Thursday, June 21, 2007

Benedict vs. Neusner on Jesus

There's so much I'd like to blog about, but so little time... I've got quite a backlog of topics going, but every now and then something pops up that needs to be timely or catches my imagination for some reason.

I know I must sound like a shill for Tom Ashbrook's On-Point program on radio station WBUR, but the guy really does run fantastic interviews with the top-newsmakers of the day, and the topics are always lively and fascinating. You could run a fine blog just by responding to the show he does every day. A particular case in point is the radio interview he had with Rabbi Jacob Neusner the other day.

In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict made it clear that he had felt challenged by the views expressed by the scholar-Rabbi he respects the most, who happens to be Jacob Neusner. A few years ago Neusner had written a book called
A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, explaining why, if he had heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount, he would have remained within the Pharisaical school of Judaism which was the forerunner of today's Rabbinical Judaism, and would not have been a follower of Jesus. In marketing the book, Neusner had suggested that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger be asked to contribute a blurb for the back cover and the Cardinal enthusiastically obliged. It was with some surprise, however, that Rabbi Neusner noticed that the Pope had taken his work as a jumping-off point for a debate on Jesus.

What I find interesting, is that both men seem to relish the prospect and opportunity for a disputation. As Rabbi Neusner points out in his article My Argument with the Pope, disputations between Jewish and Christian scholars are nothing new, although they had fallen out of use in the past couple of centuries, as social conciliation took preference over advancing truth-claims. He points out that in the Middle Ages, Christians often forced these disputations, with the deck ultimately stacked in their own favor ("they had the swords"). He seems to welcome the opportunity to have a new kind of disputation now (in the interview with Ashbrook, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus stands in as a spokesman for the Catholic side). In this willingness to offer a confrontational apologetic, confident that a debate with Christians can be held outside of the ever-looming spectre of anti-semitic violence, he seems to operate in the same vein as David Klinghoffer, the author of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, but with authentic scholarship.

It's not surprising that first-rate scholars like Benedict and Neusner look to each other for debate. In a way, they are kindred spirits, placing Truth as the ultimate goal of any honest dialogue, and disdainful of the relativism and reluctance to offend that accompanies modernity.

There is one aspect of this, though, that bothers me a little bit. As we know, Benedict is not without his critics among other Catholic scholars, and as the Wikipedia writeup on him referenced above indicates, Rabbi Neusner is not without scholarly detractors either (the Wiki article referenced above mentions well-known academic critics such as E.P. Sanders and Hyam Maccoby, for example, and others, such as Amy Jill-Levine with Jesus the Misunderstood Jew, and Brad Young with Jesus the Jewish Theologian would somewhat contradict Neusner). Based upon the fact that they are both such well-known figures, this "debate" between them draws attention away from the fact that there has been a tremendous amount of progressive and fruitful discussion going on between Christian and Jewish academics on these points for decades, especially in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Much of this discussion is done in a irenic fashion in a mutually respectful tone (without caving in on what is essential to each), and it utilizes something that I think is critically missing from the argument between Benedict and Neusner - appreciation for the historical-critical method. Both of them seem to mistrust it and make short thrift of it (although, not having actually read these books, I could be wrong). They both seem to accept prima facie that the current incarnations of Roman Catholicism and Rabbinical Judaism are both the proper starting points and ending points for the parameters of the discussion. The other scholarly dialogues I've mentioned, which include people like Daniel Boyarin, Amy Jill-Levine, David Wolpe, Ruth Langer, Stephen Pope, Brendan Byrne, John Pawlikowski, and Eugene Fisher, recognize the fact that Second Temple Judaism in the time of Jesus was diverse and complex (with competing groups like the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, Hellenists, and proto-Christians), and seek to understand Jesus more fully in the context of what was happening to it within the occupation by the Roman Empire and the aura of intense apocalyptic messianism at that time. I hold no contempt nor timidity towards seeking Truth, but I'm more inclined to think that these types of dicussions are more likely to be more beneficial towards the edification and mutual understanding of both Jews and Christians alike, than re-hashing the disputes of the Middle Ages with the hope of no swords being brandished.

Links on the topic of Jewish-Christian relations:

A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity (which notably, does not have Rabbi Neusner as a signatory)

1. Jews and Christians worship the same God.

2. Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book--
the Bible (what Jews call "Tanakh" and Christians call the "Old Testament").

3. Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel.

4. Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah.

5. Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.

6. The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.

7. A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.

8. Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace. Jews and Christians, each in their own way, recognize the unredeemed state of the world as reflected in the persistence of persecution, poverty, and human degradation and misery.

PDF Excerpt from Neusner's Book

PDF Excerpt from Benedict's Book

Jewish-Christian Relations

Center For Jewish-Christian Learning

Website of Mark Nanos, a Jewish New Testament Scholar who's written for the Catholic Biblical Quarterly


Winnipeg Catholic said...

Yet another great post. Thanks for the summary! B

Jeff said...

Thanks, B.

Talmida said...

I've just started reading R. Neusner's book, Jeff. I'll blog it as I get going.

cowboyangel said...


Interesting post. I wrote a long comment but it vanished into cyberspace! Arrggh.

I'm currently reading again about the Christian, Jewish and Muslim mystics in Medieval Spain, so this was a timely post.

Interesting that a Jewish statement on Christianity has to include: 5. Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.

I wonder if within Judiasm the role of Christian churches in the Holocaust will lead to a longstanding point of contention similar to "The Jews killed Jesus."

Jeff said...

Hi Talmida,

Great! I'll be interested in seeing what you have to ay about it.

Have you ever read any Vermes, Fredriksen, or Amy-Jill Levine?


Interesting thought. At the very least, I think there is a sort of strand of self-examination along those lines within Christianity. A lot of people think it wasn't a huge leap to go from the anti-semitism that was evident in Europe for centuries to the kind that the Nazis sold and was bought into by the German public. James Carroll explores that in depth in Constantine's Sword.

JesusOverIsrael said...

have you read this disputation with klinghoffer's book by catholic apologist robert sungenis:

see also this: