This is the fourth of a projected five volumes written by one of the premier Catholic biblical scholars in the United States. Previous volumes tackled other fundamental issues of the quest for the historical Jesus: Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist (vol. 1); his fundamental message, and his miracles (vol. 2); and Jesus’ disciples and opponents (vol. 3). Still to come are the questions of Jesus’ parables, the titles assigned to him by the Gospels, and his passion—all to be addressed in a fifth and final volume (but can these topics be contained in one volume?). Anyone who has hefted one of Meier’s volumes knows they are in for a detailed, thorough, and indeed exhaustive treatment of the subject. (One of the footnotes on the issue of ritual purity in this volume runs to twelve pages of fine print.)

In volume 4, Meier tackles what he considers one of the most difficult subjects of all—namely, Jesus’ attitude to the Torah or the Mosaic Law. At the outset, Meier reminds his readers of the rigorously focused objective of his investigation. He is not presenting a study of Christology. He is not doing a study of the Gospels tinged with historical inquiry. He is not concerned here about the implications of Jesus’ teaching for moral theology. His focus is solely on the “historical Jesus,” by which he means: “that Jesus whom we can recover or reconstruct by using the scientific tools of modern historical research as applied to ancient sources.” Given the relative incompleteness of historical sources about Jesus, we should not confuse the “historical Jesus” so reconstructed with the full reality of Jesus of Nazareth; the “historical Jesus” does not include everything Jesus of Nazareth said or did. It also means, as the author repeatedly emphasizes, that he is not looking for, or even able to find, a coherent framework for all that the historical Jesus said and did. Key issues will be studied from the author’s stated perspective and the chips are allowed to fall where they will.

Meier also reminds the reader about the “rules of the road” that guide his probing of the Gospel sources; these are more or less standard criteria used by other scholars to identify materials in the gospel that are likely to be attributed to the historical Jesus rather than to the theological interests of the evangelists and the early Christian community. Meier identifies five criteria: (1) the principle of “embarrassment,” which refers to material unlikely to originate with the early church because of the difficulties it would pose for the early Christians (for example, that Jesus died by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans); (2) the principle of discontinuity, which refers to words or actions of Jesus that cannot be attributed to Judaism or to the early church; (3) the principle of multiple attestation, which involves sayings or actions of Jesus that appear in several independent streams of tradition (for example, a saying of Jesus in one of the synoptic Gospels that has echoes in the Pauline writings); (4) the principle of coherence, which refers to material that is in harmony with sayings and actions of Jesus identified by means of the other criteria; and (5) the principle of Jesus’ rejection and execution, that is, aspects of Jesus’ teaching and actions that help explain why he was rejected by powerful groups among his contemporaries.

Guided by a consistent and rigorous use of these criteria, Meier sets out to tackle the question of Jesus and the Law. He frankly states that almost all scholarship on this issue is flawed because it ends up reducing Jesus’ stance either to one of rejection of the law, or a subtle dialectic between rejection and acceptance, or cuts the Gordian knot and claims that Jesus’ conflicts with his opponents were only about interpretation of the law and did not involve rejection of any component of the law. Meier believes none of these options does justice to the complexity of the evidence. Part of the problem is that many scholars do not master the difficult topic of what the Torah and Torah interpretation entailed at the time of Jesus. One of the key features and powerful contributions of Meier’s prodigious scholarship is that he carefully investigates what we can know of the “historical Torah” in the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism—a task, he confesses, that is perhaps even more demanding than discovering the historical Jesus.

Armed with his methodological screen to help assess the Gospel materials, Meier turns to a selection of issues in the Gospels that deal with Jesus and the Mosaic Law: divorce, oaths, Sabbath observance, purity laws, and, finally, the love commandments. In each instance, he discusses what we know of Jewish legal observance in Jesus’ day, what pertinent Gospel texts should be considered, and what we can conclude from these about the stance of the historical Jesus. On the questions of whether divorce was permissible and Jesus’ prohibition of oath-taking, Meier concludes that Jesus’ positions—while fitting into the broader context of the legal interpretation of his day—nevertheless represent views that were contrary to what was understood to be permissible under the Mosaic Law. While the Torah permitted divorce under certain conditions, Jesus prohibits it, evoking the original plan of God in Genesis and anticipating the kind of ideal relationship between husband and wife characteristic of the endtime. While some postexilic Jewish traditions and Philo were wary of frivolous oaths, Jesus’ absolute prohibition goes further and forbids what the law permits.

In the case of Sabbath observance, Meier does not find any substantial difference between the historical Jesus’ perspective and that of his contemporaries. He concludes (drawing on material treated in earlier volumes) that while Jewish legal traditions forbade work of all kinds on the Sabbath, they did not forbid healing. The sharp controversies over Jesus’ healings on the Sabbath in the Gospels, in Meier’s view, represent later Christian polemical tradition and do not go back to the historical Jesus. Similarly in the case of the purity laws, Meier finds no contradiction between Jesus’ views and that of his contemporaries. The classic text of Mark 7:1–23, where Jesus seems to put aside the food laws and other rules of ritual purity, is to be considered an early Christian interpolation. On the contrary, the historical Jesus is largely silent—perhaps even indifferent—about the issue of ritual purity.

