John Meier, A Marginal Jew, Volume 4: Law and Love

From the Introduction to Volume Four (pp 708):

Here the peril of Christianizing the historical Jesus mutates into the peril of being relevant to Christians, with no hermeneutical reflection required. Many modern Christians eagerly desire either a Thomas Jefferson/Enlightenment Jesus inculcating eternal truths or a psychobabble-counselor Jesus suggesting warm, fuzzy maybes. Still others seek moral direction from Jesus the social critic, the political activist, or the academic iconoclast. Such Jesuses are perennial crowd-pleasers. In contrast, as I can well attest from lectures I have given, Christian eyes glaze over as soon as a scholar insists on envisioning Jesus as a Jew immersed in the halakhic debates of his fellow 1st-century Jews. In my opinion, the best way to treat this glazed-eye syndrome and to block any Christianizing of the historical Jesus in matters moral is not to sugarcoat the message. Rather, giving no quarter, one must insist on understanding this 1st-century Jew as addressing his fellow Palestinian Jews strictly within the confines of Jewish legal debates, without the slightest concern about whether any of these legal topics is of interest to Christians. In other words, to comprehend the historical Jesus precisely as a historical figure, we must place him firmly within the context of the Jewish Law as discussed and practiced in 1st-century Palestine. As the reader of this volume will notice, a basic insight will slowly but insistently emerge from this critical sifting of the legal material contained in the Gospels: the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus, that is, the Jesus concerned with and arguing about the Mosaic Law and the questions of practice arising from it.

My copy of this book arrived only an hour and a half ago, and already I’m thoroughly enrapt. In the above paragraph, Meier describes two things: first, the construction of some historical Jesus which validates our preconceptions, resulting in a “Comfort Jesus”, if you will. Secondly, he particularly states (in this and in a previous paragraph) the need to separate the ethical and moral concerns of the historical Jesus from the reflection upon and expression of those moral and ethical concerns in Christian Tradition. Lest one find that this is offensive, one needs to notice the sly proviso given above: “with no hermeneutical reflection required.” That is, Meier’s historical Jesus is likewise amenable to hermeneutical reflection. And in this case, it is deep reflection that is required. I am not too surprised to read in Meier’s Introduction that he is following precisely the same trajectory that I found in my own investigation of the Gospels on the Pharisees (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) under the influence of the excellent volume edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Baylor University Press, 2007). It is, I think, the only trajectory that the evidence honestly allows. And though I’m only beginning the volume, it’s already clear that the adheres to the standard Two Source Theory on the composition of the Synoptic Gospels, rather than the Griesbach Theory, which places Matthew first. As I discussed in my series linked to above, Matthean priority is made clear through the ways that the form of halakhic argumentation is preserved intact only in Matthew, while Luke and Mark diverge, clearly altering the text in various ways for later non-Jewish audiences. It will be interesting to see how he deals with that.

I want also to make special note of Meier’s comments upon the title of Volume Four, Law and Love:

As an aside, I should offer a clarification here: what I have just said about my approach to the love commands of Jesus should obviate a possible misconception—namely, that Volume Four’s title, Law and Love, presupposes some sort of opposition or antithesis between the Mosaic Torah and the command to love. Rather, the title of Volume Four simply employs a venerable rhetorical device known as merismus (or, in English, merism). Using merismus, a writer designates the totality of some reality or experience by naming two of its complementary parts, for example, its beginning and its end. A prime example is offered by Ps 121:8: “[The Lord] will protect your going out and your coming in both now and forever.” One’s “going out” and “coming in” symbolize and encompass one’s entire life and activity, summed up in these two actions functioning as bookends. So it is with Law and Love. The title is simply a convenient way of designating the whole of Volume Four by naming the first and last chapters, the alpha and omega of our investigation. As Chapter 36 will show, far from being opposed to the Law, love is for Jesus the Law’s supreme value and command” [pp 9-10].

Striking, no? “[L]ove is for Jesus the Law’s supreme value and command.” So it was and is. And such should be the beginning of Christian hermeneutical reflection, firstly to understand the Law as an expression of God’s love for his creatures, and secondly to understand further developments with that original basis in mind.

This will be some good reading, well worth the wait.

On Attaining Humility

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The “poor in spirit” are not the foolish, the idiots, the mentally retarded as the scorners and mockers of the words of the God-man want to interpret the beatitude, but those who have the virtue of humility. But what kind of humility? According to St Gregory of Nyssa the poor in spirit of the first beatitude are the voluntarily humble. This is the virtue opposite to the evil of haughtiness. And because of this, according to the holy father, “there is no evil like the evil of pride; this is why the first virtue which uproots the first evil is voluntary humility, which has as its example the One, according to the Apostle, ‘that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich'” [2Cor 8.9]. “See the measure of voluntary humility,” preaches St Gregory. “Life tastes death; the judge is brought to judgment; the Lord of life of beings is judged by creations; the king of every supernatural power opposes not the hands of executioners. You must strive toward this example of humility.” And if the Sinless One conducted Himself humbly among men, what must we, who are weighted down by sins, think and do? And if we examine everything well and search everything in us, does it lead us to the depth of humility?
Bishop Augoustinos Kantiotes. The Precious Pearl, p. 134, n. 37.

