Catholicism Faith

Impressions of “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus,” by Jacob Neusner

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.

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. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.

“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.”
Matthew 10:34-42

As Neusner summarizes:

It is not discipleship to the Torah, which anyone may master, that will endow with supernatural status the relationship of any two persons, master and disciple. It is the discipleship to Jesus Christ, uniquely, that is at issue, and to that standing, the standing of Christ, only Jesus is called. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister” is simply not the same thing as “whoever become a sage, master of the Torah, enters into the standing of the Torah.” The one is particular, specific to Jesus, the other general, applicable to anyone.
Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, pg. 65

God Incarnate

Neusner comes to similar conclusions on the subject of Jesus claiming God-like powers. Neusner imagines himself hearing Christ’s words on the Sabbath – the statements at the end of chapter 11 and the beginning of 12 chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – as an extended discourse:

At that time Jesus answered and said,

“I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him,

“Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”

But He said to them,

“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means,
‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’
you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying,

“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
—that they might accuse Him.

Then He said to them,

“What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Then He said to the man,

“Stretch out your hand.”

And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.
Matthew 11:25-12:14

Neusner rejects the view that Jewish Sabbath regulations were being criticized for being too legalistic or burdensome. Rather, he spots a more important critique. God rested on the Sabbath, and so resting on the Sabbath is an imitation of God. God gives rest through imitation of Him. But Christ is clearly implying He is God by stating rest comes from his yoke – imitation of him:

What is God’s stake in remembering the Sabbath Day? The Torah teaches me that it is my celebrating creation, acting on the Sabbath Day as God acts on the day when creation ceases: blessing the Sabbath Day and sanctifying it. Jesus, too, teaches that the Sabbath Day brings the gift of rest – but it is the rest that God gives through the son. So we find ourselves precisely where we were when we wondered what is at stake in honor of father and mother: keeping the Sabbath forms a this-worldly act of imitation of God. The lord of the Sabbath forms a this-worldly model, in the language of the Torah: “for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth… therefore, the Lord blessed…” and therefore: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” by not working, as God stopped working.

So I say to the disciple, is it really so that your master, the son of man, is lord of the Sabbath? Then – so I asked before, so I as again – is your master God?”
Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, ppg. 87-88

God With Us

The only part of A Rabbi Talks with Jesus that I felt did not land was Neusner’s conclusion, but perhaps this is not fair. The book by Pope Benedict XVI I am currently reading opens with what is obviously an extended analysis of Neusner’s work, so my thoughts are along those lines. Neusner, having identified Midrashsic wisdom is much of Jesus’s teachings, but disturbed by Christ’s statements that He is the Torah and the Divine, leaves disappointed that Jesus’s teachings so often are in the singular-“you.” Where, Neusner asks, is the community that is addressed in the plural by God:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Deuteronomy 6:4

Perhaps, it was also there, not when Jesus spoke to you all, but when he taught us all to pray with him:

In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Matthew 6:9-13

It is a saying that Neusner missed, or at least failed to address, that in Christ God now speaks With-Us. After all, it is in the Hebrew Bible this promised:

Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”
Isaiah 7:13-14

And in the Gospel of Matthew, Neusner’s focus in this work, that this is fulfilled:

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying:

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Matthew 1:22-23

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