Judaism When Christianity Began: A Survey of Belief and Practice

By Jacob Neusner
Louisville, Ky : Westminster John Knox Press (2002). vii + 202 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
14.2 (Fall 2003) : 345-347

A renowned and sometimes controversial expert in Judaism and rabbinic studies, Jacob Neusner has published more than 800 books. He is currently research professor of Religion and Theology at Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.).

Judaism, according to Neusner, is the faith of the community that calls itself “Israel” as a supernatural social entity, because they identify themselves with the divine redemption out of Egypt (2). It is monotheistic, but set apart from Christianity and Islam in that it “recognizes no other revelation than the Torah, the Teaching, set forth by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, and encompassing the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures” (3). Supernatural Judaism treats all other religions as nothing more than forms of idolatry. It is open to those who would convert from such religions and embrace the supernatural conviction set forth in the Torah. One example of such conversion is that “a cousin of Adolf Hitler has converted to Judaism, and today does teach Judaism at an Israeli university” (153).

Both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism were making their classical statements from the first to the sixth centuries (6). Judaism’s classical statements are embodied in a vast library of literature from the Mishnah through to the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. Within that literature the Torah of Sinai is defined as the “chain of tradition” which includes that which was passed on by Moses to his successors but not included within Scripture (7). In order to clarify this concept, the author sets forth the following definition:

Rabbinic Judaism is thus the Judaism that sets forth the whole Teaching of Sinai, written and oral, and that points to its sages, called “rabbis” (a general title of honor, ultimately made particular to the sages of Judaism), who in a process of discipleship acquired (“received”) and transmitted (“handed on”) that complete Torah, oral and written, that originates with God’s instruction to Moses. (8)

There were, however, forms of Judaism that conflicted with Rabbinic Judaism during this formative period. Among them were the Qumran sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, an Alexandrian sect represented by Philo, and the earliest disciples of Jesus (9). All three identified themselves as “Israel” and constructed their foundation on the Hebrew Scriptures. None of the three should be identified with Rabbinic Judaism since the latter is what emerged out of the initial period of conflicting Judaisms and prevailed as the statement of pure Judaism (10).

With the identification of Judaism established, in successive chapters Neusner systematically describes the theological tenets of Rabbinic Judaism: “Revelation and Scripture: The Oral Torah” (15-27), “God: ‘In our image, after our likeness’” (29-43), “The Holy and the Unclean: Sanctification and Pollution” (45- 54), “Exile and Return” (55-66), “Return to Eden: The Sabbath and Sacred Time” (67-78), “The Story Judaism T ells” (79-90), “The Community of Israel” (91-101), “The Chain of Tradition: The Oral Torah” (103-17), “Miracles in Nature: Illness and Healing” (119-34), “Sacred Space: The Land and Pilgrimage” (135-46), “Sacrifice, Repentance, and Atonement” (147-61), “Death and Afterlife” (163-74), and “The Representation of the Faith: Art and Symbol in Judaism” (175-88).

Throughout this volume the author reiterates his point that the Torah cannot be limited to either the written Torah or the revelation given to Moses at Sinai (27, 48, 187-88; esp. 103-17). Both “the Torah that is memorized” and “the Torah that is in writing” (103) persist in Judaism. The latter contains “ipsissima verba from Sinai” (111, cf. 108). In other words, “the Torah revealed at Sinai encompasses everything: Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, Aggadah—even what on the basis of reasoned inquiry the latest generations of disciples discern!” (111).

Christianity diverged from Judaism in Christ’s claim to be a new Moses rather than a prophet or sage (24). Judaism’s possession of the oral Torah also distinguished it from Christianity (112). Christianity’s representation of Christ as the last Adam was borrowed from Judaism’s view of Israel as the last Adam (57). As for the miracles performed by Christ, comparable claims have been made about various Rabbinic sages (119-20). Neusner implies that the Israel of Jesus’ day had not repented or subordinated itself to the will of God, since the Messiah will come only when Israel has done so (172-73).

This volume will be of interest to those who wish to understand the basic tenets of Rabbinic Judaism. It will not satisfy the reader in search of a clear description of what Judaism was like in the early Christian centuries. Neusner himself concludes that “we cannot construct in the first five centuries C.E. an account of a Judaic religious system comparable to Rabbinic Judaism. The sources do not permit” (9).