Rethinking the Historical Jesus
John P. Meier
Updated 23 February 2010
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." — Matthew 16:15,16, NRSV
Many Hindus believe that Krishna, the most direct manifestation of God, decided to live on earth as a man for a single human lifetime. He was born, lived and taught, and finally died, returning to his unmanifested form. Christians have this much in common with them: Christians also believe that God decided to become born as a human being, but he picked a really bad place and time to do it. As a result, he was executed by crucifixion, a death so humiliating and horrible that nobody could bring themselves to depict it until a century after the practice of crucifixion had ceased. Yet within days after his execution, this Christian God began appearing to his disciples in a hyper-physical, yet recognizable version of his living human form, promising them that they would follow him after their own deaths in the general Resurrection into the life to come.
So who was this person, not as the Christian God, but as the man Jesus, and how was he perceived by his contemporaries during his public ministry? In other words, what can be known about the historical Jesus? Now the historical Jesus is not the real Jesus, any more than the historical Abraham Lincoln is the real Abraham Lincoln. There are plenty of things about the real, flesh and blood Lincoln that have not been preserved for discovery by historians. And if much has been lost to us regarding the historical Lincoln, even more has been lost regarding the historical Jesus. Despite the vast literature of historical Jesus research, including the 3,040 pages of the first four volumes of John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew (which itself cites hundreds of references), the pickings are slim.
Nevertheless, if one is careful (a substantial portion of the books is in chapter end-notes) and consistent in one's methodology, reads the ancient sources in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, is acquainted with Aramaic, and reads the commentaries on those sources in French, German, and English and keeps up with archaeological research, then pickings there are. The quest for them is long — the first volume of this work still in progress was published in 1991 — but the reader is rewarded with a greater understanding of, and consequently a greater awe of the man Jesus and the founders of his Church.
So how do we decide what comes from the historical Jesus? Meier uses the following criteria:
- Embarrassment — is the saying or narrative in question something that the early Church would rather have concealed, but could not, because it was common knowledge at the time? Meier's example is the baptism of Jesus by John, which by the logic of the early believers, should have gone the other way around, considering that John was merely a lay preacher, while Jesus was in the words of Peter, "the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
- Discontinuity — does the saying or narrative represent a break with traditions that went before (and often after) it? That is to say, is the saying or story unique or original in its place and time? Meier cites several examples, among them Jesus' sweeping prohibition of all oaths (Matt 5:34,37).
- Multiple attestation — does the saying or narrative appear in more than one independent literary source, and/or in more than one independent literary form or genre (e.g., parable, dispute, miracle story, prophecy, or aphorism)? Meier cites the multiple attestation of both sources and forms regarding Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God.
- Coherence — is the saying or story in question coherent with other material that is already judged as likely to be historical?
- Rejection and Execution — this criterion does not directly indicate whether a saying or deed attributed to Jesus is authentic. But it does point out as Meier writes that, "a Jesus whose words and deeds would not alienate people, especially powerful people, is not the historical Jesus." One should note that the Crucifixion is something the early church viewed with embarassment (criterion 1 above).
Secondary criteria, that are more problematic, but sometimes useful are:
- Aramaism — does the original Greek text in question exhibit traces of translated Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew that was the native language of the historical Jesus?
- Palestinian Environment — does the saying or story in question reflect "concrete customs, beliefs, judicial procedures, commercial and agricultural practices, or social and political conditions in 1st century Palestine?" Put negatively, accounts that get these details wrong are likely to be inauthentic.
- Vividness of Narration — does the story in question present vivid details that are not necessitated by the story itself? The problem here is that any good storyteller inserts such details.
- Redactional Tendencies — does the saying or story fit with the redactional (editorial) style of the Evangelist (Gospel writer) in question? If so, it may be an addition made by the Evangelist himself, rather than an account that goes back actual life of Jesus.
- Historical Presumption — Meier discusses, but does not use this criterion, which presumes that the burden of proof is on those who wish to contradict what are presumably eyewitness accounts. Meier argues that, in regard to the historical Jesus, the burden of proof is on whoever wants to prove anything. [To this I add the observations of modern forensic scientists and psychologists that eyewitness accounts of even recent events can differ between eyewitnesses, and that the account given by any individual eyewitness can change over time. Hence the importance of multiple attestation, above.]
