I've read innumerable books on the "historical Jesus", and Meier's "A Marginal Jew", of which this is the first volume, is undoubtedly one of the very best. As other reviewers have pointed out, Meier is extremely meticulous, and discusses all possibilities exhaustively. But at the same time Meier is a superb writer, and this is actually one of the most *readable* volumes about Jesus that I have come across. Meier doesn't presuppose that the reader have any particular beliefs. He distinguishes between what can be known through empirical study and what he, as a Catholic, believes on faith. There are illuminating sections on the question of whether Jesus was a "poor carpenter", whether he was literate, whether he had siblings (despite Catholic tradition on this question, Meier concludes unequivocally that he had four brothers and at least two sisters), whether he was of Davidic descent, the origins of the story of his virginal conception, etc. But in the course of discussing these questions, we learn a great deal about first century Galilee as well, and the culture that Jesus would have absorbed.
Meier's text is full of wry observations on the contrast between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of contemporary imagination. For example, as a carpenter, or "woodworker" (Greek "tekton"), his work as an adolescent "involved no little sweat and muscle power. The airy weakling often presented to us in pious paintings and Hollywood movies would hardly have survived the rigors of being Nazareth's tekton from his youth to his early thirties." (p. 281) In other words, Jesus would probably have been a strapping lad!
There are, of course, a lot of things which we would dearly like to know but which are now forever obscured, and Meier is aware of the limitations of historical research. For example, "that Jesus experienced sexual maturation like any other Jewish boy of his day is obvious; what that experience meant to him personally as an individual, or what special aspects that experience may have held for him, is completely hidden from us." (p. 254)
Meier presents the quest for the historical Jesus as a profoundly religious quest. For it tends to operate against the modern trend to "domesticate" Jesus: "although the quest for the historical Jesus is often linked in the popular secular mind with 'relevance', his importance lies precisely in his strange, off-putting, embarrassing contours, equally offensive to right and left wings. To this extent, at least, Albert Schweitzer was correct. The more we appreciate what Jesus meant in his own time and place, the more 'alien' he will seem to us. Properly understood, the historical Jesus is a bulwark against the reduction of Christian faith in general and christology in particular to 'relevant' ideology of any stripe" (pp. 199-200)
The dust jacket of this volume of Meier's monumental work is graced by a gorgeous painting by Joel Peter Johnson representing Jesus as a very striking and beautiful boy, but at the same time very much a Palestinian Jew.
If you're willing to concentrate, this book, like the preceding volume, is highly worthwhile even for non-Christian readers who want to be maximally informed on an important world figure. It can be tough going because Meier is not writing primarily for lay readers, but anyone with a healthy interest in logic, history and the critical tools of historians can enjoy it. On the other hand, Meier's erudition and dry humor augment and humanize his exhaustive scholarship. I've found Meier's criteria for historicity to be useful in gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of scriptural material in general. I, too, and eagerly awaiting Volume 3.
Unlike other hyped up works on the "historical Jesus", Meier's series makes no sensationalistic theses. Instead, it soberly weighs the available evidence and reaches measured, tentative conclusions after a detailed review of the background of biblical scholarship. Although this is not a best-seller formula, it does make for what is perhaps the best introduction available to historical Jesus scholarship. Perhaps its one weak point is that so much material is considered of interest to specialists and relegated to footnotes, that the reader finds himself going through each chapter twice: once in the body of the text, and once in the endnotes.
There are 11 chapters in two parts, starting off with a discussion of why we should even bother, assessing the reliability and importance of sources, and differentiating what can be said from what can’t be said, before moving on to the actual person of Jesus, with the same process. Some, most probably the Evangelicals, will wonder why we need to do this at all, but not everyone is obsessed with the Bible as the only source of information on Jesus, or so infuriatingly certain about Jesus’ character on such little Biblical evidence.
Some bay feel put off by the size of the book, but as an example, Chapter 4 is 23 pages, but only 10 pages of that are the text, and the headings and sub-headings take up a fair bit of space, so less than half of the pages actually need to be read, and those that do need to be read are in short sections. The other pages are the notes that only need to be read if you wish to. It is not nearly as intimidating as it looks.
I found Meier’s style to be very readable. Yes, of course, some of the analysis and refutations of silly assertions can be a little convoluted at times, but these are few and far between. Taking this book in short bursts I read it in two days.
Some may question why Jesus’ marital status (single) needs to be analysed, but with people taking their impressions of Christianity from writers like Dan Brown and Prof Dawkins, rather than by the hard-core experience of trying it out for several years, there is a great deal of drivel being passed off as fact.
As tends to happen, the historical Jesus, the physical human being that lived in a particular place at a particular time, doesn’t come over as worth following, but that’s the point of differentiating the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith, and for some, they may well come to a point of faith by investigating the history first: not everyone has a ‘Damascus Road’ conversion experience, and that doesn’t make their faith any less valid. Meier is *not* making the case for faith, but sorting out what can be sensibly said about Jesus the 1st century Jew.
As such, this book can be approached with confidence by both laymen (and women !) and students, believers and non-believers to impart well-researched facts, sensible assertions, and refutations of silliness.
I have enjoyed reading this book very much. The writers style and approach fits with my own. The author proceeds methodically through the different questions that need to be asked and does not rush to premature conclusions. His knowledge of what others have written and realted resources is tremendous. Each chapter is set out so that extensive footnotes on complex issues are there but at the end of each chapter so the reader does not have to get bogged down in them and can pursue them when they wish. The author is meticulous and measured ad proceeds step by step. The book is both accessible to academics but also those outside academia who are intelligent general readers. This volume is background - a clearing away of the difficulties before future volumes look at the content of Jesus's life and ministry. It encourages me to get hold of the second volume in the series.
As a non-believer in a historical Jesus, but nonetheless a student of the NT I have encountered a few footnotes quoting Meier's work on the historical Jesus and so I bought the book. I knew that Meier is a Catholic priest before I ordered the book so I did not expect to agree with him on much. In fact I agree with him on a lot of detail but none of the fundamental issues of historicity are confronted at all. At the very beginning of the book we read that of course Jesus was a real historical person, as a simple statement of fact - so we need read no more unless we wish to discover why the author believes it. That does not happen unfortunately, except where in discussing Josephus, he does drift into that general area. (And he is as critical as most other commentators on that subject). Mostly however we have a very fair and critical assessment of the evidence offered by both biblical and other sources for various aspects of the life of the historical Jesus. I had hoped that the book would advance arguments that speak for an historical Jesus, against a mythical one, but Meier does not even begin to do this. The distinction he is at pains to make is between a truly historical Jesus and the Jesus portrayed in the gospels, but the job he sets out to do, he does well - fleshing out the skeletal frame of the Jesus we see in the NT, but whose real historical existence is never in question. Could the real historical Jesus read or write? Meier asks. Well - he tells us - that is a bit problematical based on the evidence. He tells us of three passages, two in John and one in Luke, and he points out the problems with these in a very even-handed manner. But is this of value? A believer in Santa Claus writing about the historical Santa may be thought very fair and honest for admitting that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is apocryphal, or for admitting that polar expeditions have shown that this is in fact an unlikely location for the magic grotto, but would he achieve more than to confirm and even reinforce the belief of those who already are sure that the story of Santa could never have survived for so long were there no truth in it? I have found much of interest in the book and in no way regret buying it, even though it was not what I hoped for. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from Meier and to know something of what he knows on some of the subjects he discusses. I can see that Meier, like Fitzmyer and Raymond Brown, follows the same dispassionate procedures in his analysis of scriptural texts. His evident detachment however ends abruptly when a sceptical conclusion seems just about to be revealed. As an example, he echoes Raymond Brown's scepticism for the birth narratives. He concludes a most excellent discourse on that subject with a comment that the objectors (John 7:42) are correct to say that Jesus comes from Nazareth and not Bethlehem. He goes on to say "But the point of the irony is that the earthly origin of Jesus, be it Nazareth or Bethlehem, is not of ultimate consequence. Jesus comes ultimately from above, from heaven, from the Father, while these blind objectors are fixated on the "below", the "flesh" of this world". So now I know.
This is an excellent survey of the historicity of the ministry of Jesus complete with analyses of the proclamations and deeds of Christ. I noted with interest that Pope benedict XVI cites these books with partial approval in his book: "Jesus of Nazareth", noting however that one must recognise the limits of the historical-criticial approach; the answer to what really happended surely cannot be resolved through textual analysis alone. I take some issue with the (spinoza-esque) basic rule book approach adopted by the purveyors of this method of analysis. One example, which still irritates me, is Meier's rejection of the historicity of Jesus's walking on water, notwithstanding that this scene is recorded in all four gospels. He ends up concluding that this was most likely an inspirational narrative created by the post-Easter community. But, is it not more likely that, armed, as they were, with the tangible signs of Jesus's resurrection that they began to see the events in the ministry in new light. Thus, looking back and remembering that Jesus had indeed walked on the water, would they not have gone back through their scriptures and noted how it is Yahweh, who walks on the water, thereby further assisting them in understanding precisely who Jesus was post resurrection. After all, just before Jesus ascended, it is noted pithily that some still doubted. Was it not likely therefore that an examination of the ministry data lead them further (moved by the Spirit) to discover that Jesus was indeed True God and True Man. A similar analytical approach leads to Meier's rejection of the Wedding feast of Cana.
In short, this is a good book provided one absolutely realises the limited nature of such works engaged in seeking to find out what really happened.
Readers of these books should also read Pope Benedict's "Jesus of Nazareth" to arrive at a balanced perspective.
I Find it very interesting for people who is starting to learn about Scriptures and the historical basis of the bible. However, I am looking for criticism on the second volume of J. Meier's book: "A marginal Jew, rethinking the historical Jesus, mentor, message, and miracles." If somebody has something, please write me back.