Posted by: chuckbumgardner | October 18, 2011

Meier, A Marginal Jew

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume I: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library)My first significant dip into a full-scale “life of Jesus” book written from a “Quest for the Historical Jesus” sort of perspective.  Meier is an American Catholic scholar approaching the topic from a historical-critical perspective.  While his presuppositions (e.g., an errant Scripture) lead to conclusions I cannot embrace, the amount of research and data reflected and documented in the volume make it a valuable resource.  In this volume, he addresses the question of sources of information for the historical Jesus.  Although he does give significant attention to Josephus, other pagan and Jewish writings, agrapha and apocryphal gospels, he ends up giving priority to the canonical gospels, while applying criteria of authenticity to their data in order to weed out what he would see as additions by the church or by the Evangelists.  “Shot through and through with the Easter faith of the early Church, highly selective, and ordered according to the various theological programs, the canonical Gospels demand careful, critical sifting if they are to yield reliable information for the quest.” (141)  He goes on in the second part of the book to examine Jesus’ birth (and the question of his virginal conception), the cultural milieu in which he grew up, and his family and marital status.

The title “A Marginal Jew” is intriguing, and Meier is saying several things thereby (6-9): (1) “Jesus was simply insignificant to national and world history as seen through the eyes of Jewish and pagan historians of the 1st and early 2d centuries A.D.”  (2) He was marginalized by being declared a criminal and crucified. (3) He “marginalized” himself by abandoning his livelihood and hometown, and becoming an itinerant preacher.  (4) Some of his teachings and practices were marginal in that they did not match the accepted views and practices of the major religious groups of his day. (5) His marginal teaching pushed him to the margins of Jewish society in certain ways as he alienated certain powerful individuals and groups. (6) Meier sees Jesus as “marginal” in the modern sociological sense of a poor person from a rural culture who migrates to a city and does not integrate well into the dominant urban culture; “Jesus, the poor layman turned prophet and teacher, the religious figure from rural Galilee without credentials, met his death in Jerusalem at least in part because of his clash with the rich aristocratic urban priesthood.”

Although he will sometimes come to what I understand to be the right conclusion on a particular question about Jesus, he generally gets there in a way which is convoluted and suspicious of the veracity of canonical Scripture. For instance, in addressing the question, “Was Jesus illiterate?” (268-78) the conservative Christian will answer, “Of course not. Look at Luke 4, where he stood up in the synagogue, found the proper place in the scroll of Isaiah, and read a passage to the congregants.” Meier discounts this passage due to scholarly hesitation about its historicity. Instead, he supports Jesus’ literacy thus:
“To sum up: individual texts from the Gospels prove very little about the literacy of Jesus.  Instead, it is an indirect argument from converging lines of probability that inclines us to think that Jesus was in fact literate.  As we have seen, general considerations about 1st-century Palestinian Judaism, plus the consistent witness of many different streams of Gospel tradition about Jesus’ teaching activity, plus the indirect evidence from John 7:15 make it likely that Jesus could both read the Hebrew Scriptures and engage in disputes about their meaning.  He therefore enjoyed a fair degree of literacy in Hebrew and–a fortiori–Aramaic, the language he usually spoke.  Thus, even if Luke 4:16-30 were totally a redactional reworking of Mark 6:1-6a, it would still be ‘true’ in the sense that it depicts accurately the ‘sort of thing’ Jesus did during his public ministry.  It is sobering to realize, though, how here, as so often in Jesus research, we reach our conclusions not by direct, clear-cut, indisputable texts, but rather by indirect arguments, inference, and converging lines of probability.” (277-78, emphasis mine).

A few quotes that struck my fancy:

“It is hard for Christians today to appreciate that Jesus of Nazareth did not stand out in his contemporaries’ minds simply because of his name ‘Jesus.’  Out of reverence, Christians in general (except for those of the Spanish and Latin American traditions) have not used ‘Jesus’ for naming their own children; hence the name strikes them as rare and sacred.  Such was not the case in the 1st century A.D.  So current was the name Jesus that some descriptive phrase like ‘of Nazareth’ or ‘the Christ (Messiah)’ had to be added to distinguish him from the many other bearers of that name.” (206)

“A startling fact that many present-days Catholics and Protestants do not know is that the great figures of the Protestant Reformation, e.g., Martin Luther and John Calvin,  held to Mary’s perpetual virginity and therefore did not consider the brothers and sisters of Jesus to be true siblings.  It was only with the rise of the Enlightenment that the idea that the brothers and sisters were biological children of Mary and Joseph gained acceptance among ‘mainline’ Protestants.” (319)

Regarding the notion that the church created sayings of Jesus wholesale: “It is likewise noteworthy that Paul carefully distinguishes (1 Cor 7:10-13) between Jesus’ saying on divorce and Paul’s own application of that saying to a new situation (marriages between Christians and pagans).  For all his claims to apostolic authority, Paul does not feel free to create teachings and put them into the mouth of Jesus.” (46)

One way that scholars have sought to determine which words of Jesus in the canonical gospels are authentic is by asking whether they match closely either “the Judaism that influenced him [or] the Church that he influenced”; if so, they may very well be discounted.  But as many others have pointed out, this “criterion of discontinuity” is unrealistic.  Meier sets forth a good illustration: “Imagine, for the sake of argument, that in the 16th century Martin Luther had delivered all his teaching orally and that they had been written down only later on by his disciples.  If we excluded from the record of Luther’s words and deeds everything that could be paralleled in late medieval Catholic authors before him or in 17th-century Lutheran theologians after him, how much would remain–and would it give anything like a representative portrait of Luther?” (173)


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