Toledot Yeshu[1] (""תולדות ישו "The Biography of Jesus") is the medieval Jewish version of the story of Jesus from an anti-Christian perspective.[2] The book uses the name Yeshu, a name for Jesus that appears in some early rabbinic literature, and the title is translated as Book of the Life of Jesus[2], Generations of Jesus[3] or The Life of Jesus.[4] It has been called the counter-gospel,[2] anti-gospel, and anti-evangel. The Toledot Yeshu is popular polemic against Jesus "run wild".[2] It ascribes to Jesus an illegitimate birth, magic powers, and a shameful death.[5] Its main point is that "Jesus is a seducer and heretic."[6]


The materials contained in the books circulated orally (difficult to trace, but perhaps no earlier than the 2nd century) coalescing into book form in Late Antiquity (4th century at the earliest or in or around the 6th century[7]) or the Early Middle Ages.[2] The books were widely circulated in Europe and the Middle East from the 9th century;[2] Agobard, archbishop of Lyon, attests to the existence of such a book in 826[2] in De Iudaicis Superstitionibus.[4]

Originally in Aramaic, there are recensions extant in Hebrew, and later versions in Judeo-Persian and Arabic as well as Yiddish and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).[8] Long unknown to Christians, it was first translated into Latin by Raymond Martin, a Dominican friar, toward the end of the 13th century.[5] Until recently scholars have paid little attention to Toledoth Yeshu, "probably for its offensive contents and popular orientation."[2]

Krauss version

Samuel Krauss collected versions of Toledot Yeshu recounting that Miriam had been betrothed to a nobleman by the name of Yochanan, who was both a descendant of the House of David, and a God-fearing Torah scholar.[4] In Yochanan's absence her neighbor, Yosef ben Pandera forced his way upon her,[9] coercing her into an act of sexual intercourse during her Niddah (a period of ritual impurity during which relations are forbidden according to Jewish Law). The fruit of the affair was a son she named Yeshu, "the bastard son of a menstruate woman."[4]

Wagenseil version

Johann Wagenseil's version published in 1681 is perhaps the most prominent.[2] The first section provides a treatment of Jesus; later sections deal with the exploits of his apostles.[2] Supplementary chapters tell of Nestorius and his attempts to keep Christians obeying Jewish custom, and the story of Simeon Kepha who is construed to be the Apostle Peter.[2]

Derivative character

Wagenseil's version is derivative in character, making heavy use of the canonical gospels, Acts, and the Hebrew Bible.[2] Some items about Jesus are adaptations from references to him in the Talmud. Jesus is portrayed as a seducer and a heretic, showing a connection to the traditions in Celsus, and has correspondence to Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho (17, 108) where Jesus is a deceiver, crucified by the Jews, whose disciples stole his body and deceived others by proclaiming his resurrection.[2] Derivations from the Talmud appear to be popular adaptions – polemic material aimed at two Christian doctrines, the virgin birth and the ascension.[2]

Concurrences with the gospel accounts include: his being the offspring of Joseph and Mary; that he was born in Bethlehem; that he was bold toward the Jewish elders; that he could perform miracles (here made out to be sorcery); that he pretended to be born of a virgin; that he claimed to be the Son of God; that he applied Isaiah 7:14 to himself; that he raised the dead; that he healed a leper; that Jews fell down and worshipped him; that he entered Jerusalem upon an ass; that he applied to himself Zacharias 9:9; that he charged the Jews with being stiff-necked people; that he applied to himself the 2nd and 110th Psalms; that he walked on water; that he was betrayed by Judas; that he was scourged, crowned with thorns, and given vinegar to drink; that he was put to death on the Passover and buried before the Sabbath began; and that his twelve apostles spread a story of his resurrection.[10]

Summary of Wagenseil version

A great misfortune struck Israel in the year 3651 (c. 90 BCE). A man of the tribe of Judah, Joseph Pandera, lived near a widow who had a daughter called Miriam. This virgin was betrothed to Yohanan, a Torah-learned and God-fearing man of the house of David. Before the end of a certain Sabbath, Joseph looked lustfully at Miriam, knocked on her door and pretended to be her husband, but she only submitted against her will. When Yohanan came later to see her, she was surprised how strange his behavior was. Thus they both knew of Pandera’s crime and Miriam’s fault. Without witnesses to punish Pandera, Yohanan left for Babylonia.

Miriam gave birth to Yehoshua, whose name later depreciated to Yeshu. When old enough, she took him to study the Jewish tradition. One day he walked with his head uncovered, showing disrespect, in front of the sages. This betrayed his illegitimacy and Miriam admitted him as Pandera’s son. Scandalised, he fled to Upper Galilee.

Yeshu later went to the Jerusalem Temple and learned the letters of God’s ineffable name (one could do anything desired by them). He gathered 310 young men and proclaimed himself the Messiah, claiming Isaiah’s “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” and other prophets prophesied about him. Using God’s name he healed a lame man, they worshipped him as the Messiah. The Sanhedrin decided to arrest him, and sent messengers to invite him to Jerusalem. They pretended to be his disciples to trick him.

Bound before Queen Helen, the sages accused him of sorcery. Bringing a corpse to life, she released him.

