Over the course of the last several years, since the appearance of the first volume of John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew in 1991 (yikes! that long ago!), I’ve gone in a particular direction in study that has led to a peculiar mix of both greater appreciation and greater disappointment with the volumes as they’ve appeared.
Firstly, however, I will say that I have nothing but admiration for Meier’s obviously deep and broad erudition. His documentation and discussion in the notes is particularly thorough, and probably as close to exhaustive as anyone can these days approach, with the field so vastly overburdened with secondary (and tertiary, and quaternary, etc) literature.
So, now to my broader thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the A Marginal Jew project.
On the one hand, Meier’s handling of the Rabbinic Canon (Mishnah, Tosefta, Midrash, Talmuds) is exemplary. He avoids the credulous approach to these sources that would find historical reminiscences recorded in even the latest sources simply based upon attribution. We know from Neusner’s work that such is decidedly not the case, that attribution is by no means consistent, that the various stories told about the sages’ interactions are consistently based in other than historical concerns, and that the most that one might be able to determine (with a host of provisos) is the approximate generation in which a saying or argument or decision first appeared. This is reflected in Neusner’s blurb on the dust jacket to the fourth volume, A Marginal Jew: Law and Love:
This definitive work on Jesus and the law displays mastery of the legal heritage of Judaism in clarifying critical issues. Meier’s monumental research illuminates long-debated issues and resolves a century of debate.
I heartily agree. Meier’s overarching presentation of Jesus’ approach to the Law is exemplary, and should turn a page on the debate toward a more reasonable approach to the Rabbinic documents in Christian hermeneutics and historiography. One would at least hope so.
On the other hand, I find that Meier’s treatment of several issues and approaches more “internal” to New Testament studies is not as commendable, regrettably. This will take some explaining, and I hope to make a case that there are some serious issues that need to be revisited here.
I’ve mentioned before that I am an advocate of the Two Gospel Hypothesis (also/formerly known as the Griesbach Hypothesis), which has fine advocates in the International Institute for Gospel Studies, and is represented in the work of two compelling publications: Beyond the Q Impasse: Luke’s Use of Matthew, edited by Allan McNichol, David Peabody, David Dungan, and William Farmer; and One Gospel from Two: Mark’s Use of Matthew and Luke, edited by David Peabody, Lamar Cope, and Allan McNichol. The solution to the Synoptic Problem as presented in these works furthers that of Griesbach, while overturning some of his ancillary opinions, thus “Two Gospel Hypothesis” is the preferred terminology. A website for the Two Gospel Hypothesis presents several articles. The Two Gospel Hypothesis posits Matthew as the first Gospel, followed by Luke (which used Matthew), followed by Mark (which used both Matthew and Luke).
Meier, on the other hand, is a believer in the Two Source Hypothesis, which is the majority opinion in Gospel Studies these days. This posits the Gospel according to Mark (or some precursor thereof) to be the first Gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke, entirely independently of one another using Mark, a common and supposedly written source labelled Q, and their own independent and supposedly unwritten sources. Various complications and inadequacies of this core hypothesis are dealt with by an ever increasing number of sources or versions of the various documents involved, so that this majority opinion is no longer so simply described as it once was. It is likewise arguably the case that the increasing complexity renders the Two Source Hypothesis increasingly unlikely.
Tied to Meier’s preference for the Two Source Hypothesis are his criteria for determining the historicity of a particular datum within the documents in question. These are as follows, described in Meier’s own words from the Introduction to A Marginal Jew: Law and Love (pp 13-115):
1.) «The criterion of embarrassment pinpoints Gospel material that would hardly ahve been invented by the early Church, since such material created embarrassment or theological difficulties for the church even during the NT period—a prime example being the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist at the beginning of the public ministry» (p. 13).
2.) «The criterion of discontinuity focuses on words or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived either from the Judaism(s) of Jesus’ time or from the early church (e.g., Jesus’ rejection of voluntary fasting)» (p. 15).
