Pope Benedict has a favorite rabbi, none other than the distinguished Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner. At first glance this is a puzzle. Many years ago Neusner wrote a book called A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. In it, he noted, "I explain why, if I had been in the land of Israel in the first century, I would not have joined the circle of Jesus' disciples."
Neusner sent his book to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, asking him to write a blurb. Ratzinger agreed, and then even more remarkably, praised the book again when he became Pope Benedict. More than a dozen pages of Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth are devoted to discussing Neusner's argument. Benedict writes that Neusner's work "has opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus' words and to the choice that the gospel places before us."
To understand what Benedict is getting at, recall atheist Richard Dawkins' famous claim that we are all atheists when it comes to other people's gods. For instance, I am an atheist when it comes to the gods of the ancient Greeks and Romans. By the same token Neusner is an atheist when it comes to the Christian notion of the divinity.
Even so, Neusner's treatment of Christ could not be more different than that of Dawkins. One of the main differences is that Dawkins is a biologist and Neusner is a scholar of ancient texts and history. Consequently Dawkins' historical and literary understanding is at the eighth grade level, while Neusner brings to his work a depth and sophistication worthy of a man regarded as perhaps the greatest living scholar of Judaism.
Neusner discusses Christ as a great and pure man whose teachings, especially at the Sermon on the Mount, embody unforgettable insight and wisdom. Taking up the oldest of Jewish prescriptions, they interpret and transform them in a powerful and surprising way. And yet Neusner notes that Christ violates the old law, as when he says that actions are permitted on the Sabbath that were regarded as forbidden on the Sabbath. This is the basis of Neusner's rejection of Christ as a fulfillment of the old covenant.
What gives Christ the right to change the old law? Neusner notes that Christ is not another liberal rabbi, seeking to bend the rules of the orthodox to make life easier for people. Rather, "Jesus' claim to authority is at issue." In effect, Christ claims to be "Lord of the Sabbath" and this provokes Neusner to ask, as if conversing with one of Christ's disciples, "Is your master God?"
Pope Benedict finds this a penetrating question. "The issue that is really at the heart of the debate," he writes, "is thus finally laid bare. Jesus understands himself as the Torah--as the word of God in person." In other words, Jesus claims to speak with a divine authority. If Jesus is God, then obviously he has the right to say what the old law really means. So ultimately Jesus confronts us with the choice of accepting or rejecting his claim to divinity.
In the January issue of First Things, a Jewish writer Meir Soloveichik takes Rabbi Neusner to task for his admiring words about Jesus. Soloveichik charges that Neusner, despite his denials, seems to accept the divinity of Christ. Why? Here Soloveichik borrows a famous argument from C.S. Lewis. Lewis argued that since Christ claimed to be God, either he was speaking the truth or he was an astounding liar. Lewis insisted that Christ does not give us the option of considering him a great and wise human teacher. Rather, Christ compels us to take him at his word that he is the son of God, or rather reject him as an impostor and a fraud.
Soloveichik goes with the latter option, as indeed he says all Jews must. "If we deny Christ's divinity," he writes, "then we can respond with nothing short of shock and dismay when we read the words of a man who puts himself in the place of God." Yet Soloveichik notes that this is not Neusner's reaction. Neusner treats Christ with deep respect; yet who can have respect for a liar? Neusner writes as a friend of Christ; yet who can befriend an impostor and fraud? Soloveichik concludes that "even as Neusner argues that Jesus is mistaken about his divinity and authority, it follows from much that Neusner has written that Jesus must be God."
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