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James Martin, S.J.March 17, 2003

I’m sort of a nut for the historical Jesus. Of course I’m a nut, or at least a fool, for Christ too, but as for my reading tastes, I much prefer books and articles about the Jesus of history than those on the Christ of faith. The historical (which can often read like detective stories) I find more captivating than the theological (which can occasionally read like philosophical treatises.)

As a Jesuit novice I was given the wonderful study Jesus Before Christianity, by Albert Nolan, O.P. (its 25th anniversary edition was published last year by Orbis Books), which provides a good introduction to the topics that concern scholars of the historical Jesus: what life was like in first-century Palestine, the historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth, how we might determine which utterances most likely came from the mouth of Jesus, which may have been edited later and so on. Father Nolan’s book helped me to picture in greater detail what life might have been like for the carpenter’s son, and in the process it helped me come to know better the one who stands at the center of our lives.

And a few months ago I finished the third volume of Msgr. John P. Meier’s magisterial study of the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, published by Anchor Books. The book is not only well researched (an enormous understatement) and well organized (another understatement); it is also beautifully written and even witty in placesas, for example, where the author takes aim at some of the methods of the Jesus Seminar. As far as I’m concerned, someone should canonize Monsignor Meier for his prodigious and generous scholarship. (And while they’re at it, the late Raymond E. Brown, S.S., too).

I have to admit that I was a bit proud of myself for having finished all three volumes. (The fourth and final volume is currently being written.) And when I’m puffed up, there’s nothing like working in a parish to unpuff me. During a homily one Sunday I spoke about the historical Jesus and mentioned that some of what I was discussing was taken from the second volume of Monsignor Meier’s book. I made sure to mention that it was a very long book, and that I had just finished it. After Mass an elderly parishioner said to me, casually, Father, I’m so glad you mentioned A Marginal Jew. I just finished Volume Three. As for my unjustified pride, well, that took care of that.

So given my interest in the historical Jesus, I was delighted to receive a few weeks ago a new CD called Ancient Voices. Recorded by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble, the CD is a collection described as re-creations of music from the time of Jesus and the Second Temple of Jerusalem.

The ensemble’s artistic director, Christopher Moroney, and its founder and general manager, Covita Moroney, have devoted themselves to rediscovering and recreating the sounds and prayers of the period, spending many hours studying the languages of the time, learning to play traditional instruments and tracking down rare musical manuscripts. The texts usedin Aramaic, Hebrew and Greekinclude the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes and the Shema prayer (Hear O Israel...). The instruments are modern reproductions of those known to have existed at the time of Christ, as well as contemporary Middle Eastern instruments that have evolved over the ages. They include the harp, the kinnor (or lyre), the shabbabah (a sort of flute) and the oud (a kind of lute).

The resulting CD is hauntingly beautiful and a remarkably good companion to prayer. The knowledge that one could be listening to sounds like those Jesus and his disciples may have heard (perhaps not the ipsissima sounds, but close enough) was, to me, deeply moving.

Now, did Jesus and his friends ever chant the Lord’s Prayer? Are we hearing melodies like those heard, say, at the wedding feast at Cana? To that hypothesis Father Meier would probably say Non liquet it can neither be proved nor disproved.

But, hey, you never know.

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17 years 2 months ago
Your Of Many Things column on March 17 referred to Jesus Before Christianity, by Albert Nolan, O.P. For six years in the late 1970’s, my family and I lived in Cape Town, South Africa, during which I did a three-year certificate program at the Kolbe School of Theology.

One of our three main teachers was Father Nolan. We had the privilege of reading Jesus Before Christianity the year before it was published. It was and is still a refreshing, provocative view of Jesus, which dramatically deepened my earlier beliefs and made them much more real. That change has persisted. My memory is that he had a similar impact on the other participants.

What a wonderful difference a single individual can make!

17 years 2 months ago
Thanks so much for the mention of our new CD in Of Many Things (3/17). Your words were wonderfully positive and appreciated. However, the correct title of the CD is “Ancient Echoes” (not “Ancient Voices”). Since many folks will be unable to find the CD using “Ancient Voices,” perhaps you could help them by telling them that they can obtain it from us by calling (800) 566-6150 or by visiting our Web site at www.wlpmusic.com. Thanks for your support.

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