Call to mind who He is, and what He became for our sakes. Reflect first on the sublime light of His Divinity revealed to the essences above (in so far as they can receive it) and glorified in the heavens by all spiritual beings: angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, principalities, authorities, cherubim and seraphim, and the spiritual powers whose names we do not know, as the Apostle hints [cf. Ephesians 1.21]. Then think to what depth of human humiliation He descended in His ineffable goodness, becoming in all respects like us who were dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death [cf. Isaiah 9.2; Matthew 4.16], captives through the transgression of Adam and dominated by the enemy through the activity of the passions. When we were in this harsh captivity, ruled by invisible and bitter death, the Master of all visible and invisible creation was not ashamed to humble Himself and to take upon Himself our human nature, subject as it was to the passions of shame and desire and condemned by divine judgment; and He became like us in all things except that He was without sin [cf. Hebrews 5.15], that is, without ignoble passions. All the penalties imposed by divine judgment upon man for the sin of the first transgression—death, toil, hunger, thirst and the like—He took upon Himself, becoming what we are, so that we might become what He is. The Logos became man, so that man might become Logos. Being rich, He became poor for our sakes, so that through His poverty we might become rich [cf. 2 Corinthians 8.9]. In His great love for man He became like us, so that through every virtue we might become like HIm.
St Mark the Ascetic. The Philokalia (Faber & Faber edition). Book 1, page 155.

A brother went to the mountain of Pherme to visit a great Elder, and said to him: “Abba, what am I to do, for my soul is perishing?” “Why so, my child?” asked the Elder. “When I was in the world,” replied the brother, “I fasted gladly, kept vigil a great deal, and felt much compunction and fervent zeal; but now I do not see anything good in my soul.” The Elder responded to him: “Believe me, child, that whatever you did when you were in the world was not acceptable to God, because in so doing those things you were urged on by vainglory and the praise of men. This is why Satan did not make war on you. He had no interest in breaking your eagerness, because you derived no benefit from it whatever.

“But now, when he sees that you have been called by Christ and are His soldier, and have come forth to oppose him, he has armed himself against you. Thus, the one Psalm that you say with compunction here is more pleasing to God than the thousands that you used to say in the world. Here, God more gladly accepts your small amount of fasting than the weeks of fasting that you undertook in the world.”

“Now I do not fast at all,” answered the brother; “rather, I have lost all the good things that I had in the world.” “What you now have is sufficient for you,” said the Elder; “only be patient and it will be well with you.”

But the brother persisted and said: “Abba, my soul is perishing.” The Elder replied to him: “Believe me, brother, I did not want to say this to you, so as not to destroy your solicitude; but since I see that Satan has brought you to a state of indifference, I tell you: It is prideful for you to suppose that when you were in the world you did good and lived well; for this is how the Pharisee thought (when he was boasting in the Temple), and he lost all the good that he had accomplished. Now if, on the other hand, you think that you are not doing anything good, this is sufficient for you to be saved; for this is humility. It was in this way (through humility and self-deprecation) that the Publican, who had done nothing good, was justified [St Luke 18.14]. A sinful and negligent man who feels contrition of heart and humility is more pleasing before God than one who does many good deeds, but is of the opinion that he has completely succeeded in accomplishing something good.” Receiving great benefit from this reply of the Abba, the brother made a prostration to the Elder and said to him: “Today, Abba, my soul has been saved because of you.”
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 44, section C.2.

Abba Poemen said about Abba Isidore, that when his thoughts said to him, “You are now a great ascetic,” he would reply to them: “Am I perhaps like Abba Antony? Or perhaps I have become perfect like Abba Pambo? Or, finally, perhaps I have attained the stature of the other Fathers who pleased God?” By responding this way he gave himself rest, and the thoughts withdrew and fled. When, once more, the enemies of our soul, the demons, caused him to be discouraged by telling him that after all this he would be cast into Hell, he would reply to them, “Even if I am cast into Hell, I will assuredly find you beneath me.”
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section A.23.

A brother asked Abba Sisoes: “Abba, I perceive that the remembrance of God remains with me.” “It is not important that your mind is with God,” replied the Elder. “What is important is that you see yourself as being below all other creatures. This is why physical labor leads to humility.”
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section A.48.

