Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Marginal Jew and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

For the past few months I have been plowing through John P. Meier’s monumental A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Originally slated to be four volumes, Meier has written four books totaling 3040 pages and still has to cover the parables, Jesus’ self-designation, and his arrest and crucifixion. But, his work will no-doubt survive as the authoritative work on the historical Jesus.

The purpose of Meier’s project is to find out what a hypothetical “unpapal conclave” consisting of a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, and an agnostic would say about Jesus if they were locked in the library basement at Harvard University and were not allowed to come out until they had produced a document on which they could all agree. On what can everyone agree about Jesus, regardless of their faith?

Meier is careful to distinguish this “historical” Jesus from the “real” Jesus. Just as there was more to George Washington than what is available to us through the historical method, there was more to Jesus than what we can recover through historical investigation. Meier is a Roman Catholic priest and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, so he has beliefs about the real Jesus that go beyond what he can prove through historical investigation. He would call these beliefs “Christology,” a sub-discipline of theology, not history.

For example, the unpapal conclave would be able to affirm the line from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate and suffered death” because this statement is verifiable by historical inquiry. However, they could not affirm the full version of the statement, that Jesus “for us human beings and for our salvation . . . was crucified under Pontius Pilate for our sake, [and] suffered [death].” The above italicized phrases are theological claims not verifiable by the historian.

Is work like Meier’s valuable to the evangelical community?

First, there are some reasons why it is not.

  1. Meier’s method rejects the inerrancy of the Scriptures. You may wonder how Meier has managed to write 3040 pages on Jesus, when the Gospels only take up about 100 pages of most Bibles. In addition to interacting with relevant extra-biblical materials, Meier spends a lot of time discussing which biblical statements about Jesus are authentic, and which are inauthentic or unverifiable. For instance, Meier accepts that Jesus was a miracle-worker, but rejects the story of Jesus walking on water. He claims that this story was invented by the early church. Because evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, they cannot agree with this conclusion. So, given the evangelical presupposition that the Scriptures are inerrant, Meier’s project is doomed to fail before it begins.

  2. Meier presupposes a distinction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith.” He writes, “the quest for the historical Jesus is by definition a strictly historical endeavor. Of its nature, it prescinds or brackets Christian faith. This does not mean that it denies, rejects, or attacks such faith. The quest simply prescinds from Christian faith in the way that a world-class astronomer who happens to be a believing Christian would prescind from a theology of God the Creator when she is examining the outer reaches of the galaxy.”

    However noble Meier’s motives in making this distinction, it is methodologically problematic. What if the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history are one and the same? Does presupposing their distinction compromise the investigation? In distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, are you adopting a worldview alien both to Jesus himself and to his followers? It may be outside of the realm of historical investigation to prove that Jesus is the second member of the Trinity, but the truth of that theological claim influences the way in which one approaches the historical Jesus.

Second, there are some reasons why Meier’s work is valuable to the evangelical community.

  1. Apologetics are only valuable when they are meaningful to those outside of the community. I had a professor in college who used to say, “I can prove everything I believe if you grant me two presuppositions, neither of which can be proven or disproven: (1) There is a God, and (2) The Bible is the Word of God.” Now, it’s great to be able to defend your beliefs, but who would you be defending them to with those presuppositions? Does anyone accept those two presuppositions without also accepting the claim that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”? If not, then you are limiting your dialogue partners to those who are inside the community of faith. If you limit yourself in that way, are you truly doing apologetics? No. In order for evangelicals to have a meaningful apologetic, we have to be able to defend our beliefs without presuppositions like “there is a God” or “the Bible is inerrant.”

  2. The Christ of faith is the Jesus of history. We are not Docetists. When we worship the second member of the Trinity, we are worshipping a Jew from Nazareth who walked the earth 2000 years ago. Belief in God only makes sense if that God intervenes in history. (Why would it matter if there were a God if He didn’t intervene in our reality?) We believe that God intervened in history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To reject the Jesus of history is to become a Gnostic or a Deist.

  3. Evangelicals’ belief in inerrancy should not continue uncritically. Note that I did not say that their belief in inerrancy shouldn’t continue, but that it shouldn’t continue uncritically. If you’re going to believe something that the rest of the world rejects, you should have a good reason for doing so—not just because it makes you more comfortable. If the Scriptures are inerrant, then we have nothing to fear from people who claim they’re not. If they’re not, then we need to be alerted so that we can wake up from our delusion.

Personally, I find Meier’s work to be fantastic. I love the skeptical approach. I have written here before that I find Wolfhart Pannenberg’s apologetic to be the most satisfying. The truth of any god’s existence is directly related the “truth” of the god’s religious claims. If a god claims to be able to raise the dead, and the dead are not raised, then that god is not the true god. In theological dialogue, the prophets of Baal call down fire, Elijah calls down fire, and whichever god brings the fire is the true god.

The God of the Bible claims to be able to raise the dead. He promises victory over sin and a kingdom of justice and peace. He claims that these things are coming about through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The extent to which we can prove that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead is the extent to which we can prove that God exists. Meier’s research on the historical Jesus is a huge leap in that direction (although he might cringe at my using it to that end, as he wrote in A Marginal Jew 4:6).

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