These are some more expanded reading notes of mine on John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Law and Love, his fourth volume in the historical Jesus mode.
Meier misunderstands the import of Matthew 12.11, because he viess the healing narratives from the Markan perspective of emphasis upon the healing as merely an example of wonderworking. Rather, in Matthew 12.11 lies the key, and an understandably historical and accurately halakhic concern missed by Gentile interest in Jesus as thaumaturge. This is the simple matter of not impinging upon a man’s livelihood due to keeping the Sabbath. Note the translation used by Meier for Matthew 12.11: “Which man among you, if he has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not take hold of him and draw him up?” The NRSV renders this much better (my emphasis): “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out?” The important and key element of the question is obscured in this translation. It should not be “a sheep”, but “one sheep.” Does the importance register better with this change, a reading that is explicit in the Greek, as it is not anarthrous here, but numbered (ἕξει προόβατον ἕν)? The question therefore relates to the loss of the man’s livelihood, his one and only sheep. This is the precise exepmption made by the Sages—no such rescue was permissible on merely compassionate or economic reasons, but such action on the Sabbath was permissible when life was endangered, for the man with only one sheep, the wool and the milk from which clothed and sustained him, would certainly die without it. See b Yoma 85 a-b, the discussion on saving a life on the Sabbath. In this case, in Matthew 12.11, a similar practice is presumed of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. In the case of Matthew 12, the extension is subtle but clear: just as the ordinary action of a man to preserve his livelihood was permitted, so the extraordinary healing of a man so that he could earn his livelihood was permitted. Meier misses this entirely, by focusing on the red herring of an animal fallen into a pit, which is only incidental here, and unlike the situation described in b Shabbat 117b, which is predicated on Leviticus 22.28, in which both a mother animal and its offspring are fallen into a pit, discussed within the context of slaughtering only one of those rescued. Meier does mention the strict ruling of the Damascus Document (CD-A XI 13-14: “And if [an animal] falls into a well or into a pit, he must not raise it on the Sabbath.”), which in its exclusivity is striking. This ruling being found in a short list of rulings regarding Sabbath restrictions may actually indicate differences with other contemporary pre-70 AD restrictions.
Despite these drawbacks, Meier shows good intentions:
In reality, the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus, an important bulwark against those who would make him either the embodiment of the Epistle to the Galatians or a cipher for whatever program they are pushing at the moment” (p. 262).
So, A for intention, D for reliance on Marcan priority, which is completely throwing his conclusions out of whack, and away from a correct understanding of Matthew and its obvious priority. Matthew reflects precisely the halakhically sophisticated discourses that Meier wants to find, ones that are contextually and historically likely and illuminate the pre-70 situation in Judea and its environs, and the beginnings of the Church as a part of Israel, not as a Gentile religious philosophical confraternity. Meier at least is taking steps in the right direction, but he is hobbled by reliance on Marcan Priority, the Two Source Theory, and late-dating of the Gospels, as well as by other hobgoblins of New Testament Studies. Matthean Priority, the Two Gospel Theory, and a dating of the Synoptic Gospels prior to 70 AD lead to historically more accurate, understandable, and recognizably contextual conclusions. An author utilizing such an approach will discover or invent a much different historical Jesus than the one under construction by Meier in A Marginal Jew. We must be clear, however, that in Meier we see not a discovery of the historical Jesus, but the invention of one that is entirely a child of its time and place: the late twentieth century context of consensus Biblical Studies.