The Strange Medieval Tale of Judas’ Aerial Battle With (and Rape of) Jesus

The Strange Medieval Tale of Judas’ Aerial Battle With (and Rape of) Jesus January 27, 2016
Titian, “The Resurrection” (~1542). Source: WikiMedia Commons


The Toledot Yeshu is a notoriously elusive text—or rather, a sort of corpus of related texts, some originally written in Aramaic, but mainly surviving in Hebrew, Ladino, and other languages.

At heart, the Toledot is a polemical Jewish anti-Christian work, describing the birth and life of Jesus in decidedly negative, slanderous terms. The composition of various parts of the text(s) has been dated to all sorts of periods throughout the 1st millennium CE; but it’s clear that it was only collected in the medieval or late medieval period.

The traditions associated this, as well as the texts themselves, continued to evolve into the early modern period, and beyond. In her recent article “The Aerial Battle in the Toledot Yeshu and Sodomy in the Late Middle Ages,” Ruth Karras explores a particular idiosyncratic episode in a version of the Toledot that was published by 15th century Viennese scholar Thomas Ebendorfer, in his Falsitates Judaeorum, the Lies of the Jews. (The title of this may bring to mind a more well known book from roughly around the same era and region: Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies.)

Karras describes the pertinent section of this version and its background:

Upon entering the Temple it was possible for someone to learn the name of God, שם המפורש (shem ha-meforash, the pronounced version of the Tetragrammaton), which would allow the possessor to perform supernatural feats, except that when one left the Temple, all memory of the name was erased. Jesus entered the Temple, learned the name, wrote it on a piece of parchment, made an incision in his leg, and sewed up the incision with the parchment inside. (506-507)

(On another note pertaining to Martin Luther here, this Hebrew phrase shem ha-mephorash, the “ineffable Name,” was taken up in the title of Luther’s follow-up to On the Jews and Their Lies: his Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi, “On the Ineffable Name and the Genealogy/Birth of Christ.” This book, written in 1543, reproduces and comments on the text of the Toledot Yeshu as he had found it in Porchetus, which Luther intended to illustrate how the “ferocious, miserable Jews lie.”¹)

In any case, back to Ebendorfer’s version of the Toledot. Eventually, after having left the Temple, Jesus retrieves the paper from the incision in his “leg”—a word which in Hebrew can also euphemestically signify the genitals, on the basis of which Karras suggests could be a reference to circumcision here—and uses the power of the name to enable himself to fly!

Yet it turns out that Judas Iscariot had also done the same thing that Jesus had done here, retrieving the Name from the Temple; and the “elders of Israel” implore Judas to use the the power of the Name to himself fly, to bring Jesus back down. As if it couldn’t get weirder than this, the pièce de résistance comes when they’re both in the air together:

all marveled, because they flew thus between heaven and earth, so long, until Judas embraced wicked Jesus and using the power of the Name wanted them both to fall to earth. But the wicked one [=Jesus] used the Name so that they would not fall, and neither could overcome the other . . . because (the power of) the Name was with both. Judas, however, seeing that he could not overcome him . . . “corrupted his deed with him”—that is, he had intercourse with him— . . . that is, made him dishonorable with male-male intercourse up to the emission of semen, and thus both sullied they fell to the earth.²

(Ebendorfer’s text had actually included several Hebrew transliterations, which I’ve relegated to my footnote; but I suppose it should noted that the original Hebrew phrase that was translated here as “made him dishonorable with male-male intercourse” is directly indebted to Leviticus 18:22; 20:13, using identical terminology. More on that later.)

Karras suggests that Ebendorfer’s unique narrative vis-à-vis other version of the Toledot is “key to an understanding of medieval Christian and Jewish attitudes toward masculinity and male-male sexual relations, and also for an understanding of how texts circulated between Jewish and Christian cultures” (508). What exactly she means will become more clear in a second; but shortly after this, Karras mentions another similar version of the Toledot, as found in a manuscript from the University of Strasbourg—one that’s been suggested “represents a version that circulated already in the thirteenth or fourteenth century” (516). 

In the parallel section of this manuscript, we read

And when Judas saw this, he “corrupted his deed” and urinated on Jesus and contaminated him; and he fell, and Judas with him.³

Here, we find yet another defiling action in addition to “corrupting his deed”—which, by the way, is “a Talmudic/Midrashic phrase for committing sin, corruption, or immorality, often sexual intercourse in particular” (Karras, 509)—: Judas urinated on Jesus, too!

Where are we to locate the origin of these unique traditions, and how are we to understand their significance? Who was responsible for them?

