John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Vol. 1)
The following is a brief summary of John Meier's 496 page, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, volume 1.
Part One: Roots of the Problem
Chapter 1: Basic Concepts: The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus
The historical Jesus is not the real Jesus. In historical research there are often different gradations in the sense “real”. Obviously, by historical, we cannot mean the total reality of that person, everything he or she ever thought, felt or experienced, did and said. When it comes to modern figures we may come up with a reasonably complete picture, but never the totality. For ancient figures the problem is compounded by relative lack of sources. So while we cannot know the real Jesus, we can know the historical Jesus.
The “Jesus of history” is a modern abstraction and construct by which we mean the Jesus whom we can recover and examine using the scientific tools of modern historical research. I purposely choose not to lean on the classic distinction found in many German authors, who distinguish the historical from the historic. The historical refers to the dry bare bones of knowledge about the past. The historic refers to the past as it is meaningful and challenging, engaging and thought provoking for present day men and women. Although this distinction is often repeated in Jesus research (especially among those strongly influenced by the Bultmannian tradition) I remain doubtful of its usefulness. First, the distinction remains ambiguous and its meaning often varies from author to author. Second, the distinction often carries with it extra baggage of theological or ideological agendas. Third, the distinction does not do justice to the complexity of the situation. Fourth, the distinction, while defensible in theory, is useless in the real world.
So, the historical Jesus is not the real Jesus, but only a fragmentary hypothetical reconstruction. This pushes us to the next logical question: Whence do we derive the fragments to be fitted together.
Chapter 2: Sources: The Canonical Books of the New Testament
The canonical gospels were formed from start to finish by the writer’s faith that the crucified Jesus was raised from the dead and will come in glory to judge the world. They do not even claim to give anything like a complete narrative or even summary of Jesus’ life.
The form critics of the 1920’s rightly pointed out that behind Mark, our earliest Gospel, lie collections of oral or written traditions tied together by common forms, themes, and key words. Each synoptist has rearranged the rosary beads (= the pericopes) to suit his own theological vision. In most cases there is no way we can determine which order of events might be historical—if indeed any is. We can be fairly sure that Jesus’ ministry began after his baptism by John and ended with a final, fateful Journey to Jerusalem. The exact length of the intervening time, and the exact order of events cannot be known.
Another question is whether the Gospels preserve for us the exact words of Jesus. Some variation in the Gospel material can be explained by supposing that Jesus the peripatetic teacher regularly repeated his material in various forms. However, Jesus’ repetition of the same teaching on many different occasions cannot explain all the variations in wording in the NT. For example, we have four reports of what Jesus said over the bread and wine at the last supper and the four versions differ among themselves. Yet importance to the early Church guaranteed agreement in substance, not in exact wording.
I accept the standard view in NT research today: Mark, using various collections of oral and possibly written traditions, composed his Gospel somewhere around AD 70. Both Matthew and Luke, working independently of each other, composed larger Gospels in the 70-100 period (most likely between 80 and 90), by combining and editing Mark, a collection of Jesus’ sayings that scholars arbitrarily label Q, and special collections peculiar to Matthew and Luke. It is important to note, however, that for all his claims to apostolic authority, Paul does not feel free to create teachings and put them in the mouth of Jesus. We might as: Who in the fist generation did?
Chapter 3: Sources: Josephus
It is a wonder that any learned Jew or pagan of the first of second century would have known or referred to Jesus at all but Josephus certainly did, although his so called Testimonium Flavianum is highly disputed.
In this testimony there are three phrases in particular which interrupt the flow of what is other wise a concise text carefully written in a fairly neutral—or even purposely ambiguous—tone: 1) “if indeed one should call him a man”. 2) “He was the Messiah”. and 3) “for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken these and countless other wondrous things about him” If these are assumed to be Christian interpolations and are removed we have:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.
