A Marginal Jew, vol.4

16 June 2009

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.