Abba Sisoes used to say that the way that leads to humility is abstinence, unceasing prayer to God, and the struggle to be lower than every man.
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section A.51.

An Elder said: “Do not be humble only in speech, but also be humble of mind; for without humility, it is impossible to be exalted in Godly works.”
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section A.57.

An Elder was once asked, “When does the soul acquire humility?” He answered: “When it thinks about its own vices.”
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section A.60.

Once some people went to the Thebaid to an Elder, taking with them a demonized man for him to cure. The Elder refused, since he did not consider himself worthy; but after they implored him many times, he said to the demon: “Come out of God’s creature.” The demon answered: “I am coming out; but I ask you to tell me one thing: Who are the goats and who are the sheep?” [St Matthew 25.31-46] “I am the goats,” replied the Elder, “and as for the sheep, God knows who they are.” As soon as the demon heard this answer, he cried out with a loud voice: “I am coming out because of your humility”; and at that very moment, he came out of the demonized man.
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section A.67.

An Elder said that if one humbles himself and says to someone, “Forgive me,” he burns up the demons.
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section A.70.

An Elder was asked: “What is humility?” He replied: “Humility is a great and Divine work; the path that leads to humility consists in bodily labors and in considering yourself a sinner beneath everyone else.” The brother who had posed the question asked again: “What does it mean to be beneath everyone else?” The Elder replied: “It means not to be concerned about the sins of others, but only about your own, and to pray to God unceasingly.”
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section A.72.

An Elder said: “If you hear of the wondrous lives of the Holy Fathers and feel warmth in your heart, and if you wish to emulate them, you should undertake this by invoking the Name of the Lord, that He might strengthen you in the task that you have chosen. And if, with God’s help, you successfully fulfill this goal of yours, be thankful to Him Who helped you; but if you cannot fulfill it, recognize your weakness until your dying day, regarding yourself as inept, poor, and impatient. You should always rebuke your soul for beginning something and not completing it. In this way you can be saved.”
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section A.81.

From Saint Ephraim: The beginning of the bearing of fruit is the flower, and the beginning of humility is submission in the Lord; for he who acquires submissiveness is compliant, readily obedient, gentle, and accords honor to both small and great; and I believe that such a one will receive eternal life as a reward from the Lord.
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section B.1.

From Abba Isaiah: Brother, accustom your tongue to saying, “Forgive me,” and humility will come to you; love humility, and it will shield you from your sins.
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section C.2.

From Abba Mark: Just as it is foreign to one who is repenting to be prideful, so also is it impossible for one who willfully sins to be humble of mind. Humility is not the accusation of one’s conscience, but the most profound and sure knowledge of God’s Grace and His compassion for mankind. If we have cultivated humility, we have no need of chastisement. All of the evils and woes that happen to us are the result of our pride. For if the messenger of Satan was given to the Apostle Paul to test him, lest he become conceited [cf. II Corinthians 12.7-9], assuredly much more will Satan himself be assigned to trample on us, the proud, until we are humbled.

Our forefathers were masters of houses, possessed wealth, had wives, and provided for children; still, in spite of all this, they communed with God, on account of their unbounded humility. However, we have withdrawn from the world, spurned wealth, and forsaken our relatives, thinking that we are close to God; yet, in spite of all this, the demons jeer at us because of our pride. He who is proud does not know himself; for if he knew himself, and his foolishness and his weakness, he would not be prideful. He who does not know himself—how can he know God? If he cannot understand the folly in which he is nurtured, how will he be able to understand the wisdom of God, from which he is so far removed and to which he is a complete stranger?

For he who knows God sees the majesty of God inside his soul, as in a mirror, and is humbled, as the Blessed Job says: “I have heard of Thee before by the ear; but now mine eye hath seen Thee. Wherefore I have counted myself vile and have melted; I regard myself as dust and ashes” [Job 42.5-6]. Those who emulate Job see God; those who see Him know Him. If, therefore, we wish to see God, let us pity ourselves and be humble of mind, so that we may not only see Him face to face, but also delight in Him, having Him dwelling and residing in us. For in this way, our folly will be made wise through His wisdom and our weakness will be strengthened through His power, which will fortify us in our Lord Jesus Christ, Who deemed us worthy of this bounty.
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section D.

From St Maximos: Humility is constant prayer combined with tears and toil, for it always calls upon God for help and does not allow a man to be recklessly confident in his own abilities and wisdom or to behave arrogantly towards another; these are dangerous diseases of the passion of pride.
The Evergetinos. Book I, Hypothesis 45, section F.