Despite all these criteria, Meier further states that in many cases one cannot decide if a particular saying or deed goes back to the historical Jesus. One must declare it neither as historical or unhistorical, but rather "non liquet," i.e., "not clear."
All of this methodology should immediately shock those who take the Bible on faith as if it were dictated, word for word by God. Now, one cannot automatically exclude Divine Providence from having the definitive role in the development of the Judeo-Christian canon. But the truth is that the canonical texts were written and collected over hundreds of years. In other words, the composition of the Bible is itself a historical process, and therefore subject to historical analysis. Much of this analysis has been done by scholars prior to Meier, and he assumes some acquaintance with the results of this analysis on the part of his readers.
In particular, the four Gospels in their final form were composed some forty to ninety years after Jesus' public ministry. Scholars note that there is a common body of material found in gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, hence they are grouped together as the "Synoptic" Gospels. Nevertheless, there is also material unique to each of these Gospels, which scholars attribute to independent (mostly oral) traditions labeled M (Matthew), L (Luke), Marcan, and for material that is found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark, "Q," which stands for the German word Quelle, meaning source, as in the source of a stream. Finally, there is material found only in the Gospel of John, referred to as coming from an independent Johannine tradition. Thus, distributed among the four Gospels we find material from five source traditions.
These traditions developed orally and as fragmentary writings (Q is regarded as mostly a source of Jesus' sayings, rather than a narrative) during the first two Christian generations and were collected, edited, and written in their present form during the third. Each evangelist arranged the remembered and recorded incidents as seemed best to communicate the truth about Jesus as he understood it. The rewriting of narratives and rewording of sayings to suit a theological agenda are more pronounced in John than in the Synoptics, but Meier thinks that John may be more historically accurate than the Synoptics regarding the nature and date of the Last Supper, for example. As a consequence, there is no clear timeline or sequence of events on which any two Gospels agree. That is to say, we do not know the order of events during Jesus' public ministry. Of course, many have tried to reconcile the timelines in the Gospels to one another, constructing various "lives of Jesus," but they go beyond what can be established with reasonable probability.
There are other sources besides the Biblical canon. The literature of the intertestamental period can be used to shed light on attitudes in 1st century Palestine. Meier finds little to rely on in the so-called agrapha (the "unwritten" extra-canonical sayings and deeds of Jesus) and the Apocryphal Gospels. There are the two works of Josephus (a Jewish general who was captured by the Romans, and subsequently defected to them), Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. Josephus' works, at least in some versions, contain references to John the Baptist and to Jesus, although at least one passage is almost certainly a later Christian interpolation. Meier also plumbs the Old Testament (OT) pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (attributed to the Essene community at Qumran), portions of the Talmuds, as well as other Roman texts.
To these sources and criteria, Meier adds an over-arching requirement. The conclusions to be drawn are those that could be agreed upon by an "unpapal conclave" consisting of a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew and an agnostic — "all honest historians cognizant of 1st-century religious movements" — locked together in the Harvard Divinity School Library. That is, Meier (a Catholic priest and professor of the New Testament at the University of Notre Dame) "prescinds" from his own faith. He is not seeking the Christ who makes Himself known through faith and theological reflection, but the Jesus of history that can be agreed upon whether or not one is Christian.
With all this attention to sources and methods, what can be said about the historical Jesus? Meier concludes Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person by sketching a framework for future analysis. Jesus was born most likely in Nazareth (not Bethlehem) the first child of a pious family not long before the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.). Meier notes that his family's concern for its Jewish faith is evident in its members names: Jesus [a shortened form of Joshua], and the Hebrew forms of the names of his mother, father, and brothers are all those of key figures from the days of the Jewish patriarchs. They may have participated in the reawakening of Jewish national and religious identity in Galilee, which longed for the restoration of Israel freed from the domination of Rome. This would have been especially true if Jesus' father Joseph was thought to be a descendant of King David.
His family would have had Jesus educated enough to read Biblical Hebrew, or at least to become familiar with the then-accepted Hebrew Scriptures, but their modest means and social station would not have permitted them to have him educated as a priest or a scribe. He joined the movement led by John the Baptist, but soon struck out on his own, moving between his home area of Galilee and the city of Jerusalem and its surroundings. He was most likely celibate (an unusual condition at the time, though not unprecedented — the OT prophet Jeremiah was celibate as a prophetic act consistent with his message). Prior to his ministry he had been a woodworker who did not consider himself "poor," and he probably spoke enough "tradesman's Greek" (in addition to his native Aramaic) to have interacted in Greek with Pilate at his trial. He ate the Last Supper with his disciples on a Thursday evening (the Day of Preparation, not the Day of Passover, if Meier's dates are correct), and was crucified, died, and was buried on the following Friday before sunset. He died between A.D. 28 and 33 (most likely April 7, A. D. 30). His public ministry lasted a little over two years, ending with his death at the age of about thirty-six.
