Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus

  • Brad H. Young
  • Jan 1, 2008
  • Series: Volume 11 - 2008

Brad H. Young, Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007.  $16.95.  xxv + 270 pp.  ISBN 978-1-56563-405-3.

Brad Young, former student of renowned Jewish New Testament scholar David Flusser in Jerusalem and currently Professor of Biblical Studies at Oral Roberts University, has already distinguished himself with several books on the similarities and links between the ancient rabbis and Jesus or Paul.  This work continues to display his mastery of the encyclopedic-sized rabbinic literature, which few non-Jewish scholars ever attain.  It also preserves his consistently employed gift of digesting this material and writing in a very accessible fashion for a broad audience.

Meet the Rabbis falls into four main parts.  The first five chapters offer an "introduction to rabbinic thought".  Here Young stresses the number of places in Jesus' teaching where close parallels appear somewhere in the rabbinic literature, especially with respect to the Sermon on the Mount.  His theological sparring partners are those who would overemphasize the differences between Judaism and Christianity, largely denigrating the former and turning the latter into a predominantly Gentile religion.  Young elaborates on the roles of rabbis with their disciples and the great stress put on memorizing Torah, both written and oral.  He stresses the good intentions in the establishment of the Pharisaic sect, the diversity of the movement both in Jesus' day and later that prevent an accurate historian from tarnishing all, or even a majority, of Pharisees with the brush of polemics that Jesus unleashed on a corrupt few.

Against those who would turn rabbinic Judaism into mere legalism, he stresses how Torah occupies an entire way and walk of life.  Ancient Jews expressed great joy when they studied Torah and could imagine no higher calling or privilege to do so as a lifelong calling.  The court that condemned Jesus was different than the later Great Sanhedrin; the former were predominantly Sadducees while the latter were the successors to the Pharisees.  The later Sanhedrin was also highly mobile and crucial in preserving Jewish leadership after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C. E., not least because of its geographical flexibility.

Part two also comprises five chapters and introduces the actual literature of the rabbis.  Here we learn to distinguish Mishnah from Talmud from Midrash, who the key compilers of each were, who some of the most oft-quoted rabbis were and what they taught, the major contents, subdivisions or structure of each, and their approximate dates.  We differentiate the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods and their trends and even learn a little about still later epochs within rabbinism.  Of course, care must be exercised in appealing to all these traditions as background for Jesus because they all postdate the first century in written form.  But the older the document in which they appear or the earlier the rabbi to whom a saying is ascribed (when attribution appears), the more likely, in general, they do go back in oral form to a time when they may illuminate some feature of the Gospels.

Successive chapters then present and discuss the English translation of Mishnaic tractate Aboth, because of its early date and crucial ethical contents in many instances very helpful for New Testament studies, the Amidah (a prayer from which the Lord's Prayer could easily have been a digest), Maimonides' thirteen principles of Jewish faith and Hillel's seven rules of biblical exposition.

Part three introduces a cross-section of some of the most important early rabbis themselves.  It moves on to consider the tradition that both written and oral Torahs were revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  Young recognizes the merely traditional nature of the latter claim but insists that both the principle of oral halakah and haggadah and a large percentage of its actual contents must significantly predate the common era, in light of the stability of ancient Jewish forms and teachings and in light of the dominant role extensive memorization of tradition played in rabbinic training.  This section concludes with a chapter on the debate concerning Jesus' ethical teaching, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, as "utopia or plan of action?"  Notwithstanding the false dichotomy that the question establishes, Young rightly insists that these teachings were meant to be lived out.

The book's final part comprises over forty pages of "study helps," including lists of and comments on the books in the Hebrew Bible in Judaism, the ten commandments, Noahic laws, festival days and seasons, and Sanhedrin leadership succession.  An extensive glossary, a lengthy bibliography, and the typical indexes round out the volume.

Young's volume, like his previous writings, reflects his frustration with popular culture, still reflected in the occasional scholarly work as well, that unjustifiably denigrates ancient Judaism, often to make Christianity look that much better in comparison.  Given the number of sermons around the world that still speak of "the Jews" or "the Pharisees" as monolithic, and monolithically undesirable groups in Jesus' world, this frustration remains understandable.  But balanced scholarship is not always best served merely by a swing of the pendulum to the opposite extreme.  Young has amassed a good catalogue of important Jewish parallels to numerous teachings of Jesus, but there are strikingly different kinds of teachings in each major rabbinic corpus as well that need to be acknowledged. 

Young has acknowledged the difficulties of dating the rabbinic traditions but then proceeds to draw on a wide variety of teachings from many different eras and documents, without subjecting to them (or at least without showing the reader how he has subjected them) to his own criteria of sifting those more likely to be ancient enough to be relevant for Gospels studies from all the rest.  In one footnote, he acknowledges that Jacob Neusner has finally come around to acknowledging the amount of memorization and careful preservation of rabbinic tradition that went on in antiquity, at least as presented by Birger Gerhardsson, but he fails to observe that Neusner remains far more suspicious than Young is about how much of late rabbinica can be used for New Testament backgrounds.  More help in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the various camps in this debate is crucially needed.

Smaller concerns surround Young's insistence that Jesus taught in Hebrew rather than Aramaic, that Jesus celebrated the Passover with the Pharisees a different day from the Sadducees, and that providing food for one's enemy is a full parallel to Jesus' enemy-love command (Judaism does not envisage actually eating with one's enemy).  The reading of Aboth 3:19 preferred by Safrai seems better than the one Young has chosen, because it preserves a parallel paradox:  "Everything is foreseen, nonetheless freedom of choice is given.  The world is judged by grace, and all is according to the increase of the works performed" (vs. the reading is not in the last clause).

Only a few typos mar an otherwise quite attractive volume.  The format of footnote 1 on p. 64 is awry and Orbis publishes in Maryknoll not in New York City.  On p. 82, "descendent" should be "descendant," while on p. 83 "complied" should read "compiled."  "Cradel" appears instead of "cradle" on p. 183.  Lapide's and Luz's Jesus in Two Perspectives first appeared in 1985 not in 1971.

Overall, however, this is a very insightful volume that deserves a wide audience, makes a warm contribution to Jewish-Christian dialogue, and shows where comparative studies need to focus more attention.  As Young himself points out more than once, again in understandable frustration, if the second-through-sixth-century Gnostic literature can be mined for insights relevant to New Testament studies (and this has certainly been overdone), the rabbinica should be even more fair game.  It is, in any event, far closer to the world and worldview of Jesus.

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Semianry
January 2008