I first encountered A Rabbi Talks With Jesus by Jacob Neusner secondhand, through Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth. The two books overlap in reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount. In Neusner, Benedict found an opponent who nevertheless took the biblical Christ of faith seriously rather than merely attempting another tired “historical” reconstruction. Intrigued by the interaction, I went and found the book.
A Rabbi Talks With Jesus is Neusner’s gracious, thoughtful, and somewhat autobiographical explanation of why he holds to Judaism rather than Christianity. It is obvious that he has great respect both for his Christian friends and for the man (but only man) Jesus. Since Matthew’s Gospel was written primarily to a Jewish audience, Neusner chooses sustained interaction with that Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus. He explains that he is not interested in dealing with the many historical reconstructions of Jesus; he wishes to interact with the Christ of faith as presented in Matthew. By saying this, he does not comment on the accuracy or inaccuracy of historical-critical methods. They are irrelevant to his purpose, which is to explain to Christian believers why he, after having listened intently to Jesus, remains a Jewish believer. Neusner’s express purpose is to help Christians be better Christians and Jews better Jews by pointing out the crucial differences between the two religions, differences that can be blurred by well-meaning apologists on either side.
Neusner chooses a fresh and intriguing method for accomplishing his goal – he puts himself in the place of a person in the crowds listening to Jesus as he travels. In the various chapters, we hear what’s going on inside Neusner’s brain as he hears the Jesus’ words for the first time. Usually near the end of the chapter he reformulates his thought, corrects any misunderstandings or mistakes in thinking, and summarizes why he disagrees with Jesus.
Generally speaking, I learned a lot about Neusner, a decent amount about Judaism, and next to nothing about Jesus. I was initially excited about his choice to grapple with the “Christ of faith,” but his portrayal of Jesus seemed rather remote from the Christ of my faith. Also, it is very clear that Neusner’s literary device of “first-time listening” is merely a device; he critiques Jesus from the perspective of contemporary Judaism, often engaging “Jesus” with the words of rabbis yet to come in the future. Neusner’s major point about Christianity vs. Judaism is that it comes down to Jesus vs. Torah, but his definition of Torah explicitly includes the Mishnah and two Talmuds as the Torah’s interpreter (102).
Neusner finds much to commend in Jesus’ teachings, but ultimately cannot follow him. Jesus speaks to “me”, whereas Torah speaks to “us,” the eternal Israel. Jesus speaks of forgiveness in the face of the imminent future kingdom of God, but Torah speaks to living holy in the kingdom now. Jesus offers believing in him as the answer; Torah offers keeping Torah as the answer. Although at times I question whether Neusner really understands Jesus, I agree heartily with at least the last of his dichotomies.
I do believe that this book is important to the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and I would recommend it as an enjoyable introduction to anyone trying to understand the mindset of modern Judaism. I would not recommend it as a source of juicy Jewish exegetical details designed to make sermons pop. I’ll close by offering an extended quotation in which Neusner does an excellent job demonstrating the central difference. This portion comes at the end of a conversation between 1st-century-Neusner and the master of the synagogue:
“Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses, three hundred and sixty-five negative ones, corresponding to the number of the days of the solar year, and two hundred forty-eight positive commandments, corresponding to the parts of man’s body. David came and reduced them to eleven…. Isaiah came and reduced them to six…. Micah came and reduced them to three…. Isaiah again came and reduced them to two…. Amos came and reduced them to a single one, as it is said, ‘For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel. Seek Me and live.’ Habbakuk further came and based them on one, as it is said, ‘But the righteous shall live by his faith’ (Hab 2:4).” (Babylonian Talmud Makkot 24A-B)
“So,” the master says, “is that what the sage, Jesus, had to say?”
I: “Not exactly, but close.”
He: “What did he leave out?”
He: “Then what did he add?”
He: “Oh.” (107-8)