Jacob Neusner. New York: Doubleday, 1993. 154 pages. $9.00, paper; $21.00, cloth.
In this book, I explain in a very straightforward and unapologetic way why, if I had been in the Land of Israel in the first century, I would not have joined the circle of Jesus’ disciples.”
So begins a significant book by prolific author Jacob Neusner. He has already followed it up by a similar book concerning the apostle Paul. But this title is perhaps the more intriguing.
Neusner spends the rest of the book explaining what he means: at key points in the Sermon on the Mount, he tell us, Jesus contradicted the Torah or spoke from a non-Jewish frame of reference. These remarks are nothing new, although the tendency in recent years has been for Jewish scholars to see more Jewishness, not less, in Jesus’ teaching. But the way Neusner differs from other Jewish scholars of Jesus is, to use one of his own favorite terms, “stunning.” For Neusner sees clearly that the issue at stake is not Jesus’ teaching per se but, more foundationally, his person, his identity. Parting company with many other Jewish scholars, he insists that Jesus, as we come to know him from Matthew’s Gospel (he does not deal with other New Testament books) is not simply a miracle worker or a great rabbi. He is portrayed as something much more. Indeed, one must take the entire “package,” the entire portrayal, and ask: is this person God, and so worthy of claiming the allegiance that the Torah claims? Neusner’s response is an emphatic no. But like the great Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, Neusner understands that one must accept him or reject him as given*—one cannot take the parcels that one happens to like. In the jargon of Jesus scholars, Neusner believes that the “Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith” are one and the same—and one must choose for or against.
Writing from the standpoint of a fictional first-century inquirer, Neusner holds that some of Jesus’ teaching is indeed quite Jewish. In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus insists that we not merely refrain from practicing adultery and murder, but that we also refrain from even coming close. This, reflects Neusner, is similar to the rabbinic method of “putting a fence around the Torah,” hedging it with additional prohibitions designed to keep one from transgressing the actual divine commandments (p. 24).
But, he continues, side by side in the teaching of Jesus, we find non-Jewish ideas: “Do not resist evil,” for instance, which contrasts with the Jewish ideal of actively struggling against evil. Moreover, the Sermon is not addressed to “all Israel,” as the Torah given at Sinai was, but to individuals: so it neglects the Torah’s frame of reference. Likewise, Jesus’ teaching against public display of piety appears, says Neusner, to replace corporate public prayer with private prayer in a non-Jewish way. In the midst of this discussion, Neusner observes that “we now recognize that at issue is the figure of Jesus, not the teachings at all” (p. 31)—for who is this who teaches “with authority” and seems to stand above and over the Torah?
And so it goes on. What is troubling is not what Neusner says but what he leaves out. What is missing is any discussion of the larger context beyond the Sermon on the Mount: of how Jesus in fact saw his message as directed to all Israel; of Paul’s views about the body of believers and any relationship that has to the teaching of Jesus. Missing also is the larger context of the rest of the Hebrew Bible: only the Torah is brought into play, not the prophets, with their idea of the remnant within the larger nation and their expansion of the promise in Genesis 12:1-3 of Abraham’s blessing of the nations. And what about the relationship between the New Testament and the Old? Jesus’ words “I have come to turn a man against his father” in Matthew 10:35 are reported as a contradiction of the commandment to honor parents—but there is no mention of the fact that Jesus was quoting Micah 7:6 nor any notice of the role that verse plays in mainstream Jewish conceptions of the messianic age. No wonder some of Jesus’ teaching seems non-Jewish to Neusner: he has limited the playing field.
Perhaps he sees no need to include all this. After all, if Jesus is not God, then Neusner cannot follow him (p. 53). Similarly one must choose either “Remember the Sabbath Day” from the Torah or “The Son of Man Is Lord of the Sabbath.” He correctly observes, “Jesus’ claim to authority is at issue” (p. 71).
More could be said about Neusner’s chapters on the Sabbath, ritual purity, the Pharisees. He complains that Jesus makes ritual purity and morality the same thing, whereas in Judaism they are different. In other words, an unethical person could be ritually clean since morality and cleanness are different categories. But didn’t Jesus know what ritual impurity was all about when the ten lepers were cleansed or when the woman with a flow of blood touched Jesus?—for not only did Jesus not become unclean as would normally happen, but the woman became healed and clean herself. The issue indeed comes back to, “Who is this person?”
For a long time Jewish believers in Jesus have said that the issue is not us—not our education, not our parentage, not whether we were raised in Israel or in America, not whether we know one tractate of Talmud or all the tractates or none of them. Neither is the issue the state of mind of religious believers or the sociology of conversion. The issue, as Neusner asks, is Jesus, Yeshua. Who is he? And what difference does it make if we find out?
*”There is no easy middle ground to stroll upon. You either accept Jesus or reject him. You can analyze Mohammed and…Buddha, but don’t try it with him. You either accept or you reject.…” Cited in Ben Siegel, The Controversial Sholem Asch: An Introduction to His Fiction (Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976), p. 148, quoting an interview with Asch by Frank S. Mead in the Christian Herald in 1944.