I know a man who loves God with great intensity, and yet grieves because he does not love Him as much as he could wish. His soul is ceaselessly filled with burning desire that God should be glorified in him and that he himself should be as nothing. This man does not think of what he is, even when others praise him. In his great desire for humility he does not think of his priestly rank, but performs his ministry as the rules enjoin. In his extreme love for God, he strips himself of any thought of his own dignity; and with a spirit of humility he buries in the depths of divine love any pride to which his high position might give rise. Thus, out of desire to humble himself, he always sees himself in his own mind as a useless servant, extraneous to the rank he holds. We too should do the same, fleeing all honour and glory in the overflowing richness of our love for the Lord who loves us so greatly.
St Diadochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination,” section 13. The Philokalia (Faber & Faber ed.), Book 1, page 256.

Humility is hard to acquire, and the deeper it is, the greater the struggle needed to gain it. There are two different ways in which it comes to those who share in divine knowledge. In the case of one who has advanced halfway along the path of spiritual experience, his self-will is humbled either by bodily weakness, or by people gratuitously hostile to those pursuing righteousness, or by evil thoughts. But when the intellect fully and consciously senses the illumination of God’s grace, the soul possesses a humility which is, as it were, natural. Wholly filled with divine blessedness, it can no longer be puffed up with its own glory; for even if it carries out God’s commandments ceaselessly, it still considers itself more humble than all other souls because it shares His forebearance. The first type of humility is usually marked by remorse and despondency, the second by joy and an enlightened reverence. Hence, as I have said, the first is found in those half-way along the spiritual path, while the second is given to those nearing perfection. That is why the first is often undermined by material prosperity, while the second, even if offered all the kingdoms of this world, is not elated and is proof against the arrows of sin. Being wholly spiritual, it is completely indifferent to all material glory. We cannot acquire the second without having passed through the first; for unless God’s grace begins by softening our will by means of the first, testing it through assaults of the passions, we cannot receive the riches of the second.
St Diadochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination,” section 95. The Philokalia (Faber & Faber ed.), Book 1, pp 292-293.

Humility is a nameless grace in the soul, its name known only to those who have learned it by experience. It is unspeakable wealth, a name and gift from God, for it is said: Learn not from an angel, nor from man, for from a book, but from Me, that is, from My indwelling, from My illumination and action in you; for I am meek and humble in heart and in thought and in spirit, and your souls shall find rest from conflicts and relief from thoughts.
St John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition), Step 25 (“On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception”), section 3; page 150.

Painstaking repentance, mourning cleansed of all impurity, and holy humility in beginners, are as different and distinct from each other as yeast and flour from bread. By open repentance the soul is broken and refined; it is brought to a certain unity, I will even say a commingling with God, by means of the water of genuine mourning. Then, kindled by the fire of the Lord, blessed humility becomes bread and is made firm without the leaven of pride. Therefore, when this holy three-fold cord, or, rather heavenly rainbow, unites into one power and activity, it acquires its own effects and properties. And whatever you name as an indication of one of them, is a token also of another. And so, by a brief demonstration, I shall try to prove what I have just said.

The first and paramount property of this excellent and admirable trinity is the acceptance of indignity with the greatest pleasure, when the soul receives it with outstretched hands and welcomes it as something that relieves and cauterizes diseases of the soul and great sins. The second property is the loss of all bad temper, and humility at its subsiding. The third and highest degree is a true distrust of one’s good qualities and a constant desire to learn.

Christ is the end of the Law and the Prophets for righteousness to everyone that believeth. And the end of the impure passions is vainglory and pride for everyone who is inattentive. But their destroyer, this spiritual stag [=humility], keeps him who lives with it immune from all deadly poison. For where can the poison of hypocrisy appear in humility? Where is the poison of calumny? And where will a snake nestle and hide? Will it not rather be drawn out of the earth of the heart, and be killed and destroyed?

In union with humility, it is impossible that there should be any appearance of hatred, or any kind of dispute, or even a sniff of disobedience, unless perhaps the Faith is called in question.

He who has been united with humility as his bride is above all gentle, kind, easily moved to compunction, sympathetic, calm, bright, compliant, inoffensive, vigilant, not indolent and (why say more?) free from passion; for the Lord remembered us in our humility, and redeemed us from our enemies, and our passions and impurities.
St John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition), Step 25 (“On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception”), section 6-10; pp 151-152.

He who is hastening to that tranquil harbour of humility will never cease to do all that he can, and will drive himself on by words and thoughts and afterthoughts and various means, by investigations and researches, and by his whole life, by prayers and supplication, meditating and reflecting, and using all imaginable means until, with God’s help and by abiding in humiliations and the most despised conditions and by toils, he delivers the ship of his soul from the ever-recurring storms of the sea of vainglory. For he who is delivered from this sin, is easily forgiven all the rest of his sins, like the publican in the Gospel.
St John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition), Step 25 (“On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception”), section 34; pp 155-156.

Χριστος ανεστη!