My goal for the twelve days of Christmas until Epiphany is to wade through John P. Meier's 1991 The Marginal Jesus: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Sorry to say I'm using the first printing, now subtitled more clearly: "The Roots of the Problem and the Person" (known in 1991 but now printed as the subtitle). I've dipped in the book from time to time, but have never plowed through it. Also, the fourth volume in this series comes out this year, so I have a lot of catching up to do :-)
I deeply respect Meier as a scholar and a person of faith. He is Roman Catholic, so has an orthodox faith. He teaches at Notre Dame.
But he makes clear that he is undertaking a historical quest in this book. Where the book ends he expects faith to take over. He is a model of the attempt at objectivity. It is interesting to read it, now 17 years old. A lot has been written since 1991. "Third Quest" for the historical Jesus books were just beginning to surface at the time. He considers E. P. Sanders' Jesus and Judaism one of the only significant ones in recent times... in 1991.
Since then we have seen N. T. Wright's series and now James Dunn's, not to mention a host of other little projects (Crossan, Borg, Stanton, Witherington, Luke T. Johson, Frederikson...). The glut of Jesus books makes this one of those topics to let lie for a while, just like Paul and Pauline theology. Theological interpretation is the current rave... :-)
So to begin...
In both the Introduction and the first chapter, the pages for today, Meier makes a distinction between the historical aims of his book and a full picture of Jesus. On the one hand, the introduction makes clear that he is aiming at historical common ground for all historians of Jesus. In other words, if you had a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic in a room together with all the historical data, what might they agree is fairly compelling about the evidence in relation to Jesus.
The result will be nothing like a full picture of Jesus, especially for the Christians in the room. For example, the resurrection is not a matter for historical investigation at least in the sense that God raised Jesus from the dead and Jesus now lives. I'm filling in Meier here, but we might say historical things about Jesus' body being missing three days after his death. We might say that the disciples were convinced that they had seen him alive after his death. These claims are the perview of historical research. But to say that he is alive is the stuff of faith.
Meier is thus, like me, more of a chastened modernist than an unbridled postmodernist. He recognizes the impossibility of objectivity. He likes Karl Rahner's term, an "asymptotic goal" in relation to objectivity, "It is a goal we have to keep pressing toward, even though we may never fully reach it" (4). Frankly, I consider myself a truer postmodernist than most of those who throw the term around, a "disciplined" postmodernist.
There are some who will scoff at Meier... and me... at this point, dismiss us as so much yesterday's news, 17 years ago and thus unaware of postmodern developments. But we are aware and recognize the uncertainty of what we are doing. We will be waiting for them after people get tired of rampant subjectivity and we become useful to them again. Meier writes, "the most important hedge against rampant subjectivism is an honest admission of one's own personal stance, one's own point of view and background" (5).
Meier also appeals to Aquinas' distinction between things we know by reason and things we know by faith (6). He suggests that he is just asking one question at a time. In this book, he takes up the things that can be "known" by reason. All the caveats are there.
I also want to reiterate my position on theological interpretation. I believe the most important reading of the Bible for Christians is a Christian one, namely, one informed by two thousand years of Christians reading the Bible with the eyes of the Spirit. People like Meier, and I would primarily include myself in this category most of the time, are not so important because our main skills are those of historical-cultural exegesis.
We are skilled at asking questions like "What did Paul mean by that statement?" or "What is the most likely history behind this theological presentation?" I believe the church should have some of us around on retainer, because, again, the alternative is the late medieval Catholic Church or the rampant subjectivity of "spiritual" exegesis, which often is not spiritual. Theological interpretation is most mature when it is a matter of second naivity, rather than what is now simply ignorance of how to read the Bible in context at all.
But I digress :-)
Meier discusses the title, "marginal Jew," in the introduction. He suggests several ways in which that is significant. The one that stands out the most to me is the fact that while Jesus appears all significant to us as Christians, he was a nobody from nowhere in the first century. He barely gets a mention by any secular person, a "blip" on the radar screen (7).
I'll skip over the rest of the introduction to his first chapter, where Meier distinguishes between the "real" Jesus and the "historical" Jesus. I don't have Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus nearby to see if he later played off this section in Meier for his title.
Meier's conclusions here are fourfold: 1) the total reality of any person (including myself) is unknowable, 2) for many figures of modern history (Nixon, Reagan), we can construct a "reasonably complete" picture, 3) this is only possible for a relatively few great ancient figures (Caesar, Cicero), 4) Jesus is not one of them. We cannot know the "real" Jesus through historical research. Meier may be optimistic here about people like Caesar, frankly.
The final section of the first chapter comments on the frequent German distinction between the "historical" Jesus (Jesus as he was) and the "historic" Jesus (Jesus as he impacts us). Meier catalogs the confused history of these terms and then basically stamps them "unhelpful." He comes back to his basic aims as a historian: "For the moment, we are prescinding from faith, not denying it" (31). In other words, he will ask historical questions without denying any presuppositions of Christian faith. And "the historical Jesus is not the real Jesus, but only a fragmentary hypothetical reconstruction of him by modern means of research" (31).