Book: Neusner. A Rabbi Talks to Jesus.

In this book, Jewish Prof. Neusner interacts with Christianity by imaginatively projecting himself to first century Palestine. The interactions are with the text of Matthew. He proposes the Torah as the shared “given” from which argument can proceed, and poses the question, would he have become a follower based on contemporaneous interaction with Jesus?


The chief division is between exposition of the law (through chap. 5) and the “main thing”: holiness. Within this structure, Neusner finds things to praise in Jesus’ teaching, such as the intensification of the 6th and 7th commandments to include anger and lust (e.g. p. 40). But two main strands of criticism soon become evident: the aim of Jesus’ teaching at the individual rather than the community of Israel (e.g. 45, 52, 54, 58, 69, 96, 130, 161); and directing the focus to himself, Jesus, rather than to Torah (e.g. 47, 65, 84, 100, 131). Thus, regarding the “he who loves father more than me,” Neusner sees a rejection of community (58) in favor of devotion to a single person. “Family destroyed… villages abandoned” (158). And in Jesus’ attitude to Sabbath, Neusner sees a rejection of something beautiful: the imitation of God acted out in community (74,75).

Both sides of the dual critique apply in the story of the rich young ruler. Neusner discovers a similar discussion in the rabbis, but there, the renunciation is for the sake of becoming wise in the Torah; here, it is to follow a person (Jesus), and Neusner cannot see conformity to Torah in this, the less so when coupled with the renunciation of community, implied by “sell all and follow.” Moreover, he objects to the demand for perfection: the Torah is more tolerant (92).

In opposing the Pharisees, Neusner grants Jesus validity in ranking love above washing hands. But the rites of cleanness have to do with Temple service, not ethics; and the Pharisees’ deepest intent was to extend Temple cleanness to all of life. The mutual criticism was thus at cross-purposes (139). Neusner sees a definitive contrast between themes of holiness and salvation, Torah favoring the former, Jesus the latter.


Neusner’s project is original and the goal is in principle promising. His descriptions of community and Sabbath-keeping have words of stinging beauty. But one senses a false dilemma—even his hypothetical Jesus hints at this in the dialogue on p. 153, and many Christians have seen the message of Jesus as relevant to an integrated life of family, farm, and village. Moreover, Neusner might have given a bit of consideration to the high view of the Sabbath held by the Scottish reformers, and by most American Christians until about 1970. Granted, he wants to stick to the text of Matthew; but the question is, has he correctly divined Jesus’ actual teaching on the question of Sabbath?

Neusner is attracted to the vividness of Jesus’ exposition of the Law, but he tends to reduce this to mere fence-building: “by seeking chastity in thought, I make a fence against adultery in deed” (40; cf. 70). Occasionally he notices that this is not so much building a fence, as drilling to the center (e.g. p. 54), but he doesn’t extrapolate. Examining the Jewish traditions in view of the Law as actually given by Moses would have made Jesus’ critique seem more plausible. Regarding Sabbath breaking, the rabbis discerned exactly 39 rubrics, including “making two loops, weaving two threads,..tying a knot.” R. Meir says, “None is accounted culpable because of any knot which can be untied with one hand.” But anyone can see immediately that the latter has nothing whatever to do with imitating God in Creation, in the “here and now,” or with building community. By ignoring this kind of citation in his extensive use of rabbinical sources, Neusner both poisons the well and misses the heart.

He says “the Torah tells me nothing about how the children of the Kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness” (129). But what about the conditionality of the covenant, as in Deut. 28? “Eternal Israel,” mentioned an uncountable number of times but never defined, neglects the notion of a remnant within the elect nation that can already be seen in the Torah. Most of the prophets were killed by people who were part of collective Israel. God’s permanent removal of the ten northern tribes—was that a “word for eternal Israel”? Whatever wonderful things can be said about community, it still analyzes into individual family units. Thus “choose ye… but as for me,” Josh 24:15. Moreover, not just the 4th and 5th commandments have “community” implications –- ask an aggrieved wife or an innocent man framed if the 7th and 9th don’t have a community aspect. The claim that calling individuals to reform is not “a torah for the people” (e.g. 51) is simply without warrant or coherence.

Criticizing Jesus for demanding “perfection” (92 ff.) ignores the word to Abraham: “I am Almighty God: walk before me, and be blameless”, Gen. 17:1. The dire strait Adam’s “minor” deviation left humanity in, should have clued Neusner into the divine demand of perfection. Neusner’s implication that Torah was given to Israel on account of her purity (131-132) turns a blind eye to the history of rebellious Israel as actually recorded in the Torah. The history of the sons of Jacob, and Jacob’s shrewd evaluation of them (Gen 49) gives the lie to such a notion. The last prophet locates the covenant in God’s character, not Israel’s: “For I am Jehovah, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Mal 3:6). As Rabbi Paul observed, “the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane…” (I Tim 1:9a). The Talmudist’s mistake is finally self-righteousness, a poison that leads finally to self-worship, even if sublimated into worship of his tribe.

Above all, the promised Seed that would crush the snake’s head (Gen 3:15) should have made him at least open to a Person, not eo ipso closed to it.

If the laws of sacrifice teach anything, it is that holiness, for sinners, presupposes salvation. How could these be set in contrast? Moreover — and this point brings us again to the anachronistic use of later rabbis –, no note is made that those writings were entirely post-Temple. Though Phariseeism is justified in terms of the Temple, it is as if the Temple finally is optional. Its glaring absence is simply not mentioned—is plastered over with the question-begging idea that “a merciful and forgiving God will do the rest” (92).

There is ambiguity and worse on account of his defining Torah variously as (a) the writings of Moses (19,21,22), (b) the entire OT (24), (c) to include the Mishnah, which is both “authoritative and canonical yet (?) “after the Torah” (38); yet (d) the Mishnah and the Talmuds “are regarded as part of the Torah” (102). If Jesus’ exposition was correct, then, at least, it should have been included in the subsequent tradition. To accept the negative of subsequent history and treat the negative as itself “part of the Torah” begs the question “was Jesus right in terms of the Torah?”, and thus violates the terms of the thought-experiment in an essential way.


Jacob Neusner. A Rabbi Talks With Jesus (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000)

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