A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol 1, by John P Meier, Doubleday, New York.
THE QUEST FOR the "historical Jesus" is never-ending. It has a historical dimension, which fascinates people of all faiths and none, scholars and laymen alike. It has a theological dimension, obviously important to many practising Christians at all levels of sophistication.
It has a meta-theological dimension, since it is possible endlessly to discuss whether it is important to dikuss the historical Jesus and fine thinkers have done just that. And it has potential for sensation, since the claim that Jesus's very existence remains unproven keeps rearing its head and demanding attention, whatever its futility.
John Meier offers, first and foremost, an inclusive, devastatingly well-informed, fullydocumented but totally readable guide to the "historical Jesus" question at least, that is, if we are to judge by this first volume. The excellent Anchor Bible Dictionary appeared last year, and accompanying volumes of this high standard will be a welcome addition.
The curious thing is the title, which so far remains unjustified. This is scarcely a book about "Jesus the Jew"; its agenda is quite different from that of Geza Vermes or of EP Sanders. Still less is it about marginality in Judaism, in spite of a faultless sociological analysis of the meanings of marginality which comes in an introductory chapter. It could hardly be, since it does not concern itself in any consistent way with the problem of what was central in the Judaism of Jesus's day. Yet that is a question which becomes ever more open, the more we prove and the more we learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other texts. We just do not know what the Jerusalem establishment was
really like in the late Second Temple period, even though a historian from its very midst, Flavius Josephus, has left us a first-hand account of some of it more extreme activities.
We might also worry about the title for another reason. To describe Jesus as marginal qua Jew seems already to depart from the historian's objectivity which the whole enterprise struggles to attain. For, while it loudly acknowledges what few informed people would today deny, the fact that Jesus was a Jew, it surely takes up a position, based in faith, on the distance which Jesus chose to put between himself and Judaism.
Other scholars, including, not surprisingly, a number of Jewish ones, have preferred to find the origins of the new religion in what occurred after Jesus's lifetime rather in his own self-distancing from Judaism.
Meier defines his own role as follows. He envisages an "unpapal conclave", and supposes "that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic all honest historians cognizant of first century religious movements were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended in his own time and place."
The resultant document, for all its limitations, would be "a rough draft of what... `all reasonable people' could say about the historical Jesus." And this is what he has sought to write.
Is it possible? The proof of the pudding will come with the next volume. Here already we begin to sense that, fundamentally, nothing has changed. Like many books which have preceded it, some of them great works, this one, too, inevitably moves from sound and scrupulous discussion to debatable conclusions which are reported in the author's own preferences. Without such a move, it would be impossible to say anything of interest at all.
So, in the first part of the book, which is about the sources on Jesus, Meier stakes a great deal on the evidence from Josephus (the famous Testimonium Flavianum), suggesting that there are three points, and three points only, where Christian tampering has distorted our text.
But it is still equally reasonable to hold that the whole thing is a Christian forgery, inserted into Josephus' Antiquities at some time between Origen and Eusebius.
Again the biographical data on Jesus's early life is thin and by accepting much of the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew, including the Davidic descent of Jesus, Meier can give a much more interesting picture than he would otherwise have been able to do, quite apart form other considerations.
When, by contrast, he is talking about questions of background or cultural context, such as the languages of Jesus's Palestine, or literacy in Jesus's various milieux, Meier is the ideal, commonsense guide through the latest in scholarship and insight. And it is an achievement that he only rarely gets technical or long-winded.
But the excitement is still to come, since Jesus's ministry, which, after all, is the real subject, is scarcely broached in volume 1. So far, as someone who qualifies, perhaps unusually, on two separate counts to participate in Meier's hypothetical "conclave", I can report that I am delighted to have been invited, and that I remain hopeful that I shall not have to dissent too seriously from the document that emerges at the end of it all. But perhaps the author is not really so averse to a little argument.
DR TESSA RAJAK, READER IN CLASSICS, READING UNIVERSITY.