Karras begins to hint toward one possible explanation in noting that

Although Jewish texts from medieval Europe do not often directly connect Christians with male-male [sexual] activity, Judaism had a long tradition of connecting Gentiles with such practices, both in rabbinic literature—for example . . . passages . . . from Avodah Zarah—and Hellenistic Judaism. (525)

In rabbinic literature, Christians were increasingly distanced from Judaism, portrayed as quintessential apostates and/or idolaters; and so it wasn’t a great leap from a stereotyped Gentile (homo)sexual deviancy to a specifically Christian deviancy along similar lines, to someone who wanted to make it. Karras also writes that

Based on medieval understandings of male-male intercourse, a variety of reasons appear as to why this detail might have been included in the Toledot tradition. Increasing Christian concern with “sins against nature” from the thirteenth century onwards could have created a vulnerability that a Jewish redactor sought to take advantage of; or the ongoing Jewish emphasis on the connection of mishkav zakhur [=male-male sexual intercourse] with “abominations” committed by non-Jews, exemplified in Rashi, could have led to this elaboration on the story of the aerial battle. (528)

Is the first suggestion here that the Toledot tradition(s) could have emerged on the basis of a sort of topical and opportunistic Jewish polemic—basically a form of exploiting current Christian social mores to maximize the humiliating effect of this? (For what it’s worth, the motif of deliberate humiliation via homosexual rape can already be found in Middle Assyrian law.) Perhaps slightly less pointedly, the second option would again be to simply typify Christians as apostates or idolaters who weren’t above this type of grievous sin, as the wider Gentile world wasn’t either.

Alternatively, however, it could be exactly the opposite: “the later Christian translator, Ebendorfer, could have built on Christian attitudes toward homosexual activity to depict the Jews as even more blasphemous” (528, emphasis mine). In favor of this option, I find it interesting that, unless I missed something, Karras didn’t explicitly discuss the association of Judas specifically with Jewish stereotypes and vice, current around this time—considering that the text under question here revolves precisely around Judas‘ actions.

As for this, though, Ephraim Shoham-Steiner writes that

The association of the Jews with Judas Iscariot is not unfamiliar . . . As Alexander Murray in his seminal study on Suicide in the Middle Ages has shown it is exactly at this period (late twelfth and early thirteenth century) that Judas’s “Jewish” features became more clear and visible both in literary forms as well as in the arts.⁴

At the end of Karras’ final section, she concludes

The possibility remains open, albeit speculative, that the introduction of the term mishkav zakhur [=male-male homosexual penetration] was an original contribution of Ebendorfer and his translator, with the Hebrew term for what was not yet explicit in the exemplar supplied by [a Jewish friend of Ebendorfer’s]. Ebendorfer was part of an intellectual group that condemned the “sin against nature,” as well as the Jews and their supposed Hussite connections, but his Toledot Yeshu text is much more explicit than “sin against nature.” If he did insert the phrase in the translation, it was not an attempt to explain the story in terms Christians would have been familiar with, but to present them with the full shock value of what he thought the Hebrew text intended, even if it did not say explicitly. There is, then, a possibility that what later Christians considered the most blasphemous Jewish attack on Jesus—one that Jews may have censored because of the possibility of Christian reaction—may have been a Christian elaboration, with the help of someone familiar with Jewish texts who could put the behavior more bluntly than Christian “sin against nature” did. (533)

Yet I can’t help but think that with this concluding note, Karras has overlooked some of the more interesting and obvious questions and issues at stake here. Is the fact that Ebendorfer’s text has a slightly less ambiguous phrase the real point of interest here, if earlier versions of the texts indeed used “a Talmudic/Midrashic phrase . . . often sexual intercourse in particular” (509)—which in context must refer to male-male intercourse anyways?

For example, what exactly was up with the urination motif? Although Karras is surely right about how this functions in the narrative to impart ritual impurity, which is supposed to cancel out magical abilities⁵—and on that note, I think Karras may have also been on the right track about a broader type of impurity pertinent to these sections, associated with Gentiles (something I hope to get into more in a follow-up post)—why exactly urination, and not something else?

More importantly, why has this whole episode taken the form that it has, in terms of a mid-air battle? 

I wonder if considering some of these broader issues might take us down a different sort of road, and actually lead us to uncover a deeper history behind some of these motifs.

