by Doug Ward

Like most people, I enjoy a good joke. When I was young, some well-thumbed joke books were among the most frequently consulted volumes on my bookshelf. (One of my favorites was a pun collection entitled Jest in Pun.) These days I make occasional visits to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion website to check out the jokes submitted by fellow listeners of that radio program.


The practice of compiling joke books goes back hundreds of years. The oldest known joke book is the Philogelos (literally "Laughter Lover"), a compendium of 265 jokes. We have the Philogelos in a manuscript from the tenth century A.D., but items from the collection have been dated to as early as the third century.


A number of these jokes have circulated online, and they still can elicit a chuckle from a twenty-first-century reader. For example, here is number 25:


"An intellectual was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. `Don't cry,' he consoled them, `I have freed you all in my will'".


Did the slaves respond by throwing the intellectual overboard? The text doesn't say.


I also like number 187, which seems to indicate that astrology has long been recognized as nonsense, at least in some circles:


"A rude star-gazer cast a sick boy's horoscope. After promising the mother that the child had many years ahead of him, he demanded payment. When the mother said, `I'll pay tomorrow,' he objected: `But what if the boy dies during the night? Do I lose my fee?'"


Some ancient jokes, like these examples from the Philogelos, can be appreciated without any special background knowledge. Others may be considerably more difficult to decipher, but the payoff we receive in humor and insight can make our efforts to understand them worthwhile.


In this article I will discuss one example, a story from the Babylonian Talmud in which two Jewish siblings, a famous rabbi and his sister, team up to expose the flaws of a Christian judge. This story, presented in the terse, condensed fashion that is characteristic of the Talmud, may seem puzzling at first. But with the help of an expert, Judaic scholar Holger M. Zellentin of the University of California, we will see that this story is an extremely clever, biting critique of Christianity that Christians would do well to heed, even today.1


A Corrupt Judge

Dr. Zellentin believes that the Talmudic joke was adapted from an earlier, simpler rabbinic story with which it shares a distinctive punch line. In the earlier story, two litigants are coming before a judge. The first bribes the judge with a silver lamp, while the second offers a more valuable bribe, a "golden" donkey. The judge rules in favor of the second litigant.


When the first litigant hears that she has lost the case, she tells the judge, "Master, let my case shine forth like that silver lamp." The judge replies, "What shall I do for you, since the young donkey overturned the lamp?"


Zellentin explains that the first litigant's appeal-"let my case shine forth like that silver lamp"-is a reference to Isa 51:3-4, a passage that links the concepts of justice and light:


"The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations" (NIV).


These verses from Isaiah look ahead to a time when God will bring true justice to the world. By referring to this prophecy, the joke contrasts God's justice with the corruption of human courts.


The judge in the story essentially admits that he is corrupt. His remark that the donkey "overturned the lamp" is a way of saying that he has ruled in favor of the side giving the better bribe.


Poking Fun at Christians

Zellentin speculates that the Talmudic adaptation of this joke was written in the fifth or sixth century A.D. During that period, the Babylonian Jewish community enjoyed freedom and safety under the Persian Sasanian Empire. Christians, on the other hand, were in a less secure position with the Sasanians. Because Christianity was the dominant faith of the rival Byzantine Empire, Christians did not enjoy the full trust of the Sasanian rulers. In such an environment, it was safe for the Babylonian rabbis to make jokes at the expense of Christianity.


One place where such jokes appear is in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 116a-b. Here a discussion of books containing divine names leads to consideration of Christian books, the Gospels in particular. Then come two wicked puns on the Syriac word for "gospel", which is a simple transliteration of the corresponding Greek word, pronounced evangelion.


The first pun is attributed to Rabbi Meir, a second century sage. Rabbi Meir is said to have referred to the Christian gospel with the Hebrew phrase aven gelion, which means "margin" or "message" of "oppression," "wrongness," "falsehood," or "vanity."


A second, similar pun is attributed to Rabbi Johanan. (This could be the famous first century Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, or a later sage named after him.) The second pun is the Hebrew phrase avon gelion, which calls the gospel a "margin" or "message" of "perversion," "wrong," or "penalty."2


The Story and its Meaning

Finally, after these two puns comes the following story:


Imma Shalom, Rabbi Eliezer's wife, was the sister of Rabban Gamliel. And there was a certain philosopher in her neighborhood, who had a reputation of a judge who does not accept bribes. One day, [Rabban Gamliel] wanted to laugh at [the philosopher]. [Rabban Gamliel and Imma Shalom] went to [the philosopher]. Imma Shalom brought [the philosopher] a golden lamp. She said to him: "I want you to divide the estate of my [late] father."


[The philosopher] said: "Divide!"


[Rabban Gamliel] said to him: "It is written in the Torah that he gave us: `If there is a son, the daughter does not inherit.' "


[The philosopher] said: "From the day that you were exiled from your land, the Torah of Moses was taken away from you, and the Torah of the Gospel was given, and it is written in it: `Daughter and son inherit equally.' "


The next day Rabban Gamliel went back and brought him a Libyan donkey. [The philosopher] said: "I went down to the end of the Gospel, and it is written in it: `I am the Gospel; I came not to reduce the Torah of Moses, and not to add to the Torah of Moses I came.' And it is written in it: `If there is a son, the daughter does not inherit.' "


[Imma Shalom] said [to the philosopher]: "Let your light shine with the lamp. Examine the judgment!"


Rabban Gamliel said to him: "A donkey came and knocked down the lamp."


