May 25, 2007


The Pope's Favorite Rabbi (DAVID VAN BIEMA, 5/24/07, TIME)

In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI devotes 20 pages to A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, a 161-page grenade [Jacob] Neusner lobbed in 1993. In that volume, the professor (now at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.) and noncongregational rabbi projected himself back into the Gospel of Matthew to quiz Jesus on the Jewish law. He found the Nazarene's interpretation irredeemably faulty. In his 14-years-delayed response, Benedict not only compliments Neusner as a "great Jewish scholar" but also recapitulates the thesis of A Rabbi Talks and spends a third of one of his 10 chapters answering it.

There is no real precedent for this. The last time Christianity and Judaism had knockdown debates was during medieval "disputations" convened by Christian authorities and decisively rigged against the Jews. Although the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 renounced the Roman Catholic teaching that Jews were Christ killers and John Paul II acknowledged Jews' ongoing presence by visiting a synagogue, postwar papal discourse has focused on Christianity's view of Judaism, not the reverse, and steered serenely around fundamental controversies. Jesus of Nazareth takes the next huge step: "a Pope taking seriously what a Jew says--and says critically--about the New Testament," marvels Eugene Fisher, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' liaison for Catholic-Jewish relations. "Wow. This is new."

In choosing Neusner as his muse, Benedict selected a man as formidable and controversial in the field of Jewish studies as the Pope is in Catholicism. An expert on the sprawling literature of the 1st through 6th century rabbis who shaped modern Judaism, Neusner is an empire builder, a central figure in wrestling an examination of Judaism into America's universities. He accomplished this through brilliance (he developed his own secularly comprehensible synthesis of rabbinics), superhuman productivity (he has written more than 950 books, although he will admit to a certain reprocessing of material) and a knack for grooming gifted protégés who now run Jewish studies at top schools. He is equally famous for alienating many of his disciples with what came to be known as "Neusner's drop-dead letters." (Neusner calls the complaint "overstated.") He can keep friends--Harvard classmate John Updike wrote a fond 1986 short story featuring a "Josh Neusner"--but as Neusner admits, he remains one of the most contentious people he knows.

Contention was the very soul of A Rabbi Talks. Neusner based his book on the common scholarly understanding that the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew was written as an invitation to Jesus' fellow Jews, trying to convince them, by dint of purportedly predictive passages in the Jewish Bible and Jesus' striking interpretations of Jewish Scripture, that he was Israel's longed-for Messiah. His claim in the Sermon on the Mount that he came "not ... to abolish the Torah and the [writings of the] prophets ... but to fulfill them" is one of the great hinge sentences connecting Western monotheisms.

But Neusner insists it doesn't parse. A Rabbi Talks argues, for instance, that Jesus' line that "he who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" defies the commandment to "honor thy father and mother" and that his liberties with Saturday rules on grounds that "the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" flout the one that explicitly orders all humans to observe the day. Most important, Neusner read Jesus' repeated rhetorical formula "You have heard that it was said [in the Torah] ... But I say to you ... " as his claim to be not merely the religio-military Messiah some Jews hoped for at the time but also above the Torah and hence God...

Isn't that the point?

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 25, 2007 8:25 PM

Sorry if I'm being less than hospitable to Mr. Neusner, but the crux appears to be whether on believes that Jesus was the Son of God, the 2nd Person of the Trinity.

If he was, then, duh, if you honor your father and mother above God, um, that might be a problem. I seem to recall that there's a couple of commandments treating what we owe God before we get to the commandment regarding our parents.

Is Neusner an exceptionally dim man or what?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 25, 2007 9:00 PM


I thought the same. I'm not sure what is meant by 'striking interpretations of Jewish Scripture', but I do know that the rabbis of the time certainly did not react positively (except for a couple that we know of). And it is obvious that they did not 'win' the arguments they had with Jesus.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 26, 2007 1:24 AM