This historical Jesus was "marginal" in many senses, of which Meier mentions six: (1) Jesus is almost unmentioned in the Jewish and pagan literature of the century following his ministry. (2) Crucifixion was a method of execution reserved for criminals of marginal classes. (3) By abandoning his livelihood and modest social status to take up the life of an itinerant, celibate, lay prophet, Jesus marginalized himself in the eyes of many of his fellow Palestinian Jews. (4) Some of Jesus' teachings and practices (celibacy, prohibition of divorce, prohibition of oaths) would have been off-putting to many, especially since Jesus had no external badges of religious authority. (5) Jesus' style of teaching was such that, during his final clash with the authorities in Jerusalem, he had alienated those of sufficient influence to protect him. (6) To the rich and aristocratic urban priesthood, Jesus would have seemed dangerously anti-establishment, both because he was from the "boondocks" and because he had no strong ties to any of them.
The astute reader may have noticed at this point, that I have not mentioned the "infancy narratives" in Matthew and Luke. These narratives differ from one another, and enjoy no attestation from sources outside themselves — indeed, Mark and John appear not even to know of such narratives. As such, and because some of their details conflict with the historical record from other sources, they cannot be established as historical, a point agreed upon by the vast majority of critical scholars before Meier. Moreover, many features of these narratives are similar to the infancy stories of various other "heroes" of other faith traditions. Here Meier agrees with current scholarship, and moves on to his main purpose: questing for who the adult Jesus was during his public ministry.
If Volume One "set the stage onto which the adult Jesus would step," Volume Two: Mentor, Message, and Miracles begins with John the Baptist, who helped Jesus make his entrance. John was an eschatological prophet who preached that a fiery judgment was imminent upon all Israel. While the historian cannot establish that John was related to Jesus (multiple attestation cannot be used since the only account of John's childhood is in Luke 1) it does cohere with John's message for him to have been the only son of a Jerusalem priest, and to have forsaken his duty to continue the priestly line (John was probably also celibate) in order to call Israel to repentance in the desert. Only true repentance together with a water baptism administered by John could provide protection from God's coming wrath. This baptism was both similar to the use of water for ritual cleansing by Jews, and discontinuous with it, because the water cleansing was heretofore administered by oneself. Moreover, the self-administered cleansing conferred ritual purity, while John's baptism conferred forgiveness of one's past transgressions of the halakha, the religious Law.
The Jews who came to the Jordan river viewed John as a prophet, if not the prophet sent by God to prepare his people for the last days. Jesus was indeed baptized by John, and may have spent some time with John's entourage, as a kind of disciple or apprentice. In any case, Jesus left John's circle to begin his own ministry, which retained the proclamation of judgment and the practice of baptism, but took a new and original tack. Jesus, without any formal religious credentials, proclaimed the imminent Kingdom of God — a relatively rare phrase before he used it — in both word and deed. He sought to begin the gathering of all the faithful of Israel (and even some upright and faithful non-Israelites) to prepare them for a glorious "eschatological banquet" which they would enjoy in the Presence of God and the Patriarchs. He made this eschatological banquet present to his followers in his table fellowship, which he offered to all, rich and poor, pious and sinners. He also made this imminent Kingdom implicitly present in his own astounding deeds: his exorcisms and his healings. When asked by messengers from the imprisoned John if he were the "Stronger One" that John had expected, Jesus alluded to Isaiah: "The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them." [Note that raising the dead is different from Resurrection — the raised dead return to their former lives and must eventually die again, whereas the Resurrected rise to new lives over which death has no power.] Indeed, as a miracle-working prophet, Jesus would have been perceived, and would probably have perceived himself as an Elijah-like prophet who was fulfilling the prophecies in Isaiah. As Meier writes, "It was this convergence and configuration of different traits in the one man named Jesus — traits that made him the Elijah-like eschatological prophet of a kingdom both future and yet made present in his miracles — that gave Jesus his distinctiveness or 'uniqueness' within Palestinian Judaism in the early 1st century A.D."
