Jacob Neusner

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Jacob Neusner
Born(1932-07-28)July 28, 1932
DiedOctober 8, 2016(2016-10-08) (aged 84)
Known forScholarship on Rabbinic Judaism, and over 900 published books

Jacob Neusner (July 28, 1932 – October 8, 2016)[1] was an American academic scholar of Judaism. He was named as one of the most published authors in history, having written or edited more than 900 books.[1][2][3]

Neusner's application of form criticism—a methodology derived from scholars of the New Testament—to Rabbinic texts was influential, but subject to criticism. Neusner's grasp of Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic has been challenged within academia.

Early life and study[edit]

Neusner was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to Reform Jewish parents.[1][3] He graduated from William H. Hall High School in West Hartford.[3] He then attended Harvard University, where he met Harry Austryn Wolfson and first encountered Jewish religious texts. After graduating from Harvard in 1953, Neusner spent a year at the University of Oxford.

Neusner then attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was ordained as a Conservative Jewish rabbi.[3] After spending a year at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he returned to the Jewish Theological Seminary and studied the Talmud under Saul Lieberman, who would later write a famous, and highly negative, critique of Neusner's translation of the Jerusalem Talmud.[4][1][3] He graduated in 1960 with a master's degree.[3] Later that year, he received a doctorate in religion from Columbia University.


After his studies, Neusner briefly taught at Dartmouth College.[1] Neusner also held positions at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Brandeis University, Brown University, and the University of South Florida.

In 1994, Neusner began teaching at Bard College, working there until 2014.[3] While at Bard College, he founded the Institute for Advanced Theology with Bruce Chilton.[3][5]

He was a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He was the only scholar to have served on both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.[citation needed]

Neusner died on October 8, 2016, at the age of 84.[6]


Neusner's research centered on rabbinic Judaism of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras. His work focused on bringing the study of rabbinical text into nonreligious educational institutions and treating them as non-religious documents.[3] Neusner's five-volume History of the Jews in Babylonia, published between 1965 and 1969, is said to be the first to consider the Babylonian Talmud in its Iranian context.[1] Neusner studied Persian and Middle Persian to do so.[1]

Neusner, with his contemporaries, translated into English nearly the entire Rabbinic canon.[7] This work has opened up many Rabbinic documents to scholars of other fields unfamiliar with Hebrew and Aramaic, within the academic study of religion, as well as in ancient history, culture and Near and Middle Eastern Studies. His translation technique utilized a "Harvard-outline" format which attempts to make the argument flow of Rabbinic texts easier to understand for those unfamiliar with Talmudic reasoning.[citation needed]

In addition to his work on Rabbinic texts, Neusner was involved in Jewish Studies and Religious Studies. Neusner saw Judaism as "not particular but exemplary, and Jews not as special but (merely) interesting."[3]

Interfaith work[edit]

Neusner also wrote a number of works exploring the relationship of Judaism to other religions. His A Rabbi Talks with Jesus attempts to establish a religiously sound framework for Judaic-Christian interchange. It earned the praise of Pope Benedict XVI and the nickname "The Pope's Favorite Rabbi".[2] In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict referred to it as "by far the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade."[1]

Political views[edit]

Neusner called himself a Zionist, but also said "Israel’s flag is not mine. My homeland is America."[3] He was culturally conservative, and opposed feminism and affirmative action.[3]

Neusner was a signer of the conservative Christian Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship,[3] which expresses concern over what it called "unfounded or undue concerns" of environmentalists such as "fears of destructive manmade global warming, overpopulation, and rampant species loss".[8]

Critical assessment of Neusner's work[edit]

Neusner's original adoption of form criticism to the rabbinic texts proved highly influential both in North American and European studies of early Jewish and Christian texts. His later detailed studies of Mishnaic law lack the densely footnoted historical approach characteristic of his earlier work. As a result, these works, focusing on literary form, tend to ignore contemporary external sources and modern scholarship dealing with these issues. The irony was that his approach adopted the analytic methodology developed by Christian scholars for the New Testament, while denying there was any relationship between the Judeo-Christian corpus and rabbinic works, the latter being treated as isolates detached from their broader historical contexts.[9]

A number of scholars in his field of study were critical of this phase in his work .[10][11][4][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19]

Some were critical of his methodology, and asserted that many of his arguments were circular or attempts to prove "negative assumptions" from a lack of evidence,[10][11][12][14][15] while others concentrated on Neusner's reading and interpretations of Rabbinic texts, finding that his account was forced and inaccurate.[13][18][19]

Neusner's view that the Second Commonwealth Pharisees were a sectarian group centered on "table fellowship" and ritual food purity practices, and lacked interest in wider Jewish moral values or social issues, has been criticized by E. P. Sanders,[15] Solomon Zeitlin[16] and Hyam Maccoby.[12]

