Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the Sixth Day of Meier...

On the sixth day of Meier, his Marginal Jew brought to me, 6) part 2 criteria for the historical Jesus, 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.

Today we finish the first half of Meier's book, "The Roots of the Problem." First there is the rest of Chapter 6: "Criteria: How Do We Decide What Comes from Jesus?" In yesterday's part of the chapter, he mentioned 1) the criterion of embarrassment, 2) the criterion of discontinuity, and 3) the criterion of multiple attestation.

The rest of the chapter finishes, first, with two more criteria that he believes are very valuable as primary criteria, although in the end making historical judgments is more an art than a science and about probability rather than certainty (183-84).

4. The Criterion of Coherence
After one has established by the first three criteria a body of probable Jesus material and events, "The criterion of coherence holds that other sayings and deeds of Jesus that fit in well withthe preliminary 'data base' established by using our first three criteria have a good chance of being historical (e.g., sayings concerning the coming of the kingdom of God or disputes with adversaries over legal observance)" (176).

Meier does warn us, however, that "Jesus would hardly be unique among the great thinkers or leaders of world history if his sayings and actions did not always seem totally consistent to us" (176). In other words, it would be ridiculous if we did not find statements from Jesus that were in tension with each other, especially since Jesus "delighted in paradoxical statements that held opposites in tension" and very importantly, "There is no reason why the preaching of Jesus may not have contained elements of both apocalyptic eschatology and traditional Israelite wisdom" (176-77).

5. The Criterion of Rejection and Execution
Jesus met a violent end at the hands of Jewish and Roman officials. So what historical words and deeds of Jesus might explain his trial and crucifixion as King of the Jews? Here's a quotable:

"A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parables and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who toyed with 1st-century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field--such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one" (177). :-)

Meier ends the chapter with five more criteria that have been mentioned from time to time, all of which he finds more dubious and thus dubs the first three as secondary criteria. The last two he considers useless or wrong.

Secondary Criteria and Criteria to be Rejected
1. Criterion of Aramaic
Joachim Jeremias was big on this one. By the way, for those of an earlier generation who were taught in seminary to think that Jeremias was the bomb--Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus and The Unknown Sayings of Jesus--let me just say that I'm glad Jeremias is dead. He has received such an extensive thrashing these last twenty years that I am thoroughly embarrassed for the man.

I believe he was a great man and a pious believer, but his name never comes up but that the shoddiness of his methods and conclusions are at issue. E. P. Sanders has been downright mean, almost accusing him of deliberate skewing under the guise of "he couldn't have been that stupid." Meier is much more respectful--as is appropriate to the man--but scarcely has he mentioned him but to take exception to his method. Indeed, I am so glad he isn't living to go from a position of such respect to looking like an incompetent.

Of course I believe people like John Dominic Crossan and Helmut Koester already look the same in some of their historical Jesus work.

Anyway, the criterion of Aramaic suggests that if a saying of Jesus translates back easily into Aramaic, it has more likelihood of being original. Meier suggests this might be icing on the cake, but he pokes numerous holes in this as having much force at all. For example, Aramaic speaking Christians could have invented sayings of Jesus just as easily as Greek speaking ones. Further, Greek speaking believers in Jerusalem would have translated Jesus' words at a very early stage into Greek, from which time they had decades to be paraphrased in transmission. And many believe that Luke composed various speeches in a Septuagintal style, which would give the appearance of Semitisms.

In short, the criterion might corroborate a decision already made by primary criteria, but it has little force by itself.

2. Criterion of a Palestinian Environment
Does a saying or event fit the environment in which Jesus ministered? Again, Christianity continued in Palestine throughout the first century, so just because something fits that setting doesn't prove it was said by Jesus there. Meier suggests that the criteria works better in its negative rather than positive force. Thus it might more cast doubt than corroborate: "parables that reflect concern about the delay of Jesus' parousia, the mission of the Church to the Gentiles, or rules for Church leadership and discipline are post-Easter creations, at least in their final, Gospel form" (180).

