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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 57, 2009

JOHN P. MEIER, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. IV: Law and Love (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009). Pp. xiii + 735. Hardback. $A120.00.

This volume, which consumed six years, along with the three earlier volumes in this series represents the most impressive work of biblical scholarship that this reviewer has ever read. The reader may well be tempted to skip reading the footnotes and focus only on the text, but to do that would mean missing a wealth of acute observations. Some of these footnotes have as much weight as entire chapters of the books of some scholars.

Equally as impressive as Meier’s erudition is his critical acumen. I have not found a single conclusion reached on grounds that I would question. What, then, are the main conclusions of the present volume?

Near the beginning, Meier revisits the subject of criteria of historical authenticity. He finds five criteria of historicity especially useful: embarrassment, discontinuity, multiple attestation, coherence with material judged to be historical on other grounds, and capacity to throw light on Jesus’ rejection and execution (13–17). It must be noted that Meier is not a member of the Jesus Seminar and is quite critical of its conclusions.

The main topics of study in the present volume are: Jesus and the Law: Jesus’ teaching on divorce; his prohibition of oaths; Jesus and the Sabbath; Jesus and purity laws; and the love commandments. His research showed that the search for ‘the historical Law’ is as difficult as the search for the Historical Jesus. Out of all this material which traditions, if any, does Meier believe can be attributed with confidence to Jesus of Nazareth?

To begin with the question of divorce, addressed in Chapter 32, Meier finds that Mark 10:9 goes back to Jesus. In almost all pre-70 Jewish texts a man can divorce his wife for almost any reason (126). Jesus’ prohibition is without parallel either in Jewish Scriptures or in mainstream Judaism then or later. Moreover, there is something disturbing, even shocking, about his prohibition. He dares to forbid what the Law allows (113). The criterion of embarrassment also applies to the early church. “From the beginning, one notices a certain squirming, a desire to create ‘wiggle room’” (116).

In Chapter 33, Meier takes up the prohibition of oaths and concludes that the criteria of discontinuity and multiple attestation both speak for historicity. On the one hand, such a prohibition appears nowhere in pre-70 Judaism. On the other, Paul swears regularly, without giving it a second thought (199).

In Chapter 34, Meier turns to Jesus and the Sabbath. In his judgement, the evidence slightly favours the historicity of Mark 2:27. He is also inclined to accept the historicity of the rhetorical questions about Sabbath observance which are embedded in stories of Jesus’ healings on the Sabbath, that is, of Luke 13:16; Matt 12:11; and Luke 14:5, while remaining doubtful about the historicity of narratives about disputes. “The rhetorical questions fit perfectly into a credible portrait of a truly Jewish Jesus” (267). “Jesus is not a vague preacher or generic prophet who provides grand visions while avoiding the nitty-gritty of detailed questions about observance of the Mosaic law … The historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus” (261f).

In chapter 35 Meier addresses the daunting topic of Jesus and purity laws. The conclusion of his long discussion of Mark 7:1–23 is that Mark 7:15 is most likely a Christian formulation created in order to give the settled teaching and practice of the church circa A.D. 70 a basis in the teaching of the earthly Jesus. “It hardly seems credible that the popular Palestinian Jewish teacher named Jesus should have rejected or annulled in a single logion all the laws on prohibited foods enshrined in Leviticus and Deuteronomy … In addition, how could such a revolutionary overturning of Jewish food laws be so quickly forgotten by Jesus’ own disciples?” (385f).

At the same time, Meier thinks it more probable that the small unit of tradition preserved in Mark 7:10–12 does go back to Jesus. There is no hint that pre-70 Christian Jews in Palestine had the time or interest to engage in arguments over the relatively obscure topic of qorban (382).

The findings of this chapter confirm Meier’s provisional judgement (351), that Jesus seems to have been capable of both great rigor (e.g. prohibiting divorce and oaths entirely) and humane leniency (e.g. on Sabbath observance). He concludes the chapter by stating that it is a mistake to try to find one systematic approach to the Mosaic Law on the part of Jesus. “Jesus saw himself as an eschatological prophet and miracle worker along the lines of Elijah. He was not a systematic teacher, scribe or rabbi; he was a religious charismatic” (415). His studied indifference to ritual impurity must be seen within this larger framework of his claim to be the charismatic prophet of the end time.

Chapter 36 is on the love commandments of Jesus. In discussing the double command in Mark 12:28–34 he concludes that the argument from discontinuity is both strong and sufficient in this case. Meier affirms the historicity of at least the core teaching and is also inclined to accept the surrounding story (526). Jesus’ teaching, he argues, does four noteworthy things:
  1. Jesus cites Deut 6:4–5 and Lev 19:18b word for word. This is without parallel.
  2. Jesus cites not just one text but both, back to back.
  3. While juxtaposing, Jesus orders them numerically, insisting that Deut 6:4–5 is the first commandment and that Lev 19:18b is the second.
  4. Jesus concludes with the affirmation that these two texts are superior to all others.
This teaching, Meier argues, is not repeated anywhere else in the New Testament. It is also missing in a great deal of early Christian literature (499f). On the other hand, Meier inclines to the view that the Golden Rule was not taught by the historical Jesus, but he is willing to live with non liquet (557).

At the same time, Meier allows that, along with the Marcan tradition of the double command, the Q command to love enemies also goes back to Jesus. The general idea can be found elsewhere. What cannot be paralleled is “the terribly terse demand, ‘Love your enemies’” (573).

We can only hope that Meier’s doctors will keep him in sufficiently good health to complete the projected final volume, in which he plans to cover “three outstanding enigmas: the riddle-speech of Jesus’ parables, the riddle-speech of his self-designations and the final riddle of his death” (658).

Review by
Nigel Watson
49/146 Boundary Road
Pascoe Vale VIC 3044