Religious Polemics and the History of Religions: The Case of Toledoth Yeshu
This project explores the history and reception of one of the most important Jewish anti-Christian literary traditions, the Jewish Life of Jesus, or Toledoth Yeshu (TY). TY provides a polemical account of the origins of Christianity, mocking Jesus as an illegitimate child, a false prophet and a charlatan, and describing his disciples as a bunch of violent rogues. In various forms, this noteworthy narrative was read, transmitted and circulated among Jews as early as the ninth century CE (if not earlier) and at least until the mid-twentieth century. It was also discussed by a number of Christian authors (e.g., most conspicuously, Martin Luther) in the late medieval and early modern period, with a view to expose the alleged Jewish hatred of Christianity in their own anti-Jewish polemics. Whereas TY in recent years has become the object of renewed scholarly interest, leading to the publication of a new critical edition, a study of the place and functions of this tradition in the different historical and discursive contexts in which it was read and circulated remains a desideratum. The originality of the present research project lies in its effort to turn precisely to these contexts, and ask: Who read TY? When and Why? Rooted in a cultural studies approach, this project aims to break off with the predominantly philological study of TY and examine its reception, circulation, and uses by both Jewish and Christian readers. In this view, the present research revolves around three main axes: the first inquires into the place of TY among Jews in the middle ages and early modern period; the second seeks to situate the reception of the TY among late medieval Christian scholars, in the broader context of Christian representations of the Jews and Judaism; the third turns to the early modern reception of TY, more particularly, to the place and functions of TY narratives in the context of biblical scholarship and critique of religion. Addressing TY from a comparative perspective, this project further asks: What types of cultural dynamics and/or inter-cultural relations, reactions, or transfers does this narrative illustrate? On what broader cultural, political, and social issues can it shed light? Through what theoretical framework ought it be read? With which sources/texts/genres should it be compared, within the Jewish tradition or outside the Jewish tradition (religious polemics; heterologies; counter-narratives; religious satire)? In doing so, this project seeks to connect this extraordinary data to wider issues in the comparative history of religions, pertaining to the construction, transformation, and preservation of religious identities among entangled religious communities, as well as to our own contemporary preoccupations, to questions of gender, emotions, power and authority.
Dr Daniel Barbu is a CRASSH Visiting Fellow in 2016-17.
Dr. Daniel Barbu received his PhD in the History of Religion from the University of Geneva in 2012. Following his studies, Dr. Barbu worked as an academic program manager for the University of Geneva’s interfaculty center for historical research, and coordinated, in collaboration with Prof. Philippe Borgeaud, a large-scale research project on the construction of religious knowledge and the historiography of religious studies. Since 2013, he has been pursuing research and teaching at the University of Bern’s Institute for Jewish Studies. He has taught at the Universities of Geneva (2008-2014), Bern (2013-2016) and Zurich (2016). His research focuses on cultural interactions between Jews and other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, on Jewish-Christian relations in late antiquity and the middle-ages, and on the early modern historiography of religious studies. His present research examines the history and reception of Jewish traditions pertaining to the life of Jesus, or Toledoth Yeshu. His first book, Naissance de l’idolâtrie: Image, identité, religion was published in 2016 with Presses universitaires de Liège.
Dr. Barbu is also one of the editors of the Geneva based journal of anthropology and history of religions, Asdiwal, a member of the editorial board of CROMOHS – Cyber Review of Modern Historiography, and the co-director of the “Histoire des religions” series with Labor et Fides publishers.