Volume 3: Companions and Competitors widens the circle from a consideration of Jesus himself, to an investigation of his relationships to his fellow Jews. Meier's survey begins with the crowds around Jesus, and then turns inward to the disciples, and then to each of the Twelve, in turn. After this, he takes up Jesus' relations to his competitors for the faith of 1st century Palestinian Judaism: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. Finally, he surveys the Samaritans, the scribes, the Herodians, and the Zealots.
Again, the definitive conclusions are few. Jesus' preaching and healings attracted large crowds, which probably contributed to his arrest and execution by the temple priesthood (led by Joseph Caiaphas) working hand in glove with the Roman authorities (led by Pontius Pilate). While these crowds may have been enthusiastic at times, their commitment was not deep or enduring. This stands in contrast to Jesus' sedentary supporters and itinerant disciples. Both of these groups included women, although the lack of an Aramaic feminine form for the word that got translated as "disciple" has probably led to no women being named as such. The sedentary supporters provided hospitality, shelter and funds to support Jesus and his movement on his preaching tours. They did not follow Jesus physically on these tours, and were probably volunteers. The disciples, on the other hand, did follow Jesus physically during his itinerant ministry, and were chosen or "called" individually by Jesus. That is, he urged or commanded his disciples to give up their social station and means of support, and to depend only God — which in practice meant on each other and especially on him.
Within the disciples was the inner circle of the Twelve, whom Jesus chose to begin the in-gathering of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The symbolic and prophetic act of calling and organizing the Twelve, as well as sending them out on a symbolic mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God, probably contributed to the nervousness of the priestly (mostly Sadducean) and Roman authorities. This circle became enough of an "institution" that it endured for a while after Jesus' death, and even chose another disciple to replenish their number after the loss of Judas Iscariot (who had betrayed Jesus to the authorities). They continued Jesus' practices of baptism and his special prayer (the Lord's Prayer, which Meier judges to come in its primitive form — Meier quotes Fitzmeyer's hypothetical Aramaic reconstruction — from the lips of the historical Jesus).
Though Peter and the Twelve (as well as unnamed disciples and the network of sedentary supporters) provided continuity between the ministry of Jesus and the founding of the early Christian Church, there are also elements of discontinuity. Jesus apparently never considered a formal mission to the Gentiles. Rather he seemed to think that the Gentiles would be brought into the Kingdom of God only at the consummation of Israel's history at the end time. He did not intend to create a separate or separatist community within Judaism like the Essene community at Qumran, but rather to gather all Israel together, including sinners and toll collectors, to prepare them for God's imminent kingly rule.
Meier then widens the circle from Jesus' supporters to his competitors, beginning with the Pharisees. The quest for the historical Pharisees could take up a volume of its own, but for the purpose at hand, our attention is confined to their relationship to the historical Jesus. Generally speaking, the Pharisees were known for their scrupulous observance of the Mosaic Law, including not only the written Law in the Torah — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy — but also in their own special oral tradition that they claimed originated with Moses. The Pharisees were concerned with rules about purity (what makes hands clean or unclean, for example), proper observance of the Sabbath, marriage and divorce. While they tended to be strict in their own observance, they tended to be lenient in judgment, and not to view their fellow Jews who were not similarly observant as enemies (unlike the Essenes, see below). They considered their interpretation of the Law normative for all Israel, but by the time of Jesus, they were out of power at Judea's Roman-controlled court. They had been replaced there for some generations by the Sadducees. The Pharisees reacted by becoming more active among the common folk, seeking influence in numbers. Thus, they more geographically dispersed than the Sadducees, and more likely to have direct encounters with Jesus and his followers.
The Gospels present the Pharisees debating with Jesus on the issue of divorce, which they permitted based on Mosaic Law, but which Jesus forbade because of his eschatological mindset. That is, in the end time God would restore the institution of marriage to its pristine state, monogamous and permanent. By banning divorce, Jesus was thus preparing Israel for the imminent Kingdom of God. [Thus one sees a distinction between the Resurrection, which Jesus claimed one experiences after death, and the Kingdom of God, which Jesus proclaimed was coming into this world.] Since it was common for theological debates to involve theological invective, it coheres with the usage of the time for Jesus to have used theological invective (prophetic woes) against them. Moreover, Jesus might well have used the Pharisees in teaching stories (parables) that turned the usual conception of honor on its head in the honor/shame society of his day — the parable of the toll collector and the Pharisee would be an example of this.
