September 1994By Giorgio Buccellati
Giorgio Buccellati is Professor of Ancient Near East Studies and History at UCLA. He is a Guggenheim Fellow this academic year.
A Rabbi Talks with Jesus: An Intermillennial Interfaith Exchange. By Jacob Neusner. Doubleday. 154 pages. $9.
Like a new Nicodemus, Jacob Neusner has sought out Jesus for a heart-to-heart encounter, a dialogue perceived as a rabbinic disputation between equals. Neusner is in fact a rabbi, but he is especially known as a prominent authority on Judaism, and as a prolific writer, with nearly 500 books to his credit! (The volume under review -- recently released in paperback -- was written to test the author's claim that it would take him no longer than a week to write a book.) The ground rules for the discussion are simple: Since both he and Jesus accept the Torah, shouldn't they be able to argue, and articulate their differences, within the same frame of reference? By virtue of this very canon, Neusner claims Jesus is wrong.
The author works from two premises. First, the very exercise of arguing is central to Judaism in such a way that it becomes an expression of religious life; hence, the proper Jewish way to confront Jesus today is to engage in disputation with Him. Neusner is resolute in saying that Jesus broke with Judaism in irreconcilable ways, and that one does Him a disservice to pretend otherwise.
The second premise is that the sources are sufficiently valid to allow us to deal with the real substance of the message of Jesus. Neusner is amused by the Christian debate about the historical Jesus, wondering why one would bother to be a Christian if Christ is perceived through the haze with which many Christian theologians engulf Him. Neusner deals with Jesus as we know Him from just one Gospel, that of Matthew, because of its more explicit Jewishness.
Some Jewish intellectuals of Jesus' time did argue with Jesus, but their stance is generally presented in the Gospels as biased by their desire to trap Him. The case of Nicodemus is different in that he is presented as sincere. We do not know whether he was convinced by Jesus' responses, though we know he was favorably disposed toward Him. But Neusner is certainly not convinced. He concludes that, had he been there, he would have respectfully walked away from Jesus. Three major points are made to expose Jesus' "heretical" stance.
Here we can only look at one of them, the breaking of the Sabbath. The author does not see Jesus as being lax. Rather, Neusner shows how Jesus claimed that He, Jesus, was the Sabbath. This is a remarkable insight. On the one hand, the Jewish Sabbath is presented by Neusner not as simply refraining from work in a negative sense. It is, instead, a positive sharing in divine creation; it is "reforming one day a week the circle of family and household, everyone at home and in place"; it is the celebration of "an enchanted day." The real question of the Sabbath is, "What do we do to imitate God?" Jesus claims that the answer is to imitate Him, because He gives rest. Because, precisely, he is the Sabbath. There are significant exegetical insights in these few pages. Thus, for instance, the criticism of Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1-8) is eloquently linked with the immediately preceding statement by Jesus (11:27-30) that He alone provides rest to those who labor and are heavy-laden; the phrase "lord of the Sabbath" (Mt. 12:8) is a statement of equivalence between Jesus and the Sabbath. It is indeed, as Neusner stresses, a "monumental claim." And it takes his fine Jewish sensitivity to realize the full implications of Gospel texts which, once we are trained to see them with the same sensitivity, can speak so much more eloquently. Indeed, as Neusner boldly says in the Introduction, his goal "to help Christians become better Christians" is fully realized. Ironically, or tragically, the reasons for which he rejects Jesus are the same reasons why Christians should accept Him: The more we absorb the Jewish point of view, the more we are moved by the monumentality of Jesus' claim.
The book is fascinating, and if you do not want to take my word for it, you may be induced to read it if you consider that two such diverse readers as Cardinal Ratzinger and Andrew Greeley extol its merits on the dust jacket. Fundamentally, we see emerge a vibrant image of Jesus who unequivocally claims divinity. The boldness of the claim is all the more emphasized by the genuine surprise the author shows in response to it. That the surprise remains only academic is due in part to the very premise adopted -- confronting the claim with an argument. But in the words of St. Ambrose: "Non in dialectica placuit Deo salvum facere populum suum" ("It is not by arguing that God chose to save His people"). Nor did Jesus aim at convincing dialectically; rather, He aimed at proclaiming prophetically.
From such a perspective we come to understand more easily why the role of John the Baptist was of fundamental importance to the Jews who gathered around Jesus and were the first to become Christians. John articulated the fundamental Jewish premise -- waiting with alertness for God's self-revelation -- which was necessary for the response Jesus intended to elicit. And he did so before Jesus appeared on the scene, shaping a public awareness for the supremacy of God's continuing creative initiative over the frozen record of His previous revelation. For Caiaphas and Nicodemus, Judaism rested in possession -- the possession of the Torah -- as it does for Neusner. For the Baptist, instead, Judaism rested in acceptance -- the acceptance of grace, aptly and strongly symbolized by Baptism by water. John anticipated in his message the answer that Jesus would give Nicodemus: "You must be born again." It is the same answer, a profoundly Jewish answer, that Jesus gives today to Rabbi Jacob.