As someone who’s made a regular hobby of studying the Bible for about 30 years and counting, I find it hard to express how enjoyable the John P. Meier book series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus has been to read. Chapter by chapter, Meier peels away embellishment and retouching in the Gospels to reveal, as closely as possible, the remainder which likely goes back to the historical person we know as Jesus Christ. The result is startling and puzzling, but also thrilling at the same time.
Previously, I blogged about Volumes I & II of A Marginal Jew. To summarize:
Volume I: The Roots of the Problem and the Person laid out Meier’s tremendous project and erected a biographical framework: Jesus was born — “most likely in Nazareth, not Bethlehem” (sorry, Nativity scenes) — in about 7 or 6 B.C. Raised with his siblings in a “pious family of Jewish peasants in Lower Galilee,” Jesus’s father Joseph apparently died at some point. As a young adult, Jesus worked in the building trades (think “carpenter” as in construction projects, not furniture making), but then around the age of 33 or 34, he was first attracted to the maverick prophet John the Baptist, and then began a ministry of his own, which lasted for “two years and a few months,” until he was crucified outside Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. Meier writes that “He was dead by the evening of Friday, April 7, 30. He was about thirty-six years old.”
In Volume II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles, Meier first zeroes in on John the Baptist, the bleak preacher of repentence ahead of the nearing End who administered a unique dunking sacrament. John led a reformist sect from which Jesus then split off, taking some of John’s followers with him. Meier next analyzes the happier message on which Jesus’s own ministry was centered, “the kingdom of God,” its sovereign symbolism, and its paradoxical “already/not yet” start date. Finally, he examines the historical reliability of the assorted reports of each of Jesus’s miracles, with varying verdicts.
Volume III: Companions and Competitors
Volume III: Companions and Competitors turns the lens away from Jesus and toward those surrounding and interacting with him — the crowds, his disciples, the Twelve, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the sect at Qumran, the Samaritans, the scribes, the Herodians, and the Zealots.
Like an archeologist examining broken bits of pottery here and there, Meier assembles the fragments of information that we have about all these various people from an exhaustive array of sources, brushes aside the dubious pieces, then dusts off and lays out the remaining shards. Sometimes we can make out the general shape of the original vessel, sometimes not. For example, there’s plenty of enmity towards the Pharisees in the Gospels, but much of this stems from Mark casting Pharisees as culprits in Jesus’s death, and then Matthew and Luke piling on in their own Gospels based on Mark’s. The ancient historian Josephus may offer wealth of information, but his own motives and personal history make some of it suspect. As for the much-publicized, anti-Roman Zealot revolutionaries that Jesus biographers are always speculating about, Meier reminds us that “they simply did not exist at the time of Jesus.”
One of the most fascinating insights for me is Meier’s explanation that in assembling the Twelve, Jesus was deliberately referencing the twelve tribes of Israel. He was consciously trying to regather all the Jews — rich and poor, city and country, north and south — back together in a kind of happily-ever-after ending that felt something like a feast. Somewhat akin to The Blues Brothers, who were “on a mission from God” to “get the band back together” and save a religious institution, Jesus enisioned a joyful reunion of God with God’s people, and he dispatched the Twelve on a mission to get this rolling.
Contrast this happily-ever-after version of The End with the convoluted scenario cooked up in the 1700s and 1800s by people like John Nelson Darby — you know, the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, the Antichrist, the number 666. Why so much of America favors this bleak storyline is difficult to comprehend.
Volume IV: Law and Love
The most recent installment of A Marginal Jew, published in May of 2009, is Volume IV: Law and Love. It examines Jesus in relation to halakha, the collective code of Jewish laws originating in the Torah and other written and oral traditions. As Meier stresses over and over again from his introduction onward, “the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus.” Although Christians often imagine that Jesus rescinded or replaced Jewish law, the Gospel passages supporting this convenient notion turn out to be convenient additions, and Jesus turns out to be a Jew who is well versed in Jewish law, who made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem for Jewish feasts, and who discussed halakha with his fellow Jews. In fact, Jesus was so Jewish that he consciously patterned himself after and presented himself as another Elijah.
Let that soak in for a moment. While much of what modern believers consider “Christian” actually originated with Paul, Jesus himself was aiming more along the lines of Elijah. How much can most contemporary Christians tell you about Elijah, Jesus’s own role model?
Jesus did, however, diverge from mainstream Judaism on certain points. For example, he absolutely prohibited divorce, as well as the taking of oaths. Meier examines both of these issues in detail within the cultural and religious context of Jesus’s time and place, and even in ancient Israel these unconditional strictures stand out as harsh. I can’t help but imagine an America “based on Christian values” where divorce is simply impossible. Meanwhile, consider all the Christian Americans who perpetually venerate the Pledge of Allegiance, and the countless court witnesses sworn in for testimony every day. Jesus completely opposed all of this.
Law and Love finishes with a study of Jesus’s “love commands” as reported in the Gospels, showing how a couple of these instances — including “Love your enemies” — most likely do go back to the historical Jesus. Amazingly, though, Meier dismisses the Golden Rule (“do unto others …”) as an addition, showing how this law of reciprocity was reiterated far and wide both before and after Jesus, and how Jesus’s own words mock this maxim as nothing but ordinary self-interest.
At the end of these four volumes — 3,102 printed pages — Meier admits “a certain sense of frustration” that the fragmentary teachings of the historical Jesus we’re left with present no “moral or legal ‘system’ containing some organizing principle or center that makes sense of the whole.” Nevertheless, Meier takes a fearless stab at making some sense of it all from the perspective of Jesus’s “charismatic authority” — and he promises one more volume of A Marginal Jew yet to come, addressing “the riddle-speech of Jesus’ parables, the riddle-speech of his self-designations, and the final riddle of his death.”
I can’t wait. Riddles and contradictions don’t bother me. They’re a familiar feature of daily life, and far preferable to simply “accepting” — or “believing in” — foggy dogma. Stripping away all the additions and spin reveals glimpses of a raw and wild Jewish Jesus propelled by utter conviction toward a painful and humiliating death. Jesus turns out to be a much more compelling figure than the soft-spoken, blonde haired, blue eyed icon floating in a bubble of holiness.
In the meantime, I’ll do some reading about the man who almost single-handedly defined and installed Jesus as an institution still thriving 2,000 years later all over the world. The book I’ve found is Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology, by Udo Schnelle.