The other competitors of Jesus were:
- The Sadducees, who were active mostly among the Jerusalem priesthood. They had their own traditions and rules, and disagreed with the Pharisees on various points of the Law. In particular, multiple attestation indicates that they denied the validity of the Pharisees' oral tradition and they did not believe in Resurrection after death. Jesus and his followers would have encountered them during his visits to Jerusalem for the observance of various Holy days. In particular, it is likely that the high priest, Joseph Caiaphas, was a Sadducee.
- The Essenes, an obscure group founded by a "Teacher of Righteousness" sometime in the 2nd century B.C., and who established a monastic, celibate community at Qumran. They are believed to be the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes were very concerned with purity rules and the details of Temple observance. Unlike them, their rejection of practices then current in the Jerusalem temple (and indeed of the Roman-controlled Temple priesthood itself) led them to separate themselves from the rest of Israel. Like Jesus, they had eschatological expectations, but theirs took the form of preparation for a final battle between themselves (The Sons of Light) and everyone else (the Sons of Darkness). They lost this battle to the Romans around A.D. 70, and disappeared from history. Because they isolated themselves from the rest of Israel both spiritually and physically, they would have had little interaction with Jesus, and indeed the Gospels do not mention them. If Jesus shared some concerns with the Essenes, it was because those concerns were common to Palestinian Judaism in the 1st century. It is unlikely that Jesus was an Essene at some time before his public ministry.
- The Samaritans, like the Jews, revered the first five books of Moses, but believed the religious center should be Mt. Gerizim near Shechem in Samaria, rather than Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. As religions, both Samaritanism and Judaism had emerged over several centuries as distinct expressions of the ancient Israelite worship of the one God Yahweh. It probable that Jesus did have interactions with Samaritans during his ministry.
- The Scribes were just that — people who could read and write — and consequently they found employment in writing legal documents for people who needed them. Some Scribes became prominent because they were retained by other prominent people, such as members of the Jerusalem priesthood. In particular, one scribal activity was the reading and interpretation of Jewish law. Jesus and his followers may well have considered them competitors, because Jesus had his own interpretation of Jewish law, which he justified charismatically — it was right because he said so (here Meier is looking ahead to Volume 4). Hence the woes directed against the stock phrase "scribes and Pharisees."
- The Herodians were merely people who supported Herod Antipas, many because they were his courtiers. They were not a political-religious party like the Sadducees and Pharisees, and could have drawn their membership from either of these groups, among others.
- The Zealots did not exist as an organized militant group during Jesus' time. That is to say, the disciple Simon the Zealot was merely a zealously faithful person. A generation after Jesus, a group called the Zealots committed mass suicide at Masada rather than be enslaved by the Romans.
Meier surveys these groups partly to establish that Jesus was not a member of any of them, and to establish the coherence of some of the Gospel accounts of interactions between Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. More importantly, his survey establishes the relationship of Jesus, his message, and his movement to the religious milieu of his place and time. [Note added 1/09: A more detailed review of Volume III is here.]
In his fourth volume, Law and Love, issued in 2009, Meier considers Jesus as a charismatic teacher of the Mosaic Law. Operationally, charismatic means that Jesus did not routinely cite Scripture or other authority to make his points. Instead, he implied that what he said was true, because it was he who said it. And what he taught and debated was the halacha, the Jewish Law, because it was the prime point of contention between the various Jewish sects listed as his companions and competitors. In Meier's words "the historical Jesus is the halakhic Jesus." Just as he cannot be separated from his reputation for miraculous healing and other astonishing deeds, neither can he be separated from the Torah and its commandments.
One consequence of this concern for the Law is that Jesus most likely did not advocate the abrogation of Jewish dietary laws. These laws were one of the major ways in which the Jewish community maintained its identity, its separateness from the powers like Rome that dominated it. Had Jesus challenged the dietary laws, it is unlikely that his movement would have grown enough for him to attract enough attention to get crucified. Though he may have stated that what comes out of a person's mouth (evil speech), is what defiles a person, the phrase "thus he declared all foods clean," is a creation of Matthew to satisfy the needs of a largely Gentile Christian community well after the Crucifixion. Neither did Jesus advocate abrogating the Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath, or ritual purity, even though he was more humane in their interpretation as befits a peasant who is more concerned with the hard necessities of daily living, as opposed to the rigorous and extreme interpretations of say, the Essenes.
