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A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem… (1991)

by John P. Meier

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In this definitive book on the real, historical Jesus, one of our foremost biblical scholars meticulously sifts the evidence of 2,000 years to portray neither a rural magician nor a figure of obvious power, but a marginal Jew.
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This book is part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library. It intends to serve as an overview of the quest for the historical Jesus. Meier writes on two levels: the main body of the text, aimed at beginning graduate students in New Testament Studies as well as interested and informed non-theologians, can be read without reference to the endnotes. The notes, which make up more than half the book, engage the scholarly literature and are meant to serve those who want to deepen their own research on a given issue.
In introducing the topic of the book, Meier distinguishes between the “real” and the “historical” Jesus, with “real” denoting the Jesus of Nazareth who lived in the early first century and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and “historical” referring to our reconstructions of that person. This is an important and useful distinction, even if it is difficult to observe consistently. Meier writes that this book “asks what, within the Gospels and other sources available, really goes back to the historical Jesus” (p. 10), leaving the reader to wonder how anything can “really” go back to a construct.
In addition to the “real” and the “historical” Jesus, there is a third figure: Jesus Christ as the object of faith. I found this statement, at about the halfway point in the book, to be a useful summary of Meier’s take on their relation: “What, then — ask the objectors — is the usefulness of the historical Jesus to people of faith? My reply is: none, if one is asking solely about the direct object of Christian faith: Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and presently reigning in his Church. This presently reigning Lord is accessible to all believers, including all those who will never study history or theology for even a single day in their lives. Yet I maintain that the quest for the historical Jesus can be very useful if one is asking about faith seeking understanding, i.e., theology, in a contemporary context. . . . Theology is a cultural artifact; therefore, once a culture becomes permeated with a historical-critical approach, as has Western culture from the Enlightenment onward, theology can operate in and speak to that culture with credibility only if it absorbs into its methodology a historical approach” (p. 198).
This book is divided into two parts, roughly equal in length. The first half is devoted to a survey of possible sources of useable material for constructing the historical Jesus. In many ways, Meier provides a useful summary of these sources, and his endnotes give a good overview of the state of research at the time this book appeared. Yet at times, his evaluation of the work of other scholars reflects a tendentiousness that doesn’t fit well with the aim of the book nor the series in which it appears.
For instance, in setting the stage for his discussion of the manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi, instead of simply referencing the work done by Christopher Tuckett in evaluating these texts for what they can contribute to the search for the historical Jesus, he prefaces the discussion by writing, “Fortunately for us, we do not have to agonize our way through every Christian document in the Nag Hammadi Library.” Meier’s exasperation with the material shows.
He also saves for last his discussion of one document found there that could indeed contribute to the quest for the historical Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas. This allows him to assume a framework (late, tainted by “Gnosticism”) that tilts the treatment toward dismissing any potential evidence found there.
In the second half of the book, Meier turns to the question of the life of Jesus before he left Nazareth. He offers a balanced discussion of the infancy narratives, largely drawing on the work of Raymond Brown. I particularly liked Meier’s decision to use the so-called “hidden years” (the years before Jesus was baptized by John and began his public ministry) for a general discussion of family life and education available to a peasant youth in the village of Nazareth in the early decades of the first century. I was surprised by his reticence concerning the contact with Hellenistic culture that would have been afforded growing up so close to Sepphoris, which Herod Antipas used as his capital during Jesus’s youth. The many building projects Antipas initiated would have offered work to all available practitioners of the building trades in the area; it is inconceivable that Joseph and Jesus would have distanced themselves from it, even if the family was, as Meier speculates, highly patriotic.
At the outset, Meier outlines his intention to present this work as a consensus document. His image for this aim is that his book could be the result of locking four New Testament scholars — Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, agnostic — in the basement of the library of Harvard Divinity School until they had reached agreement. In common with most scholars working in the Western world, he failed to realize there should be at least five scholars locked in the room, with at least one representing the riches of the Eastern churches.
Rather than balancing the viewpoints of his four hypothetical scholars, much of the text, for instance, those sections dealing with the virgin birth and the family of Jesus, engages Meier’s own fellow Roman Catholics, intending to reassure them that application of the historical-critical approach is not a rejection of the particular faith claims of the Catholic tradition. His position is that these claims are the result of dogmatic discussion after the composition of the New Testament sources, and therefore not the concern of historical treatment of the New Testament. I think he’s correct in this, but let’s have a show of hands: how many of you have come across the word “prescind” in your reading in the past year? I haven’t. Yet, in this book, it appears repeatedly. I didn’t keep count, but it seems to me that Meier uses it — his preferred term for compartmentalizing matters of faith and matters of Biblical scholarship — about a dozen times. This gives a rough idea of how the space he devotes to this discussion unbalances the book overall.
The Gospel of John famously concludes with the remark, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” If that is true of the deeds of Jesus, it’s even more applicable to the many books analyzing and interpreting the small selection of those words and deeds that the evangelists did record. When this book appeared, nearly thirty years ago, it was announced as the first of two volumes, with the second to treat Jesus’s public ministry and his crucifixion. Instead, four more volumes have appeared so far, and Meier is said to be working on volume 6. ( )
  HenrySt123 | Jul 19, 2021 |
Abstract:
John Meier's previous volumes in the acclaimed series A Marginal Jew are founded upon the notion that while solid historical information about Jesus is quite limited, people of different faiths can nevertheless arrive at a consensus on fundamental historical facts of his life. In this eagerly anticipated fourth volume in the series, Meier approaches a fresh topic-the teachings of the historical Jesus concerning Mosaic Law and morality-with the same rigor, thoroughness, accuracy, and insightfulness on display in his earlier works.
  cduedu | Sep 16, 2019 |
In this definitive book on the real, historical Jesus, one of our foremost biblical scholars meticulously sifts the evidence of 2,000 years to portray neither a rural magician nor a figure of obvious power, but a marginal Jew.

John P. Meier is William K. Warren Professor of Theology (New Testament) at the University of Notre Dame and the author of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. He has also written six other books and over seventy articles. At various times he has been the editor or associate editor of The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, New Testament Studies, and Dead Sea Discoveries. ( )
  tony_sturges | Jan 31, 2018 |
NO OF PAGES: 484 SUB CAT I: Historical Jesus SUB CAT II: SUB CAT III: DESCRIPTION: The author tries to reconstruct the "historical Jesus", using the consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended. The author uses "modern historical research" to come up with an incomplete and speculative portrait.NOTES: SUBTITLE: Rethinking the Historical Jesus - The Roots of the Problem and the Person
  BeitHallel | Feb 18, 2011 |
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In this definitive book on the real, historical Jesus, one of our foremost biblical scholars meticulously sifts the evidence of 2,000 years to portray neither a rural magician nor a figure of obvious power, but a marginal Jew.

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Yale University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0385264259, 0300140185

 

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