I read with interest the discussion below on John Meier, since I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time yesterday evening. Meier was the invited speaker at the Graduate Theological Union’s 19th Annual “Reading of the Sacred Texts” lecture. The event was held at the GTU library, which was fitting since Meier spent so much time there while writing the fourth volume of his series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.
Alliteratively subtitled “Law and Love,” the book focuses on Jesus’ attitude toward the Mosaic Law. Examining several issues, including Jesus’ teaching on divorce, oaths, the Sabbath, purity rules, and the love commandments, Meier’s conclusion is that the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus. Far from seeking to abolish the Law, Jesus was deeply involved in Jewish debates over its interpretation and application.
One of the issues raised in the comment box discussion below was how Meier sees his project. In brief, Meier wants to know what can be known about Jesus through modern techniques of historical research. The aim is a portrait of Jesus that even non-Christians could theoretically accept. The scope is narrower than it appears, because there are many things about Jesus that, given the sources we have, simply cannot be known in this way. As Meier observed last night, “what we don’t know, we don’t know.” The resulting portrait of Jesus is, he readily concedes, a fragmentary and unstable reconstruction that cannot serve as the basis for a faith commitment. The “historical Jesus” is not the same as the “real Jesus.”
It is this methodological humility that separates Meier from many other contemporary writers on the historical Jesus. Unlike many members of the Jesus Seminar, who tend to fill in the gaps in our historical knowledge with highly speculative musings, Meier generally stops where the data stops. It also separates Meier from theologians who would like to use the historical Jesus as a control on the dogmatic claims of the broader tradition.
After Meier’s lecture, he took a question from a young theology student who was clearly a bit shaken by Meier’s assertion that Jesus may not have said some of the things attributed to him in the Gospels. The young man asked a somewhat complicated question which boiled down to whether we can then continue to preach the Gospel as true with integrity.
Meier responded that the Church’s belief that scripture is divinely inspired does not depend on their historical accuracy in all details. The Book of Genesis is just as divinely inspired as the Gospels, yet no one would claim that the creation accounts in Genesis are a historical record. The truths revealed by scripture are not primarily historical truths, but rather the truths that—as the Vatican II document Dei Verbum puts it—“God wanted put into sacred scripture for the sake of salvation.” Our four Gospels became canonical because the early Christian community recognized that, despite significant differences in style and detail, these writings echoed what they believed about Jesus. All in all, it was a good answer, albeit one likely to be more comforting to Catholics than Protestants.
As both Bob Imbelli and Joe Komonchak observed below, Meier has had his critics who question whether all this effort is producing something of value to the Church. While I don’t necessarily agree with every assertion he’s made over the course of his 3,000+ page journey (who could?), I generally count myself as a fan for a number of reasons.
First of all, as N.T. Wright has observed, the absence of high quality research on the historical Jesus does not mean there will be no research on the historical Jesus. It just means that it will be done badly and primarily by people with ideological axes to grind. While Meier is probably never going to get as much press as the people who make more exciting claims (“the body was stolen!”), his work acts as an important control on the more outlandish claims of some scholars.
Secondly, Meier’s review of the sources is extremely thorough, which is something of an understatement. Those of us who don’t have time to read the thousands of relevant documents in this area should be grateful that Meier has and that he presents the evidence as objectively as he can. If you want to draw different conclusions than Meier, at least you will have the relevant evidence at your disposal.
Finally, I think Meier has done us a particular service by treating the subject of the current volume. The Law/Gospel antithesis that is a legacy of the Reformation continues to be enormously influential in preaching and catechesis. There is a conservative Protestant version of this that seems to hold that the point of the Incarnation was to establish the doctrine of Justification by Faith. There is also, however, a liberal version that holds that Jesus was an opponent of institutional religion and its burdensome rules. Neither does justice to the complexity of the Jesus who emerges from the scriptures. While these issues have been thoroughly explored by a number of Protestant scholars, such as E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright, I’m not aware of a similarly thorough treatment from a Catholic perspective other than Meier’s.
Over the course of the evening, Meier repeatedly asserted that the fifth volume of the series will be his last (“if a Pentateuch was good enough for Moses, it’s good enough for me,” he said at one point to general laughter). However, since he plans to treat three enormously complex issues—Jesus’ parables, the titles of Jesus, and his death—I simply cannot imagine he will fit all of it into one volume. Whatever the result, I will certainly look forward to reading it.