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Are there Tannaitic parallels to the Gospels?

This book is a disgrace to its author and a disgrace to its publisher. The scholarship is shoddy, the writing repetitious, the tone vituperative, and the argumentation flawed. "Do not think these harsh judgments exaggerated or abusive. They are well merited and well founded" (p. 2).(1)

The ostensible point of this book (hereafter, Refutation), as indicated by the title, is that Morton Smith's Ph.D. dissertation, completed at the Hebrew University in 1945, defended in 1948, and published in 1951 as Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels,(2) was bungled: that it was " . . . a dissertation of . . . surpassingly commonplace triviality, offering . . . exceptionally ineffable platitudes" (p. 38). "Smith introduced questions he did not answer, took for granted facts that were not facts, confused his categories in a memorable display of conceptual bungling, and proved everything and its opposite in a mess of contradiction and confusion" (p. 39). This rhetoric notwithstanding, Refutation bills itself as "a civil, academic reply to [Smith's] ideas" (p. 39).

In fact, the book is meant to be a refutation, not just of Smith's doctoral dissertation, but of Smith's entire life and career. The failure of the dissertation, Neusner argues, presages a career that was "tragic" and "fruitless" (p. 157), not to mention "sad and arid" (p. xiii). Smith was "a clever man - not brilliant, in conceptual matters a complete bungler, but clever" (p. 19), "clever but not very smart" (pp. 21, 31), a "second rate mind" (p. 34), "a rather ordinary, and in fact, quite limited, mind" (p. 31), "not very smart" (p. 14), "not a very painstaking or patient scholar, hasty in drawing conclusions and sloppy in presenting them, superficial" (p. 157), "a bungler at problems of a philosophical character" (p. 12, cf. p. 31), "ignorant and incompetent" (p. 38). "In his last years he was generally regarded as a crank, and, by the end, little short of a crackpot. He died a figure of ridicule, lacking influence outside of his own personal sect" (p. 25). "Smith knew two terms of supreme abuse: know-nothing and fundamentalist. He knew whereof he cursed, for he himself was both" (p. 25). Refutation is filled with such ad hominem judgments.

Why such vituperation? Early in his career Neusner and Smith were very close. In the autobiographical introduction (pp. 6-9 and 15-25, annoyingly repetitive) Neusner explains that Smith was "the first, the only, and the last authentic teacher I ever had" (p. 7, cf. p. x). "For an important chapter in my scholarly career, from 1959-1973, I was Smith's student and disciple" (p. 17). But suddenly in 1973 Smith told Neusner that he no longer intended to read any of his books (pp. 19, 22). Undeterred, our author continued to curry favor with the master. In 1975 he organized and produced a massive four-volume Festschrift in his honor, in the preface to which he called Smith "one of the great scholarly masters of this generation."(3) In 1979, when asked to name the three spiritual books that had been the most important influence on his life, Neus-ner named in first place Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, calling it "the most beautifully argued work of historical reason I know"(4) (for some reason this quote nowhere appears in the book under review). But then, at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion-Society of Biblical Literature in 1979, Smith ostentatiously walked out of the auditorium while Neusner was giving a plenary address (p. 22). At the 1984 A.A.R.-S.B.L. meeting, after Neusner gave another plenary lecture, Smith took the lectern and denounced Neusner's translation of the Palestinian Talmud (the Yerushalmi) as "a serious misfortune for Jewish studies." He then proceeded to walk up and down the central aisle of the auditorium, distributing copies of a book review that substantiated his denunciation.(5) Refutation is apparently Neusner's attempt to get even - an obituary that brings closure to an intense and troubled relationship.

Why did Smith break with Neusner? Just before the 1984 meeting, Smith explained to me that, because he had been instrumental in launching Neusner's career, he felt responsible for the "slovenliness" of Neusner's scholarship, which had grown worse over the years. Neusner had proven to be incorrigible in this matter, and therefore Smith wanted to dissociate himself publicly from his student. Whether Smith's own explanation of his actions is correct - and, even if it be correct, whether other motives contributed as well - I leave for others to determine. Refutation gives us Neusner's side. Neusner cannot conceive that any failing on his part occasioned Smith's outburst. On the contrary. He conjectures that he and Smith "parted company for substantive, scholarly reasons" (pp. 24-25; cf. pp. x, 5-6, 39). By 1973 Neusner had reached the conclusion "that no conventional, narrative history could emerge from the rabbinic literature" (p. 20). According to Neusner, Smith could not tolerate this conclusion, because "sayings and stories of rabbinic literature in his hands provided facts - unexamined, uncriticized facts - that would permit him to tell the world who and what Jesus really was" (p. 20). Thus Smith had to break with Neusner. This explanation is disingenuous. Smith enjoyed scholarly controversy, maintained good relations with numerous people who disagreed with him in matters large and small, never believed that "sayings and stories of rabbinic literature" would provide "facts - unexamined, uncriticized facts,"(6) and certainly did not believe that sayings and stories of rabbinic literature would provide facts about Jesus (!!). Anyone who knew Smith or who has read any of his writings will recognize instantly the implausibility of Neusner's explanation.

