Sunday, December 19, 2004

Vermes, the Targum, and the Nativity

Geza Vermes has published an analysis of the nativity story as a "Jewish myth" (thanks to Paleojudaica and Biblical Theology for the link). I am not going to engage in a full-scale critique of this piece, although I think it is highly vulnerable to one. I am going to provide a little detail on one point that will have to symbolize the host of other problems and begged questions in Vermes's article.

Vermes says:
Pharaoh - like Joseph in St Matthew's Gospel - had a dream. In it, he saw two scales, with the whole of Egypt lying in one of them, and a lamb in the other. But the lamb turned out to be weightier than Egypt. The court magicians were summoned and explained to the king that the lamb symbolised a Jewish boy who would become a lethal threat to Egypt. In Aramaic, the word talya, like "kid" in English, can mean both a young animal and a child.
Now I happen to know quite a lot about the story he is referring to; it is contained in Exodus 1:15 in the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum, a work on which I wrote my dissertation. Here is my translation:
And Pharaoh was sleeping, and saw in his dream, and behold, all the land of Egypt was standing in one pan of the scales and a lamb, son of a ewe, was in the other pan; and the pan with the lamb weighed more. And immediately he sent and called all the magicians of Egypt and told them his dream. And Jannes and Jambres, the chief magicians, immediately opened their mouths and said to Pharaoh: A son is going to be born in the congregation of Israel; by his hand all the land of Egypt will be destroyed.
All right; this sounds enough like Josephus's story in Ant. II.205 (one of the scribes told Pharaoh that "about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites"). The only difference is that Josephus speaks of a child, and the Targum of a lamb. But, no problem, right? As Vermes says, the word talya means both "young animal" and "child" in Aramaic.

However, in Aramaic, talya does not really mean lamb; it means only child, boy, or servant. The Aramaic word for lamb is immer; taleh or talya is a borrowing from Hebrew. The only places in all the Targumim where talya means lamb, as in Hebrew, are in this verse and in Pseudo-J. Gen. 30:40 (and possibly Targum Psalms 118:27). And in this particular case the Targum is a thinly Aramaized version of a story told in the very late midrash Divrei ha-Yamim shel Moshe Rabbeinu (Chronicles of Moses), which uses Hebrew ha-taleh, which means only lamb. This cuts the connection between the Targumic story and the Josephus story. The Targum is using the Hebrew word because it is derived from the Hebrew story, which itself is late. (This is typical of the method of this targum.) The wordplay Vermes wants to see here does not exist.

Could a Jewish story still be behind the nativity story? Maybe. But the story will not be found in its pure form in either the Targum or the Midrash. Vermes scoffs at the idea that the Jewish story could itself be influenced by the Christian story, but I am not so sure. It does happen. Every day this month I have noticed how Hanukkah has been turned into a kind of Christmas for Jews. And isn't there a midrash somewhere that refers to Abraham as the petros on which Israel is built? If you think that isn't influenced by Matthew 16:18 -- well, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.

The question of what Christian texts have been influenced by Judaism is important, but the question of influence in the other direction is also important. Perhaps I'll write more about this at a later time.

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