Rabbi Tarfon’s Parallel Statements in the Babylonian Talmud with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount [Talmud Tuesday]
In the Babylonian Talmud, we find two statements of Rabbi Tarfon that are parallel to those of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the book of Matthew. It is somewhat surprising, in general, that there’s a parallel from the Sermon on the Mount to rabbinic literature, but certainly moreso that there are two! However, what is particularly fascinating about these two parallels is that they are recorded as being stated by the same rabbi. The rabbi in question is Rabbi Tarfon, who lived to see the end of the destruction of the Holy Temple in 70 CE and lived throughout the rest of the century and into the beginning of the second century of the common era, living roughly from the middle of the first century and through about 130.1
The first example from the Sermon on the Mount at which we will be looking is Matthew 7:1-5:
(1) Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
(2) For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
(3) Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
(4) How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?
(5) You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
This text has a canonical parallel at Luke 6:37-42 and a non-canonical parallel at Gospel of Thomas 26.2
This text’s parallel in the Babylonian Talmud is found in Arakhin 16b3 (I have added in the letters identifying the separate lines):
אמר רבי טרפון: תמה אני אם יש אדם בדור הזה שיכול להוכיח
אם אמר לו: טול קיסם מבין עיניך, והוא אומר לו: טול קורה מבין עיניך.
אמר רבי אלעזר בן עזריה: תמיהני אם יש בדור הזה שיודע להוכיח.
אמר לו רבי עקיבא: תמיהני אם יש בדור הזה שמקבל תוכחה
ואמר רבי יוחנן בן נורי: מעיד אני עלי שמים וארץ שהרבה פעמים לקה עקיבא על ידי שהייתי קובל עליו לפני רבן גמליאל
וכל שכן שהוספתי בו אהבה לקיים מה שנאמר ‘אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם ויאהבך’.
(A) It was taught:
(B) Rabbi Tarfon said: “I would be surprised if there would be someone in this generation who would be able to reprove.
(C) If someone said to him, ‘Remove the chip of wood from between your eyes’, he would tell him: ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes’!”
(D) Rabbi Elazar, son Azariah, said: “I would be surprised if there would be someone in this generation who knows how to reprove!”
(E) Rabbi Akiva said to him, “I would be surprised if there was someone in this generation who received reproof!”
(F) Rabbi Yohanan, son of Nuri, said: “May heaven and earth testify upon me that many times, Akiva was punished because of me because I used to complain against him before Rabban Gamaliel.
(G) And all the more, he showered love upon me, to make true what has been said: ‘Do not reprove a scorner, lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you’ (Prov. 9.8).”
The parallel of Jesus’ statement in Matthew (7:4-5) is found in Rabbi Tarfon’s statement in line C. What immediately strikes us is the seemingly different contexts of their statements: Jesus is discussing judging, while Rabbi Tarfon is discussing reproving. Moreover, Jesus is shown, in Matthew, to be justifying those who ignore or disdain such scorn about their actions.4
It may even be that Jesus is proffering a response to his opponents who would view things as does Rabbi Tarfon.5
Another fascinating matter is that this text in the Babylonian Talmud has two parallels: Sifra Kodshim 4:9 and Sifre Deut. 1. However, neither of these two texts have section “C”,6 the only aspect of this text which is parallel to Matthew!
The second text is Matthew 5:29-30:
(29) If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
(30) And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
This text in Matthew has no parallel in the NT. It is a startling text, to be sure. Jesus is warning people about the danger of the eye or the right hand. While it’s not clear why the eye would cause one to stumble, “the eye is the bodily member most often blamed for leading men to astray, especially to sexual sin.”7 As to why the right eye, specifically is mentioned, perhaps it is because “the right eye is, presumably, the more valuable of the two.”8 Thus, the eye could lead to forbidden sexual contact with others, but it’s not obvious that it would be with one’s hand: “This verse should be connected with the subject of adultery. One, therefore, would expect not the ‘hand’ to be cut off, but the membrum vibrile.”9 Although it’s not clear why one could/would end up in Gehenna.
This text is a shocking one, to be sure, which has its unique parallel in the Babylonian Talmud at Niddah 13b (I have added in the letters identifying separate lines):
רבי טרפון אומר יד לאמה תקצץ ידו על טבורו
אמרו לו והלא כריסו נבקעת
אמר להן מוטב תבקע כריסו ואל ירד לבאר שחת
(A) It was taught:
(B) Rabbi Tarfon says: “A hand to the membrum – his hand should be cut upon his belly.”
(C) They said to him: “But, would not his belly be split?”
(D) He said to them: “It is better that his belly shall be split rather than that he should go down into the pit of destruction.”
There are two primary differences between these two texts: 1) it is specifically the right hand in Matthew, while it is either hand in the Babylonian Talmud, and 2) the eye goes unmentioned in Rabbi Tarfon’s statement, yielding lines B & D of Rabbi Tarfon being similar to Matthew 5:30. “This phrase is very close to the Gospel rhetoric of what one is advised to do rather than burn in Hell. The Talmud seems to suggest that the teaching of cutting off one’s hand which brings one to sin is meant literally, but perhaps this is not what is meant. The similarity of the Hebrew words for thorn (qotz) and for ‘chop off’ (qotzetz) might be the basis of this passage. In this case, the point would not be taken literally, but understood as hyperbolic rhetoric supported by the creative use of homophony.”10
Interestingly, the editors of the Talmud were uncomfortable with that version of the text and re-worked it (and is found on the same page):
רבי טרפון כל המכניס ידו למטה מטבורו תקצץ
אמרו לו לרבי טרפון ישב לו קוץ בכריסו לא יטלנו
אמר להן לא
והלא כריסו נבקעת
אמר להן מוטב תבקע כריסו ולא ירד לבאר שחת
(A) Rabbi Tarfon [says]: “All who enters his hand below his belly button shall be cut off.”
