Here are some brief notes on John Meier’s goals, sources and criteria in his work on the historical Jesus.
The goal of objectivity
Meier offers the best take when he quotes Karl Rahner’s phrase “asymptotic goal” when speaking of his effort to be objective. Meier tries hard and shows us he’s trying hard through the transparancy of his work. He lays out his methodology clearly, so we can follow along and decide if he’s consistent in applying it throughout. Also, he provides truly voluminous endnotes so we can compare his conclusions with those of other scholars.
“Prescinding” from faith
Meier is a catholic priest. So what is all this talk of objectivity about?! How could he possibly be objective? He admits his biases will reflect his working out of the catholic context. But Meier draws a strict distinction between what he knows about Jesus through research and what he knows through his faith. He will prescind from or bracket his faith for the purposes of the project. It seems to me that he achieves this goal. I speculate that this is something evangelical Protestants and even some conservative Catholics would not or could not do.
The “unpapal” conclave
Meier invokes an imaginative metaphor for his effort at objectivity: he pictures an “unpapal” conclave consisting of a Catholic, a Protestant, and Jew and an Agnostic, “locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library” forced to hammer out a consensus document on the historical Jesus.
Why a “Marginal Jew”?
Marginality is a theme which touches the subject from several angles. While the resurrected Jesus is absolutely central to Christian faith, the historical Jesus seems to have existed on the margins of his family, his society, his religion; he is a figure on the bare margins of political history, certainly.
The canonical gospels are the primary sources of evidence on the historical Jesus. There are a very small number of verses elsewhere in the NT that are useful. The non-canonical gospels and apocrypha add essentially nothing of real value, according to Meier. Some other scholars do see more value in texts like the Gospel of Thomas or, in John Dominic Crossan’s case, the Gospel of Peter, but these are minority opinions. Of the canonical gospels, some scholars place very little emphasis on John, given its thorough-going theological agenda, but Meier sees some good nuggets in John.
Outside of the NT, Meier gives a detailed treatment of the text with the best claim to attest to the existence of Jesus: this is the work of the Jewish-Roman writer of histories named Josephus. Josephus’ work includes references to Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, and John the Baptist. The texts also include a brief passage about Jesus as well one on his brother James. The problem is that the text show clear signs of later Christian tampering. So was the reference to Jesus inserted, or was a legitimate reference bulked up and embellished? Meier provides a detailed analysis (as well as his own translation) and concludes it is possible to reconstruct a core which existed prior to Christian tampering. The analysis certainly seems plausible and may be becoming the majority view among scholars, although it must be said that we will probably never have consensus.
The difficulty of the project
Before listing Meier’s criteria for judging NT material, I should stress again that we are looking at creating the best historical construct possible from limited evidence. There is no hope that we can capture what the “real” Jesus was like beyond an outline or sketch. One needs to be skeptical of anyone voicing too-detailed opinions about Jesus’ psychology and motivations in particular, as opposed to measured assessments about the relative historical value of various sayings and actions and some limited inferences about how he related to his time and place and thought of his mission and message.
In considering this criterion as well as others, remember again the central problem of analyzing the gospels is that the writers and editors were not striving to create an historical record. Writing from a vantage point several decades removed, they edited, embellished and created material to support and advocate the early church community of which they were a part. The point of the criterion of embarrassment is that anything remaining in the gospel texts which would have been embarrassing to these church communities has a relatively strong claim to historicity. An example might be Peter's denial of Jesus in the passion narratives. With Peter a leader of the early Church, this event in his life wouldn't have helped his reputation.
What did Jesus say or do which finds no ready parallel in OT tradition, what we know of 1st century Judaism, or in early Christianity? The unique character of sayings or actions may give them a greater claim to be historical. An example might be Jesus' rejection of voluntary fasting (Mark 2:18-22), which was a feature of religious practice before and after him.
3. Multiple Attestation
If a saying or action is found in more than one source, this lends credence to its historical nature. The sources must be independent, of course. Within the synoptics, Matthew and Luke’s repetition of Marcan material does not count.
If an item has merit on some combination of the first three criteria, then the question of whether it coheres with other material judged historical can be considered a point in its favor. One specific variation of this: does the material cohere with or point toward Jesus’ eventual trial and crucifixion, which is the most historically well supported event in Jesus life based on the other criteria?
Other, lesser criteria include inclusion of traces of Aramaic in the Greek texts, and the authenticity of the Palestinian environment depicted (especially since the evangelists at times seem ignorant of the region).