Smith's erudition was broad and deep; he published books and articles on the Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism, the New Testament and early Christianity, Greek manuscripts and Roman history, ancient magic and religion. Since Neusner could not review and "refute" all this, his strategy in Refutation is to magnify Tannaitic Parallels and belittle all the rest of Smith's work, so that a refutation of the former could serve in lieu of a refutation of the latter. This strategy accounts for the astounding statement that Smith, the author of eight books, co-author of one, co-editor of two, author of some 130 articles, and some 120 reviews,(7) was "not a very productive scholar" (p. 156, cf. p. 5).

Most scholars grow and mature after their doctoral dissertations. Not Smith, according to Neusner. Tannaitic Parallels is "Smith's one weighty contribution to the study of Judaism" (p. ix; cf. pp. 3, 5, 140), the only one of his books that represents "authentic and original scholarship" (p. 5), and "the only book he wrote that still can be read for its actual scholarship, not merely for the history of scholarship" (p. 16). In fact, it is Smith's "most important writing" (p. 156). These judgments are highly debatable. Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament,(8) Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel Attributed to Mark, and Jesus the Magician(9) are far greater intellectual achievements than Tannaitic Parallels, and all of them make weighty contributions to the study of Judaism (or does Neusner not regard the Jesus movement and early Christianity as forms of Judaism?). The fact that Smith never - well, almost never (see below) - returned to the topic of his dissertation might be thought an indication of intellectual growth and maturation. Not so, according to Neusner. He concludes that "Smith really was a dilettante, and once he had passed his opinion on a subject, he did not return to it. A review of his bibliography reveals a devastating fact. None - not one! - of his books relates in problem or even topic to any other. He just flitted from this to that" (p. 12, cf. pp. 156-57). So much for Neusner's appreciation of intellectual growth and diversity of interests.

On pp. 31-36 Neusner surveys the "lesser theses" of Tannaitic Parallels, that is, the arguments of chapters 16 and 8 of the book. Needless to say, all the arguments are found wanting: "trivial" (p. 32), "diffuse, confused, and pointless" (p. 33), etc. Chapter seven, entitled "Parallels of Parallelism," which made a deep impression on the young Neusner (p. 140), is the real subject of the refutation. In this chapter Smith argued that "the problem of the relationship between the Tosefta and the Mishnah is similar to the synoptic problem . . .; they are so similar as to be practically inseparable, and . . . any theory begun from a study of the one literature should have immediate application to the study of the other" (Tannaitic Parallels, p. 143). The entire chapter is reprinted verbatim by Neusner (pp. 41-63). Its "refutation" opens with a chapter on "The Character of the Tosefta" (pp. 65-86), proceeds to three chapters on "The Facts of Mishnah-Tosefta Relationships" (pp. 87-129), and reaches its climax with "Are There Really Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels?" (pp. 131-59).

