I was saddened to hear of the death of Jacob Neusner at the age of 84. Neusner, who was born in 1932, died on October 8 of this year. The death of Neusner marks the end of an era in Judaic studies, and the end of the life of one of the most fascinating and even controversial figures in Jewish and related studies over the last several decades.
Neusner was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and was educated at Harvard for his undergraduate degree in history, the Jewish Theological Seminary for his rabbinic education, and Columbia University/Union Theological Seminary for his PhD in religion. He also spent a year at Oxford. He went on to teach at a number of prestigious institutions, including Dartmouth College, Brown University, the University of South Florida, and Bard College for the last twenty years of his academic life. I will never forget the joy that Bruce Chilton expressed when he informed me and some others that Neusner was going to be joining him at Bard. This resulted in their working together on a number of projects on the intersection of Christianity and Judaism.
Throughout his career Neusner was a catalyst for the development of ideas and publications. He was known for his distinctive views of Judaism, many of which went against the grain of those who took a more religious view of Judaism. Neusner saw greater diversity in Judaism than did others, and wrote and translated a number of works in support of his hypothesis. However, the area in which Neusner excelled beyond virtually all others was in the number of his publications. He reportedly wrote or edited over 950 books, which means that throughout his academic career he produced an average of around 17 books per year—more in one year than most scholars produce in their entire academic lives.
There is a story that I heard one time (no doubt apocryphal, but it captures the feeling of Neusner’s productivity) that a graduate student stopped by Neusner’s house to see the professor. The student knocked on the door, and it was answered by Neusner’s wife. The student said, “I am one of Dr. Neusner’s students and I was wondering if he was available.” His wife answered, “I’m sorry, but Dr. Neusner is busy writing a book,” to which the student replied: “That’s okay, I’ll wait!”
The stature of the man is seen in the fact that at a Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion annual meeting, I was walking by one of the small restaurants that are found throughout various hotels. I saw Neusner seated alone at one of the tables, trying to eat something in peace amidst the hurriedness of the meetings. Suddenly another scholar rushed up to Neusner’s table, grabbed his hand and started pumping it, and said, “I’m Dr. So and So, and Dr. Neusner, I just wanted to shake the hand of someone great,” at which point the man turned and walked away—leaving a rather bewildered and no doubt bemused Dr. Neusner.
My last contact with Neusner was a couple of years ago when he invited me to contribute a chapter to a Festschrift for his colleague, Bruce Chilton (“The Legacy of B.F. Westcott and Oral Gospel Tradition,” in Earliest Christianity within the Boundaries of Judaism: Essays in Honor of Bruce Chilton [ed. Alan Avery-Peck, Craig A. Evans, and Jacob Neusner; BRLJ 49; Leiden: Brill, 2016]). I gladly accepted the invitation. The book appeared earlier this year, with Neusner one of three editors of perhaps his last book—although one would need to be cautious in making such an assertion.
— Stanley E. Porter