I might mention an example that Meier does not mention here, although he does mention it elsewhere. Mark's version of Jesus' prohibition on divorce prohibits both men from divorcing their wives and wives from divorcing their husbands. However, it is commonly said that women were not able legally to divorce their husbands in Palestine. If this is true, then it seems unlikely that Jesus would have said the second half of the prohibition. Meier elsewhere suggests that Mark added the second half to appropriate Jesus' message for a Roman world where women could divorce their husbands. If he and others are correct, then this would be an example of the criterion of a Palestinian environment at work.

3. Criterion of Vividness of Narration
"Vincent Taylor inclined to accept vivid, concrete details in Mark's Gospel as signs of high historical value" (180). But Meier doesn't think this is a very definitive criterion at all. For example, some literary forms may lead to terseness. Does this mean it isn't original?

Meier ends the chapter with two criteria he doesn't think are useful at all:

a. Criterion of tendencies in the gospel tradition
E. P. Sanders' doctoral dissertation thoroughly undermined some of the things people like Bultmann had in mind when they spoke of such tendencies: "we can find examples of the tradition becoming longer and shorter, of discourse becoming both direct and indirect, and of proper names being droppedas well as added" (182).

b. Criterion of historical presumption
Some have argued that non-historicity should be presumed until proved otherwise. Others have argued that historicity should be presumed until proved otherwise. Meier concludes, "the burden of proof is simply on anyone who tries to prove anything" (183). The rest go in the irritating category of the "not clear."

Meier ends the first section with the question, "Why Bother?"

First, Meier suggests that two groups in particular are prone to ask this question, Bultmannians and fundamentalists. The Bultmannian thinks the quest for the historical Jesus is irrelevant to faith. The fundamentalist makes no distinction between Jesus as presented in the gospels and the historical Jesus. Meier does not agree with either group but feels he should take off the hat of a historian for a moment and put on his theologian's hat for this concluding section of Part 1.

On the one hand, he agrees with the Bultmannian that the Jesus we as Christians are interested in is not some historical reconstruction. Whose would we pick? Also, "the object of Christian faith is a living person, Jesus Christ, who fully entered into a true human existence on earth in the 1st century A.D., but who now lives, risen and glorified, forever in the Father's presence" (198). This is the Jesus of faith, not Jesus as we might reconstruct him using historical methods. To this extent Meier agrees with the Bultmannian.

At the same time, Meier argues that "Theology is a cultural artifact; therefore, once a culture becomes permeated with a historical-critical approach, as has Western culture from the Enlightenment onward, theology can operate in and speak to that culture with credibility only if it absorbs into its methodology a historical approach" (198). "The historical Jesus, while not the object or essence of faith, must be an integral part of modern theology" (198-99).

He suggests four benefits of this integration:

1. It keeps faith in Christ from being reduced to a mythic symbol or timeless archetype. "Christian faith is the affirmation of and adherence to a particular person who said and did particular things in a particular time and place in human history" (199).

2. It keeps pious Christians from swallowing up the real humanity of Jesus into a one-sided emphasis on his divinity.

3. It keeps us from domesticating Jesus for a comfortable, respectable, bourgeois Christianity.

4. The historical Jesus also subverts revolutionary ideologies as well, such as liberation theology.

Meier doesn't really address fundamentalist concerns. He merely describes them at the beginning, "Fundamentalists object to the quest for the exact opposite reason [to the Bultmannians]: 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" (197).

Obviously he is not writing for fundamentalists but for people who have questions about what Jesus was likely to have been like if one uses the methods of historical study. His results cohere well with orthodox faith, as we will see.

1 comment:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

One can believe that Jesus was a mythic archtype and still believe in his historicity, that is, if we are looking at character, for instance....This means that the historical person, Jesus, is fulfilling his potential as "man made in God's image". But, this does not necessarily mean that his was the only "image of God" reaching full potentiality in "God's image"....There are many and various ways that one can fulfill that potential without literalizing the "moral model" of Jesus, as the only "moral model"...