimes associated with Peter, and possibly mourned on a Jewish fast day, this figure is presented in Toledot Yeshu as Jesus’ uncle who willfully promotes false teachings to the Church in order to protect Jews from Christians by distancing Christianity from Judaism. (This role of “parter of the ways” is played in other texts of Jewish folklore by Paul).
Describing some of Simon’s activities, Toledot Yeshu reads as follows:
He [Simon] also wrote for them books of lies, and called them avon kilayon (עו”ן כלי”ון, sin of destruction), and they thought that he said even gilayon (אב”ן גליו”ן), meaning father (av, אב) and son (ben, בן), and revelation of the holy spirit (gilluy ruah ha-kodesh, גלוי רוח הקודש). Simon wrote books for them from the students of Jesus and John and said that Jesus had passed on to him all of these words and Simon wrote the Book of John with hints; they [his audience] thought that they were secrets, but it was all empty and striving after wind.
Here we find an alternative origin story for the gospels – Simon, rather than their putative authors, composed the various gospels, and they were not based on any tradition but were his own innovation. Not only are the gospels books of lies and enigmatic confusion, argues Toledot Yeshu, but Simon was intentionally misleading the early Jesus movement in promoting these teachings. And not only did they misunderstand his intentions, they failed to even understand the name of the work!
Simon’s privately named these books avon kilayon (עון כליון), meaning “sin of destruction.” Note that the first word, avon, “sin,” is retained from the Talmudic discussion above, but the second term shifts: it is not gilayon, “revelation,” but the phonetically similar kilayon, “destruction.” Thus, the very name given to the gospels by its author predicts the failure of Christianity and its ultimate destruction.
Of course, Simon’s flock was not aware of this name; they understood him to be saying even gilayon (אבן גליון), also stemming from the Talmudic passage. While the Hebrew here might be translated as “rock revelation,” presumably this term is meant to be a simple transliteration of evangelion. Simon’s followers had a particular understanding of these terms, applying their own creative Midrashic reading to the passage and imposing upon it a trinitarian overlay. Even gilayon (אבן גליון) is to be read as av, ben, gilayon (אב, בן, גליון), “father, son, and revelation,” with revelation referring to the revelation of the holy spirit. The name of the Christian gospel – evangelion – is now identified with the core Christian theological principle of trinitarianism, using Hebrew-language wordplay!
On Toledot Yeshu’s historical rendering, then, trinitarian theology originally stems from a Hebrew, Midrashic reading of evangelion, avon gilayon or אבן גליון, which itself was a misconstrued version of its true name, avon kilayon, “sin of destruction.” Both the core plank of Christian theology, and its core texts, is riven with error, sin, and break from tradition.
These cases of Jewish resistance literature across two millennia present all sorts of interesting historical, theological, and political questions. But a consideration of the methods that these rabbis, Late Antique and Early Modern, use in crafting these texts offers a window into the rabbinic mind: Christian canons and theologies are defined not on their own terms but by Jewish ones. Evangelion becomes a Hebrew word in one of several versions, none reflecting particularly well on the gospels. The interpretations placed in the mouths of early Christian are themselves very Jewish, invoking the type of Midrashic word play usually see only in rabbinic texts, and these interpretations operate in Hebrew rather than Greek.
The marginal Jews thus use marginal interpretations about texts of the margin (gilayon) to marginalize their Christian opponents. The rabbinic take on evangelion is a deeply Jewish-inflected resistance literature, residing on the margins.
Shlomo Zuckier is the Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University. He recently completed a doctorate on sacrifice and atonement at Yale University.
For further reading, see other treatments of these texts and phenomena:
Holger Zellentin, “Margin of Error: A Babylonian Parody of the Sermon on the Mount (Shabbat 116a-b),” in Holger Zellentin, Rabbinic Parodies of Jewish and Christian Literature
Ghil‘ad Zuckermann, ‘“Etymythological Othering” and the Power of “Lexical Engineering” in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. A Socio-Philo(sopho)logical Perspective’, pp. 237-258
On Simon Kalfus: “The Ninth of Teves and Yeshu Hanotsri,” Avakesh, accessible at https://www.avakesh.com/2006/12/the_fast_of_the.html
Mika Ahuvia, “An Introduction to Toledot Yeshu,” Ancient Jew Review, accessible at http://www.ancientjewreview.com/articles/2014/12/25/a-quick-introduction-to-toledot-yeshu
Peter Schafer, Michael Meerson, Yaacov Deutsch (eds.), Toledot Yeshu Revisited: A Princeton Conference, 2011
Michael Meerson and Peter Schafer, Toledot Yeshu: The Life Story of Jesus, 2014
Various editions and manuscripts of Toldot Yeshu: www.toledot-yeshu.net