There are several reasons to believe this is authentic. First, the Testimonium is present in all the numerous manuscripts of the Latin translation, made by the school of Cassiodorus in the 6th century; variant versions in Arabic and Syriac have recently been added to the large inventory. These facts must be balanced, however, with the fact that we only have three Greek manuscripts of Book 18, the earliest of which dates to about the 11th century and the strange silence about it in Church fathers before Eusebius.
Second, we have concluded that the reference to “the brother of Jesus-who is called the Messiah, James by name” is authentic. This makes some earlier reference to Jesus likely. Third, the vocabulary and grammar of the passage, after the Christian interpolations have been removed, cohere well with Josphus’ style and language. Without the three Christian phrases, this summary description of Jesus is conceivable in the mouth of a Jew who is not openly hostile to him, but not in the mouth of an ancient or medieval Christian.
Therefore, the existence of Jesus is demonstrated from the neutral, passing reference in the report on James’ death in Book 20. The more extensive Testimonium in Book 18 shows us that Josephus was aquainted with at least a few salient facts of Jesus’ life. Independent of the Four Gospels, yet confirming their basic presentation, a Jew writing in the year 93-94 tells us that during the rule of Pontius Pilate—therefore between 26 and 36—there appeared on the religious scene of Palestine a man named Jesus. He had a reputation for wisdom that displayed itself in miracle working and teaching. He won a large following, but (therefore?) the Jewish leaders accused him before Pilate. Pilate had him crucified, but his ardent followers refused to abandon their devotion to him, despite his shameful death. Named Christians, they continued in existence down to Josphus’ day.
Chapter 4: Other Pagan and Jewish Writings
The Roman historian, Tacitus (ca 56/57 – ca 118) wrote the Annals in which he intended to cover the history of Rome from AD 14 to 68. Unfortunately, on of the gaps in the Annals occurs during the treatment of AD 29 with the narrative resuming in AD 32. Hence the most likely year of the trial and death of Jesus (AD 30) is not covered. Tacitus does mention the persecution of Christians by Nero however. Despite some feeble attempts to show that this text is a Christian interpolation in Tacitus’ passage, the passage is obviously genuine. The very anti-Christian tone of the text makes Christian origin almost impossible.
With Josephus and Tacitus, we exhaust the early independent witnesses to Jesus’ existence, ministry, death and ongoing influence. Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Lucian are often quoted in this regard, but in effect they are simply reporting something about what early Christians say or do; they cannot be said to supply us with independent witness to Jesus himself.
As far as Jewish sources are concerned, while not accepting the full, radical approach of Maier, I think we can agree with him on one basic point: in the earliest rabbinic sources, there is no clear or even probable reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, I favor the view that, when we do finally find such references in later rabbinic literature, they are most probably reactions to Christian claims, oral or written.
Chapter 5: Sources: The Agrapha and Apocryphal Gospels
Agrapa, literally, the unwritten sayings and deeds of Jesus. Of course we know of them only because they were written down at a later date. Jeremias’ Unknown Sayings of Jesus contains material reaching down to medieval and Islamic times. He draws on every conceivable source. The reader, however, needs no great expertise in Arabic or apocryphal gospels to sense that most of this material, while having historical interest for a study of the picture of Jesus down through the centuries, probably has nothing to do with the quest for the historical Jesus—and in this judgment Jeremias concurs. In fact, Jeremias feels that there are only eighteen candidates that he would accept as genuine words of the historical Jesus. I think, however, that in every case his argument simply does not result in anything more than a vague ‘Jesus could have said that’. What is noticeable in Jeremias’ treatment is the lack of clearly enunciated and rigorously applid criteria. What criteria are mentioned do not really bring us all that far.
Much of the agrapha comes from the apocryphal gospels. But one only had to read through the standard collection of Henneke and Schneemelcher to see that in many cases we are faced with a field of rubble, largely produced by the pious or wild imaginations of certain 2nd century Christians. The infancy gospels, Protevangelium Jacobi and Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, betray ignorance of the very Jewish instututions being described. Many of the gospels are known only through fragments in the church fathers, e.g Gospel of the Nazarenes, Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Hebrews. But since the church fathers often had no standard way of referring to such writings, we are not sure how many even existed. The passages we do have are often contradictory and all come from the 2nd century.
