To John Gager
Calendars, liturgy, and especially festivals offer a convenient vantage point from which to analyze collective identities. They can provide access to group mentalities rather than to the ideas of individual intellectuals, which are often more or less confined to ivory towers. (1) Ritual addresses the whole human being--the intellect, emotions, and body--and it does so by establishing and defining relations between the individual, his or her in-group, and the out-group. (2) Every collective identity is formed and reformed in a continuous process encompassing exchange with, as well as distinction from, other possible collective identities. (3) Sometimes, this construction of a "we" in distinction from "them" is explicit, while at other times it takes place in a more clandestine and encrypted fashion.
Explicit polemics form the starting point of the present contribution to this discussion. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the existence of explicit polemics does not negate the possibility of other, friendlier interactions occurring simultaneously. Far from it! As the famous example of Chrysostom demonstrates, polemics (by some members of group A against group B and/or other members of group A) may be an indication of too much "friendly" interaction (between other members of group A and members of group B).
In recent years several studies have been written on Christian-Jewish relations that focus on festivals. There is, for one, the groundbreaking, brilliant, and controversial investigation of Passover by Israel Yuval. (4) Clemens Leonhard recently published an equally provocative book on the same festival. (5) and Elliot Horowitz another one on Purim. (6) The present author tried to break some new ground with a book on Yom Kippur in late antique Judaism and Christianity. (7) Gerard Rouwhorst tried to disentangle the development of early Christian and Jewish Pentecost traditions: Joshua Schwartz investigated connections between Sukkot/Hanukka and Encainia (the dedication week of the Holy Sepulcher celebrated in September) (9)--to cite just a few examples. (10)
Two approaches emerge from these studies. The "maximalist" approach tries to extrapolate and reconstruct supposedly lost chapters of the early Jewish-Christian dialogue by juxtaposing Rabbinic passages with Christian sources, neither of which mentions the other religion explicitly. Israel Yuval is arguably one of the leading maximalists. (11) The "minimalist" approach, on the other hand, tries to "explain away" even the relatively few explicit statements or to date them as late as possible. An excellent example is the work of Johann Maier. (12) Many of the methodological discussions in studies of this kind suggest the existence of a hidden transcript (13) in early Rabbinic sources. Frequently, this controversy is closely associated with a predilection of the opposing sides to date Jewish reactions to Christianity very early (i.e., to the Tannaitic period), or late (i.e., to the Amoraic period or even later), respectively. The growing distance from the Shoah and a greater experience with intra- and extra-Jewish polemics in the modern state of Israel may also influence many scholars' perspectives.
This conundrum is particularly vexing with regard to Christian festivals. Unlike pagan festivals, none of the central Christian liturgical events seem to be mentioned explicitly in Jewish sources from pre-Islamic times. Minimalists may consequently question whether Jews of this period knew anything at all about Christian festivals and/or whether festivals were important enough (or regarded as important enough) to be subject to reactions by Jews. However, the very absence of explicit early Jewish references to Christian festival traditions may be a misperception. An explicit reference is found in some recensions of Toledot Yeshu, and it is my contention that this tradition is in fact of pre-Islamic origin.
Toledot Yeshu is a kind of Jewish anti-Christian romance or anti-Gospel, which has had a very prolific history down to modern times. (14) Over 100 manuscripts exist in various languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Jewish-Persian, Yiddish, Spanish, Ladino, and German. (15) This book was a worldwide bestseller, at least unofficially. (16) However, almost all manuscripts of Toledot Yeshu are late medieval or modern and some details are indeed best explained as medieval or even modem motifs. (17) Other traditions, on the other hand, appear already in the second and third centuries C.E. (18) This discrepancy has led to considerable controversy concerning the age of the work. Do the late antique traditions prove the existence of a full-fledged anti-Gospel prior to the rise of Islam, or are they unconnected polemical fragments? Questions of dating are further complicated by the numerous recensions and rather complex literary development of the work. (19)
The anti-Gospel or first part of Toledot Yeshu usually opens with an account of Jesus' not-so-miraculous and not-quite-virginal conception (S1, V1, Yla) (20) and his education as a young man (S2, V2-4, Y1b). It continues with Jesus' theft of the divine name, which enabled him to perform miracles in Jerusalem and Galilee (S3-4, V5-6, Y2-3). As in the canonical Gospels, Jesus' arrest and death and stories about what happened to his body occupy a considerable portion of the plot (S5-8, V7-15, Y4-11).
In many manuscripts--all of them belonging to the recensions called Helena and Herod--this anti-Gospel is succeeded by anti-Acts. (21) In fact, the Helena-recension is the most widespread version of Toledot Yeshu. (22) Though "unattested before the thirteenth century," the Helena group has been characterized as "patently making use of earlier materials." (23) As we shall see, the list of Christian festivals appears only here.
While anti-Acts varies considerably from one manuscript to another, one common version can be summarized as follows: After Jesus' death, the twelve apostles are dispersed in various countries where their activities within the Jewish communities cause confusion and violent fights (S9, V16, Y12a). The Jewish leaders decide to resolve this chaotic situation by sending Eliyahu alias Paul (in other recensions, Peter) as a "mole" or double agent in order to lead the Jesus-followers to complete separation from Judaism. Eliyahu achieves this aim by introducing a new festival calendar, abolishing circumcision and kashrut, and preaching Sermon on the Mount ethics (S10, V17-19, Y12b). The protagonist of the next section is Nestorius, who in direct opposition to Paul's / Eliyahu's teachings calls on the Christians to return to the Torah and circumcision, emphasizes Christ's manhood, and demands the abolition of bigamy. Nestorius is eventually killed by a crowd of furious Christian women (S11, V20). The final section focuses on Simon Kephas, the president of the (Jewish) Sanhedrin who is forced to convert to Christianity under the threat of total annihilation of all Jews. He accepts under the condition of being allowed to live secluded in a tower in order to protect his purity. Here he composes central pieces of Jewish synagogal poetry (S 12, V21). A few manuscripts add an account of the discovery of the True Cross (V22). (24)
These various versions of anti-Acts cast light on an ancient Jewish perspective on the parting of the ways. The considerable space and detail given to the question of the development of an independent Christian festival calendar suggests that it was of considerable importance to the Jewish authors, redactors, copyists, and readers of this tractate to distinguish the Christian festivals from their all-too-similar Jewish counterparts. In addition, we may observe that the Christian calendar is given an extremely early origin. The radical decision to break with the old and create a new festival calendar is attributed to Jesus himself, at least by Elijah (Paul). This can be seen as another sign of the fundamental importance attributed to festivals and rites for the establishment of an identity. (25)
Yet how old is anti-Acts? Simon Legasse suggests that anti-Acts is an addition postdating the ninth century. (26) Central motifs from the anti-Gospel are repeated (such as the theft of the holy name) and the basic aim of the plot has changed from a depreciation of Jesus to a …