The start with the latter question: magical flying is known elsewhere in early Jewish and Christian tradition—for example claimed by Simon Magus in the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (2.9). Perhaps more interestingly though, in several traditions Solomon is also associated with magical flight—and this ability itself connected with magical use of the Tetragrammaton, just as with the ineffable Name in the Toledot! (Cf. b. Sanhedrin 95a.⁶) 

It’s also worth noting that, in many traditions in antiquity, the boundary between licit and illicit “magic” was ambiguous.⁷ If in Jewish and Christian tradition illicit magic is nearly universally associated with the demonic, it may be relevant here that the “air” and heavens were particularly associated with the abode of demons in several Jewish and Christian traditions. (In the New Testament itself, see Ephesians 2:2.)

Is there a sense, then, in which there may a subtle connection here between Jesus’ magical flying ability and a sort of demonic power? Granted, Jesus did use the name of God to effect this power. But—and while this isn’t so obvious in the way that Karras herself describes it, it is elsewhere—could there be something to the fact that Jesus basically stole the Name out of the Temple in order to do this in this first place, and in such a profane way, too?⁸ Further, in light of the fact that throughout the larger narrative in the Toledot, Jesus makes regular use of the Name for questionable purposes, Yassif suggests that “[i]n Toledot Yeshu, the Ineffable Name is a metonym for the Jewish perception of Christianity: its source is pure (Judaism), but its actions are tainted” (italics original, 129).

If the “demonic” aspect isn’t quite so obvious for Jesus’/Judas’ flights just by themselves, could the central motif of the fall from the sky in the relevant iterations of the Toledot here also connect with these?⁹ The motif of the fall of the angels from heaven was present in very early Jewish tradition, where it was closely associated with demonic activity on earth (and elsewhere), and has remained popular in the Christian world to this day.

If this is going too far afield, at the very least serendipity might lead us to a particular early Christian tradition which both builds on traditions of the fallen angels and also exhibits an idea strikingly similar to Judas’ rape of Jesus in the Toledot, too.

In his Refutation, the 3rd century bishop and hereseiologist Hippolytus summarizes the teachings of one Justin the Gnostic. Here, in Justin’s (or his source’s) cosmology, an original creation of 24 angels is described, divided into two groups of 12. Skipping over several things here, eventually one group ascends up into the highest heavens, while the other is left behind, “deserted,” on earth. One of the angels of the latter group, named Naas—from the Hebrew word for “snake”—becomes closely associated with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and is actually said to have both misled and raped Eve, too.¹⁰ Most interestingly though, directly following this, we read

[Naas], however, likewise approached Adam, and “had” him like a boy; and this is itself also an egregious crime—(one) from which adultery and male homosexuality emerged [in the world].¹¹

To be clear then, Naas has raped Adam—cast in the analogous language of pederasty (and somehow also responsible for the presence of other sexual sins in the world).

After this, Naas is said to have caused all sorts of trouble: misleading the Israelite prophets, and finally attempting to mislead Jesus himself: “Naas . . . wished to entice [lit. trip up, drag down] this one, too <but wasn’t able>.” Angered by his inability to seduce Jesus, Naas then “caused him to be crucified.”¹² Here Naas seems to have fairly straightforwardly assumed the role of Satan as tempter, as in the temptation narrative of the Gospels; and in his causation of the crucifixion itself, it’s hard not to see a parallel with Judas—of whom, of course, the gospels recount that “Satan entered” to cause his betrayal (Luke 22:3; John 13:27).¹³

In much the guise of Satan, Naas has both raped Adam and enacted the crucifixion of Jesus. Is it possible, then, that this tradition recorded by Hippolytus has influenced the later iteration of the Toledot Yeshu in which Judas has raped Jesus?

To be sure, this is a bold claim: much more than Karras suggested in her article, this would require us seeing at least one major element of what otherwise seems to be a Jewish composition actually having drawn on something pretty firmly planted in the Christian sphere of tradition; and the temporal distance separating this Gnostic tradition from the earliest Toledot one could be great.

Yet there does seem to have been a broader Gnostic-(late) Jewish interaction; and this may suggest that the tradition that Hippolytus preserved—that of Justin the Gnostic and/or related groups—was at one time more widely known, but the memory of this has now been lost. (For what it’s worth, Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, 103-104, mentions a parallel between a teaching rather uniquely associated with Justin the Gnostic—again, as is known from Hippolytus’s Refutation—and a doctrine criticized in the Talmud.)

