Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On the Fifth Day of Meier...

On the fifth day of Meier, his Marginal Jew brought to me, 5) part 1 criteria for the historical Jesus, 4) agrapha and Nag Hammadi, 3) Tacitus and other Jewish sources; 2) Josephus and the books of the canon; and 1) and an introduction to the historical Jesus.

I've looked ahead and I can actually catch up to the actual days of Christmas on Friday because of a particularly long stretch of endnotes. Meier nicely keeps the surface text on a college level and relegates the more scholarly discussion to endnotes at the end of each chapter. It has made it easy to reach my 35 pages a day with only 10-20 pages of reading most of the time... my kind of book.

So today I only need to cover about 9 pages of Chapter 6 to keep on pace: "Criteria: How Do We Decide What Comes from Jesus?" In this chapter Meier covers the standard criteria that mostly evolved during the "New Quest" period of the mid-twentieth century. His caveats are a great statement of mature reflection on these criteria over the intervening years.

These nine pages cover three biggies:

1. The Criterion of Embarrassment
The idea here is that there are certain events that the early church is very unlikely to have invented because they only raise questions and issues that are problematic. Indeed, the gospel traditions themselves may reflect some attempt to address their problematic nature.

The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, for example, is not something an early Christian would likely have invented, since the baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew includes a dialog where Jesus directly addresses this question. Luke doesn't mention who baptizes who and John doesn't even mention the baptism at all.

Similarly, the fact that Jesus doesn't know when the Son of Man will come is missing from many later manuscripts of Matthew and Mark, and Luke himself omitted the statement. John presents Jesus as far more omniscient than any of the other gospels. Meier thus argues that there is a conservative as well as a creative thrust in the early tradition (170).

Not everything we might first think as embarrassing might have been to the earliest believers. For example, although Luke and John do not have Mark and Matthew's, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," Meier does not think this statement would have been clearly embarrassing to Mark, given its Scriptural nature. Meier thus would not conclude that it is original simply because it seems a possible issue for later Christians or the fact that Luke and John don't mention it.

2. The Criterion of Discontinuity
The idea here is that if there are words or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived either from Judaism at the time of Jesus or from the early Church after him, they are likely historical because no one would have invented them or applied them to Jesus from somewhere else.

The problem of course is that "a successful teacher and communicator ... would have had to submit himself to the constraints of communication, the constraints of his historical situation" (173). Thus, "while the criterion of discontinuity is useful, we must guard against the presupposition that it will automatically give us what was central to or at least fairly representative of Jesus' teaching." The real danger is that it will give us a caricature of Jesus "by divorcing Jesus from the Judaism that influenced him and from the Church that he influenced" (172).

What we get from the criterion of dissimilarity is the "strikingly characteristic" or "unusual," not what is unique. At the end of this section, Meier writes, "when we deal with the public actions of Jesus, it may be wiser to speak of the 'sort of things Jesus did' ... instead of asserting that a particular story tells us precisely what Jesus did on one particular occasion. The same distinction can be applied to the sayings tradition taken as a whole. We can have some hope of learning the basic message of Jesus, the 'kind of thing' he usually or typically said (the ipsissima vox). Rarely if ever can we claim to recover his exact words (the ipsissima verba)" (174).

3. The Criterion of Multiple Attestation
This is the idea that if a saying or event appears in multiple layers of Jesus tradition, it is more likely to have been original. As a footnote, this does not mean that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have the same story. If Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, then this only counts for one attestation. The idea of the kingdom of God being a major theme of Jesus' teaching, on the other hand, appears in Mark, Q, special Matthean tradition, special Lukan tradition, John, echoes in Paul.

Examples of such teaching in multiple layers also includes Jesus' words over the bread and wine and his prohibition on divorce. He ends the pages for today with the apt quote: "no criterion can be used mechanistically and in isolation" (175).

1 comment:

Dave Smith said...


You are making me hungery for Meier. I have not read him since seminary. Thanks for reminding me how "orthodox" he makes Jesus to be.