Portrait of Jesus Christ with beard, alpha and omega, depicted in a mural at the catacomb of Commodilla, late 4th century.

Who was Jesus of Nazareth, according to historical evidence? An ample crop of recent books on the “historical Jesus” has offered yet more answers to this perennial puzzle. Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth sounds very intriguing. Misquoting Jesus author Bart D. Ehrman’s new one, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, surely contains some engaging insights. Even former Inside Edition anchor Bill O’Reilly has his name on the cover of Killing Jesus: A History.

In time, I might like to read a couple of these books, but this current batch reminded me about a study of Jesus that had been sitting on my Amazon wish list for way too long — the Marginal Jew series by John P. Meier.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus

Dr. Meier, a Catholic priest and a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, has published four volumes of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus to date, with a fifth in the works. I have now completed the first two of these, and am beginning the third.

I cannot imagine a more comprehensive, fair, balanced, or cogent inspection of the historical record regarding Jesus. Meier is a biblical scholar thoroughly versed not only in the wide gamut of writings from antiquity, but also in the long march of biblical research and criticism through the years. These books are the work of a superbly organized mind — one which gathers information from every available angle, then systematically sorts and evaluates it, decisively ruling out some elements, settling upon others as likely, and leaving certain material as non liquet (“not clear”).

Like an appraiser from Antiques Roadshow evaluating a piece of furniture to show us how it was originally used — and how the hinges have been replaced and the original upholstery changed — Meier strips away Gospel embellishments added by the early Christians and points out the intricate designs of the Evangelists in compiling and redacting their source materials to fit their individual purposes. At times, a reader almost feels as if he’s looking over an Evangelist’s shoulder while he processes words.

Volume I: The Roots of the Problem and the Person

The first volume, The Roots of the Problem and the Person, begins with Meier explaining his objective:

Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic — all honest historians cognizant of 1st-century religious movements — were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended in his own time and place.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume I: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, by John P. MeierAfter a detailed survey of the various sources presenting material about Jesus — the books of the New Testament, Josephus, other pagan and Jewish writings, the Agrapha and the apocryphal gospels — Meier carefully outlines the criteria he’s using to judge which bits may likely go back to Jesus’s own lifetime, and which others probably do not. (Sorry, apocryphal gospel fans.) Meier devotes a little over half of this first book to laying out his project and his process.

The second part looks at Jesus’s early years — his name, his birth (probably at Nazareth, not Bethlehem), his lineage, language, education, and occupation (think of “carpenter” more in terms of the building trades than a furniture craftsman) — and concludes with an overall chronology of Jesus’s life.

Volume II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles

Volume II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles picks up the story with an abrupt change in Jesus’s occupation at about age 33 or 34, when he began following a rugged preacher of the End of Days known as John the Baptist. Before long, Jesus had followers of his own and was conducting baptisms himself, while preaching a decidedly different message than the Baptist.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles, by John P. MeierMeier examines Jesus’s relation to this mentor, John the Baptist, with keen intensity despite the limited documentation available. He also digs deeply for keys to understanding Jesus’s complex central concept, “the kingdom of God.”

Next, breaking them into groups before scrutinizing them one by one, Meier proceeds through Jesus’s miracles. As a historian, he does not make any judgements about whether Jesus actually exorcised demons, cured the blind, healed lepers and the lame, raised the dead, or walked on water. He simply attempts to determine whether each of these reports likely goes back to Jesus’s time, or was added for enhancement at some point after his crucifixion.

He shows, for example, why the story of Jesus walking on water is probably a later addition, and how John’s story of the water-into-wine miracle at Cana includes details which would have been strangely out of place “at a wedding in a peasant hill-town in Galilee.” Jesus cursing the fig tree, an incident which has confounded readers through the ages, becomes a powerful symbol once Meier illuminates how it served as a neatly dovetailed omen of the Temple’s destruction until Mark made a clumsy edit.

More in this series

The book I’ll read next, Volume III: Companions and Competitors, turns the focus from Jesus himself to the people around him — his apostles, other disciples, and the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Samaritans with whom he interacted. Volume 4: Law and Love examines Jesus’s positions regarding Mosaic Law (Halakha) as it existed in his time. Meier’s as yet unpublished fifth volume is said to be centered on the “riddle-speech” of Jesus’s parables.

Although John P. Meier is a highly regarded biblical scholar, these books are readily readable by anyone familiar with the Gospels and willing to look a few things up now and then. The author thoughtfully groups his extensive footnotes and references in a separate section at the end of each chapter, making it very easy to read his text in a steady flow, and consult his notes only when additional support is desired.

The writing is clear, lucid, and refreshing — at times even humorous. Comparing various miracles in the Synoptic Gospels with their versions as described by John, Meier notes the Fourth Evangelist’s tendency to make things more massive and spectacular: “In short, anything the Synoptic Jesus can do, the Johannine Jesus can do better; this is a typical trait of the Fourth Gospel.”

Sometimes, when people talk about gathering for “Bible study,” I wonder whether they’re actually studying the Bible, or merely being fed an exegesis crafted to support a particular dogma. How, for example, can anyone claim to have studied the Gospels without ever hearing about the Q source or noticing any of the Gospels’ inconsistencies?

A Marginal Jew is startlingly free of dogma. Despite the fact that he’s a Catholic priest teaching at Notre Dame, Professor Meier uses reason like a razor as he trims away suppositions and traditional ornamentation, protecting no particular belief set. The Jesus who gradually emerges may in some ways be less glorious — Meier registers that his public ministry ended in catastrophe — but more solid and coherent.

There are some who say they have a personal relationship with Jesus, and therefore have little use for the specific details of his life on earth. But if the things the historical Jesus actually said and did are unimportant, then how is the Jesus in this personal relationship anything but arbitrary or even imaginary? Why even call him Jesus?

If you want to actually study the Gospels and learn about Jesus to the extent that can be known historically, these volumes may well be the single best resource available.

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