Originally published in BSOAS 35:3 (1972), pp. 626-627.
Jacob Neusner: The, Rabbinic traditions about the Pharisees before 70. 3 vols.: xvi, 419; xiv, 353; xvi, 427pp. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971. Guilders 264.
Many essays have been written by theologians, Christian and Jewish, on what they accepted as Hillel’s version of the golden rule: ‘That which is hateful unto thee do not do unto thy neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). The questions the theologians ask are: Is Hi1lel’s formulation superior or inferior to that of Jesus? What precisely did Hillel mean by it? What in Hillel’s scheme is the relationship between religion and ethics? It is taken for granted that Hillel actually said what he is reported to have said. But our sole source of information is a Talmudic passage which, at a conservative estimate, was compiled over 200 years after Hillel and is set in the contest of a number of tales designed to show how mild and long-suffering Hillel was in comparison with the irascible Shammai. It is one of the oddities of Talmudic scholarship that conclusions as to the historical facts about the life of Hillel can have been drawn from such flimsy evidence. From the tale, of which Hillel is the hero, we are not even justified in concluding that Hillel was really ‘mild’ let alone that he really did formulate a version of the golden rule. It is as if Roman historians were solemnly to discuss what Mark Antony had in mind when he said: ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’.
In both Old and New Testament scholarship it is universally recognized, nowadays, that before any historical conclusions can be drawn from a text about the persons mentioned in it a number of questions have to be answered. What is the date of the text? What was the writer’s intention? Did he purport to convey information about the past and, if he did, how did he come by his knowledge? In the field of Rabbinic scholarship even outstanding critical scholars have been, and are, guilty of accepting everything the Talmudic and Midrashic sources say about the past, as if these texts provide the most accurate information about events that happened centuries before the texts were compiled and as if the texts themselves had no history. Practically all the books and learned articles on the Pharisees quote the Rabbinic sources as if they contained reliable information about these men, whereas the truth is that all these sources allow us to do is to see how later Jewish teachers read back their ideas into pre-70 C.E. teachers like Hillel and Shammai. None of the Rabbinic sources provides us with identifiable eyewitness accounts of the Pharisees and their teachings.
This is Neusner’s startling but very well-documented thesis, supported by a formidable array of all the relevant texts accompanied by a rigorous form-critical approach. While Neusner acknowledges his indebtedness to one or two predecessors, his attempt is the first to apply the method systematically and thoroughly to early Rabbinic literature. These volumes can be described as epoch-making and no student of the literature can afford to ignore them.
Not that everything Neusner says is incontestable. For instance, when discussing (III, 334) H. J. Zimmels’s ingenious conjecture that in the Talmudic story Jesus did not ‘put up a brick’ but a ‘fish’ (bynt’), Neusner remarks: ‘This sort of explanation of texts would be interesting, if one could find any good reason why the teller of the story should have wanted to represent Jesus as worshipping a fish rather than a “brick” which might mean a stamped clay tablet. In the absence of such a reason, the explanation is not compelling’. But Zimmels, in the article quoted, gives a reason, namely, the well-known use of the fish in Christian symbolism (see ERE, xii, 138). Neusner remarks (I, 259) that the story of Hillel being refused admission to the lecture because he could not afford the fees shows that when the story was told fees were paid, since if it had not been common practice ‘no one hearing the story could have believed it’. This is extremely weak. The teller of the story might have projected the practice (found nowhere else in the literature) of paying fees into ancient times in order to heighten the dramatic effect in telling how Hillel, in his devotion to learning, was forced to climb up and sit at the window. Generally speaking, Neusner does not sufficiently consider the possibility that some of the tales and, indeed, the other types of literature might have been especially contrived in order to produce dramatic effect, a phenomenon to be observed in the later Amoraic literature.
Neusner’s lengthy appendix, entitled ‘Bibliographical reflections’, contains a devastating, but fully justified, critique of scholars (including some very famous names) who have had too credulous an attitude towards the sources. He takes to task especially pseudo-critical scholars who profess to use critical methods and yet do not scruple in the process to build theses on unexamined texts.