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.


  1. This does sound good. I don’t understand some of the technical things you bring up like the Two Source Theory (my sad lack of education), but I will have to read your back posts about it. It makes me wonder how different the Jesus in whom I have believed is from the true, historical Jesus. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts from the book.

  2. Todd, take a look at Stephen Carlson’s Synoptic Problem Website. There are basic descriptions, with extremely helpful little graphics, that explain “Two Source”, “Griesbach” and so on. Basically, Stephen describes the various ways that people have tried to make sense of the relationships between the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, over the centuries. These three are called “the Synoptic Gospels” because they present roughly the same texts, “synoptic” being used here in its sense as “similar view” rather than “summary.”

    I posted another lengthy series (this links to the last installment, which lists all of the installments at the beginning of the post) that will give you some background on the theology lying behind the Oral Torah (which is the term for the canon of extra-biblical Jewish writings on halakhah, “conduct”). The series is an appreciation and precis of Professor Jacob Neusner’s book, The Theology of the Oral Torah. As Meier also relied heavily on Neusner’s work on Oral Torah, I’m sure it will be helpful background for anyone interested in a quick “catch me up” on the particular approach of Neusner on the subject, and help with Meier’s reference to Neusner’s work in A Marginal Jew: Law and Love. I find it quite serendipitous that I’ve managed to do these things which are so appropriately helpful for reading this particular book. What fun!

  3. Anders, thank you for the link. I’m sure it will be fascinating reading. I had heard of the Netzarim, ancient and modern, but didn’t know of the website. Very interesting!

  4. You may as well try right away. It was released a little early. I think it was originally supposed to be out next week.

    It is, like all the other volumes, extremely thorough, with numerous meaty endnotes (at the end of each chapter, thankfully, rather than at the end of the book), with a description of issues that (for me, at least) veers into the “too introductory” often enough that I’m anxious to “get to the good stuff.”

    Unfortunately, in this program of Meier’s, as in all others partaking of the Two Source Theory of Synoptic Origins, there are serious drawbacks. I’m a confirmed Griesbach supporter: Matthew is the only one of the Gospels that preserves the form of early rabbinic argumentation intact, as do the many of the Epistles in the NT (though more subtly; they are a Moon to Matthew’s Sun, in that respect). Mark and Luke clearly do not, and in fact have edited the pericopes in such a way to make them more gnomic, following canons of presentation of wisdom from Hellenic culture, and thus more palatable to Gentile audiences. Forcing Mark into first position is a red herring in the true sense, which cuts off the scent trail and leads the irrational in an entirely wrong direction. Mark’s presentation is tertiary (as he certainly knew both Matthew *and* Luke, proven by the “minor agreements”; any other claim is special pleading). Already, Meier (pp 40-43) is thrown off in proclaiming Matthew 5.17-48 secondary, cobbled together, and that the very striking and undoubtedly original “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” is therefore not historical. Baloney. It’s a serious drawback.

    I may have to commence a Griesbachian analysis (as I did with the Neusner-Chilton In Quest of the Pharisees) here with Law and Love, just to be satisfied, and to show the very different picture to be gained thereby.

  5. I was reading Serafim Slobodskoy’ ‘The Law of God’ and he made the observation that since Adam and Eve were but children they needed formation (pidea) to mature into children of God so God gave them a simple law. A simple law for immature children to allow them to express their love to God for giving them being and subsequently life moment by moment through the gift of the world. Thus the prohibition, the first law, was a gracious gift, the training wheels of learning how to love. Law and Love indeed!

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “The Cost of Discipleship” is about the danger of “cheap grace.” He says that the church in the west fell into a spiritual double standard where worldliness and secularization were tolerated because there was a spiritual elite to balance out the whole scheme. Luther wanted to take away the double standard not by eliminating the spiritual higher calling but by giving this high calling back to the people. Unfortunately, Protestantism kept the one standard approach but abandoned Luther’s high calling. Their one standard became the low (secular) standard and then attacked the high standard as legalism. Bonhoeffer fought back by calling this “cheap grace.”

    One thing continually drilled into the Orthodox faithful is that there isn’t two standards, a monastic standard and a lay standard. Our standard is Christ and we all fall short of it and need grace and faith to please God. If standards, such as fasting for example, are relaxed then the result is an emerging self-confident pride in one’s ability to “keep the standard.” The standard is not meant to make one proud but to point out our inability to please God and point us to Christ and our need to be united to him. This isn’t an easy road. As Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man, he calls him to take up his cross and die.” That is costly grace.

