Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Meier's Quest, Part 3

Here are sketches of a few results reached by John P. Meier in his quest for the historical Jesus as well as a look ahead to the likely themes from the awaited fourth volume of A Marginal Jew. The first two posts in this series are here and here.

Early Years

Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives “score” poorly on the criteria for historical value. They lack multiple attestation (the two stories diverge greatly), embarrassment (they fit the evangelists’ promotional agenda), and discontinuity (they seek to establish connections with OT prophecy). While it is frustrating, we must accept that what little we learn about the historical Jesus will not include his life prior to undertaking his ministry. Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem; the first thing we may reasonably be confident of knowing in his chronology is that he became attracted by John the Baptist’s movement in the Jordan Valley, prior to striking out on his own. Meier sketches some plausible scenarios for what Jesus’ family and community life was like, but these are just educated guesses based on what scholars have learned about the place and time.

Jesus and the Baptist

Jesus’ submission to baptism by John is very likely to be historical (criterion of embarrassment); recall also that John’s existence is buttressed by Josephus. Jesus’ respectful words toward John (see Matthew 11:11) likely indicate that the relationship between the two was too well known to be suppressed. It is not clear if Jesus was actually a disciple of John; there are good indications that baptism continued to be practiced as part of Jesus’ own ministry (John 3:22).

The Kingdom of God

Meier examines the message of the kingdom of God in great depth. He comes to the conclusion that there is historical value in several passages where the kingdom reflects a future eschatology and also in some of those which profess the kingdom’s presence in the temporal works of Jesus. While this seems contradictory to our modern ear, the message seems purposefully complex. Meier describes it as a “multi-faceted, multi-layered symbol” which challenged the way the people thought and lived in the present day as they prepared for their final salvation.


Meier embarks on a lengthy and serious study of each miracle story. This is an area where he sees himself reaching distinctive conclusions. Against the usual divide between a priori rejection and uncritical faithful acceptance, Meier wants to keep a critical but open mind. While understanding the limits to what we can know (lacking videotape recordings or laboratory controls!), he contends that several of the exorcisms and healing stories are very likely historical in the sense that they were believed to be miraculous by eyewitnesses at the time of their occurrence. Jesus’ popular following and his attraction of enemies can be largely traced to this miracle-working. Meier also concludes that Jesus was at least thought to have raised the dead during the time of his ministry. The passages describing so-called nature miracles, on the other hand, have little historical value.

Where’s Volume Four?

The introduction to the first volume of A Marginal Jew, published in 1991, envisioned a two-volume work. The first volume covered an introduction to methods and criteria, an examination of chronology, a look at Jesus’ family and community environment, and a review of the infancy narratives. The massive second volume from 1994 covered the relationship with the Baptist, the examination of Jesus’ central message of the kingdom of God, and the review of the miracle stories. Then, after a long wait, 2001’s third volume was a bit of a digression from the main story. In that volume, Meier expanded the circle to examine Jesus' relationships with other groups of people: his apostles and followers as well as the Pharisees and other religious and political groups.

At the end of Volume 3, Meier still had four key topics to address: Jesus’ teachings on the Law, the parables, how Jesus referred to himself, and finally, the passion -- a lot of territory to cover!

One area he evidently will avoid completely is an explicit review of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. Here is the relevant comment from the introduction to volume one: “… a treatment of the resurrection is omitted not because it is denied but simply because the restrictive definition of the historical Jesus I will be using does not allow us to proceed into matters that can be affirmed only by faith.” While the reticence is understandable, this is a bit of a dodge. In his treatment of miracles, Meier carefully distinguishes between those likely to trace back to contemporaneous reports (for instance, the healing of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52), and those which he thinks are much more likely a complete creation of the early church (e.g. walking on water).

Anyway, here’s hoping that Meier, who mentioned some health problems in the introduction to volume 3, comes through with the conclusion to his work. It’s an outstanding achievement already.

[UPDATE 16 March 2009: Meier will publish his volume 4 in May 2009 (amazon link); it is mainly about the relationship between Jesus and the mosaic law, and so apparantly it is not intended as a concluding volume.]

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