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Gilyonim is a term used by Jewish scribes flourishing between 100 and 135 CE to denote the Gospels.
Play upon words
The designation as used by them did not imply any mockery; Rabbi Meïr, who flourished after 135, a descendant of Greek proselytes, was the first to play upon the word ἐυαγγέλιον by translating it as Hebrew for "worthlessness of [i.e., written upon] a scroll"). Although R. Meïr's words are generally interpreted in this sense, it is possible that, having had a Greek education, he simply intended to represent the sound of "evangelium" more exactly. Rabbi Johanan (d. 279 CE), on the other hand, calls the Gospel "sin-scroll" in Shab. 116a. Only one Gospel is referred to, see also Jewish-Christian Gospels. The Munich manuscript has in the decisive passage, Shab. 116a, the singular where the printed editions have the plural. The title may have been originally briefly ἀγγέλιον.
In the first passage quoted below ("Gospels") does not mean several recensions—i.e., three or four different Gospels—but only several copies of one and the same work.
The principal passages are as follows:(Tosef., Shab. xiii. 5 [ed. Zuckermandel, p. 129]; comp. Shab. 116a; Yer. Shab. 15c, 52; Sifre, Num. 16).
"The 'Gilyon[im]' and the [Biblical] books of the "Minim" (Judæo-Christians?) are not saved [on Shabbat] from fire; but one lets them burn together with the names of God written upon them." R. Jose the Galilean says: "On week-days the names of God are cut out and hidden while the rest is burned." R. Tarphon says: "I swear by the life of my children that if they fall into my hands I shall burn them together with the names of God upon them." Rabbi Ishmael says: "If God has said, 'My name that has been written in holiness [i.e., in the "jealousy roll" mentioned in Num. v. 21 et seq.] shall be wiped out by water, in order to make peace between husband and wife,' then all the more should the books of the Judæo-Christians, that cause enmity, jealousy, and contention between Israel and its heavenly Father. . . . As they are not saved from fire, so they are not saved when they are in danger of decaying, or when they have fallen into water, or when any other mishap has befallen them"
Contention of meaning
Moriz Friedländer has contended that this passage does not treat of the Gospel. The Jewish Christians of Palestine had a Gospel of their own, the so-called Hebrew Gospel, from which still later Church Fathers quote. Matthew was, likewise, originally written in Hebrew (Aramaic); many copies must, therefore, have been in circulation, and doubts must naturally have arisen concerning the manner in which they were to be disposed of, since they contained mention of the divine name. Furthermore, the whole tenor of the passage shows that those who asked the question which elicited these remarks concerning the "Gilyon" were pious Jews, and they certainly used, and consequently inquired concerning, the Hebrew Gospel. Indeed, the correct reading in this passage has "Gilyon" in the singular; the gnostic writings (which were sometimes called "Gilyonim" also), however, were many; and had reference to these been intended here the plural would have been used.
However, the 3rd century Aramaic writings of the religion of Manichaeism, did have a single book called evangelion, written in Aramaic, the Gospel of Mani, which was one of their seven sacred writings. Mani was a contemporary of Rav, and from the same area of Babylonia. The central doctrine of Manichaeism was a belief in two powers (a good god versus an evil god), and in Aramaic they were called Maninaya, which in Hebrew would have been Manim.
Another passage shows that the Gospels have not the sanctity of the Biblical books. "The Gilyonim and the [Biblical] books of the "Minim" (Judæo-Christians?) do not render the hands unclean. The books of Ben Sira and all books written from now onward do not render the hands unclean."
Talmudic Quotations from Gospels
The Gospel is twice quoted in an anecdote, apparently from Babylonia, preserved in Shab. 116b (beginning): "The patriarch Gamaliel II [c. 100] and his sister, the wife of Rabbi Eliezer, were living near a philosopher who had the reputation of rejecting bribes. Desiring to cast ridicule upon him, the woman took a golden candlestick to him and said: 'I desire to be a coheir.' He answered: 'Divide.' Then she said: 'It is written in the Torah, "The daughter shall not inherit where there is a son."' He answered: 'Since you have been exiled from your country the Torah of Moses has been abrogated, and in its place the Gospel has been promulgated, in which it is written, "Son and daughter inherit together."' On the following day Gamaliel brought a Libyan ass to him, whereupon the philosopher said: 'Observe the principle of the Gospel, where it is written, "I am not come to take away aught from the teaching of Moses, but to add to it"; and it is written in the Torah, "Where there is a son the daughter does not inherit."' The woman said to him: 'Let your light shine like a candle.' Then Gamaliel said: 'The ass came and overthrew the candlestick.'" It can not be ascertained whether the new law regarding the right of daughters to inherit was included in the original Hebrew Gospel. The Gospels are not otherwise mentioned in the Talmud or Midrash.
In the Middle Ages
From the Talmudic narratives about Jesus it appears that the contents of the Gospel were known to the Talmudic teachers. In post-Talmudic days the Jews were often led to study the Gospels through controversy with Christians (see Polemics). David Ḳimḥi (in "Milḥemet Ḥobah," and in his commentary on the Psalms) quotes them several times. They were early rendered into Hebrew. Sebastian Münster translated one.
In modern times
The above material, drawn from the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906), has been challenged by modern criticism. This criticism seeks to answer: who were the minim in the contexts to which Rabbi Tarfon spoke according to the Tosefta?; what were the gilyonim they possessed?; what was the intent of Tarfon’s wordplay?; to what period can the comments of Rabbi Tarfon be dated?; to what period should wordplay by other Rabbis (awen gilyon, avon gilyon) in Shabbat 116a be dated? did the earlier and later Rabbis have the same targets in mind?