Neusner concludes that Tannaitic Parallels is a poor piece of work. Poor by what criterion? Surely Neusner does not mean that almost fifty years after Smith wrote his dissertation and almost forty-five years after its publication, scholarship has advanced to the point that we can now declare Smith to have been wrong on this point or that - such annotation belongs in a footnote. Neusner must mean that Smith's dissertation was a poor piece of work in its own time and place. "No one familiar with Gospel research even then [my italics] could have found them [i.e., the theses of Tannaitic Parallels] more than marginal improvements of existing knowledge and method" (p. 4, cf. pp. 17, 141). One way to prove this assertion is to consult the reviews of the book; surely Smith's contemporaries would have seen the book's banality, triviality, and conceptual bungling. Seventeen reviews appeared in scholarly journals in the early and mid 1950s. Some were more positive than others, to be sure, but only one review was negative, and even that review did not regard the book as banal, trivial, and bungled. Most reviews praised the book.(10) Here are some excerpts: "Dr. Smith is to be congratulated on his accomplishment. His book will be very helpful and useful to the serious student of the NT" (S. Zeitlin); "His work cannot be praised too highly for its solid scholarship" (S. S. Cohon); "Dr. Smith's book . . . will be of the greatest importance to New Testament scholars" (O. S. Rankin); "ein nutzliches Werk" (R. Schnackenburg); "C'est une etude tres originale que ses defauts memes rendent attrayante et suggestive . . . un travail tres meritoire" (L. Cerfaux); "une etude de haute valeur scientifique" (van Puyvelde). These reviews show that, at least by the scholarly standards of the time, Smith's dissertation was considered a solid achievement - and let us not forget that even in 1979 Neusner himself regarded the book as "the most beautifully argued work of historical reason I know." Neusner nowhere cites or acknowledges the existence of these judgments by scholars of note.

I turn now to the substance of Neusner's critique. Neusner argues that Smith was wrong to have spoken of "Parallels of Parallelism," because the relationship between Matthew and Luke is very different from that between Mishnah and Tosefta. Matthew and Luke are independent compositions, linked by their use of common written sources (Mark and Q), while "the Tosefta by contrast is secondary, derivative, dependent. . . . [F]or most of the document . . . we cannot understand a line without first consulting the Mishnah's counterpart statement" (pp. 66-67). Furthermore, there is no common source behind the Tosefta and the Mishnah: there is no Q. Hence, concludes Neusner, even the richest chapter of Smith's book is wrong and Smith's conceptual bungling is revealed. Neusner presented a condensed version of this argument in a brief article in 1986 (nowhere mentioned in Refutation) and was answered in an even briefer article by Smith.(11) Smith's response is that "the question whether or not M[ishnah] and T[osefta] have the same relation to each other as do the Gospels is irrelevant to the question whether or not their relation is of the same kind, viz., synoptic." In Tannaitic Parallels Smith contented himself with the observation that the Mishnah and Tosefta are synoptic texts, just as Matthew and Luke are synoptic texts; the truth of this observation is not vitiated by the fact that the relationship between these two sets of texts is not identical (a fact explicitly noted in Tannaitic Parallels, 149-50). In Tannaitic Parallels Smith concerned himself with the extant texts of Matthew and Luke, Mishnah and Tosefta. He was not interested in the hypothetical common sources and other scholarly constructs by which the literary relationships of these texts might be explained.(12) Smith's published response to Neusner is important for two reasons: first, it shows that Neusner misinterpreted Smith's argument in Tannaitic Parallels; second, Neusner's failure to cite Smith's response - if only to attempt to rebut it - is further evidence of Neusner's selective and tendentious scholarship.

These traits are also evident in the heart of Neusner's would-be "refutation." As a sample passage of the Mishnah-Tosefta relationship, Neusner offers Mishnah Berakhot 8 and its parallel in Tosefta Berakhot 5:21 and 5:25-31. The texts are presented in translation, first separately and then synoptically in parallel columns (pp. 75-81). After the presentation Neusner concludes: "The pattern is clear. We simply cannot understand a line of the Tosefta without turning to the Mishnah" (p. 81). This conclusion is not true. The first part of the Tosefta passage, T. Berakhot 5:25-28, is as independent and free-standing as the Mishnah. Neusner assumes that the Tosefta is citing the Mishnah and supplementing it with explanatory material, but nothing in the text necessitates that conclusion; an equally defensible hypothesis is that the Tosefta is a fuller recension either of the Mishnah or of the source from which the Mishnah derives. In any case, it is false to say of this section, "we simply cannot understand a line of the Tosefta without turning to the Mishnah." The Tosefta is entirely understandable on its own.