At this point, one might wonder why we are bothering with such unpromising material at all. One reason is that in recent years, some scholars have claimed that they have found in certain apocryphal gospels traditions that are as early or even earlier than the traditions enshrined in the four canonical gospels.
Perhaps the most impressive full-scale attempt to establish such a position is John Dominic Crossan’s treatment of the Gospel of Peter. Crossan proposes that behind the present Gospel of Peter there stood what he labels a Cross Gospel. According to Crossan, the Gospel of Peter developed in three stages. 1) the Cross gospel was written sometime in the middle of the first century. 2) the cross Gospel was used by Mark. 3) a later redactor expanded the Cross Gospel to adapt it to the canonical views concerning the honorable burial of Jesus, the discovery of the empty tomb, the resurrection, etc.
Crossan himself affirms, at the start of his project, that all things being equal, the simplest theory that explains the most data is to be preferred. It is at this level that his theory fails. Crossan has to spin a complicated and sometimes self-contradictory web as he assigns documents questionably early dates or unlikely lines of dependence. Further, both Leon Vaganay and Jerry W. McCant demonstrate that the Gospel of Peter is dependent on the canonical Gospels. It was perhaps to escape this probative material that Crossan extracted his Cross Gospel, which is supposedly immune from signs of Synoptic influence. However, even the hypothetical Cross Gospel bears telltale marks of dependence on the Synoptics as Joel B. Green has shown. As Raymond E. Brown has pointed out, extravagant assertions about very early traditions in apocryphal gospels often share three dubious tendencies: 1) while bold and accompanied by a great show of learning, the turn out on close analysis to be based on rather slim evidence and questionable reasoning. Often the initial claims cause a sensation in the popular media while the refutations are ignored. 2) The radical claims usually overlook the fact that, for all the differences and even conflicts among first generation Christian leaders, there was a common gospel message on which all of them agreed. Unlike the picture painted by those who want to make some form of gnostic Christianity an equally valid manifestation of first generation Christian experience. 3) the exaltation of a gnosticizing form of Christianity ignores the fact that from the very beginning of Christian preaching about Jesus, there was a certain biographical thrust that formed the Jesus tradition in a direction that produced the canonical Gospels. There was no period when individual bits of tradition about Jesus floated about in a Church bereft of the larger grid that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provided.
Crossan’s claims for the priority of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, Egeerton Papyrus 2 and the Secret Gospel of Mark are also dubious. Crossan, Koester, and James Robinson are simply on the wrong track.
The British NT scholar Christopher Tuckett, in a book long study, had concluded that apart from the special case of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, there is no evidence for the use of pre-Synoptic sources (including the Q document) in the Christian Nag Hammadi material. The Christian texts at Nag Hammadi that do reflect synoptic tradition presuppose one or more of the Synoptic Gospels in their final form.
Tuckett wisely reserved the Gospel of Thomas for a separate study. An evaluation of the Gospel of Thomas is made still more difficult by the disagreement among scholars as to whether the work can be considered Gnostic in its theology. But in it, there is no kingdom to be awaited, the spiritual kingdom is already within them if only they open their inner eyes to see it. The material world and physical body are rejected as evil, etc. In short, tt is clear that the overarching intention of the redactor of the Gospel of Thomas is a gnostic one and that synoptic like sayings are meant to be reinterpreted according to their genuine, secret gnostic meaning. Since a Gnostic world view of this sort was not employed to reinterpret Christianity in such a thoroughgoing way before some time in the second century, thre can be no question of the Gospel of Thomas as a whole, as it stands in the Coptic text, being a reliable reflection of the historical Jesus or if the earliest first century Christianity.
