This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2006 vol. 163 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Judaism When Christianity Began: A Survey of Belief and PracticeWestminster John Knox Press, Louisville August 31, 2002
Looks can be deceiving and so can titles of books. One might assume the focus of Neusner’s work would be Judaism in the era of Christ and the apostles. However, his focus is actually on Judaism in the fifth and six centuries A.D. when both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism had come to their classic expression.
In this book Neusner, professor of religion at Bard College, New York City, follows the format of many of his earlier works, with various topics explored through citations of passages from the Mishnah and Talmud(s). At times the chapters seem rather loosely connected, more of a compilation of disparate material than a well-reasoned discourse. But each of the topics is related to Israel’s story of slavery, deliverance, exile, and restoration, which “animates the present and appeals to the here and now” (p. 1). Neusner shows how these events are not random acts of history but together display a divinely ordained pattern that makes sense of the past and gives meaning to the present. The author demonstrates how an essential aspect of this story is God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai, which was passed down by an unbroken chain of sages and gave rabbinic Judaism its distinctive nature.
Neusner’s perspective of Jesus within Judaism is of special interest. While some New Testament scholars portray Jesus as a Jewish sage, Neusner argues against such a position. “Jesus represents himself not as a sage in a chain of tradition but as an ‘I,’ that is, a unique figure, a new Moses, standing on the mount as Moses had stood on Sinai” (p. 24). In later chapters of the book Neusner addresses themes central to both Israel’s and the church’s story, such as sin, forgiveness, repentance, atonement, and resurrection. Here believers in Jesus the Messiah will be reminded again how these crucial themes have been transformed through the ministry, teaching, and passion of Jesus of Nazareth.
—Carl R. Anderson