Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Father William Most Collection

Review of Jacob Neusner: A Rabbi Talks With Jesus

[Homiletic and Pastoral Review 94 (December 1994) 70-71]

A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, by Jacob Neusner (Doubleday,N.Y.,1993) pp. xviii + 154. $21.

Rabbi Neusner, a fine scholar, says that in his culture it is a sign of respect to argue with someone: so he argues with Jesus. May I attempt to imitate the Rabbi's exquisite courtesy.

He has done a favor us in saying (p. 54) that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are clearly the same - contrary to Bultmann and so many of his followers. Yet he adds (p. 147): "... I make no claim whatsoever about the historical veracity of what Matthew says Jesus said and did."

It is good to see that says (p. 32) the words of Jesus "You have heard it said to those of old... but I say" were a claim to divinity. It is at least close to that, unless we think of the prophet like Moses promised by Moses himself (Dt. 18:15). Similarly the author thinks that Jesus demands (p. 53) that they love (really: obey) Him more than parents implies again a claim to divinity. Those who say Jesus for long did not know who He was might heed these words.

Yet our author does not seem to have noted some things. He asserts that Jesus "directly contradicts the Torah when he says: I have come to set a man against his father...." Our learned author of course knows that Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic each have structures that can be rendered as either purpose or result. Here Jesus expresses the result, not what He wants to happen. Again on p. 43 in commenting on, "Who is my Mother" he thinks Jesus is going against honor to Mother. Vatican II says He was merely teaching dramatically that it is greater to obey God than to be the Mother of God. And on p. 9 he had said, "God has a mother, to whom God listens" We really mean: Mary is the Mother not of God as such but of Jesus who is God, and He like a good Son, listens to His parents.

He fears too that Jesus outlawed all prayer in community by saying: "When you pray, pray in secret" (p.33). He did not note that Jesus was teaching in a Semitic way, by the use of seemingly opposite statements. For Jesus also said: "Let your light shine before men, so they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Mt.5:16).

He also does not seem to see the point of the complaint of Jesus that the Pharisees made clean the outside of a vessel, and cared not about the inside. Yes, the Pharisees were most intent on levitical purity, which was not a matter of morals, but of fitness to take part in public worship. But Jesus basically complained that the Pharisees were distorting things by extremes, and neglecting morals, which are more inmportant. They debated (Beza 12.1) whether one could eat an egg laid by a hen on a feast day coming after the Sabbath: illegal work! Shammai said yes; Hillel said no. Rabbi Meir (Talmud, Sabbath 6.65-66) permitted a cripple with a wooden leg to walk on the sabbath, while Rabbi Jose forbade it. And Jesus complained that the Pharisees allowed breaking the Torah by saying that if a man declares his property Korban, he need not keep the command to honor father and mother. Our author himself (In Torah, p.75 ) said the oral traditions were considered more important than the written Torah itself! They even thought God Himself spends three hours per day studying the law (Palestinian Targum on Dt.32.4).

On p. 120 he says that Christians, "find the notion of God's people, Israel's election, beyond all access." Not really. St. Paul in Romans 11 insists God's call to them still holds. But in spite of Genesis Rabbah 48.7 and Sanhedrin 10.1, the call to be part of a favored people is not the same as assurance of final salvation (cf. Mt 7:13). Paul also teaches (Eph 3:6) that now all peoples are called to be part of God's favored people.

Finally, may I assure our kind Rabbi that John's Gospel does not really hate Jews. Most scholars think he uses the word "Jews" to mean only the authorities opposed to Jesus. And it was not a matter of hatred, but of anger.

I hope I have not been less courteous than our learned Rabbi himself. Let me assure him any lapse from that is unintended. I do value greatly not just this book, but many other works of his, which I have read and often cited with great profit. In fact, on a number of occasions, thanks to his great fairness and vast knowledge of the tradition of the Targums and Rabbis, he has seen clearly what too many Catholic scholars have seen poorly or not at all, e.g., in Messiah in Context (p. 242), after quoting Genesis 49:10 he said: "It is difficult to imagine how Gen 49:10 could have been read as other than a messianic prediction."



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