On a final note: since Karras in her article was so interested to discern the origins of Thomas Ebendorfer’s (minor) expansion of the Hebrew Toledot Yeshu text that he had inherited, might it be of slight interest that the phrase in Ebendorfer’s text that Karras was so focused on here—mishkav zakhur—has an exact literal translation in the Greek compound arsenokoitia (“sleeping/lying with a man” = male homosexual acts): a word that makes an appearance precisely in Justin the Gnostic’s tale of Naas’ rape of Adam; a “crime against nature, from which adultery and arsenokoitia emerged [in the world]”?¹⁴ (Of course, that the Hebrew and Greek phrases are so similar makes perfect sense when we realize that they both have their origin in Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; so we certainly have to be careful here.)

In the end, the origins of the strange motif of Judas’ rape and defilement of Jesus are shrouded in mystery. As is the case with the Toledot as a whole, this can surely be firmly placed in the context of medieval Jewish-Christian polemics; but as for the exact way that the specific traditions developed here, across the various versions of the Toledot Yeshu, it’s anyone’s guess.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] One of the only (if not the only) English translations of this is found in Falk’s The Jew in Christian Theology: Martin Luther’s Anti-Jewish Vom Schem Hamphoras.

[2] I’ve modified the translation quite a bit from Karras’ (which, for example, had still preserved a lot of the hybrid German-Hebrew character of the original), for maximum clarity and readability. Her actual translation reads

Seeing this, the elders of Israel said: “Judas, similarly think haschem [the name] and go up after him!” and he did so and went up after him. And all marveled, because they flew thus between heaven and earth, so long, until Judas embraced rascha [רשע , wicked] Jesus and thinking schem, wanted them both to fall to earth. And rascha thought haschem, so that they would not fall, and neither this one could overcome that one, nor the other way around, because haschem was with both. Judas, however, seeing that he could not overcome him, kilkel masaf ymo, corrupted his deed with him, that is, he had intercourse with him, ve tyeb osos bo miskaf sochod, that is, made him dishonorable with male-male intercourse up to the emission of semen, and thus both sullied they fell to the earth. (507-508)

The two longer Hebrew phrases are transliterations of קלקל מעשיו and ותיעב אותו במשכב זכור, respectively. (Finally, as for what “elders of Israel” signified, at least in its original context. cf. Heszer, The Social Structure of the Rabbinic Movement in Roman Palestine, 279f.)

[3] Karras, 516, translation slightly modified. The Aramaic reads שראה יהודא שכך קלקל מעש’ו והשתין על ישו ונטמא ונפל לארץ וגם יהוד עמו. Karras notes that “[t]he detail about urination is quite widespread; it also appears in some Yemeni versions,” citing Horbury, “A Critical Examination of the Toledot Yeshu,” 243, 290. In another recension of the Toledot, “urine” here is called  מי רגלים, literally “water of the loins (or feet).” Karras also notes that the Strasbourg manuscript is part of the ‘“Wagenseil group” or “Helen group” of the Toledot tradition’ (516). Cf. Horbury, “The Strasbourg Text of the Toledot” for more.

[4] Shoham-Steiner, “‘Vitam Finivit Infelicem’,” 85. He continues

Murray points to the following three factors as the reasons for this change: the “evangelical awakening” of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, namely the growing consciousness toward the Gospel and its leading arch-villain Judas, the connection between Judas’ money and money-mindedness, and the growing tendency among western Europeans to define themselves more articulately as Christians, associated with a sharper hostility towards non-Christians in their midst, especially Jews.

[5] I’m hoping to get back to this and several others things in a follow-up post.

[6] Wilkinson, Tetragrammaton, 186, notes that “woman used the divine name to ascend to heaven and God turned her into a star,” citing Midrash Abkir, Yalkut Simoni 44, Bereshit Rabbati (Albeck), 29, 14-31, 8, and Raymond Martin, Pugio Fidel. Further, 

[7] For use of the term “magic” and other general stuff, see the section on magic in my post here. Specifically relating to the Toledot, Eli Yassif writes that

In a famous responsum, the later Babylonian scholar R. Hai Gaon (early eleventh century) relates to the power of the Ineffable Name, providing further evidence that the Jewish community in Babylonia in the Geonic period was concerned with the issue of its legitimate and illegitimate use. Toledot Yeshu, like The Scroll of Ahima’az, unreservedly recognizes the power of the Ineffable Name to perform miracles, and even speaks of the severe punishment incurred by its illegitimate use. (Toledot Yeshu: Folk-Narrative as Polemics and Self Criticism,” 128)

[8] Yassif writes—relevant to the fact that the Jewish authorities collude with Judas in the Toledot in order to stop Jesus (and the fact that Yassif’s larger argument is in detecting elements of Jewish self-criticism in the Toledot)—that 