The four canonical gospels turn out to be the only large documents containing significant blocks of material relevant to a quest for the historical Jesus. The rest of the NT offers only bits and pieces, mostly in the Pauline corpus. Outside the NT, the only independent non-Christian witness to Jesus in the first century AD is Josephus. Contrary to some scholars, I do not think that the rabbinic material, the agrapha, the apocryphal gospels, and the Nag Hammadi condices (in particular the Gospel of Thomas) offer us reliable new information or authentic sayings that are independent of the New Testament. But the four gospels are indeed difficult sources, shot through with Easter faith, they are highly selective and ordered according to various theological programs.
Chapter 6: Criteria: How do We Decide What Comes from Jesus?
I this study we will use five primary criteria, and five secondary criteria by which to separate that which is historical from that which is not. The primary criteria are:
1) the criterion of embarrassment: Sayings or actions which would have been embarrassing to the early church and therefore, unlikely to have been made up.
2) the criterion of discontinuity: Sayings or actions which are unlikely to have come either from Judaism or from early Christianity.
3) the criterion of multiple attestation: Sayings or actions which are attested in more than one independent source.
4) the criterion of coherence: Sayings or deeds which “fit well” with other facts about Jesus which have been established as historical.
5) the criterion of rejection and execution: Sayings or deeds which offer good explanation for the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
The secondary criteria are of somewhat “dubious” quality by themselves—the last two are almost worthless—but they may be helpful to confirm decisions already made on the basis of primary criteria. The application of these criteria is more an art than a science and can yield only varying degrees of probability. The secondary criteria are:
1) the criterion of traces of Aramaic: Greek sayings in the gospels which show traces of having been translated from Aramaic.
2) the criterion of Palestinian environment: Sayings that reflect concrete social or political conditions of first century Palestine.
3) the criteria of vividness of narration: Sayings which show “liveliness and concrete details especially when the details are not relevant to the main point of the story.”
4) the criterion of the tendencies of the developing synoptic tradition: Excluding sayings which are strongly characteristic of the evangelists vocabulary and theology.
5) the criterion of historical presumption. The burden of proof is “on anyone who tries to prove anything”.
The use of such criteria is more an art than a science and usually yields only varying degrees of probability. Since moral certitude is nothing but a very high degree of probability, and since we run most of our lives and make many of our theoretical and practical judgments on the basis of moral certitude, we need not feel that the results of our quest will be unusually fragile or uncertain. They are no more fragile or uncertain than many other parts of our lives.
Chapter 7: Conclusion to Part One: Why Bother?
Strange to say, resistance to the quest for the historical Jesus comes much more often from committed Christians than from agnostics or Christian dropouts. For the strict disciple of Bultmann, the quest is both theologically illegitimate and historically impossible. The sources are too meager, fragmentary and theologically colored to allow any full portrait. Fundamentalists object to the quest for the exact opposite reason. The historical Jesus is naively equated with the Jesus presented in all Four Gospels. All tensions and contradictions in the four narratives are harmonized by hilarious mental acrobatics. Obviously I do not agree with either group of objectors.
I agree with Kahler and Bultmann that the Jesus of history cannot be the object of Christian faith. After all, whose historical Jesus would be the object of such faith? Schweitzers? Jeremias’s? Bornkamm’s? Sanders? The proper object of Christian faith is not and cannot be an idea or scholarly reconstruction, however reliable. For the believer, the object of Christian faith is a living person, Jesus Christ, who fully entered into true human existence on earth in the first century AD, but who now lives, risen and glorified forever in the Father’s presence.
Properly understood, the historical Jesus is a bulwark against the reduction of Christian faith I general and christology in particular to relevant ideology or any stripe. His refusal to be held fast by any school of thought is what drives theologians onward into new paths, hence the historical Jesus remains a constant stimulus to theological renewal.