3.) «The criterion of multiple attestation focuses on sayings or deeds of Jesus witnessed (i) in more than one independent literary source (e.g., Mark, Q, Paul, or John) and/or (ii) in more than one literary form or genre (e.g., sayings of Jesus about the cost of discipleship plus narratives about his peremptory call of various disciples)» (p.15).
4.) «The criterion of coherence is brought into play only after a certain amount of historical material has been isolated by other criteria. The criterion of coherence holds that sayings and deeds of Jesus that fit well with the preliminary “database” established by the other criteria have a good chance of being historical» (p. 15).
Aside from the above criteria though, there are various other sub-criteria, which Meier has culled from the forests’ worth of books which he’s read and internalized. One is a preference noted for short, pithy, gnomic sayings of Jesus to more likely be historical. This, however, can also be viewed legitimately as a later development, one more amenable to Gentile sensibilities used to the pithy aphorisms of Menander, or the Delphic Oracle, or any of the great number of producers of Gentile philosophic-religious sound bites. This preference for a sound bite Jesus, a gnomic Jesus, is part and parcel of a preference for Mark as the original Gospel. Mark is shorter, quippier, and yet is blatantly directed at a Gentile audience. Matthew, on the other hand, is lengthier, Jesus’ sayings exhibit characteristics of argumentation that are likewise found in later Rabbinic sources, and is blatantly directed toward a Jewish audience. Matthew, outside of the preference for the Two Source Hypothesis and its requisite Marcan priority, presents precisely the Gospel that we would have expected to be first: presenting a very Jewish Jesus, with a focus on Old Testament prophecy and its fulfillment in Jesus, and exhibiting very little interaction with Gentiles. Meier posits at a few points in the early chapters of Law and Love that Matthew represents a later “re-Judaization” of the Gospel materials, which I would find laughable, were it not so pitiable.
In addition, Meier’s various criteria are also rendered less than objective yet again by the reliance on the Two Source Hypothesis. This is only to be expected, when one posits Mark as, rather than an almost entirely dependent epitome based upon Matthew and Luke, the übersource for all the Gospels. This is not something to be blamed upon Meier, but upon Synoptic scholarship over the last century and more. It has come to equate Marcan terseness with historicity. This “shorter is older” axiom is thus the rule not only Gospel origins, but in the preference for gnomic sayings of Jesus as mentioned above, and even in the textual criticism of the New Testament text itself. This is despite the well-known preference for ancient authors to do two related things when quoting another author: 1.) to quote a block of material verbatim, with or without attribution, and 2.) to epitomize the rest. A classic Biblical example is the case of II Maccabees, which slimmish single volume is an epitome of the four volume original by Jason of Cyrene. A classic extra-Biblical example is found in Jpsephus’ Against Apion, in numerous excerpts but especially in his use of an already epitomized Babyloniaca of Berossus and Egyptiaca of Manetho, which epitomes he further epitomized.
What I have been noticing, therefore, in working through Law and Love is a consistent feedback loop of circular logic: criteria are utilized to support the Two Source Hypothesis, and the Two Source Hypothesis is used to support the criteria. This appears to be altogether unconscious on the part of Meier. He is not an advocate per se of the Two Source Hypothesis, just one of its believers, as it is the majority opinion in Biblical Studies these days, just as is Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis (of the well-known J, E, D, and P). Majority opinion doesn’t, however, necessarily reflect reality. In this particular case, I find that Meier’s reliance on the Two Source Hypothesis with its concomitant Marcan Priority leads the project further and further astray from its intended goals. To describe the historical Jesus, models of composition that are in themselves historically accurate and contextual should be utilized, despite what may be the preferred hypothesis du jour in the academy. Matthean Priority coupled with the Two Gospel Hypothesis inserted into Meier’s framework would yield a vastly different Jesus from the one that is appearing in the pages of A Marginal Jew, which is one that would (as so many other “historical” Jesuses) be much more familiar to nineteenth century German Protestants than to first century Judeans.
More on this subject later.