Notsrim in the Talmud: Mandaeans, Christians, or Both?

Notsrim in the Talmud: Mandaeans, Christians, or Both? August 6, 2014

A recent article in Tablet magazine mentions the reference to notsrim in a Talmud discussion of Sunday. There is a longstanding use of this term in reference to Christians, inasmuch as Jesus himself is described as “Yeshu ha-notsri.” But the term “notsri” does not naturally denote Nazareth, and the use of “Nazarenes” to describe Christians is something of an oddity itself, since there is no particular emphasis on or connection with the village of Nazareth in Christianity.

Natsurai is, on the other hand, an important term used in Mandaeism, either as a designation for Mandaeans in general, or as a way of referring to those with particular insight into religious matters.

In Mandaean literature, Jesus is viewed as a Mandaean who went astray. And Mandaeism seems to have persisted within Judaism in the regions which shaped the Talmud for longer, and to a greater extent than, Christianity is known to have.

Which leads me to ask the question: are the notsrim in the Talmud always Christians? Could they sometimes, of even always, be Mandaeans?

Sunday is the day that is sacred to Mandaeans as well as Christians, and so either would fit the passage mentioned in the article I linked to.

A quick search in the Talmud finds several instances of “Jesus the notsri” which could easily mean “Jesus the Mandaean/Gnostic.”

Berakoth 17b has a relevant variant reading in some manuscripts:

There is no breach: [that is], may our company not be like that of David from which issued Ahitophel. And no going forth: [that is] may our company not be like that of Saul from which issued Doeg the Edomite. And no outcry: may our company not be like that of Elisha, from which issued Gehazi. In our broad places: may we produce no son or pupil who disgraces himself in public like the notsri.

This could be a reference to Jesus – but it doesn’t have to be, and Jews who became Mandaeans could be viewed in this way.

Two more passages that are of interest, b. Shabb. 116a and b. Erub 79b-80a, refer to Be Nitzraphi, which could be a reference to a meeting place of the notsrim.  The reference in the latter passage to dates used to make wine might well be a reference to the hamra used by Mandaeans, which is water with juice not only from raisins or grapes added to it, but juice from dates.

This seems like a subject worthy of further exploration, and I plan to begin looking into it.

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