Appraising this first set of issues, Meier reaffirms his basic thesis: While on some important topics, such as divorce and oath-taking, Jesus’ teachings go against the grain of the law interpretation affirmed by his contemporaries, he nevertheless emerges as a Halakic Jew, that is, one who is completely at home in the context of first-century Judaism, with its concerns about law observance. At the same time, Meier stoutly resists trying to find an overarching framework or theological perspective that makes sense of Jesus’ positions on the Law. To attempt to “find one coherent line of thought or systematic approach to the Mosaic Law on the part of Jesus” would be a “basic mistake.” This is so, Meier would say, because a rigorous historical approach does not yield enough evidence for us to clearly identify Jesus’ overarching theological perspective, and also because Meier conceives of the historical Jesus as an intuitive, charismatic, and prophetic figure rather than as someone working from a more orderly and systematic perspective.

The closest one comes to a systematic teaching is in Meier’s treatment of the final issue on his list, that of Jesus’ love commandments. Here Meier focuses on the double commandment of love of God and of neighbor found, for example, in Matthew 22:34–40, the command to love one’s enemy (Matthew 5:44), the so-called Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12, and the command to “love one another” of the Johannine tradition (John 13:34–35). Of these Meier concludes that the double love commandment and the love-of-enemy commandment derive from the historical Jesus. The fashioning of the double love commandment, with its stitching together of Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and Leviticus 19:18b, while at the same time subordinating love of neighbor to love of God as the prime commandment, shows that Jesus was capable of great sophistication in his teaching about the law. The terse love-of-enemies commandment has, in Meier’s view, no real parallel in Jewish or Greco-Roman traditions and must be traceable to Jesus’ own teaching. The so-called Golden Rule (“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you”), on the other hand, is an ancient proverb that did not originate with Jesus and is not, strictly speaking, a love commandment at all. And the Johannine version of the love commandment seems to focus on extending love to the members of one’s own community—a commandment that harmonizes with Jewish tradition but cannot be claimed to originate with the historical Jesus.

In summing up his analysis of the love commandments, Meier comes closest to hazarding a conclusion about Jesus’ overall view of the Mosaic Law:

"Beyond all the individual legal pronouncements Jesus issued during his public ministry, did he ever give an indication of his stance vis-à-vis the law as a whole? The answer this chapter [on the love command] gives is a qualified yes.... He [Jesus] did reflect on the totality of Torah and did extract from that totality the love of God and the love of neighbor as the first and second commandments of the Torah, superior to all others. Love—of God first and of our neighbor second, in that pointed order—is supreme in the Law. Other statutes—while by no means rejected or denigrated—are of lesser importance."

But, Meier insists, this is not yet the Christian systematization of Jesus’ teaching that would begin to emerge in the Gospel of Matthew.

In the end, Meier settles for a “fragmentary” yet significant portrait of the historical Jesus. A close look at the issue of Jesus and the Mosaic Law affirms yet again the fundamental thesis of Meier’s entire project: that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical Jew, thoroughly at home in the law debates of his contemporaries—debates that were not inconsequential wordplay but an effort to understand the requirements of God’s law for everyday life. If there is some distinctive edge to this glimpse of the historical Jesus it is that he combines the roles of eschatological prophet and teacher—requiring of his disciples on the basis of his own charismatic authority that the demands of the law now reflect life within the final reign of God.

John Meier’s achievement is, paradoxically, both monumental and narrowly circumscribed. It is monumental because of its staggering erudition and thoroughness. Few, if any, scholars have brought together in one multivolume publication such a rigorous assessment of both the “historical Torah” and the historical Jesus. But circumscribed because, by definition, the portrayal of the historical Jesus achieved through the criteria employed by Meier can yield only fragmentary results. The method focuses, for example, only on some of the distinctive features of the historical Jesus and has to leave aside many of those features that the historical Jesus surely shared both with Judaism and the convictions of the early church. And for the contemporary believer, as Meier himself is well aware, there are important questions that cannot be answered by homing in on the aspects of Jesus’ words and deeds that are discoverable through a strictly historical methodology. For example, do the Gospels’ theologically charged portrayals of Jesus stand in credible continuity with the Jesus of history? Or, to cite an example Meier himself wrestles with, does Matthew’s principle that Jesus came not to destroy the law but to “fulfill” it (Matthew 5:17) subvert the teaching of the historical Jesus or interpret it validly?

For a faith based on the Incarnation, there should be credible continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. By so patiently and exactingly studying one side of this spectrum, John Meier helps Christian inquiry explore with greater depth and courage the profound reality of how Jesus, “a Marginal Jew,” is truly the Risen Christ and Word of God.

Published in the ??? 2010 issue: 

Donald Senior, CP, is president of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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