Whatever act Judas performed, he did so with his sexual organ while holding the Ineffable Name. That is, the conjunction of the pure and the impure is explicit, deliberate, and incontrovertible. The goal is a worthy one – to strip Jesus of his power – but it is achieved by wrongful means, by mixing the material and the spiritual, the ignoble and the exalted, the profane and the sacred. (132)

[9] An even later manuscript of the Toledot reads

ואמרו החכמים ליהודה סקאריוטו עבוד ה’ ותעלה אחריו והורידהו והשפילהו והטנפהו במי רגלים ולא ישו לודבר כל ידעתו

And they said to Judas [Iscariot]: “serve God and go up after him and bring him down and make him fall and soil him with urine, and all his knowledge will do nothing.”

That being said, Karras does write that

Michael Swartz points to an important text of Hekhalot mysticism in which an item touched by a woman of doubtful menstrual purity could bring down someone engaged in an ascent to Heaven (albeit not a bodily ascent, since his body was available to be touched with the item). (527)

Of course, if it was a (different) preexisting motif of a “fall” from heaven that the Toledot author(s) drew on here—like in the Hekhalot literature—it would make it less likely that the background here had anything directly to do with an angelic fall; thoguh I think there’s still an important difference between these (for example, the fact that the way Karras describes it in her example, it seems to have been an accidental defilement).

[10] On this kind of sexual violation of Eve (by Satan and others), Minov, “‘Serpentine’ Eve in Syriac Christian Literature of Late Antiquity,” cites

the Apocryphon of John NHC II.24.8-25; Irenaeus, Haer. 1.30.7 (for the doctrine of Ophites); Epiphanius, Panarion 40.5.3; 40.6.9 (the doctrine of Archontics). For more examples of this sort, and thorough discussion, see Stroumsa 1984: 38-42.

[11] The Greek reads προσῆλθε δὲ καὶ τῷ Ἀδὰμ καὶ ἔσχεν αὐτὸν ὡς παιδ<ικ>ά, ὅπερ ἐστὶ καὶ αὐτὸ παράνομον. ἔνθεν <δὲ> γέγονε μοιχεία καὶ ἀρσενοκοιτία. I translate ἀρσενοκοιτία (arsenokoitia) here as “male homosexuality” simply for convenience and brevity. What we really mean, though, is “male homosexual/homoerotic acts (of intercourse).” Also, I had previously translated παράνομος as a “crime against nature” here, as if parallel to παρά φύσιν. Considering the context, etc., this may indeed be what’s meant here; but I’ve now revised my translation, conveying the implicit gravity of the offense here by “egregious.”

[12] ὑποσῦραι οὖν ὁ Νάας καὶ τοῦτον ἠθέλησε<ν οὐκ  ἠδυνήθη δέ> . . . ἐποίησεν αὐτὸν σταυρωθῆναι.

[13] Interestingly though, Satan is separate from Naas in Hippolytus/Justin’s list of the 12 evil angels. That being said, perhaps even more relevantly, the apocryphal Acts of Thomas is explicit about connecting these sorts of things with an actual serpent, who in the narrative speaks saying

I was who dared, and cast down the just from their height, and corrupted them through the lust of women; and they begat sons large of body . . . I am he who caused Judas to take the bribe, when he was made subject to me, that he might deliver up the Messiah to death. (Translation from Klijn, The Acts of Thomas, 80)

Finally, it’s interesting that the most well-known heresiologist after Hippolytus, Epiphanius, mentions a sect known as the “Ophites”—their name from the Greek word for “snake”—who in their cultic meal are said to break loaves of bread with an actual snake:

as I have heard from someone, not only do they break the loaves the snake has coiled on and distribute them to the communicants, but each one kisses the snake on the mouth (Panarion, 37.5.7)

Although we should be very cautious about reading too deeply into things here—especially in how much we can really equate the practices of the Ophites and the Naassenes—Judas famously betrays Jesus with a kiss (Matthew 26:49; Luke 22:48); and further, in John 13:26-27, Satan is said to have “entered” Judas immediately after he had eaten the broken bread. Thus this may attest to a more integral connection between the snake and Judas in certain isolated strands of “Gnostic” thought.

[14] Karras notes that “Ebendorfer himself owned and copied a large number of texts, theological and ecclesiological” (with a “[l]ist of manuscripts in Lhotsky, Thomas Ebendorfer, 60-65, supplemented by Uiblein, Die Universität Wien, 466-473″); though I haven’t looked into this further yet.

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