Book Review

Jacob Neusner, Judaism When Christianity Began: A Survey of Belief and Practice. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2002. 202 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-664-22527-6. $19.95.

This is the latest from the pen of reputedly the most prolific author/editor/compiler of our era. Neusner (pronounced NEWS-ner) is alleged to have his name attached to more than 800 monographs—a prodigious output and (no doubt) the direct result of the collaboration of his myriad grad students. (If Origen kept seven secretaries busy, Neusner has seventy times seven graduate fellows to thank, in part).

The book is a very helpful survey of the ethos of Judaism (whether at the time of Christ will be argued, since Neusner himself admits that the rabbis altered the faith after Constantine; cf. pp. 95, 101). An orthodox Christian reader will find insights here which bear on the "parting of the ways" and shed light on Israel's objection to Jesus as Messiah, let alone Son of God.

Neusner teaches us that Judaism began with the Babylonian exile (destruction of the Solomonic/First Temple in 586 B.C.). The experience of exile and return created the paradigm for Israel's religious narrative. Adam and Eve's exile from Eden was a primitive form of the narrative. Abraham's exile from Ur of the Chaldees was another, as was Israel's exile from Canaan under Jacob/Joseph and post-Exodus return under Moses/Joshua. "[T]he system of the Torah after 586 did not merely describe things that had actually happened, normal events so to speak, but rendered them normative and mythic and turned an experience into a paradigm of experience . . . the paradigm began as a paradigm, not a set of actual events transformed into a normative pattern. And the conclusions generated by the paradigm, it must follow, derived not from reflection on the things that happened but from the inner logic of the paradigm—there alone" (p. 61, emphasis in original). In truth, post-exilic Judaism "invented" the "myth" of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Joshua in order to project her own 6th century B.C. experience back into her mythic past. In other words, Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua—these are not actual historical persons. They are the remote idealization of Israel's post-exilic experience. The existential experience of loss and return, creates the narrative of the loss of Eden, the loss of Ur, the loss of Canaan, the loss of Egypt, the loss of the promised land (cf. p. 82). Neusner demonstrates the over-arching drama of this post-exilic experience read back on to Israel's pre-exilic past.

This raises the question of the origin of the Torah (law of God given to Moses). Our previous paragraph leads us to expect a post-exilic origin for the figure of "Moses" and his Torah. Neusner confirms our expectation. All Judaism has "perpetually rehearsed the human experience imagined by the original authorship of the Torah in the time of Ezra" (p. 58). Ezra (or his "school") is a 5th century B.C. figure. He creates the Torah; he projects the mythic paradigm; he systematizes the post-exilic experience and makes it the ideal of Israel's religious story from the beginning. "We find history systematically selected, therefore by definition invented" (p. 62).

This invention of Judaism following the destruction of the Temple (586 B.C.) is based upon two sources: written Torah and oral Torah. Both of these sources are defined as divine revelations. (Protestant readers will note here a precedent for the Roman Catholic doctrine of twofold truth—Scripture and tradition.) Oral Torah is derived from traditions of what God spoke to Moses on Sinai. These traditions are called qabbalah and masoret. They are embodied in the Talmud, the Mishnah and the teachings ("lore") of the rabbis. "The Torah of Judaism encompasses not only Scripture—the written part of revelation—but also an oral tradition" (p. 30; cf. chapter 9).

Even the reflections of a student (of Torah) as he recites to his master/teachers stand "within the circle of the revelation of God to Moses at Sinai" (p. 112). Oral Torah is thus very fluid, never fixed, ever evolving. And if one insists on written Torah alone (sola Torah)? "a heretic is someone who rejects the duality of the Torah" (p. 116). If one asks about the prophets and the writings of the Old Testament, these too are part of and derivative from oral Torah. The absolutization of Moses (however mythical or invented) in Judaism makes any subsequent claimant of revelation (Jesus for Christianity; Mohammed for Islam) "idolatry" (p. 3). Moses alone is sufficient.

Thus far the formal principle of Judaism (dual Torah); what of the material principle of Judaism, i.e., that which constitutes its way of approach to God? If Protestants answer sola fide propter sola gratia propter solo Christo (by faith alone because by grace alone because by Christ alone) and if Roman Catholics answer fide et opera (by faith and works); Judaism answers sanctificatione (by sanctification). Sanctification or holiness is the prerequisite for acceptance with God in Judaism. And why is Judaism privileged to be given access to God? "there was no better, more worthy choice, because of Israel's willingness to receive the Torah" (p. 137). Study, explication, reflection upon the Torah becomes Judaism's unique story. Hence access to God is derived fundamentally from the legal and cultic patterns of the Pentateuch. Preoccupation with ritual cleansing; cultic purification and legal conformity to Mosaic prescription (i.e., sanctification) defines Judaism. God-likeness is derived from performing God-directed rules and rituals. Sanctification is the performance of what law and cult demand. And yet the cult prescribes repentance and sacrifice—even atonement. True, and Neusner reviews this part of the story by detailing the impact on Judaism produced by the destruction of the Second Temple (70 A.D.). With the loss of a place for sacrifice and (blood) atonement, Judaism redefined itself: "when the Temple was destroyed, deeds of loving kindness took the place of sacrifice" (p. 147). Repentance and prayer are two such deeds which avail post-70 A.D. for atonement of sin (p. 158): "in the here and now, Israel is able through repentance to reconcile itself with God" (p. 161).

However this reconciliation is a "return" paradigm: a return to Eden, a return to the Land, a return to Jerusalem, a return to the Temple. Judaism reflects the retrospective paradigm in order to recover what she has lost. But the myth of the return is always limited by the horizon of the world/the earth. Judaism wants the return of Eden (in this world); the return of the Land (in this world); the return of the city (in this world); the return of the sanctuary (in this world). Not only the absolutization of Moses, but the backwards absolutization of the myth of Israel's earthly/this worldly narrative. Jewish transcendence ends with time and space. The suggestion of a world other than this one would be heresy indeed. Creation is the acme of Jewish eschatology.

Even the Messiah of Judaism ushers in a this worldly golden age: "he will raise the dead, restore Israel to the land of Israel, and prepare the way for judgment and the recovery of Eden" (p. 172). And when will Messiah appear? "When Israel really wants the Messiah to come, he will come . . . the messiah's advent and activity depend on Israel, not on messiah's own autonomous decision, character and behavior" (pp. 172 and 173).

A Messiah who is resurrected; is himself the Israel of God in the heavenly land of eternity; undergoes judgment in the place of the eschatological Israel in order that there may be no condemnation for them; possess, as the eschatological Adam, the paradise of God—such a Messiah holds little or no interest for Judaism. Tragically, he is too other worldly for our Jewish neighbors.

Neusner's narrative leaves us profoundly moved—moved with compassion and tears, as was our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 19:41-44). If the story of Judaism begins with the Exodus (p. 1), we proclaim a new and eschatological exodus in Christ Jesus. If the story of Judaism longs for a return—indeed a resurrection—we proclaim a new and eschatological resurrection in Christ Jesus. If the story of Judaism yearns for a city, a temple, we proclaim a new and eschatological Jerusalem with a temple who is the Son of God himself. Neusner's narrative has been completed—it is the story of Jesus and his people, the church. Come and welcome! all those who are heavy laden and burdened with this world and long even now for the world to come.

James T. Dennison, Jr.