Thought to have been composed originally in what is now Iraq no later than the 8th century CE, Toldot Yeshu (“The Story of Jesus”) tells an imaginative version of the life of Jesus of Nazareth with a clear anti-Christian intent. Thus, its rabbinic author (or authors) explains the virgin birth as a story concocted by Mary to cover up a premarital affair. Yet, argues Eli Yassif, this work—the earliest known Hebrew “literary biography of a single protagonist”—presents a surprisingly nuanced look at its subject. To explain the wonderworking described in the Gospels, for example, Toldot Yeshu relates a fantastic tale in which Jesus steals the powers of the Tetragrammaton. Yassif writes:
In a religious polemic, there is no move easier to make than to accuse one’s opponent of sorcery, thereby putting him in league with all things evil and demonic. The question that cuts to the heart of Toldot Yeshu’s meaning, then, is why this work, in almost all [of its many manuscript] versions, decided to ignore the longstanding tradition of Jesus as a sorcerer, [found in pagan literature], and instead gave him the Ineffable Name. The story appears to contain the following polemical argument at its base: the foundation of Christianity is rooted in an underhanded theft of one of the most hallowed possessions of Judaism.
But the argument is more complicated still, for it does not deny the truth of Jesus’ actions and the divine source of his power. Toldot Yeshu does not argue that the stories of Jesus’ wonderworking in the New Testament are lies; on the contrary, they are absolutely true because they flow from his getting hold of the holiest power of all, the Ineffable Name. If Jesus, in this narrative, represents Christianity as a whole, then a most bold claim lies between these lines: Christianity is not legerdemain or lies because it springs from the Holiest of Jewish Holies. . . .
Thus, as a folk narrative aimed at the many strata of Jewish society, and not as a polemic intended solely for the learned, Toldot Yeshu seeks to expose . . . the Jewish basis of Christianity, and to argue that the sources of its power and massive success came from Judaism.