on 30 October 2012
I bought this book on the advice of a fellow reviewer who had written a review of "Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus". In my review of the latter, I said I found it somewhat trite, however, I cannot say this about Meier's book. It is good, careful, scholarship about the man known as Jesus Christ. In the book, Meier carefully sifts through the evidence in the New Testament, and extra-Biblical sources to determine what, if anything, we can know about this enigmatic man.
Meier has divided this book into three sections:
1. The Roots of the Problem, looking at such things as the quest of the historical Jesus, the sources, particularly Josephus, pagan writers, and some extra-canonical writings such as the so-called Gospels of Thomas, and others. He rounds off that section with the question "Why Bother?", which he proceeds to answer.
2. The Roots of the Person, in this section Meier considers the origins of Jesus, the language he spoke, his education, whether he could read or write, his status within his family, and whether he was married or not.
3. A Chronology of Jesus Life, here Meier considers what we can deduce about the chronology of Christ's life using internal evidence from the gospels, and external evidence too. He concludes it is likely Christ began his ministry in early 28 AD, and was executed on 7 April 30 AD.
I think the fairest way to describe Meier's book is that it is careful, relatively conservative scholarship. He does not make claims without making sure his evidence is sound reaching his conclusion, and although a Roman Catholic, he does well to minimise any theological bias in the book. One of the books strengths is its extensive notes at the end of each chapter - almost another book in themselves. It is a bit tedious working forwards and backwards between the text and notes while reading, but there is as much in the end notes as there is in the text.
As you would expect, this book is better than some of the more popular titles covering the life of Jesus, but I would say it is not for someone entirely new to the subject. However, I enjoyed reading it so much I have bought the second volume in the series and look forward to reading it. If the book is anywhere near as good at the first volume, I think I am in for a treat.
on 12 September 2011
Catholic priest John P. Meier presents his vast tetralogical (i.e., 4 massive books) research on the historical Jesus, by using his first volume as a broad general introduction, touching on the fundamental points of the question of who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he meant in his time and his environment, basing the research on purely historical sources and arguments.
First of all is the definition of the subject to be investigated: the Jesus of history is the Jesus that we can retrieve and examine using scientific tools of modern historical research which, in the absolute absence of autographed writings and documents, can give us only fragments of the real Jesus, in the pale outline of a faded fresco allowing many interpretations.
Having accepted that, we then go on...
Four chapters (two to five) deal with the question of sources. The canonical writings of the New Testament, particularly the four Gospels, despite the strong limits (in that they describe only the last years of Jesus, they are generated after half a century of oral tradition, have passed through the filter theological interpretation of their authors, etc...) are the only ones that provide a large amount of data, even though they must all be submitted to the scrutiny of historical analysis. The Jewish and pagan writings are important in the negative, because by their very paucity of information, show the marginality (hence the title of the book) of the historical Jesus, an inevitable marginality that is, for a man who comes from rural Galilee, has abandoned a 'bourgeois' condition (although not a wealthy one) for an 'underclass' one, and is ultimately condemned to death as a criminal. Totally insufficient the information provided by the apocryphal and the agrapha: the first too fanciful and fictional, the latter too dubious and very scarce.
Of crucial importance is the sixth chapter, methodological in its format, where the author sets out the criteria for distinguishing what comes from Jesus as against that which has been elaborated by the oral tradition of the early Church and, finally, by what comes from the redactional work of hagiography, with a warning that the function of these criteria is to pass from the merely possible to the actually probable, thus eliminating any illusion of easy certainty (a certainty, however, that may be reached, although rarely).
The second part of the book is an attempt at reconstructing Jesus' biography, trying to illustrate his childhood (or rather, exposing what little can be inferred from the accounts of Matthew and Luke), to clarify his family and socio-economic conditions and, in the final chapter, to fix the chronology of the last years, as attested by the Gospels. Strictly consistent with the assumption of exclusive loyalty to the philological-historical perspective, the author always shows his complete freedom from the temptations of sensational and superficial criticism, rejecting any preconceived exclusion of the supernatural, and just as alien to apologetic concerns. This attitude is especially evident in two points:
a) The always affirmed birth in Bethlehem is defined as a 'theologoumenon' (theological opinion told as historical fact). The birth of Jesus is moved to Nazareth (but even here it should be noted that we are still in the area of "the more probable");
b) with respect to the issue of "Jesus' brothers" the author has no qualms in highlighting the difficulties encountered by the thesis held by his Church.
In agreement with Meier's general stance is also his withholding judgement about events on which historical science can not give definitive answers (i.e., virginal conception, biological truth about the lineage of David, etc..) and his waiver to address the problem of the historicity of the Resurrection, that he considers more of theological than historical relevance.
To conclude, and despite the inevitable philological minutiae of certain sections and the sheer bulk of the opus - which may at times discourage the reader - I would highly praise and recommend the whole four volumes as an impressive work to be destined not only to professional theologians (the quantity of specialised endnotes is truly imposing), but also to any educated person, believer or nonbeliever, interested in the historical person of Jesus (...and well, you can always skip those notes).
It's the final word on the matter, I assure you.
on 4 June 2016
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.