Accused again, the queen sent for his arrest. He asked his disciples not to resist. Using God’s name he made birds of clay and caused them to fly. The sages then got Judah Iskarioto to learn the name. At a contest of miracles between the two, they both lost knowledge of the name.

Yeshu was arrested and beaten with pomegranate staves. He was taken to Tiberias and bound to a synagogue pillar. Vinegar was given to him to drink and a crown of thorns was put on his head. An argument broke out between the elders and Yeshu followers resulting in their escape to Antioch (or Egypt). On the day before the Passover, Yeshu decided to go to the Temple and recover the secret name. He entered Jerusalem riding on an ass, but one of his followers, Judah Iskarioto, told the sages he was in the Temple. On a day before the Passover, they tried to hang him on a tree; using the name he caused it, and any tree they should use, to break. A cabbage stalk, being not a tree, was used successfully to hang him on, and he was buried.

His followers on Sunday told the queen that he was not in his grave, that he ascended to heaven as he had prophesied. As a gardener took him from the grave, they searched it and could not find him. But the gardener confessed he had taken it to prevent his followers from stealing his body and claiming his ascension to heaven. Recovering the body, the sages tied it to horse tail and took it to the queen. Convinced he was a false prophet, she ridiculed his followers and commended the sages.[11]


Due probably to its offensive nature both Jewish and Christian scholars have until recently paid little attention to it.[12]

According to Alan Humm: "There is no scholarly consensus on to what extent the text might be a direct parody of a now lost gospel. H.J. Schonfield argued that it was so closely connected to the Gospel of the Hebrews that he attempted to reconstruct that lost work from the Toledoth."[13]

Scholarly consensus, according to van Voorst, dismisses it as a reliable source for the historical Jesus: "It may contain a few older traditions from ancient Jewish polemics against Christians, but we learn nothing new or significant from it".[14] Scholars, however, still look for reliable traditions on Jesus in it.[14] Jane Schaberg contends it lends weight to the theory that Mary conceived Jesus as the result of being raped.[2]

Strassburg Manuscript

In the Strassburg Manuscript, Mary was seduced by a soldier called Ben Pandera.[8] The child Jesus shows great impudence by appearing bareheaded and disputing the Law with teachers.[8] The miracle working powers of Jesus are attributed to having stolen the Name of God from the Temple.[8] Jesus claims messianic dignity and is accused of sorcery by the Jews in front of Queen Helena of Jerusalem,[8] but Jesus raises a man from the dead in front of the Queen's eyes and is released.[8] Jesus goes to Galilee where he brings clay birds to life and makes a millstone float.[8] Judas Iscariot, the hero of the tale, learns the Divine Name as well, and Jesus and Judas fly through the sky engaged in aerial combat, with Judas victorious.[8] The now powerless Jesus is arrested and put to death by being hung upon a carob tree, and buried.[8] The body is taken away and his ascension is claimed by his apostles on the basis of the empty tomb.[8] But Jesus's body is found hidden in a garden and is dragged back to Jerusalem and shown to Queen Helena.[8]


The works bear striking resemblance to Christian legends regarding Simon Magus,[3] and to 12th century Christian portrayals of Muhammad.[3]

Christian response

Hostile Jewish portrayals of Christianity in the Toledot Yeshu have been explained as a reaction to Christian anti-Judaism.[3] Anti-Jewish polemicists from the 9th century through the 20th have dredged up these texts and exploited them to flame Christian hostility towards Jews.[3]

A book under this title was strongly condemned by Francesc Eiximenis (d. 1409) in his Vita Christi.[15]

The book is mentioned in the poem The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning.[16]

See also

Further reading


  1. also known as the Sefer Toledot Yeshu, Toldoth Yechu, Sepher Toldos Jeschu, etc.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 Van Voorst, Robert E. (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: A Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. pp 122f. ISBN 0802843689. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Tolan, John Victor (2002). Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 17f. ISBN 0231123329. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Schäfer, Peter (2002). Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbalah. Princeton University Press. pp. pp 211f. ISBN 0691090688. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Webster, Nesta H. (2000). Secret Societies and Subversive Movements. Book Tree. pp. pp 21f. ISBN 1585090921. 
  6. Van Voorst. p. 127
  7. Maas, Michael (2005). The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. Cambridge University Press. pp. pg 406. ISBN 0521817463. 
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 Gero, Stephan (1988). "Apocraphyl Gospels: A Survey" (in German / English). Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt Teil II (Band 25 (5 Teilband)): pp 3391f. ISBN 3110018853.,M1. 
  9. Later Slavonic versions portray Mary as active in the adulterous affair. Schafer, Op cit.
  10. Frey, Joseph Samuel C.F. (1837). Joseph and Benjamin: a Series of Letters on the Controversy between Jews and Christians. 1. New York: Peter Hills. pp. pp 214. 
  11. Van Voorst. pp. 123-126
  12. Van Voorst. p. 123
  13. Toledoth Yeshu
  14. 14.0 14.1 Van Voorst. p. 128
  15. McMichael, Steven J.; Susan E. Myers (2004). Friars and Jews in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 157. ISBN 9004113983. 
  16. Browning, Robert (1910). Phelps, William Lyon. ed. Robert Browning's Complete Works. F. DeFau & company. pp. pg. 144. 

External links