Neusner, Jacob. ―The Perspective of Comparison: If the Literature of Christianity were Comparable in Character to Rabbinic Literature.

‖ In An Introduction to Rabbinic Literature: The Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Perspective on the writings of earliest Christianity is provided by comparison with Jewish writings produced at the same time and in many of the same places. For this purpose a simple contrast will serve, so let us set forth a mental experiment. Try to imagine the task of an introduction to Christian literature, if Christianity were written down the way Judaism is. What should we expect as the Christian counterpart to rabbinic literature? What would we know? How would we know it if the records of early Christianity were like the rabbinic literature of late antiquity? What would be known if all the literature of early Christianity had reached us in a fully homogenized and intellectually seamless form? This hypothetical concerns not only the New Testament, but all the works of the church fathers, from Justin to Augustine, now represented as expressions of one communal mind, dismembered and built into a single harmonious logical structure on various themes. True, they would be shown to continuously disagree, but the range of permissible disagreement would define a vast area of consensus on all basic matters, so that a superficial contentiousness would convey something quite different: one mind on most things, beginning to end. The names of the fathers might be attached to some of their utterances, but all would have gone through a second medium of redactors—the editors of the compendium—and these editors picked and chose what they wanted of Justin, of Origen, of Tertullian, of Augustine, all in line with the determination of the editors. In the end the determination of the first six centuries of Christianity would be the creation of the people of the sixth century, derived from people who worked in the first five. We would then be reduced to trying to know what we can from a document of a timeless world. Not only would the document be framed to implicitly deny the historical development of its ideas, but the framers would gloss over diverse and contradictory sources of thought. I do not mean to only imply that Justin, Iranaeus and Tertullian would be presented as individual authors in a timeless continuum. I mean that all Gnostic and Catholic sources would be broken up into sense units and these fragments then rearranged into a structure presented as representative of the single Christianity, with a single and unitary theology. This synthesized ecumenical body of Christian thought would be constructed to set out judgments on the principle theological topics, and these judgments would be accepted as normative from that day to this. The thing we must try to imagine then is a Christianity which is whole and fully harmonized, with no Arians, Nestorians, Gnostics, nor Patristics, and surely no lost libraries, but all are one ―in Christ Jesus,‖ so to speak. This would not be merely a matter of early Christian literature reaching us without the names of authors attached to individual documents, for there would be no individual documents at all. Everything would have been put through a formative process involving a stage of redaction to obliterate the marks of individuality. The theology would be one, and so would the form and style of the documents that preserved it. Indeed, what would be striking about such a Christianity is not that Mark would lack the name Mark, but that all the Gospels would be written in exactly the same style and resort to exactly the same rhetoric. The text would exhibit a stylistic unity so pervasive that it would eliminate all traces of individual authorship. The sarcasm of Irenaeus, the majesty of Augustine, the exegetical ingenuity of Origen, the lucid

historicism of Aphrahat—all homogenized. Everyone is talking the same way and all about the same things. Rabbinic literature is homogenized and seamless in form. Its documents are anonymous, carefully obliterating all marks of individual authorship. No writing may be reliably assigned to any author so named, and numerous sayings given to one figure find their way into the mouth of another authority somewhere else. It accomplishes its goal, forming a canon representing the ―one whole Torah of Moses, our Rabbi‖ that the sages who produced the literature claimed to transmit to Israel, the holy people. In rabbinic literature the second set writers work with the first set of writers to transmit what it means to know God in God’s self-manifestation, and to preserve and hand on that knowledge through the distinctive medium of writing. Both groups undertook the same goal, which now continues through masters and disciples in a chain of tradition leading back to Sinai. Since the generative theological principle of the Judaism of the dual Torah maintains that holy Israel meets God in the Torah, the stakes in rabbinic literature are significant. For what is at stake in the writing of such books is the finding of a way to appropriately record what God has let humanity know through the gift of self-revelation.1


This typescript was prepared by James Nauenburg MARS, University of Detroit – Mercy, (Fall 2008).


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful