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Book Review                   

A Marginal Jew:

Companions and Competitors

The Meier Primer

The historical Jesus according to the dean of Catholic scholars

In 1988 John P. Meier sat down with a representative of the Doubleday publishing company to discuss writing a book about the historical Jesus. As the conversation unfolded, they assumed the project would be a single volume. "Little did we imagine it would be a tetralogy," Meier recently told an audience at Virginia Commonwealth University, whimsically comparing the resulting product to Wagner's four operas, the Ring of the Nibelungen.

Fourteen years later, Meier can visualize the end of his epic project. Having published last year Part 3 of "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus," he has commenced writing the fourth and final volume. But don't expect to see it any time soon. Meier, a Catholic priest and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, has left the most intractable problems of historical-Jesus scholarship for last.

Much like Wagnerian opera, the Marginal Jew series may seem endless and formidably dense to the uninitiated. But also like the Nibelungenlied, Meier's tetralogy is the work of a powerful intellect that will withstand the test of time. Some of Meiers' peers are proclaiming the Marginal Jew series the most thorough and comprehensive work of scholarship on the historical Jesus in this generation. Critics may quarrel with Meier's reasons for characterizing Jesus as an eschatological prophet, but no one disputes the extraordinary erudition of his scholarship.

It is axiomatic among contemporary New Testament scholars that Jesus was a Jew, noted Meier in his April address to the VCU history department. That represents an advance over the so-called "first" and "second" quests for the historical Jesus in the 19th- and mid-20th-centuries. Early scholarship, dominated by German Protestants with strong theological biases, emphasized Jesus' distinctiveness from a supposedly legalistic and decaying religion. The great contribution of the current, "third" quest for the historical Jesus – as exemplified by the work of Geza Vermes and E.P. Sanders – has been to root him in the mainstream of 1st-century Judaism.  

The Jewishness of Jesus is now an academic cliché. But strangely enough, Meier noted, a number of modern scholars – especially those associated with the highly publicized Jesus Seminar -- have tendered interpretations that submerge Jesus' Jewish identity. (continued...)

John P. Meier, a Catholic priest and professor of New Testament at Notre Dame University, continues his magnum opus, 

A Marginal Jew, with the publication of the third volume, Companions and Competitors.

In the first volume, Meier laid out a rigorous methodology for identifying the genuine words and deeds of the historic Jesus. His five criteria of authenticity, widely employed by New Testament scholars today, were useful for stripping away the legendary accretions of the early church. Meier devoted his second volume to establishing what he believed to be the core historical truth of Jesus: that he was an eschatological prophet who, after a sojourn with John the Baptist, patterned his ministry on that of the miracle-working prophet Elijah.

Meier fleshes out his portrait of Jesus in Companions and Competitors by defining him in relationship to his followers and his opponents. To tell the story of Jesus, he observes, is to tell the story of his interaction with his followers – the Twelve, his disciples and the enthusiastic crowds of Galilee – as well as his foes, the competing religious groups in 1st-century Palestine. In focusing on Jesus’ followers, Meier espies a primitive organizational structure to his movement that is often overlooked in New Testament scholarship. Then, by shifting his magnifying glass to Jesus’ opponents, Meier brings clarity to Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees. For a fourth and final volume, he defers his analysis of Jesus' parables, his messianic self consciousness, his attitude toward Mosaic law and the reasons why he was crucified.

In Meier’s appraisal, contemporary historic-Jesus scholarship is divisible into two camps: one which emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus, seeking to understand him in light of Judean culture and religious practice of the 1st century C.E., and another that uses alien frames of reference, typically socio-economic or politico-nationalistic. As the title of his series implies, Meier stands solidly with the Jesus-as-1st-century-Jew party. In Companions and Competitors, he casts himself explicitly in opposition to members of the Jesus Seminar whose depictions of Jesus as a social iconoclast, a social revolutionary or generic Mediterranean peasant obscure his Jewishness. (continued...)


Coming in June: Diana Fulbright shares her research on early Christian portrayals of Jesus in art. For a free subscription to this newsletter, click here, type in your name, and hit the send button. 

Back Articles

What's New?

  • 6/21. New article from Biblical Archaeology Review, June 2002:

Searching for Essenes at Ein Gedi, not Qumran by Herschel Shanks


  • 6/7. New articles from Bible Review, June 2002:

The Four 34 Gospels: Diversity and Division Among the Earliest Christians by Charles W. Hedrick

Paul at the Races: Some sports fans consider athletics a religion. It used to be by Paula Fredriksen

  • 3/30. New articles from Biblica, 2002 edition:

"‘With many other words’ (Acts 2,40): Theological Assumptions in Peter’s Pentecost Speech" by John J. Kilgallen

"Son of God in Roman Imperial Titles and Matthew" by Robert L. Mowery

  • 2/7. New papers: Sessions and papers related to Johannine literature presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Nov. 2000, published on The Johannine Literature Web maintained by Felix Just S.J.

Anti-Judaism in John? The Depiction of "the Jews" in the Fourth Gospel by Martinus C. De Boer

The Legend of the Beloved Disciple by Tom Thatcher

The Theatricality of Johannine Dialogue by Jo-Ann A. Brant

The Politics of the Johannine Drama by Colleen Conway

Jesus' Jewishness in the Fourth Gospel: An Antidote Against Anti-Judaism? by Raimo Hakola

Zeal that Consumes: Feeding Imagery in the Gospel of John by Adam English

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