It is not possible to draw a broad consensus on these questions from modern criticism, and so the following serves as a summary of some positions divergent from the Jewish Encyclopedia.
On the passage in the Tosefta where Rabbi Tarfon reportedly said that the gilyonim and the 'Books of the Minim' were not to be saved from the fire but burnt along with the divine names occurring in them, Moritz Friedlander made the observation that attempts to identify these books with Christian gospels in which divine names do not occur are strained. However R.T. Herford identified ‘gilyonim’ as gospels. Birger Pearson cites Herford as an example of flawed attempts after Friedlander to interpret all occurrences of ‘gilyonim’ and ‘gilyon’ as references to Jewish Christianity.
Rabbinic discussion of gilyonim does not always rely on identifying it with Christians or any other heretics in particular.
Nonethelesss Friedlander (following Krochmal and Grätz) set out a thesis that those labelled as ‘minim’ by the Rabbis were Gnostics who originated in Jewish circles pre-dating Christianity, and that ‘gilyonim’ were 'tablets' bearing a gnostic 'Ophite diagram' as described by Celsus and Origen. This would explain the opposition from Rabbi Tarfon but this thesis has not found wide acceptance, as noted in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906). Pearson claims that Gnostics and something like the Ophite diagram were known to the Rabbis, and that M. Joel had made this point before Friedlander. Pearson dates this evidence to the early second century, and possibly earlier, in the anti-heretical polemics in the Talmud and Midrash. Daniel Boyarin lists a number of problems with that thesis, citing Karen King’s argument that Gnostic influences in Judaism are entwined with Christian influences. Boyarin is no more prepared to identify ‘minim’ with Christians than with Gnostics.
Amongst the following scholars, there is a consensus that gilyonim cannot be too readily identified with gospels. William David Davies and Louis Finkelstein consider that gilyonim would not necessarily be Jewish-Christian ‘gospels’. Davies  and James Paget cite Karl Georg Kuhn (‘Judentum Urchristentum Kirche’, 1964), and also Maier (1982) to this effect. Kuhn argues that: i) the Talmud passage, Shabbat 116a, is clearly later than the passages from the Tosefta, and too late to be used as a source for the Jamnian period; ii) in the earlier Tosefta passages citing Rabbi Tarfon, ‘sifrei minim’ should be understood not as gospels but as Old Testament texts belonging to heterodox Jewish groups such as those at Qumran as well as to Jewish Christians; and ‘gilyonim’ should be understood not as gospels but as Marginalia cut off from Biblical texts; iii) Rabbi Tarfon is unlikely to have made a pun on books being called ‘gospels’ earlier than Christians were known to have called their books ‘gospels’; iv) Rabbi Tarfon is unlikely to have punned ‘gilyonim’ on merely the second half of the word ‘euangelion’ and there are other grammatical problems making it unlikely that a pun on ‘euangelion’ is in play. Daniel Boyarin, in line with Kuhn, understands the books to which Rabbi Tarfon referred to be Torah scrolls. Marvin R. Wilson takes the term 'minim' in the Talmud as originally denoting all “dissidents, apostates and traitors” rather than Christians in particular.
Margaret Barker notes that Rabbi Tarfon’s ‘gilyonim’ referred to “an empty space or a margin” and suggests Tarfon punned on ‘galah’ meaning ‘reveal’ and hence ‘revelation’, rather than on ‘euangelion’. Barker nonetheless has Christian revelation in view rather than gnosticism.
Barker applies her thesis to Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Meir’s “awen Gilyon” and “avon Gilyon”, interpreting them as “worthless revelation” and “iniquitous revelation” respectively. FF Bruce translates the same as 'Sin of the Writing tablet' and 'Iniquity of the Margin'. Barker and Bruce are however agreed on identifying them as puns on euangelion (Christian gospels), whereas Daniel Boyarin has other Jewish heretics in view. Boyarin interprets Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Meir’s “awen Gilyon” and “avon Gilyon” as “gilyon of wretchedness” and “gilyon of sin” and identifies them with Jewish ‘apocalypses’, i.e. revelations, such as Enoch.
- in the unexpurgated editions, and in Rabinovitz, "Variæ Lectiones," ad loc
- "Der Vorchristliche Jüdische Gnosticismus," pp. 80 et seq., Göttingen, 1898
- see Harnack, "Altchristliche Litteratur," i. 6 et seq
- Tosef., Yad. ii. 13, ed. Zuckermandel, p. 683
- Friedlander Der vorchristliche jiidische Gnosticismus (1899) cited in Pearson in ‘Gnosticism, Judaism and Egyptian Christianity’ (1990)
- Christianity in the Talmud, 1907 page 155
- Gnosticism, Judaism and Egyptian Christianity, 1990 Fortress Press, Minneapolis
- Rabbinic discussion of gilyonim
- Friedlander Der vorchristliche jiidische Gnosticismus (1899), cited in Pearson in ‘Gnosticism, Judaism and Egyptian Christianity’ (1990)
- Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines - The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (2006) pg 57-58
- The Cambridge History of Judaism, 1990, pg 773
- ‘Reflections on Aspects of the Jewish Background of the Gospel of John’ in Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith, edited by R. Alan Culpepper, Dwight Moody Smith, Carl Clifton Black, page 50
- in ‘The Written Gospel’ edited by Markus N. A. Bockmuehl, Donald Alfred Hagner, 2005, page 210
- Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, page 67
- in The Revelation of Jesus Christ Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000, page 68
- The New Testament Documents Are they Reliable?, 5th edition, 1959, Chapter IX