In examining this story, we begin by introducing its main characters. One is Rabban Gamliel, who was the leader of the Jewish community in the land of Israel at the end of the first century A.D. Gamliel, also known as Gamaliel II, was the grandson of the Gamaliel who is familiar to Christians as the mentor of the Apostle Paul (see Acts 5:34-40; 22:3). Gamliel appears in the story with his sister, Imma Shalom, who was also the wife of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a very prominent Jewish teacher.


Imma Shalom and Gamliel set out to expose the flaws of a "philosopher" who was supposed to be an impartial judge. (The words spoken by the philosopher make it clear that he is a Christian.) They present to the philosopher a question about the division of their father's estate.


At this point it is worthwhile to note that Eliezer, the husband of Imma Shalom, was late in life accused of being a Christian sympathizer. A story that features Imma Shalom helping to play a joke on a Christian serves to distance her from these accusations.3 In any case she gives the philosopher a lamp, as in the earlier story, and asks to receive a fair share of her father's inheritance.


Imma Shalom's request is intended to remind us of an incident recorded in the Gospels. In Luke 12:13, a man asks Jesus to intervene on his behalf in an inheritance dispute with his brother. Jesus declines to do so, instead using the incident to introduce a parable on the dangers of greed (vv. 14-21). In contrast, the Christian judge in our story does not follow the example or the teaching of his Master. Instead, he greedily accepts the lamp and rules in favor of Imma Shalom.


Next, Rabban Gamliel objects that in Jewish tradition, based on Numbers 27:5-11, a daughter receives an inheritance only if she has no living brothers. By the days of the rabbis who compiled the Babylonian Talmud, this tradition differed from those of surrounding cultures. In the Roman Empire and in the Christian Church, men and women received equal inheritances.


The philosopher replies that the Torah of Moses, the basis for rabbinic tradition, has been superseded by the "Torah of the Gospel," which specifies equal inheritances for men and women. Here it is not clear what New Testament scripture the judge might have in mind, since no New Testament passages deal directly with this issue. It is possible that Galatians 3:28 is in view. At any rate, the judge is correct about Christian tradition on inheritance and gender.


On the following day Rabban Gamliel brings the philosopher a donkey, a more valuable gift that provokes the judge to examine the scriptures more closely. Citing Jesus' statement that he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets (Matt 5:17-18), the Christian judge concludes that the Torah of Moses is still valid and reverses his previous decision.


Imma Shalom objects to this reversal, urging the judge to "let his light shine" like the lamp she had given him. Here she refers to Matthew 5:16, the verse just before the one used by the judge. But as Rabban Gamliel concludes, the lamp has been "knocked over" by his donkey.


Zellentin astutely observes that this story is really about a bigger issue than the laws of inheritance for men and women. Indeed, its real concern is the question of the inheritance of the promises of God. He points out that the reference in the story to Matthew 5:17-18 is worded in a way that makes a connection with Deuteronomy 4:1-2:


"Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you."


In response to common Christian claims that the Torah was abolished and God had abandoned Israel in exile, the Talmudic story makes a counterclaim. At the time the story was written, the land of Israel was controlled by Christians, but that would be a temporary situation according to Deuteronomy. To possess the Promised Land-and more broadly, the promises of God-obedience to God's commandments would be required.


Zellentin also suggests that another passage from Deuteronomy, verses 19-20 of chapter 16, may lie behind the story. This passage connects justice (and in particular, the avoidance of bribes), with inheritance of the Promised Land:


"Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you."


Finally, there may be some significance to the unusual image of the donkey "overturning the lamp." Zellentin explains that this phrase was a euphemism in the Greco-Roman world for having sexual orgies. Enemies of Christianity often (unfairly) accused Christians of engaging in orgies. In the rabbinic story, the donkey overturning the lamp is contrasted with Jesus' instruction that his followers be a light to the world.



As Zellentin demonstrates, this Talmudic story makes extremely clever use of the New Testament to lampoon early Christians and their attitudes toward the Torah and Judaism. Zellentin concludes, "The Talmudic author's intimate knowledge of Matthew's gospel led to one of the most artistic Rabbinic polemics with Christianity that I have ever encountered" (p. 361).


I believe that there are also some important reminders here for today's Christians. First, if we Christians imagine that the Torah is outmoded or that God has abandoned the Jewish people, then we stand corrected by our own scriptures. Christians are disciples of a Jewish Master, one who advocated faithful obedience to the commandments of God. Moreover, the New Testament affirms that God remains faithful to the people of Israel (Romans 11, e.g.).4


Second, if we would like to persuade our Jewish friends that the Gospel is more than a "message of error," then we must live up to our Master's instruction to be lights to the world.


1Zellentin gives a detailed discussion of this story in his paper, "Margin of Error: Women, Law, and Christianity in Bavli Shabbat 116a-b," pp. 339-363 in Heresy and Identity in Late Antiquity, Eduard Iricinschi and Holger M. Zellentin, editors, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2008.


2See Zellentin, pp. 350-351.


3Zellentin points out that there is another version of the story in which the lawsuit is real, not staged. This second version has the effect of implicating Imma Shalom in the charges made against Eliezer, as well as illustrating how sensitive the issue of women's inheritances was within the Jewish community.


4On this point, see the article " `Has God Cast Away His People?' Why the Church Has Rejected `Replacement Theology' " in Issues 5 and 6 of Grace and Knowledge.

Issue 26



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On 09 Aug 2010, 13:57.