A Marginal Jew, vol.4

The most important book on ancient history, at this moment, is John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. I am aware that many scholars think that investigating the life and opinions of the Jewish woodworker from Nazareth is the subject of theology, but that is simply a misunderstanding of the “third quest“, which is historical in nature. As a matter of fact, it belongs to the most innovative and methodologically advanced parts of the discipline of ancient history. And within this advanced part, Meier’s Marginal Jew is simply the best book.

Well, books, actually. Originally, there were supposed to be three volumes, which have appeared in 1991, 1994, and 2001. The main conclusions, however, will be presented in the fifth book of the increasingly inaccurately named Marginal Jew trilogy. But the fourth installment is now finally here, bringing the grand total of pages to 2990, and dealing with Jesus as teacher of the Law –  as a rabbi, to use the ancient Jewish expression. Meier stresses that the historical Jesus is a Jewish Jesus and explains this truism by repeating almost ad nauseam that a Jewish Jesus is a halakic Jesus. It is boring, it is shocking that this stress is still necessary, but he is of course right.

The issues Meier addresses are divorce (permitted by the Law, but Jesus was nevertheless opposed to it), the prohibition to take oaths (something that the Law not just permits, but even demands), activities allowed on the sabbath (as far as we know, Jesus did not break with the Law), and ritual purity. In the final chapter, we learn that Jesus, as a charismatic, felt that he could abrogate individual commandments (e.g., on divorce); this claim relates somehow to the double command to love God and one’s neighbor, but Jesus was not a system builder and it is not entirely clear how these are related. This may not be a very surprising conclusion, but at least this is solid knowledge, obtained by applying a clear, careful method. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or atheist scholars would arrive on exactly the same conclusions.

The point that impressed me most was that Jesus was not just a teacher of the Law, but that his opinions, which we like to call “humane” and “liberal”, were in fact nothing but “the commonsense approach to halaka that probably many ordinary Jewish peasants had no choice but to follow in their pinched and fragile existence” (page 267).

Any ancient historian should read A Marginal Jew to see how one tackles an historical problem. The books are not only meticulously researched – I counted two notes Forschungsberichte that were twelve pages long! – but Meier also proceeds methodologically and shows, page after page, that he is interested in the past for the past’s sake. “Relevance is the enemy of history”, as he summarizes his position.

How ministers and pastors can apply this historical knowledge, is an altogether different question, but those who fear that historical research may in the end lead to nihilism, can rest assured: the book received an imprimatur.

5 Responses to A Marginal Jew, vol.4

  1. winston33 says:

    will there be a fifth volume written by john p meier soon.

  2. I wish I knew…

  3. Dr. Lendering,

    I’ve come across a pointed critique of this field of historical Jesus research, and was wondering if you could offer a comment on it.
    He (the critic) objects to studying Jesus on the grounds that a) the authorship of the gospels is unknown, b) their provenance is unknown, c) the stories contained therein offer no indication of what their sources are or how the authors know them or any competing stories such as Plutarch and Suetonius do, d) rather, the continual evoking of Old Testament themes and motifs suggests that they created their stories from the OT, e) the lack of external controls to the gospel stories means that we cannot raise their probability above zero, and f) the primary method of study, the criteria of authenticity, are not used by other ancient historical disciplines; they are a development of historical Jesus scholars to produce results rather than accept that the evidence does not allow for historical results about Jesus to be drawn.

    Speaking as an ancient historian, are these contentions correct? Are historical Jesus studies fundamentally different than those of other figures of ancient history, specifically in the methods used?


  4. The critique is correct, and beside the point. Ity exaggerates the quality of the classical sources – no one takes the references to sources behind, say, Herodotus seriously – and underestimates the methods by which historians cope with these problems. The problem is that ancient historians consistently refuse to explain their methods, which makes them vulnerable to the accusation that they have no method at all.

  5. Thanks for the response. Regarding the methods by which historians cope with the difficult sources, are the criteria of authenticity used by historical Jesus scholars similar to those used by ancient historians? I noticed that you referred to the third quest as one of the most innovative and methodologically advanced branches of ancient history; also, I was reading your articles on Apollonius of Tyana and noticed that you used some of the same criteria to discern reliable information about him.

    Given that ancient historians are often reticent to explain their methods, is your use of these criteria representative of how other historians work, but without spelling these criteria out in detail or giving them specific names as HJ scholars have?

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