Professor Neusner, one of the world’s most accomplished scholars in the field of religious studies, begins by proclaiming that as a practicing and believing Jew he says a polite “No” to another practicing and believing Jew—but one who made extraordinary claims for himself —Jesus of Nazareth. Both the “No” and the politeness come out clearly in Neusner’s book: indeed, politeness is too weak a word to express the respect that the rabbi feels for this enigmatic figure who changed the chronology of world history and in the process relegated Israel to a different and at times more painful kind of marginalization than its people had experienced during any of the tumultuous centuries B.C.

Through the centuries, there have been a number of books by Jewish authors claiming to discredit Jesus and the Church, some alleging that Jesus was a charlatan and an imposter, or that his disciples perpetrated a monstrous fraud in order not to lose their investment in him, or that, beginning at least with Paul, the message of Jesus—Jesus’s own religion, if we may put it this way was distorted into a “Jesus religion.” Indeed, not a few Christian and other Gentile scholars have contributed to this variety of interpretation, which seeks ultimately to banish the influence of Jesus from civilization.

Jacob Neusner’s book is altogether different. He does not accept the traditional Christian understandings of Jesus: he could not and remain “only” a practicing and believing Jew (we must add the “only” to recognize that there are Jewish converts to Christianity who contend that they continue to be practicing and believing Jews but “completed” ones). How can a Jew seek to refute Jesus without antagonizing Christians? The clue to Neusner’s ability lies in what he calls “arguing with Jesus.” He points out that Abraham, Moses, and Job disputed with God—thus even those who confess the deity of Christ can hardly fault Neusner for imitating those Old Testament patriarchs.

Citing the example of Jews from the Babylonian Exile to the present, Neusner calls upon Christians to be willing to argue: “The really elite of our faith, the masters (and now, mistresses too!) spend long hours arguing about the statements of the Torah. . . . This is our highest action in the service of God, once we have done our duty to our fellow human beings. . . . We regard argument as an exercise in the use of what we share with Cod, what makes us like God, which is our minds. . . . Argument is a gesture of respect, not offense.”

Neusner confronts the paradoxical claim of Jesus to fulfill the Law (the Torah) and at the same time to go beyond it: the so-called antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount, “Ye have heard that it was said . . . but I say unto you . . . ” He gives Jesus great credit for seeking out the poor, the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers, but only partial credit for his condemnations of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, which “contain both valid criticism of an excess of public piety, but also a rejection of Israel, the community. . . . If what Jesus meant was that public prayer is improper, then he has called into question the Torah’s fundamental premise, which is that Israel serves God not one by one but all together and all at once.” And this brings him to one of his basic conflicts: the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it—and certainly as his followers have practiced it—creates division between individuals and peoples, and especially between the followers of Jesus and the community: “‘Because,’ I would reply (to the disciples of Jesus), ‘when God speaks through Moses, it is to all of Israel, but your master speaks to you. The rest of us are outsiders. And God does not know outsiders in Israel, only sinners, whom the Torah teaches to repent.'” He acknowledges Jesus as a prophet, but not as an Israeli prophet. “He talks like an outsider, or if he is the insider, then much that he says makes the rest of us outsiders.”

Indeed, this is the Jews’ long-standing quarrel with Jesus and the Christians: despite their claim to be the legitimate prolongation of biblical Israel, and to honor the Jews, Christians have made Jews outsiders. (Of course, it was not the Christians who started this, inasmuch as the Jews have long been what Peter also calls the Christians, “a peculiar people.”) Jesus wants Jews to leave home and family, Neusner protests, to belong to the Israel of the future. He replies, “But, sir, the Israel of home and family is where I am.

Rabbi Neusner lays great stress on the organic continuity and integrity of Israel as the people of God. Jesus clearly calls for personal conversion, and although the words are Paul’s, Neusner would agree that they reflect Jesus’s demands: “Come ye out from among them.” One thing that is missing in Neusner’s treatment is the question of the Gentiles. Jesus, and particularly the disciples, wanted to reach those outside of historic Israel and to integrate them into the new laos tou theou, the people of God, by personal conversion and baptism. To the extent that this mission to the Gentiles was successful, it left those who claimed not to need conversion in the Christian sense—while certainly not denying the need for repentance in Neusner’s sense—and who did not want to be baptized, “outside,” and, because they are not part of “the Israel of faith,” they fall under Paul’s stricture, “Not all Israel is Israel.”

Professor Neusner’s book is short but profound, and a brief review cannot do it justice. Much of the book is taken up by disputes, in true Talmudic fashion, with various apparent contradictions or paradoxes in Jesus’s positions, such as “Be holy” vs. “Be perfect,” “Honor thy father and mother” vs. “I have come to set a man against his father . . .” Nevertheless, it seems to me that Neusner’s main criticism lies in the fact that Jesus appeals to the future, wants to build the Church as the Israel to come. Christianity has always been future-oriented, or eschatological in outlook, to use the technical theological term. (Judaism too has an eschatological perspective, but with certain exceptions it has never played the role that it does in Christianity.)

Indeed, the very term ekklesia means “the called out [assembly].” It would seem that as Neusner understands Israel’s calling, it is to be; Jesus, as he sees him, is calling men and women to become. Albert Schweitzer, the great organist and musicologist who became first a Christian theologian and then a missionary doctor, gave up teaching Christian theology because he was convinced that it was impossible to separate Jesus the “good Teacher” from his eschatological conviction that he would “come with glory in the clouds of heaven,” the very statement in Mark 14:63 that caused the High Priest to rend his garments and cry, “What need we any further witnesses?”

There is one curious aspect of Professor Neusner’s analysis that must still be mentioned. Jesus does divide people from one another, the converted from the unconverted, and did bring, as he promised, at least in many situations, “not peace but a sword.” However, Jews have from the very beginning been a “called out” people. Holiness in Jewish as well as Christian understanding means “separated unto the Lord.” From Abraham through Moses to the modern state of Israel, Jews have been “coming out” from among the Gentiles, whether individually, as in Abraham’s case, or collectively, as with Moses. Once Jews have “come out” of Egypt, so to speak, have they done all the coming out that God requires? Even when we are dealing with the hundredth or so generation of Jews since the time of Moses? What Neusner objects to in Jesus’s appeal to the Jews is that Jesus is not satisfied with their having come out then and being physically separate as a distinct community now, but wants them to come out again, if we may say so, and to create a new community at the cost of losing the old. “For Jesus, ‘you’ is as often singular as plural. But for the Torah, from Sinai onward, ‘you’ is always plural,” writes Neusner. He is right: the “you” of Jesus is very frequently a “thou,” and he does call individuals as well as peoples and nations. But isn’t there a “thou” in the Ten Commandments, too? Even if the “thou’s” of the commandments are addressed to Israel the people, isn’t there a legitimate singular, individual thou, too, for, as the spiritual says, “Not my sister, not my brother, it’s me. Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer”?

Well, there is, as Neusner says, no way to solve this: he wants followers of Jesus to remain Christians and for Jews to preserve their distinctive spiritual and physical community. Our rabbinical author has smoothed over some of the glaring conflicts between Jews and Christians and left us with some puzzles we shall hardly be able to solve. But as he says, we must leave the final verdict to God.


[A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, An Intermillennial, Interfaith Exchange, by Jacob Neusner (New York: Doubleday) 154 pp., $21.00]