Higher Critical Review

Jacob Neusner  
Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament. What We Cannot Show We Do Not Know.
Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1994. xii+195 pp. $17.00

Reviewed by J. Duncan M. Derrett
JHC 4/2 (Fall, 1997), 151-154.

During a period when it was doubted what reliance could be placed in references to, especially parallels in, rabbinical sources for the elucidation of the New Testament (note 1), and after this reviewer had explained the prevailing reluctance to consult such amorphous material (New Resolutions of Old Conundrums [1986], 201-214), here Neusner sets out objections to the common use of rabbinical sources both by celebrated Christian scholars and by some Jewish commentators on Jesus. Whatever Jesus may have failed to do, he had succeded, especially since the discovery of Qumran, in attracting a galaxy of Jewish writers to the task of explaining him, and even writing imaginative (but as Neusner hints jejune) Lives of him.

Neusner's argument here is twofold. First faith-history is not history, and therefore pseudo-orthodoxy must be recognized for what it is. Secondly, since rabbinical material, e.g., the Mekilta, Midrash Rabbah, the Talmuds, and so forth, are compilations by compilers each with his/their own agenda(s), and since individual passages, especially biographical and haggadic, are often pseudonymous inventions—and some are forgeries—no reliance ought to be placed on them except to show that such a view was expressed by the compilers always centuries after Christ, and therefore probably irrelevant to Jesus' situation. Neusner reserves some faith in the Mishnah, which, too, must explain itself. For it is whatever it is, and is not whatever it is not (p. 123)—but it must be handled circumspectly.

He likens theologians' homogenizing use of the Talmuds (p. 106) to a description of primitive Christianity using materials hardly earlier than St. Augustine and Byzantium. He marvels how New Testament scholars show such minute discrimination, even skepticism, about gospel pericopae, but treat rabbinical passages gullibly. Such uncritical behaviour is known in those rabbinical circles that ask, "Can our ancient sages lie?," presume in favour of the reliability of any text, and treat rabbinical pronouncements (as the rabbis treat the TNK) as mutually coeval, ignoring questions of chronology. Admittedly this is a specialist environment. The New Testament men seem to believe, "What you do not know, you do not have to show; just say it and it becomes so" (p. 101).

He castigates (1) their failing carefully and critically to analyse the literary and historical traits of every pericope adduced as evidence; (2) their assumption that things happened exactly as the sources allege; and (3) their use of anachronistic or inappropriate analogies and the introduction of irrelevant issues (p. 94).

We may neglect his autobiographical and crypto-autobiographical asides; and we can ignore his buttering his victims thoroughly before grilling them (whereas we toast before we butter). As he rightly says, what counts is the argument, which is totally persuasive. This reviewer will hereafter hesitate to write "the rabbis" when what is meant is "some rabbis"; and to attribute a saying or deed to a particular rabbi, when the compiler may well have taken his name in vain (a "fable"), even with political motives such as Neusner has uncovered (p. 81).

Does it follow that we should never consult the Talmuds (as Jeremias and the translator Schonfield did), or even refer to Maimonides, that trusty retailer of Talmudic principles? Is it mere gullibility, naivety, to do this, and therefore a fraud to pop rabbinical references in footnotes as Samuel Lachs constantly does (A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, 1987), and of whom Neusner disapproves? And is the disclosure of parallels between, say, Gospel parables and rabbinical parables simply pointless, as Neusner hints a propos of poor Brad Young (Jesus and His Jewish Parables. Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus' Teaching, 1989), who laboured long in Jerusalem and is here dismissed for his pains as credulous (he had failed to see something in an obscure periodical)? In fact, there is a danger of misunderstanding the case Neusner makes so tellingly.

