It would be expected that the most reliable information about Jesus from the Talmud would come from the earliest period of compilation—AD 70 to 200, known as the Tannaitic period. A very significant quotation is found in Sanhedrin43a, dating from just this early period: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!^39 Here we have another brief account of the death of Jesus. These two references to Jesus being “hanged” certainly provide an interesting term to describe his death. But it should be noted that the New Testament speaks of crucifixion in the same way.
Jesus is said to have been “hanged” (Greek kremamenos in Gal. 3:13), as were the two males killed at the same time (Greek kremasthentōn in Luke 23:39). While the term “crucified” is a much more common reference to this event,^40 “hanged” is a variant expression of the same fate.
From this passage in the Talmud we learn about (1)the fact of Jesus’ death by crucifixion and (2)the time of this event, which is mentioned twice as occurring on the eve of the Jewish Passover. We are surprisingly told (3)that for forty days beforehand it was publicly announced that Jesus would be stoned. While not specifically recorded in the New Testament, such is certainly consistent with both Jewish practice and with the report that this had also been threatened on at least two other occasions (John 8:58–59; 10:31–33, 39). It is related (4)that Jesus was judged by the Jews to be guilty of “sorcery” and spiritual apostasy in leading Israel astray by his teaching. (5)It is also stated that since no witnesses came forward to defend him, he was killed.
38 Bruce, Christian Origins, pp. 54–55.
39 This quotation was taken from the reading in The Babylonian Talmud, transl. by I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1935), vol. III, Sanhedrin43a, p. 281.
40 Greek stauros, as in such references as Matt. 27:31; Mark 15:13, 14, 20, 27, etc.
It is interesting that there is no explanation as to why Jesus was crucified (“hanged”) when stoning was the prescribed punishment. It is likely that the Roman involvement provided the “change of plans,” without specifically being mentioned here.
Another early reference in the Talmud speaks of five of Jesus’ disciples and recounts their standing before judges who make individual decisions about each one, deciding that they should be executed. However, no actual deaths are recorded.^41 From this second portion we can ascertain only (6)the fact that Jesus had some disciples and (7)that some among the Jews felt that these men were also guilty of actions which warranted execution.
There are various other references to Jesus in the Talmud, although most are from later periods of formulation and are of questionable historical value. For instance, one reference indicates that Jesus was treated differently from others who led the people astray, for he was connected with royalty.^42 The first portion of this statement is very possibly an indication of the fact that Jesus was crucified instead of being stoned. The second part could be referring to Jesus being born of the lineage of David, or it could actually be a criticism of the Christian belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Another possible reference to Jesus states that he was either thirty-three or thirty-four years old when he died.^43 Many other allusions and possible connections could be mentioned, such as derision of the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth^44 and references to Mary, Jesus’ mother,^45 but these depend on questions of identification of pseudonyms and other such issues.