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International Scholar Compares Rabbinic, Christian Scriptures

October 23, 2009

The most published humanities scholar in the world, Neusner serves as distinguished service professor of the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College. He shared two lectures comparing the Gospels with Rabbinic writings regarding both theology and law.

"OBU benefited from both the lectures and engaging responses of Dr. Neusner," said Dr. Mark McClellan, dean of OBU's Joe L. Ingram School of Christian Service. "This renowned Jewish scholar presented insights into how Rabbinic Judaism interprets biblical texts. We appreciated the friendly and, at times, light-hearted manner of response to questions from this scholar and professor. Our OBU students did a wonderful job of asking thoughtful and informed questions, and we are proud of them."

Neusner's lectures discussed the uses of Rabbinic literature in the interpretation of New Testament writings and the uses of New Testament writings in the interpretation of Rabbinic literature.

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"Each affords perspective on the other by showing the range of choices that engaged the Rabbinic sages and the Christian evangelists," Neusner said. "I treat both sets of writings in the same way, as evidence of the beliefs held by authoritative sages of the two communities of Judaism. Each clarifies the other."

Neusner said Rabbinic tradition is relevant to the New Testament - and vice versa - because both writings appeal to the same holy Scripture, which Christianity calls the Old Testament.

"Rabbinic literature may contribute to the study of the Christian Scriptures a keen perspective upon the choices the competing and opposing system embodies," Neusner said. "And Christian writings offer counterpart illumination of Rabbinic Judaism. So each tradition affords perspective on the other, because both traditions cover much the same ground, beginning with a shared Scripture."

The morning lecture was titled, "What Do Intersecting Parables Teach about the Context of Scripture? and Comparing Gospels and Rabbinic Writings: An Aggadic Instance." The Rabbinic canon is divided into two parts: law, or matters of belief, and lore, or matters of behavior. Halakhah refers to law, and Aggadah refers to lore.

Neusner compared an Aggadic instance of Rabbinic literature with its counterpart in Christian Scripture in which two first-century Rabbis - Jesus and Yohanan ben Zakkai - interpret preparation for death. The parable, found in Matthew 22:1-14 or Luke 14:15-24, tells of a king who prepares a feast but did not specify a time. Some people respond to the invitation wisely, while others respond foolishly.

The context of the parable as Jesus utilizes it is the Kingdom of Heaven and its sudden advent, Neusner said. The emphasis is on the attitude of repentance in preparation for death. The context of the Rabbinic version is everyday life, the here and now, and the death that comes to everyone.

"The upshot is simple: the parable shared by Christianity and Judaism concerns a king who gave a banquet with unhappy result - that alone," Neusner said. "All we have in common is a motif, not a fully exacted tale. But that shared motif validates comparing the ways in which the two religious worlds have utilized the motif held in common."

The second lecture was titled "Comparing Gospels and Rabbinic Writings: A Halakhic Instance." Neusner tackled the topic of healing on the Sabbath and the way the topic is approached by the Christian Gospel and the Rabbinic law system, called the Halakhah.

"Treating the same subject, the two bodies of tradition part company," Neusner said. "But that fact affords striking insight into the issues that inhere in the whole of the two religious systems, respectively."

Neusner referred to Matthew 12:9-14, a Scripture which tells of Jesus healing a man's paralyzed hand on the Sabbath in the synagogue. The question arises if it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Jesus' response refers to saving an animal from a pit - altering the question to if it is lawful to save a life on the Sabbath.

Scripture portrays the Sabbath in two contexts, rest from labor like God's rest on the seventh day and as a commemoration of the liberation of the slaves from Egyptian bondage. The Halakhah of the Sabbath defines the Sabbath in the model of God at the end of creating the world. He rested from his labor.

"At issue in Sabbath rest is not ceasing from labor but ceasing from labor of a very particular character, labor in the model of God's work in making the world," Neusner said.

"When the two bodies of writing are drawn into a relationship of comparisons and contrast, both of them take on deeper meaning. The differences are sharpened. The details of each, emerging as part of a cogent system, make sense as part of a coherent whole."

Neusner pointed out that keeping the Sabbath is not a trivial matter of silly ritual without consequence. The point, he said, is that on the Sabbath creation focuses on the Creator. Turning away from work on the Sabbath shows delight in God. The issue Jesus raised, Neusner said, is not whether he - Jesus - is allowed to do something on the Sabbath, but that he is above the law.

"At issue here as everywhere else is the person of Jesus himself, in Christian language, Jesus Christ," Neusner said.

Neusner has published more than 1,000 books and numerous articles. He received a bachelor's degree from Harvard College and a Ph.D. degree from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. He received rabbinical ordination and a Master of Hebrew Letters degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He has received nine honorary degrees, including seven honorary doctorates.

The annual Schusterman Lectures are intended to foster an understanding and appreciation of Jewish culture and tradition among OBU students and faculty and to cultivate awareness of Jewish contributions to religious, ethical and philosophical studies. The lectureship was started in 2000 through a grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to helping Jewish people flourish by supporting programs throughout the world that spread the joy of Jewish living, giving and learning. Neusner presented the inaugural Schusterman Lecture on the OBU campus in March 2000.