When, for example, on Mt 12:42 / Lk 11:31 Lache notes "m. Sanh 10:3; b. B. B. 15b," he is using shorthand. He means (as did the sadly underrated Billerbeck) that if we consult those passages we should find something to our advantage. He does not certify that the passages are true, or that they are to be traced to the first century. He does not suggest that Jesus relied on a tradition which is reflected in those passages. But when we see the point in each case we realize that knowledge kept alive in some form both in the Gospel and in rabbinical passages makes it easier to understand what Jesus or his ventriloquists are talking about. This may well be use of an "extra-text," as some scholars complain who wish to research no more than one book. But if it works it is useful. The same can be said of the Targums, especially the Jonathan Targum, which continually provides illumination (note 2). If scripture was expounded in ancient times in that non-literal way (one used one passage to throw light on others), that proves that such an exegesis was possible. And, if possible then putatively available with a good hope of being listened to. Many exegeses were expected, as reflected in Midrash Rabbah, but Jesus' "school" preferred in time certain perhaps eccentric expositions of a text all parties were treating as holy (Marc G. Hirshman, A Rivalry of Genius: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity, 1995). And they had little confidence to abandon the text.

Many NT passages are barely intelligible without careful recourse to the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, and more will come to life if one calls upon rabbis. Mt 13:44 is clearer if one known that moveables are conveyed along with land and yet require to be lifted or drawn; Lk 10:35, if one realizes that contracts are not binding without present transfer of possession of a valuable; Lk 16:5-7, that usury was practised and many fictions were adopted to evade the biblical prohibition; Lk 12:18, that when A does a kindness for B he makes the latter his debtor (note 3); Phlm 10, that Abraham "made" converts; Mt 26:63, that the so-called Testimony Oath (fictionally based on Lev 5:1) forced observant Jews to disclose secret matters; Mk 7:11, that if one vowed property to the Treasury one could not be compelled to retract; Lk 17:34, that haggada found the first born dead wherever they were lying (note 4); Mt 26:1l / Mk 14:7 / Jn 2:8, that rabbinics resolves the conflict between Dt 15:4 and 15:11, also the priority between gemīlūt hasadīm and alms; and Mt 25:32-33, if one realizes that "goats" are devils. Further, Lk 2:13-14, where angels disturb shepherds' quiet, is illuminated by the former's jealousy of Adam, Abraham, and Moses, as recorded in abundant haggada; while haggada about Adam, and halakha defining zeunūt,, explain 1 Cor 6:15-18. One could go on until one's paper ran out. Neusner (p. 76) admits that an old tradition may be verified from a medieval compilation—and why not?

In short, whereas Neusner's warnings and ridicule of the uncautious should rightly deter us from blithely using rabbis to enrich our picture of Jesus, Jewish culture, with its conservative bias (as in Islam, where the chains of tradition may be fictional), is a fine illuminator of dark places in the New Testament, and the value of parallels depends on their plausibility, rationality, and, in short, success. First we scrutinize scripture, and then traditions which, though they may be far from complete, and far from representative, may, over centuries, retain traditions filling some of our woeful gaps in background knowledge. Neusner does not deny this in his present work; hence David Daube, for one, escapes his wrath.

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1 Johann Maler, Jesus von Nazareth In der Talmudischen Uberlieferung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftllche Buchgesellachaft, 1978), 212-222; Lou H. Silberman, "Once again— the use of rabbinical material," NTS 42/1 (1996), 153-155; Raymond E. Brown, "The Babylonian Talmud on the Death of Jesus," NTS 43/1 (1997), 158-159.

2 Bruce Chilton, "Targumic transmission and dominical tradition," in R. T. France and David Wenham (eds.), Gospel Perspectives I (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983), 21-45.

3 With regard to this and the following, see J. D. M. Derrett, Some Telltale Words In the New Testament (1997), nn. 1, 13, 19, 32.

4 J. D. M. Derrett, "'On That Night': Luke 17:34," E.Q.. 68/1 (1996), 35-46. Mekilta of R. Simeon b. Yochai on Ex 12:27.

Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1998

Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940