On the other hand, Meier argues convincingly that Jesus did make some unique pronouncements that astonished his fellow Jews, and were too widely known to be left out of the Gospels by their writers. Among these are the prohibition of divorce (despite the Torah's permission of it), the prohibition of oaths (despite the Torah's demanding the making of oaths under certain special circumstances), and Jesus' highly original double commandment to love God and one's neighbor. Only in the Q material and nowhere else in the OT, the NT or any of the relevant Jewish or pagan intertestamental literature does anyone do these four things together: (1) quote Deut 6:4-5 (love thy God) and Lev 19:18b (love thy neighbor) verbatim, (2) cite them both, back to back, (3) order them first and second, respectively, and (4) declare the ordered pair of these two commandments to be greater than any other commandments in the Torah. Based on the criterion of discontinuity discussed above, Meier believes this double commandment originates from the historical Jesus. Moreover it indicates that Jesus was knowledgeable of the Torah, and skilled in hermeneutical argument.
In the course of this investigation into the double love commandment, Meier emphasizes that the words "love" and "neighbor" bear some scrutiny. When used in the imperative, love means to will good and to do good to one's neighbor. It does not mean an emotion or feeling, because one can command thoughts and deeds, but not emotions. Neighbor has been enlarged by Christians reading the parable of the Good Samaritan to include everybody, but Meier claims there is no evidence that Jesus meant "neighbor" to include more than one's fellow Jews, one's fellow believers in YHWH, the one God. And yet, there is ground for such enlargement, because Meier argues (again from the criterion of discontinuity) that the historical Jesus did issue the laconic commandment "Love your enemies."
Having completed this very short and superficial survey of Meier's opus thus far, I suppose I could present a list of Jesus' sayings and miracles that Meier considered, and to what degree he found them historical. But the conclusion on any particular one of these is far less important than the discipline of considering all the arguments for and against its historicity, and the related historical/sociological and theological byways one must explore in the process. Moreover, simply listing Meier's often tentative conclusions might stimulate some readers to argue either with me or Meier over conclusions they dislike, without their having read the books.
Instead, I would like to foist upon the willing reader some of my impressions of the historical Jesus as sketched by Meier. To begin, I agree with Meier that the historical Jesus' apparent laxity regarding certain rules concerning purity and Sabbath observance may stem from his origins as a Galilean peasant. To an agrarian, accustomed to working on a daily basis with dirt and animals, and one bad harvest away from starvation, such concerns might seem far removed. On the other hand, Meier notes that Jesus, himself celibate, may have been very concerned with laws regulating sexual behavior and sexual purity. In particular, the historical Jesus may have been as scandalized as any of his fellow Jews by the sexual practices of Classical (i.e., Greco-Roman) civilization, including nudity in public and same-sex relations. Though the Jesus of the Gospels does not mention such practices, it may be that for a Jewish prophet preaching to his fellow Jews, such condemnation was unnecessary — it "went without saying." St. Paul, on the other hand, did condemn such practices in his letters, because he had regular contact with Gentile converts who may have needed reminders concerning these subjects. In any case, by using Jesus' condemnation of adultery (and by extension divorce), one might argue that the historical Jesus was concerned for the restoration of sexuality in general to its pristine state before the Fall of Man, though such concern has left little explicit trace in the Gospels. (A counter-argument could be mounted by claiming that Jesus' concern for the state of marriage came not from a concern about sexuality but rather from his prohibition of oaths — if one is to be bound by one's agreements, then certainly the agreement to marry should be binding.)
Indeed, the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 was used by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:21,22) to argue for the necessity of Jesus' death and resurrection. Further, in many places in the NT we see a siege mentality, an attitude that the Church is contending against a numinous spiritual Enemy, variously named Satan, Beelzebub, or "the Power that rules this world." Thus far in his analysis, Meier has not directly addressed this topic: did the historical Jesus view himself and his disciples as contending against Sin, Evil, or Satan/Beelzebub? Nor has he addressed the historicity and meaning of Jesus' threatening references to "Gehenna," which has been translated into "Hell." If these were not concerns of the historical jesus, they would represent two more major points of discontinuity with much of the early (and present) Church.
