I read A Rabbi Talks with Jesus based on a recommendation by Pope Benedict XVI. I’d previously read Benedict’s works on Catholic theology and the infancy narratives of Jesus. In a book of his I’m currently reading, he heavily praised Jacob Neusner’s A Rabbi talks with Jesus. I’m glad he did. Neusner’s book is terrific.
Neusner, a Jewish Rabbi and academic, introduces his work stating his goal is to make both Jewish and Christian readers more certain of their faith. And he does so in a rigorous and theologically-driven manner that shows he earned the Pope’s praise.
An Ignatian Disputation
On one level, Neusner’s work is a continuation of the Disputation of Barcelona of 1263, where the Jewish scholar and a Jewish convert helped via intellectually honest argument to make the intellectual foundations of both religions intelligible to the other. Neusner’s work is far more capable than approaches which are often ignorant of basic beliefs of the other side, such as Pakaluk’s unfair attack on the Sanhedrein of Federow’s simplistic attacks on Christianity. Neusner does this by granting the Gospel of Matthew total historicity, while also asking the reader to grant the (disputed) point that the Oral Law – the Midrash – was known to both Jesus and his Jewish audience.
On a second level, Neusner’s work is an Ignatian meditation on Christ, putting oneself in the shoes of an educated, religious Jew (much like Neusner), who was able to ask questions of both Jesus and his students. The simple scenes that Federow sketches are evocative. The specificity – the location-based and community-based nature – of Judaism is described by Neusner with a beauty equaled only by Giertz’s story of Swedish Lutheranism or Thomas Merton’s story of his call to Holy Orders.
On a third level, Neusner applies other expertise and logical reasoning to argue about what Jesus really said. Taylor Marshall convincingly argued that Christ viewed himself as King of Israel, Brant Pitre that Christ viewed himself as the showbread, manna and Passover lamb, and N.T. Wright that Christ viewed himself as the God-King. Very well. Neusner extends this, stating that we find in Christ’s teachings not only find Midrashsic teachings that predate the Midrash clear implications that Christ is God-Incarnate and Torah-Incarnate.
Neusner argues that Jesus sees himself as Torah Incarnate, an unsurpassable Master of the Torah who possess the same properties of the Torah. Neusner finds this in how the Midrashic order-of-precedence work as filtered through Christ’s statements. Such orders-of-precedence were later written down in the Jewish Midrash, such as a ladder from Torah-educated-priest to Torah-ignorant-freedman:
A priest precedes a Levite. A Levite precedes an Israelite. An Israelite precedes a son born from an incestuous or adulterous relationship [mamzer], and a mamzer precedes a Gibeonite, and a Gibeonite precedes a convert, and a convert precedes an emancipated slave. When do these halakhot of precedence take effect? In circumstances when they are all equal in terms of wisdom. But if there were a mamzer who is a Torah scholar and a High Priest who is an ignoramus, a mamzer who is a Torah scholar precedes a High Priest who is an ignoramus, as Torah wisdom surpasses all else.
Mishnah-tractate Horayot 3:8
or from Torah-scholar to parent, unless parent himself is a Torah scholar:
If one finds his lost item and his father’s lost item, tending to his own lost item takes precedence. Similarly, if one finds his lost item and his teacher’s lost item, tending to his own lost item takes precedence. If one finds his father’s lost item and his teacher’s lost item, tending to his teacher’s lost item takes precedence, as his father brought him into this world, and his teacher, who taught him the wisdom of Torah, brings him to life in the World-to-Come. And if his father is a Torah scholar, then his father’s lost item takes precedence. If his father and his teacher were each carrying a burden and he wants to assist them in putting down their burdens, he first places his teacher’s burden down and thereafter places his father’s burden down. If his father and his teacher were in captivity, he first redeems his teacher and thereafter redeems his father. And if his father is a Torah scholar, he first redeems his father and thereafter redeems his teacher.
Mishnah-tractate Baba Mesia 2:11
The trend is obvious: the Father/Torah-Scholar is always given precedence, the Priest/Torah-Scholar is always given precedence. Neusner understands that Christ, by stating he is always given precedence, is granting himself absolute precedence along these lines. Jesus is stating that He is the ultimate Father, the ultimate Priest, the ultimate Torah-Scholar:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.