Daniel J. Harrington
John P. Meier revisits the historical Jesus.
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Over the past 30 years there has been a lively renewal of interest in the quest of the historical Jesus on both scholarly and popular levels. What had been mainly the preserve of liberal German Protestant scholars has become an international and interconfessional enterprise. Among the very best results of this development has been the multivolume investigation by the Rev. John P. Meier entitled A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.

Meier, a priest of the archdiocese of New York, is professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame. What began as a projected two-volume effort at rethinking the quest of the historical Jesus now includes a fourth volume, with a fifth volume in preparation. The first volume, The Roots of the Problem and the Person (1991), treated sources and methodology and began the discussion of Jesus’ life. The second volume, Mentor, Message, and Miracles (1994), dealt with John the Baptist, Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom and his miracles. The third volume, Companions and Competitors (2001), considered Jesus in his relationships with other Jews and situated him in the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism. The fifth volume will concern Jesus’ parables, his self-designations or titles, and what led to his death.

Rules and Prohibitions

In this fourth volume—Law and Love (Anchor/Yale Univ. Press; 752p $55)—on the Jewish Law and Jesus’ love commands, Meier argues that Jesus’ approach to the Torah seems to have been neither total rejection of the Law, nor a dialectic that embraces yet in effect rejects the Law, nor a total affirmation of the Law that simply involved legitimate (though debatable) interpretations of individual practices. After a 25-page introduction, he considers the flexible and evolving concept of Law (Torah) around the time of Jesus.

Next he discusses Jesus’ sweeping prohibition of divorce and his total prohibition of any and all oaths. Then he takes up Sabbath observance as one of the most prominent identity badges of Jews in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Next he deals with the purity rules as one of the most difficult, sprawling and contentious areas of legal debate and development in ancient Judaism. Finally, he explores whether the historical Jesus ever addressed the question of the Law as a whole, giving some indication of how he thought its various parts related to the totality of the Torah; and he considers which, if any, of the love commands in the Gospels come from the historical Jesus, and what precisely are their range and meaning.

Meier defines his task as history rather than theology. In this volume his primary goal is “to reconstruct as best we can what a first-century Jewish prophet and teacher named Jesus of Nazareth said about divorce” and the other topics pertaining to the Jewish Law that he treats. The qualification “as best we can” recognizes the limits of any historical investigation. The terms “prophet” and “teacher” represent how at the very least his first-century Jewish contemporaries would have perceived Jesus. While the major sources are the Synoptic Gospels, Meier’s primary concern as a historian is to get behind them and try to determine what can be discovered about the person and teaching of Jesus during his public ministry.

Important Criteria

Central to Meier’s undertaking in this and other volumes are the criteria of historicity developed by New Testament scholars in the mid-20th century. The five primary criteria are embarrassment (what created difficulty for the early church), discontinuity (with regard to Judaism and early Christianity), multiple attestation (material found in several independent traditions), coherence (what best fits with the first three criteria) and rejection and execution (what led to Jesus’ death). The secondary (or more dubious) criteria include traces of Aramaic, Palestinian environment, vivid narration and the supposed tendencies of the developing tradition. Meier’s project involves applying these criteria to practically everything in the Synoptic Gospels (and occasionally to John) and discerning what may be attributed with confidence to the historical Jesus. While some scholars have questioned the validity of applying these criteria to Jesus, at the very least they do tell us some valuable things about Jesus’ life and teaching.

Meier contends that the question of Jesus and the Law cannot be answered by a single neat solution with no loose ends. From his historical analysis, he concludes that Jesus forbade divorce and remarriage as well as the swearing of oaths; that without rejecting Sabbath observance entirely, he staked out distinctive opinions on various halachic (legal) matters; that his studied indifference to ritual impurity reflects his claim to be a charismatic prophet of the end time; and that the double command to love God and the neighbor as well as the command to love enemies very likely go back to the historical Jesus. Meier observes that this volume (and the others) hammers home the basic truth that “Jesus was first, last, and always a product of the Judaism native to the land of Israel.” Or as he states repeatedly, “the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus,” however fragmentary our knowledge may be.

While not by academic training a specialist in Second Temple Judaism, Meier has made himself into one, at least in those matters that pertain to Jesus. His ability to work with many difficult Jewish texts and his ample bibliographies attest to his mastery of the Jewish context in which Jesus lived and worked. Moreover, in dealing with the very complex topics that come under his subtitle Law and Love, Meier shows himself to be a sober historian who carefully sifts through the relevant texts, constructs forceful arguments and comes to solid and measured conclusions. Rather than setting out with a thesis to be proved, he allows his conclusions to emerge from rigorous scrutiny of the evidence.

Arguing From Evidence

Meier has been criticized by some for his rigidly historicist stance and his unwillingness to delve deeply into theology. But Meier makes abundantly clear the parameters of his undertaking and leaves theology to others. In his very different book, Jesus of Nazareth (2007), Pope Benedict XVI describes Meier’s work as “a model of historical-critical exegesis, in which the significance and the limits of the method emerge clearly.”

A Marginal Jew, Vol. 4: Law and Love (and the other volumes) can be read straight through, and then kept and consulted as a reference work. Yet it is not for the fainthearted. It presupposes a willingness to work through difficult textual material in both Second Temple Jewish literature and the New Testament. Meier makes it possible for nonspecialists to follow his arguments by his clear style, logical presentations and frequent summaries. The notes at the end of each chapter provide supportive evidence from ancient sources, lively discussions of other scholars’ views and extensive bibliographies.

Those who persevere will see concretely how a learned biblical exegete constructs a series of historical arguments that shed new light on ancient texts and on the person of Jesus. The term “monumental” seems fitting for Meier’s project, whose completion is eagerly awaited. The four volumes published thus far belong on the bookshelf wedged between Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah (1977; rev. ed., 1993) and his The Death of the Messiah (1994) as classics in American Catholic biblical scholarship.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and editor of New Testament Abstracts. He is also author of Jesus: A Historical Portrait (2007).

Comments

LEONARD VILLA | 10/14/2009 - 10:43pm
Pope Benedict mentions the meaning and the limitations of the methods Fr. Meier uses.  To me that's the key issue and where an in-depth critique is needed.  Does the method yield truth as to what really happened? What is the truth-value of such a method? What are the philosophical presuppositions and limitations of the method? 
The Jesus of history/Jesus of faith dichotomy has a troubled past, a dichotomy which Pope John Paul II rejects in his encyclical, Redemptoris Missio #6: One cannot separate Jesus from the Christ or speak of a "Jesus of history" who would differ from the "Christ of faith."  
There is danger lurking here as to the history vs. theology approach: the danger of a double-truth theory which was so odious to Thomas  Aquinas, the notion that you can have one truth in the realm of historical research while claiming to hold contrary truths that are part of the Catholic Faith and its biblical theology.