What I take from Meier's massive work of scholarship is an impression of the historical Jesus as a 1st century Palestinian Jewish celibate peasant layman, eschatological prophet and miracle-worker in the manner of Elijah who shared table fellowship with both religious insiders and outcasts, used prophetic invective against his opponents, who taught original syntheses of the Jewish religious law, and who organized a network of supporters to keep him in the business of proclaiming the imminent and yet present Kingdom of God which would restore Israel to its former glory and set the world in balance. Meier's historical Jesus gave up everything — his livelihood, his family, his honor (in an honor/shame society) — to proclaim and make prophetically real the coming of God's kingly rule over his people. He was even willing to give his life for this cause, and when it began to appear to him that such a sacrifice would be demanded of him by the priestly and Roman authorities, he consoled himself with the hope that he would have a place at the eschatological banquet at the end time. This is not the Jesus of the high christology in the Gospel of John, who is always supremely in control, but of an ordinary man who made a most extraordinary leap of faith — a peasant who could have lived out his days in a reasonably respectable obscurity, but who chose (or was chosen) to stake everything, including his life, on God and the Kingdom he was given to proclaim. If this was all the self-knowledge that Jesus was permitted to take to his Passion, I can only have the more awe of him for being willing to risk scourging and crucifixion, and for being unwilling to recant when that fate was upon him.
Such an odd, passionate, demanding (at least of his disciples) worker of astonishing deeds does not lend himself to portrayals as a kindly philosopher (as was done by Thomas Jefferson and some modern academics). I agree with Meier that Jesus without his reputation and self-image as a miracle worker is not the historical Jesus. Nor does such a figure lend himself to portrayals of Jesus as a revolutionary who sought political power. The historical Jesus was about prophetic, rather than military/political action. It is also apparent that the historical Jesus does not lend himself readily to the claims of either Liberal or Conservative Christianity.
On the other hand, the historical Jesus does not lend himself readily to the christology of the Church as a whole. This may be due to Meier's method: his over-arching premise that what can be said about the historical Jesus must be that which can be agreed upon whether or not one is Christian excludes christology a fortiori (to use one of Meier's favorite Latin phrases) — the historical Jesus is of necessity not the Resurrected Christ. But for Christians there is another possible reason why there is discontinuity between the historical Jesus and the early Church: maybe the Resurrection changed everything, even Jesus himself, his own self-understanding, and the understanding of his followers. [I must note that the Resurrection is not accessible to historians, because it cannot be corroborated by independent witness - all of the witnesses to the Resurrection were by definition Christian.]
Stepping back from the historical Jesus and forward into our own time, I also take away an impression of the present Church. The "sola Scriptura" (Scripture alone) of myself and my fellow Protestants seems like ill-informed bibliolatry (making the Bible itself into an idol into which we retroject our desires and expectations) compared to the disciplined and minute reading of Scripture one finds in Meier. The experience of reading A Marginal Jew has strengthened my conviction that the sectarianism of the Christian Church is both a consequence of and a defense against Sin. That is to say, when Sin begins to invade the Church it is walled off and contained by division until it subsides. The divisions between Eastern and Western Churches, between Western Catholicism and Protestantism, within Protestantism itself and between Liberal and Conservative Christianity were not meant to endure, and deserve no more than our provisional adherence. Instead of bickering with each other, we might do better to stand together and marvel how Jesus, at once the marginal Jew of history and the Christ of faith, changed the history of our world and the destiny of our souls.
For future volumes, Meier plans to explore the historicity and meaning of Jesus' parables, Jesus' self-designations (e.g., Son of Man, possible claim to be the Davidic Messiah), and the precise reason(s) why Jesus was crucified by the Roman Prefect Pilate on the charge of claiming to be King of the Jews. After working through Meier's first four volumes, I can hardly wait. My concern is that given his acknowledgements of his doctors for keeping him healthy enough to continue, and the length of time between volumes (which seem to cover fewer major topics, but in ever expanding detail), he may come to the end of his earthly days before coming to the end of his project.
Even if that should be the case, Professor Fr. Meier has already moved the quest for the historical Jesus far from where it had been before him, and created a valuable point of departure for further questers. And for us lay believers, he has provided an introduction to the "fully human" aspect of the Christ who is at once fully human and fully God.