Jacob Neusner

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Jacob Neusner
Born (1932-07-28)July 28, 1932
Hartford, Connecticut
Died October 8, 2016(2016-10-08) (aged 84)
Rhinebeck, New York
Nationality United States
Occupation University professor
Known for Academic scholar of Judaism, with over 950 books

Jacob Neusner (July 28, 1932 – October 8, 2016) was an American academic scholar of Judaism. He was often celebrated as one of the most published authors in history, having written or edited more than 950 books.[1]


Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Neusner was educated at Harvard University, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where he received rabbinic ordination), the University of Oxford, and Yale University.

Since 1994, Neusner had taught at Bard College. Before that, he taught at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Brandeis University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, and the University of South Florida. He lived in Rhinebeck, New York.

Neusner was a former member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and 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] He also received scores of academic awards, honorific and otherwise.

Neusner was a signer of the conservative Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, which expresses concern over the "unfounded or undue concerns" of environmentalists such as "fears of destructive manmade global warming, overpopulation, and rampant species loss".[2]

Neusner died on October 8, 2016 at the age of 84.[3]


Generally, Neusner's research centered on rabbinic Judaism of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras. He was a pioneer in the application of "form criticism" approach to Rabbinic texts. Much of Neusner's work has been to de-construct the prevailing approach viewing Rabbinic Judaism as a single religious movement within which the various Rabbinic texts were produced. In contrast, Neusner viewd each rabbinic document as an individual piece of evidence that can only shed light on the more local Judaisms of such specific document's place of origin and the specific Judaism of the author. His Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago, 1981; translated into Hebrew and Italian) is the classic statement of his work and the first of many comparable volumes on the other documents of the rabbinic canon.

Neusner's method of studying documents individually without contextualizing them with other Rabbinic documents of the same era or genre, led to a series of studies on the way Judaism creates categories of understanding,[clarification needed] and how those categories relate to one another, even as they emerge diversely in discrete rabbinic documents.

Neusner translated into English nearly the entire Rabbinic canon.[citation needed] 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.

Neusner's enterprise was aimed at a humanistic and academic reading of classics of Judaism. Neusner was drawn from studying text to context. Treating a religion in its social setting, as something a group of people do together, rather than as a set of beliefs and opinions.

Theological works[edit]

In addition to his historical and textual works, Neusner also contributed to the area of Theology. He was the author of "Israel:" Judaism and its Social Metaphors and The Incarnation of God: The Character of Divinity in Formative Judaism.

Contributions to academia[edit]

In addition to his scholarly activities, Neusner was involved in shaping Jewish Studies and Religious Studies in the American University. He sponsored many conferences and collaborative projects that drew different religions into conversation on common themes and problems. Neusner's efforts produced conferences and books on, among other topics, the problem of difference in religion, religion and society, religion and material culture, religion and economics, religion and altruism, and religion and tolerance.

Neusner wrote a number of works exploring the relationship of Judaism to other religions. His A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (Philadelphia, 1993; translated into German, Italian, and Swedish), 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". 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."

Neusner also collaborated with other scholars to produce comparisons of Judaism and Christianity, as in The Bible and Us: A Priest and A Rabbi Read Scripture Together (New York 1990; translated into Spanish and Portuguese). He collaborated with scholars of Islam, conceiving World Religions in America: An Introduction (fourth edition, Louisville 2009), which explores how diverse religions have developed in the distinctive American context.

Neusner composed numerous textbooks and general trade books on Judaism. The two best-known examples are The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism (Belmont 2003); and Judaism: An Introduction (London and New York 2002; translated into Portuguese and Japanese).

Throughout his career, Neusner established publication programs and series with various academic publishers. Through these series, through reference works that he conceived and edited, and through the conferences he sponsored, Neusner advanced the careers of dozens of younger scholars from across the globe.

Critical assessment of Neusner's work[edit]

Although he was highly influential, Neusner was criticized by scholars in his field of study.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14]

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,[4][5][7][9][10] while others concentrated on Neusner's reading and interpretations of Rabbinic texts, finding that his account was forced and inaccurate.[8][13][14]

Neusner's view, that the Second Commonwealth Pharisees were a sectarian group centered on "table fellowship" and ritual food purity practices, and less interested in wider Jewish values or social issues, has been contested by E. P. Sanders,[10] Zeitlin[11] and Hyam Maccoby.[7]

Some scholars questioned Neusner's grasp of Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic. Probably the most famous and biting criticism came from Saul Lieberman: about Neusner's translation of the Jerusalem Talmud, Lieberman wrote:"...one begins to doubt the credibility of the translator [Neusner]. And indeed after a superficial perusal of the translation, the reader is stunned by [Neusner's] ignorance of Rabbinic Hebrew, of Aramaic grammar, and above all of the subject matter with which he deals." He ended his review: "I conclude with a clear conscience: The right place for [Neusner's] English translation is the waste basket."[15]

Books by Neusner[edit]

A complete list of Neusner's books may be found here:

Additional source: Jacob Neusner. "From History to Religion." pp. 98–116 in The Craft of Religious Studies, edited by Jon R. Stone. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Books/articles about Neusner[edit]


  1. ^ Van Biema, David (May 24, 2007). "The Pope's Favorite Rabbi". TIME. Retrieved January 8, 2013. 
  2. ^ About the Cornwall Alliance - Dominion. Stewardship. Conservation.
  3. ^ http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/scholar-jacob-neusner-dead-at-84/2016/10/09/
  4. ^ a b Shaye J. D. Cohen, "Jacob Neusner, Mishnah and Counter-Rabbinics," Conservative Judaism, Vol.37(1) Fall 1983 p. 48-63
  5. ^ a b Craig A. Evans, "Mishna and Messiah 'In Context'," Journal of Biblical Literature, (JBL), 112/2 1993, p. 267-289
  6. ^ Saul Lieberman, "A Tragedy or a Comedy" Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.104(2) April/June 1984 p. 315-319
  7. ^ a b c Hyam Maccoby, "Jacob Neusner's Mishnah," Midstream, 30/5 May 1984 p. 24-32
  8. ^ a b Hyam Maccoby, "Neusner and the Red Cow," Journal for the Study of Judaism (JSJ), 21 1990, p. 60-75.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ a b c *E.P.Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah. Philadelphia, 1990.
  11. ^ a b Solomon Zeitlin, "A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai. A Specimen of Modern Jewish Scholarship," Jewish Quarterly Review, 62, 1972, p. 145-155.
  12. ^ Solomon Zeitlin, "Spurious Interpretations of Rabbinic Sources in the Studies of the Pharisees and Pharisaim," Jewish Quarterly Review, 62, 1974, p. 122-135.
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ 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.")
  15. ^ Saul Lieberman, "A Tragedy or a Comedy" Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.104(2) April/June 1984 p. 315-319

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