(B) They said to Rabbi Tarfon, “If a thorn stuck in his belly, should he not remove it?”
(C) He said to them: “No.”
(D) “But, would not his belly be split open?”
(E) He said to them: “It is better that his belly should be split rather than him descending to the pit of destruction.”
This text has its parallels in tNiddah 2:8 (Zuckermandel, p. 643) and yNiddah 2:1. For the Tosefta, this text comes up in the context of checking for seminal emissions (and, thus, being impure): “A man who checks frequently for seminal emissions may masturbate. Accordingly, his hand should be cut off.”11 The Babylonian Talmud, versus the other versions, “revise[s] Tarfon’s saying and his exchange with the anonymous ‘they’, … so that Tarfon’s statement means that a person’s hand should be cut off if he puts it in the area of his genitals. Furthermore, Tarfon’s remark about the person’s belly being split open was not said with regard to the issue of cutting off the person’s hand but with regard to the thorn stuck in the person’s belly.”12 Also, it is important to note that the sages push back against Rabbi Tarfon, since it would seem that they are startled by the harshness of his statement.
Regarding the language, it’s interesting to point out that, in rabbinic literature, only the Babylonian Talmud’s version includes the language of באר שחת, while both the Tosefta and the Talmud Yerushalmi do not use that term. For one slight difference of language, in which Rabbi Tarfon uses the term באר שחת, while Jesus uses ἀπέλθῃ (Gehinnom). The term באר שחת appears 3 other times in the Babylonian Talmud: the first two are in beraitot: the first of which is as a part of a blessing in which Rabbi Nehunia, son of HaKaneh, describes those who do not learn Torah (Berakhot 28b) and once in a beraita in which Rabbi Yehudah describes the nations of the world descending there as punishment for not learning Torah (Sotah 35b). It has a clear punishment element in these two other instances for not learning Torah. This contrasts with Rabbi Tarfon’s statement that it is punishment for the action of placing one’s hand that low.
As to the connection between this location of באר שחת and ἀπέλθῃ is the third mention in the Babylonian Talmud, by a third-century sage (Eruvin 19a):
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: שבעה שמות יש לגיהנם, ואלו הן: שאול ואבדון, ובאר שחת, ובור שאון, וטיט היון, וצלמות, וארץ התחתית
Rabbi Yehoshu’a, son of Levi, said: “Gehinnom has seven names, which are: Nether-world, Destruction, Destruction Well, Tumultuous Pit, Miry Clay, Shadow of Death, and the Underland.”
Thus, these two terms are really not so different.
I’m not really sure where to go from here – why do they say similar statements? Why is the Babylonian Talmud the only place that Rabbi Tarfon is recorded to have made these statements? Why is Rabbi Tarfon the only rabbi who has parallel statements with the Sermon on the Mount?13 I am open to suggestions and would be curious why these two statements have their similarities….
1. Cf. Jacob Neusner, “A Life of Rabbi Tarfon, CA. 50-130 C.E.”, Judaica 17 (1961), 141.↩
2. I thank Stefany Truesdale for pointing out the parallel text from Thomas.↩
3. The Hebrew that follows (and the English translation that works off of the Hebrew) is based largely, but not exclusively, off of MS Munich 95. For a synoptic presentation of the textual witnesses in manuscripts and printed versions, see my “The Missing Statement of Rabbi Akiva of Receiving Reproof [Talmud Tuesday]”, Matters of Interest (31 March 2015).↩
4. J. Derenbourg, Essai sur L’Histoire et La Géographie de la Palestine, D’Après les Thalmuds et Les Autres Sources Rabbiniques (Paris, 1868), 379.↩
6. Gereboff thought that this line, “which glosses” the previous line “is taken from its proper context in b.B.B. 15b-16a” (Joel Gereboff, Rabbi Tarfon: The Tradition, the Man, and Early Rabbinic Judaism (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979), 247.), which is spoken by Rabbi Yohanan, although it’s not clear that it is taken from there and dropped in here.↩
7. Samuel Tobias Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House; New York: Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Inc., 1987), 97, n. 29.↩
9. Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 97, n. 30. Lachs further notes there: “There is an apparent example of the Hebrew yad (hand) used euphemistically for the membrum vibrile. It is the difficult expression yad hazit of Isa. 57.8, but understood by many in this sense, since it appears in a passage with clear sexual overtones.”↩
10. Herbert Basser with Marsha B. Cohen, The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-based Commentary (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2015), 463.↩
11. Gereboff, Rabbi Tarfon, 204.↩
12. Ibid., 206.↩
13. Although, yes, I am aware that mSotah 7:1 is parallel with Matthew 7:2 (above), although the Mishnaic statement is unattributed to a particular rabbi.↩