The second part of the Tosefta passage differs from the first. Tosefta 5:30 seems to presume our Mishnaic text, as Neusner argues, but it is striking that here the Tosefta rejects the Mishnah: R. Judah declares that the Mishnah's version of a debate between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai is wrong and offers an alternative. Whence comes this alternative, and what might it say about the history of the Mishnaic version? Neusner does not see the question. Tosefta 5:30 proceeds with what appears to be an entirely different version of material that appears in the Mishnah; that is, it does not cite, explicate, or supplement our Mishnah, but appears to be a different version of the Mishnah (or of the material from which the Mishnah itself descends). Neusner offers no comment.(13) Tosefta 5:31 offers yet another novelty: the Tosefta reverses the order of the paragraphs in the parallel Mishnah. Most striking, 5:21, which is parallel to Mishnah 8:8, the end of the Mishnaic chapter, appears in the Tosefta before 5:25, the parallel to the beginning of the Mishnaic chapter. Neusner states that "the Tosefta passage before us must have been composed after the Mishnah was in hand . . . and that the authorship of the Tosefta had in mind the clarification of the received document, the Mishnah" (p. 81). But if this is so, why does the Tosefta's sequence differ from the Mishnah's? Why does the Tosefta sometimes offer different versions of the Mishnaic material? Neusner ignores these questions, merely restating his hypothesis of Mishnah-Tosefta relations as if it were a demonstrated fact. Far from proving Neusner's argument and disproving Smith's, these chapters of M. and T. Berkahot seem to demonstrate that, at least here, the Mishnah and the Tosefta are indeed synoptic texts, precisely as Smith had stated, and that simplistic explanations, of the sort enunciated by Neusner in Refutation (and elsewhere), are inadequate. Even in his parade example of the Mishnah-Tosefta relationship, Neusner does not get his facts straight and (to paraphrase Neusner's critique of Smith) gives a memorable display of conceptual bungling.(14)

Much more could be said about this book and what it reveals about the personality and scholarship of its author, but enough. By publishing this volume, Scholars Press has belittled itself and served as the author's vanity press. This book does Morton Smith no harm and Jacob Neusner no credit.

1 In order that my own motivations in writing this review should be as transparent as possible, I offer the following autobiographical information. Morton Smith was my Doktorvater at Columbia University. After I received my Ph.D. in 1975, we remained on good terms. He read and commented on much of my work before publication, and I was honored to return the favor. He appointed me his literary executor, and I am now compiling two volumes of his collected articles for publication. In 1991, the year of Smith's death, I succeeded Jacob Neusner as Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University and as editor of Brown Judaic Studies. Appendix two of the book under review is entitled "Smith's Legacy of Selective Fundamentalism in the Writing of S. J. D. Cohen" (pp. 167-77; cf. pp. 12-13, 27). Neusner there criticizes one of my articles, but the criticism is inconsequential. My sole objective in this review is to defend Morton Smith and his scholarship from the unjustified post-mortem attacks of Jacob Neusner.

2 Journal of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, vol. 6 (Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1951).

3 Christianity, Judaism, and Other Greco-Roman Cults: Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty, ed. Jacob Neusner, 4 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 1:x.

4 New Review of Books and Religion 4:3 (1979): 24.

5 For a description of the event, including the full text of Smith's remarks, see H. Shanks, "Annual Meetings Offer Intellectual Bazaar and Moments of High Drama," BAR 11.2 (1985): 14-16. The book review distributed by Smith was S. Lieberman, "A Tragedy or a Comedy?" JAOS 104 (1984): 315-19. Neusner (pp. 23-24) makes three mistakes in describing this event: Smith did not speak "some twenty or twenty-five minutes" - he spoke only two or three; Smith did not denounce Neusner as a "charlatan" - the word and the sentiment nowhere appear in Smith's remarks; Smith was not greeted by "gales of laughter" - the audience was "stunned" (as the BAR article reports).

6 Already in Tannaitic Parallels Smith wrote the following, "I think it clear from the above passages that T[annaitic] L[iterature] contains forms parallel to the forms introduced in the synoptics as sermons . . . . But it cannot be concluded that any one of these 'sermons' is in fact an outline of something once actually preached, for an editor might easily compose a sermon . . . merely for the benefit of his book" (pp. 109-10).

7 On p. 4, Neusner writes that "a review of [Smith's] publications shows that most of the items on his bibliography are book reviews, in a ratio of something like six to one over published articles." How Neusner arrived at this figure, I do not know.

8 New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1971.

9 Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973; New York: Harper and Row, 1978. Neusner claims that Smith presented Jesus as "a charlatan, a homosexual, or a magician" (pp. 3, 16, 25, 27, 28, n. 11) - but this is a caricature of Smith's view. At p. 28, n. 11 Neusner states: "The course of NT scholarship from the Clement fragment was completely unaffected by Smith's 'discovery,' which made no impact whatsoever." Contrast, for example, P. Sellew, "Secret Mark and the History of Canonical Mark," in The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, ed. Birger Pearson (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress, 1991), 242-57.