Part Two: Roots of the Person
Chapter 8: In the Beginning…The Origins of Jesus of Nazareth
The sources about Jesus’ birth, family and upbringing are meager at best, yet I do not think total skepticism is in order. We can sketch a rough picture of Jesus’ origins and background.
Some facts about Jesus can be affirmed with fair amount of certainty. During the reign of King Herod (and if Matthew is to be believed, toward the end of his reign, somewhere around 7-4 BC, a Jew named Yeshua (= Jesus) was born, perhaps in Bethlehem of Judea but more likely I Nazareth of Galilee—at any rate, in a small town somewhere within the confines of Herod’s kingdom. Jesus mother was named Miryam (=Mary), his (putative) father Yosef (=Josph). He was probably known during his lifetime as a descendant of King David. While the tradition that Jesus was virginally conceived is affirmed in both infancy narratives, the truth of that claim is hardly open to verification today. A counter tradition that Jesus was illegitimate is not clearly attested until close to the middle of the 2nd century and is most likely a mocking, polemical reaction to the claims of the infancy narratives.
Chapter 9: In the Interim…Part I: Language, Education, and Socioeconomic Status
One can take for granted that Jesus as a boy and adolescent experienced physical, sexual, intellectual, and religious development. Not only is there nothing in the NT to contridict such a presupposition; there are a number of texts which imply precisely such normal maturation: the boy grew and gained strength…(Lk 2:40); Jesus advanced in wisdom and age (or stature) and favor in the eyes of God and humans (Lk 2:52); it was necessary that he become like the brethern in every way (Heb 2:27; cf 4:15).
Since the adult Jesus became an itinerant preacher traversing both Galilee and Judea, and since as a teacher he obviously wished to be understood by his audience, which would have been made up of ordinary Palistinian Jews in their daily lives in Palestine. While we cannot be certain what language that was, it was probably Aramaic. Further, in his woodworking establishment Jesus may have had occasion to pick up enough Greek to strike bargains and write receipts. Jesus’ habit of preaching in synagogues and debating both with scribes and Pharisees on points of Scripture during his public ministry makes it likely that he also had come knowledge of Hebrew. There is no reason to believe he knew Latin. So in a quadrilingual country, Jesus may have been a trilingual Jew, but he was probably not a trilingual teacher.
Was Jesus illiterate? There are three NT passages implying that Jesus could write (Jn 8:6, 7:15 and Luke 4:16-30), but all three are beset with problems of interpretation and historicity. The question, therefore, must be asked in relation to the literacy of Jewish society in general. Later rabbinic literature says that schools existed in even the small towns of Palestine but this is disputed. Even apart from appeals to rabbinic literature, however, we have reasons to think that especially among pious Jews, there existed influences that would have favored literacy. The very identity and continued existence of the people of Israel were tied to a corpus of written and regularly read works in a way that simply was not true of other peoples in the Mediterranean world of the first century. Its no wonder that the pious would hold the ability to read and expound the sacred texts in high esteem (cf. Sir. 39:1-11). Further, Riesner argues that both archaeological and literary indications point to a fairly wide diffusion of literacy among Palestinian Jews in the first centuries BC and AD. When this is considered, along with the fact that various Gospel traditions witness to Jesus’ reputation as a rabbi who disputed with the religious leaders and taught in the synagogues, it is reasonable to suppose that Jesus’ religious formation in his family was intense and profound, and included instruction in reading Biblical Hebrew.
Was Jesus a poor peasant? The word “peasant” allows a range of meanings and anthropologists debate the finer points. Wolf maintains that peasants are rural cultivators who raise crops and livestock in the country. The peasant does not run an enterprise in the modern economic sense, like an American farmer, but rather a household. But peasants differ from so-called primitive peoples who live in the countryside and directly exchange their own labor and its products for the equivalent good and services of others. Rather, it is the rise of the state or city which assumes executive administrative functions, centralizing the flow of goods and services which produces peasant societies. It this system is disrupted or if the central power’s demands become too crushing, the peasants may resort to banditry, a protest movement, or even open rebellion. This thumbnail sketch of peasant society fits Galilee quite well.