Some scholars questioned Neusner's grasp of Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic. The most famous and biting criticism came from one of Neusner's former teachers, Saul Lieberman, about Neusner's translation of the Jerusalem Talmud. Lieberman wrote, in an article circulated before his death and then published posthumously: "...one begins to doubt the credibility of the translator [Neusner]. And indeed after a superficial perusal of the translation, the reader is stunned by the translator's ignorance of rabbinic Hebrew, of Aramaic grammar, and above all of the subject matter with which he deals."[20] Ending his review, Lieberman states "I conclude with a clear conscience: The right place for [Neusner's] English translation is the waste basket" while at the same time qualifying that "[i]n fairness to the translator I must add that his various essays on Jewish topics are meritorious. They abound in brilliant insights and intelligent questions." Lieberman highlights his criticism as being of Neusner's "ignorance of the original languages," which Lieberman claims even Neusner was originally "well aware of" inasmuch as he had previously relied on responsible English renderings of rabbinic sources, e.g., Soncino Press, before later choosing to create his own renderings of rabbinic texts.[21] Lieberman's views were seconded by Morton Smith, another teacher who resented Neusner's criticism of his views that Jesus was a homosexual magician.[22]

Neusner thought Lieberman's approach reflected the closed mentality of a yeshiva-based education that lacked familiarity with modern formal textual-critical techniques, and he eventually got round to replying to Lieberman's charges by writing in turn an equally scathing monograph entitled:Why There Never Was a Talmud of Caesarea: Saul Lieberman’s Mistakes (1994). In it he attributed to Lieberman 'obvious errors of method, blunders in logic' and argued that Lieberman's work showed a systematic inability to accomplish critical research.[23]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Magid, Shaul (2016-08-23). "Is It Time to Take the Most Published Man in Human History Seriously? Reassessing Jacob Neusner". Tablet Magazine. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
  2. ^ a b Van Biema, David (May 24, 2007). "The Pope's Favorite Rabbi". TIME. Archived from the original on May 27, 2007. Retrieved January 8, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Grimes, William (2016-10-10). "Jacob Neusner, Judaic Scholar Who Forged Interfaith Bonds, Dies at 84". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
  4. ^ a b Saul Lieberman, "A Tragedy or a Comedy?" Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.104(2) April/June 1984 p. 315-319
  6. ^ JNi.Media (2016-10-09). "Scholar Jacob Neusner Dead at 84". The Jewish Press. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
  7. ^ Grimes, William (October 11, 2016). "Jacob Neusner, Judaic Scholar Who Forged Interfaith Bonds, Dies at 84". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  8. ^ "About". www.cornwallalliance.org. 2 April 2014. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
  9. ^ Peter J. Tomson, Studies on Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries, Mohr Siebeck, 2019 ISBN 978-3-161-54619-8 pp.504-505.
  10. ^ a b Shaye J. D. Cohen, "Jacob Neusner, Mishnah and Counter-Rabbinics," Conservative Judaism, Vol.37(1) Fall 1983 p. 48-63
  11. ^ a b Craig A. Evans, "Mishna and Messiah 'In Context'," Journal of Biblical Literature, (JBL), 112/2 1993, p. 267-289
  12. ^ a b c Hyam Maccoby, "Jacob Neusner's Mishnah," Midstream, 30/5 May 1984 p. 24-32
  13. ^ a b Hyam Maccoby, "Neusner and the Red Cow," Journal for the Study of Judaism (JSJ), 21 1990, p. 60-75.
  14. ^ a b John C. Poirier, "Jacob Neusner, the Mishnah and Ventriloquism," The Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXXVII Nos.1-2, July–October 1996, p. 61-78
  15. ^ a b c *E.P.Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah. Philadelphia, 1990.
  16. ^ a b Solomon Zeitlin, "A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai. A Specimen of Modern Jewish Scholarship," Jewish Quarterly Review, 62, 1972, p. 145-155.
  17. ^ Solomon Zeitlin, "Spurious Interpretations of Rabbinic Sources in the Studies of the Pharisees and Pharisaim," Jewish Quarterly Review, 62, 1974, p. 122-135.
  18. ^ a b Evan M. Zuesse, "The Rabbinic Treatment of 'Others' (Criminals, Gentiles) according to Jacob Neusner," Review of Rabbinic Judaism, Vol. VII, 2004, p. 191-229
  19. ^ a b Evan M. Zuesse, "Phenomenology of Judaism," in: Encyclopaedia of Judaism, ed. J. Neusner, A. Avery-Peck, and W.S. Green, 2nd Edition Leiden: Brill, 2005 Vol.III, p. 1968-1986. (Offers an alternative to Neusner's theory of "Judaisms.")
  20. ^ Saul Lieberman, "A Tragedy or a Comedy?" Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.104(2) April/June 1984, p. 315.
  21. ^ Saul Lieberman, "A Tragedy or a Comedy?" Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.104(2) April/June 1984, p. 319.
  22. ^ Aaron W. Hughes, Jacob Neusner:An American Jewish Iconoclast, New York University Press ISBN 978-1-479-88585-5 2016 pp.61-62,193-196
  23. ^ Hughes, ibid pp.192-193

Further reading[edit]

  • Hughes, Aaron W. (2016). Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast. Albany, NY: NYU Press.

External links[edit]