Does Christianity have an academic hearsay problem?

By jreighley - Last updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - Save & Share - 5 Comments

The other night at our church bible study,  the speaker made a point that I have heard many times before.  It is a very compelling point, that really seems to be one of these “Checkmate” kind of “eureka” slam dunk proofs for Christ being obviously the  messiah, so long as you believe the academic analysis.

It goes something like this:

Gen 49:10 says: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.”

Then the argument  proceeds that the scepter of self rule left Judah in 6 AD, when Judah became a Roman province and lost the power to perform capital punishment.

That seems like a bit of a stretch to many.   Didn’t Judah lose its right to self rule during the exile to Babylon?  How about the many occupations?  Well, the proponents argue that no,  Judah still had some for of leadership during these periods, and was still allowed to police itself with it’s own religious law.

Really?  Okay, lets see some proof.

The slam dunk proof is cited:  “”Woe unto us for the scepter has departed from Judah and the Messiah has not come!”” Supposedly from the The Babylonian Talmud, Chapter 4, folio 37

If the Jews of the day understood the scepter to have departed in 6AD, certainly that is a correct understanding.

A couple of us had an unusual amount of skepticism regarding this quote, and the discussion of it went way longer than one would expect considering it was a rather  minor sub-point in the talk.   We agreed to research it further.

Wanting to see the context,  I searched the Babylonian Talmud for the passage, and had trouble finding it.

It is also quoted as “When the members of the Sanhedrin found themselves deprived of their right over life and death, a general consternation took possession of them: they covered their heads with ashes, and their bodies with sackcloth, exclaiming: ‘Woe unto us for the sceptre has departed from Judah and the Messiah has not come‘” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin, 24)

The Jerusalem Talmud is a bit harder to search for us non Hebrew reading folks.  I was still unable to find it.  (Maybe one of you can)

I doubt it though –  in my search, I ran across this blog post investigating the same thing.

In the comments of that post, the author mentions that he contacted Josh McDowell asking about his use of these quotes in his book “New Evidence that Demands a Verdict” and he recieved this reply from McDowell’s staff:

“This quotation in *New Evidence that Demands a Verdict *is not correct. The quotation does not appear in the Babylonian Talmud at all, nor does it appear in other versions of the Talmud. I had a librarian at Talbot School of Theology research this for several months, and it appears to be a mistaken quotation that dates back several hundred years to a Latin commentary on the Talmud. Josh used a secondary source for his quotation, apparently a book called *Jesus Before the Sanhedrin, *a book by a Frenchman named M.M. Lemann. The English translation by Julius Magath was published in 1886. Lemann uses this quotation, and cites a Latin commentary by Raymond Martin called *Pugio fidei, *p 872. I have left this Latin quotation with a professor who knows both Hebrew and Latin to get the literal translation, but have not heard back from him.

“We deeply regret that this information in the *New Evidence *is not correct.
We apologize for the inconvenience to you. It will be corrected in future editions of *Evidence that Demands a Verdict.*”

This argument is repeated time and time again all over the internet.  Most every time, If the author is kind enough to footnote his work,  it is either citing McDowell or Lemann.

I would love some reaction from some of you who are academically capable of confirming my analysis, but I suspect that we have a problem, and I find little evidence that this particular quote isn’t a bad case of “Telephone”.  A lie that has been repeated enough to be credible.

I hope I am wrong..

This doesn’t change the fact that Christ IS the messiah.  It just means that we have been using one piece of tainted evidence to argue our case.

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  • Sipho Mfungi

    The quote might or might not exist, but did the scepter not leave Judah at the time of the Romans? It is my understanding that the Babylonians did not totally destroy the Jews. A remnant was left behind in Judah (the scepter). Nebuchadnezzar did not deport everyone.

  • Josh Reighley

    It seems rather clear to me that scepter was symbolic.. It was not a physical stick that they where talking about. Therefore it is going to be murky business figuring out whether something symbolic is there or not there..

    Everyone loves this prophecy of Jacob — But I am not sure Jacob passes muster as a prophet if you look at the rest of them.. Zebulun living by the sea for example… I think Dad had a vision for his kids, and he passed along that vision to them.. That doesn’t necessarily make them divinely inspired.

  • Sipho Mfungi

    That the scepter is symbolic is pretty obvious. It is a symbol of authority, kingship, and Jacob is saying it will continue through the line of Judah.

    So it is actually not as tricky as you suppose to determine whether it is there or not, and when it ceased being there. It represents a verifiable state of affairs.

    In Genesis 49:1 Jacob clearly says

    “..Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days”

    So this was a prophecy. So I’m not sure what you mean by “it wasn’t necessarily divinely inspired” Where else would Israel get a vision of future events if not from God?

  • Josh Reighley

    Every Dad has a vision for his family, and a last will and testament. Certain things, such as his successor as patriarch are certainly within his control. Other things are guesses, based on the character of his sons. Zebbulan did not live beside the sea — based on any accounts I have seen. That is a problem if we are to take it to be divinely inspired. Not so much if it was Dad’s last will and testament.

    Saul being King is a problem for the “Scepter means Kingship” interpretation as well. The problem with many of these symbolic ideas is that people write them to “obviously” mean what they think they should mean, then run with it, ignoring any options to the contrary.

  • Joe

    Thank you for this because I was on the same quest as you. You saved me a lot of time.