    So the Law was never in opposition to the Gospel. The Law gives us an opportunity to express our love to God and highlights our inability to do this well (or at all?) and thus points us to Christ. Secularized antinomian protestants always crying about legalism don’t realize that even Roman Catholic dogmatics never taught that man could merit salvation in an absolute sense as if anyone could stand before God and demand a reward. Evangelicals also fail to see that “catholic” forms of devotion such as fasting, vigils, prostrations, confession, and liturgy are not “legalistic” means of “meriting” salvation but, like the evangelical’s “quiet time” and wearing Christian t-shirts, a way of expressing love to God.

    As I understand it, contemporary Jewish scholars now consider the original Christian hermeneutic and use (re-imagining) of the Tanak to be consistent with other Jewish apocalyptic traditions. Considering this, I would be interested in reading how the historical “halakhic” Jesus and his legal debates fits in with the seemingly “anti-legal” or non-juridical approach that Orthodoxy takes today, emphasizing the Incarnation as providing a universal ontological salvation and the crucifixion as more of a Victory over Satan and recreating the world rather than a penal-satisfaction approach. The closest thing one may get within an Orthodox Christian framework to seeing the cross in terms of law is that Christ paid the debt of love, the really fundamental debt we all owe to one another.

  6. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, Ryan.

    There is so much complexity tied up in the approach to the Law in the Gospels that it’s hard to denote a single, clear approach in the earliest years of the Church, yet this is exactly what this kind of work by Meier and others is attempting.

    We have several different things going on:
    1.) Jesus’ personal approach to the Law, one which was a part of His own life and not intended to be normative for Christians. That is, His complete fulfillment of all the requirements of the Law in His lifetime is impossible for us, for several different reasons.
    2.) Jesus’ statements on the Law which are intended to be normative for us: the Sermon on the Mount, His halakhic argumentation, and so on. In Matthew we see how much of this works, and how Jesus differs in some respects from pre-rabbinic decisions, both in relation to motivation (of an action under question) and in resolution (in recommended solutions in argumentation). Love, in this respect, is the chief motivator. This is something that needs to be further developed. Love is not in opposition to Law, but (as you noted above) is the motivator for the Law, rather than expedience, rationality, etc. So we find some of Jesus’ decisions to be more demanding of people in relation to the pre-rabbinic decisions seen in the Gospels (and in later rabbinic writings), while others are more lenient.
    3.) The obedience to the Law among the earliest Christians within the borders of Israel who were of Jewish nationality, and how this differed from the obedience to the Law by non-Christians of Jewish nationality within Israel.
    4.) The complicated relationship toward the Law of Christians of Jewish nationality in the diaspora.
    5.) The equally complicated relationship toward the Law of Christians of non-Jewish nationality: the requirement of elements of the Law incumbent upon Gentile Christians by apostolic decision (as in Acts 15 and Paul’s writings). This is by no means the kind of antinomian approach that the Reformed traditions (and all those based upon them) would advocate.

    Eventually we come to the point where the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. There were two chief reactions to this loss of the Temple and its sacrificial cult among the heirs of Israel, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. The Temple was the center of purity, the place chosen to be kept purest so that God’s Name could be manifest there in a real way that it wasn’t elsewhere. With that center gone, the mechanism for the maintenance of purity (sacrifice) in the Land was also gone. For Christians (of whatever heritage), the Gospels became the Law, and Jesus’ halakhic argumentation was no longer applicable, while Jesus’ self-sacrifice (multivalent: in becoming human, in suffering, and in dying) takes the place of animal sacrifice (as already found in Hebrews especially and in Paul, even before the loss of the Temple). Focus on Jesus’ halakhic sayings moved to the end result, the summary of these arguments and decisions (and this was already in process during the writing of the Gospels of Mark and Luke, both of which, with Robinson and Ellis, we can say were certainly written before the destruction of the Temple), which emphasized a morality more strict than generally found in Gentile culture, and which became a hallmark of Christian life (no games, no fornication, no cruelty, etc), and slightly more strict than Judean culture at the time (no divorce, etc), but generally similar to it. Early Rabbinic Judaism, however, managed to maintain and to a large degree transform adherence to the Law, centered now around the synagogue rather than the Temple, with the Law itself (both physical and metaphysical) becoming the locus of the Name of God. Purity was still to be maintained, because the Name needed to remain with the People in the Law. It’s within the development of this refocusing that Judaism, rather than the sacrificial cult of the Judeans with its concomitant history and beliefs, becomes a philosophy, one that doesn’t have a sacrificial cult.

    The idea that any of this was legalistic or meritorious, in the classically sneering Protestant usage, is absurd. The people involved in all these changes loved God deeply, and were all motivated by that love for God and a desire to please Him and obey Him in gratitude for all that He had done for them. There are many more deeply moving expressions of love for God in the Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmuds, and midrashim, these works dismissed by some as legalistic, than there are in most of the generic antinomian pabulum that is published today.

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