10 Reviews: J. A., Studios Ecclesiasticos (July 1952); E. P. Arbez, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 14 (1952): 191-94; P. Benoit, Revue biblique 59 (1952): 120-22; L. Cerfaux, Revue d'histoire ecclesiastique 48 (1953): 990-91; S. S. Cohon, Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (1953): 64-66; M. Goldstein, Journal of Bible and Religion 19 (1951): 223 [non vidi]; H. Ljungman, Svensk teologisk kvartalskrift 28 (1952): 62-64 [non vidi]; C. van Puyvelde, Recherches de theologie ancienne et medievale (Louvain) 20 (1953): 155-56; O. S. R[ankin], Society for Old Testament Study Book List (1952), reprinted in Eleven Years of Bible Bibliography: The Book Lists of the Society for Old Testament Study 1946-1956, ed. H. H. Rowley (Indian Hills, Colo.: Falcon's Wing Press, 1957), 444; J. M. G. Ruiz, Estudios Biblicos 11 (1952): 346; R. Schnackenburg, Theologische Revue 49 (1953): 149-50; C. Spicq, Revue des sciences philosophiques et theologiques 37 (1953): 142-43; G. Vermes, Cahiers sioniens 9 (1955): 102-4; P. Vielhauer, Zeitschrift fur Kirchengeschichte 64 (1952-53): 191; P. R. Weis, Antiquite classique 21 (1952): 239-40; S. Zeitlin, Jewish Quarterly Review 43 (1952-53): 196-99. The one negative review is J. Jeremias, Theologische Literaturzeitung 78 (1953): 222 ("Im ganzen ist jedoch die Ausbeute . . . sehr gering . . . . die Kentnisse des Verfassers in der neutestamentlichen Fachliteratur unzureichend sind. Er merkt nicht, dass er weithin Bekanntes wiederholt, und fuhrt Unwichtiges breit aus.")

11 Jacob Neusner, "The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature," JBL 105 (1986): 499-507; Morton Smith, "The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature: A Correction," JBL 107 (1988): 111-12.

12 In his review Benoit writes: "Comme il fallait s'y attendre, ces deux cas de parallelisme presentent entre eux bien des analogies; mais ils presentent aussi d'importantes differences. Il est clair que la Tosephta n'est pas a la Mishna ce que Lc. est a Mt.; mais ici se pose un probleme de sources, probleme qui met en jeu des theories 'historiques,' et cela represente aux yeux de M.S. une voie de perdition dans laquelle il refuse energiquement de s'engager." For Smith's concern with the gospel texts as extant, and not with hypothetically reconstructed sources, see Tannaitic Parallels, 86-87; for Smith's abnegation of historical speculation, see Tannaitic Parallels, 159 - a striking sentiment that arouses Neusner's ire on pp. 1, 20, 36-37. Neusner seems unaware that "Q" is entirely a hypothesis, rejected in some scholarly circles, and much debated even among those who accept it. In other words, Neusner's acceptance of the Q-hypothesis is a violation of his own sophomoric dictum: "What we cannot show, we do not know" (pp. 8, 21, 28, n. 11).

13 I pass over the fact that his two translations of the Tosefta, first as a separate document on pp. 76-78 and second as part of the synoptic comparison on pp. 78-81, differ from each other for no explicable reason, and that the translation of Tosefta 5:30 on p. 80 seems to conflate two translations of the passage, one immediately after the other.

14 Neusner, of course, is capable of better. M. Berakhot 8 and its parallel in the Tosefta also figure prominently in Neusner's Invitation to the Talmud (San Francisco: Harper, 1984). There too Neusner commits numerous errors in points of detail, but there, at least, he gives a sober and accurate assessment of the relationship between M. Berakhot 8 and the Tosefta (p. 88): "Here we shall see two quite different types of relationship. In the first . . . the Tosefta seems to be a commentary on, and expansion of, the Mishnah . . . In the second . . . the Tosefta gives rules which are in substance the same as the Mishnah's, but it gives those rules in very different language . . . Here it looks as though the Tosefta's lengthy sayings have been summarized by the Mishnah's. Alternatively, we have two autonomous versions, or, third, the authors of the Tosefta amplify and so explain the Mishnah's statements. I incline to the third explanation" [italics mine]. The sophomoric certainty and silly exaggerations of Refutation are absent.
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Author:Cohen, Shaye J.D.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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