Jesus lived in a village of roughly 1,600 to 2,000 people and probably worked as a woodworker making such furnishings as beds, tables, stools, lampstands, as well as boxes, cabinets, chests, plows and yokes. It is also possible that Jesus worked in the re-building of Sephoris. Jesus would probably have ranked somewhere at the lower end of the vague middle, perhaps equivalent—if we may use a hazy analogy—to a blue collar worker in lower middle class America. He was probably no poorer or less respectable than almost anyone else in Nazareth or for that matter, most of Galilee.
Chapter 10: In the Interim.. : Family, Marital Status, and Status as a Layman
Family meant something very different in ancient Palestine than it does in the US today. The large extended family was a major social safety net. The break Jesus made with these ties to his extended family and village no doubt left deep scars that can still be seen (eg. Mark 3:21, 31-35; Jn 7:3-9).
Unlike Jesus’ mother, brothers and sisters, Joseph is not present on the narrative stage once the ministry of Jesus begins. While many reasons for this might be suggested, the traditional solution already known in the patristic period, i.e. that he had died, is probably best. Ordinary Americans today, if they know anything about the problem of Jesus’ brothers, have a vague notion that Catholics hold that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were really cousins. A startling fact that many Catholics and Protestants do not know is that the great figures of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin, held to Mary’s perpetual virginity. Nevertheless, after all the arguments are carefully analyzed, the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings. This judgment rises first of all from the criteria of multiple attestation: Paul, Mark, John, Josephus and perhaps Luke in Acts 1:14 speak independently of the brothers of Jesus.
William E Phipps in his book Was Jesus Married? Argued that Jesus was married. His basic argument is fairly simple: Granted the positive Jewish ethos regarding sex and marriage at the time of Jesus, the silence of the NT concerning a wife of Jesus should be interpreted as meaning that Jesus did in fact at least at some point in his life have a wife. Celibacy for an ordinary Jew and especially for a rabbi would have been unthinkable in the time of Jesus, or so the argument goes. Phipps also objects that in rabbinic literature we hear nothing of the wives of Hillel or Shammai, yet no one doubts that they were married. Phipps, however has to struggle with the Essene movement which did promote celebacy. And the silence in the NT about Jesus being married is quite significant when we consider that Jesus’ other family ties are mentioned and that fact that the Gospels say or intimate that at least some of Jesus apostles were married. The Jewish scholar Geza Vermes has no difficulty in seeing Jesus as celibate and explaining his unusual state by his prophetic call and the reception of the Spirit. So we cannot be absolutely sure whether Jesus was married, but the position that he remained celibate on religious grounds is the more probable hypothesis.
It is a simple fact that Jesus was born a Jewish layman, conducted his ministry as a Jewish layman, and died a Jewish layman. There is not reliable historical tradition that he was of levitical or priestly descent. I purposely emphasize this because Christians are so accustomed to think of Jesus as the priest or great high priest.
Chapter 11: In the Fifteenth Year…A Chronology of Jesus’ Life
Jesus of Nazareth was born—most likely in Nazareth, not Bethlehem—ca 7or 6 BC. he was attracted to the ministry of John the Baptist who began his ministry about 27 or 28 AD. Baptized by John, Jesus struck out on his own beginning his public ministry early in 28 Ad when he was about thirty-three or thirty-four. He regularly alternated his activity between Galilee and Jerusalem. This ministry lasted for two years and a few months. In AD 30, while Jesus was in Jerusalem for the approaching Passover, he apparently sensed increasing hostilities and celebrated a solemn farewell meal with his inner group of disciples on Thursday evening, April 6. He was arrested in Gethsemane on the night of April 6-7 and was first examined by some Jewish officials and then handed over to Pilate early on the morning of April 7. Pilate quickly condemned him to crucifixion. He was dead by the evening of April 7, 30 AD at age thirty-six.