More on Meier, A Marginal Jew

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.


  1. Thanks Kevin – nice review. I look forward to the continuation. I have always been partial to Griesbach. The testimony is in my as yet unfinished million word story from the NT – Right now I am too busy with primary literature – loading the leaky database of my brain with Job.

  2. Excellent analysis! I appreciate the balance you are bringing to Meier and modern scholarship. I’d like to learn more about the implications of Meier’s view of Jesus vs. yours.

  3. Thanks, gentlemen.

    I’m toying with the idea of revisiting all of Meier’s volumes with the Two Gospel/Griesbach Hypothesis in mind. This would lead to an entirely different historical Jesus than the one that Meier constructs. And that’s something of a problem. It means there’s a failure of his methodology here, which shows itself not to be as objective as it may seem. The underlying assumptions, all but unconsciously accepted, have determined far too much of the direction. This should be a lesson to anyone doing historiography, really. It’s hard to imagine such a detailed and immense project being done very well, at all, really. Too much of the field is already planted with weeds, so to speak, for any harvest to be truly bountiful.

    To the Church, however, we can say that Meier’s work is, for all it’s erudition and detail, irrelevant. It will have no effect on our theology, or even our history. It will be (as it is) viewed as just another of the various unacceptably positivistic historical Jesus projects, no different, if a little more scholarly, than the Jesus Seminar garbage. Jesus for us is the Christ, the Son of David, and the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, Light from Light, true God from true God, through Whom all things were made. There’s nothing more “historical” than that for the Church, because it is known in our very core as an ever-living reality, personal and universal, a force like gravity, which leaves no documentation. Just try writing a five-volume work on that! What would the footnotes look like? Could one spin it out to be so academically respectable in this day and age? Hardly! The idea itself is offensive to many.

    So, we’ll see. I should at least be able to get some reading done this weekend, and take some notes.

  4. Late to the party, but thanks, Kevin. The idea of Matthew “re-Judaizing” is, of course, preposterous. Does Meier really put it that way?

    I think it’s fine to critique Meier on the basis of Griesbach, but I imagine I would critique him similarly on a different basis, since I’m more inclined to think of all gospels as indebted to oral (re-)formulations of logia whose exact wording, in most cases, goes back to the 40s, 50s, and 60s at the latest, and leave the interminable debates among the book-minded to the book-minded.

  5. Good review, and I agree with your further comment that the Historical Jesus pales in comparison to Jesus as fully described by Nicea. But I’m not sure it is entirely fair to judge Meier for assuming the Two Source Hypothesis – if he had tackled the literary relationship of the Synoptics how much larger would his already large project have to be! And I don’t think Marcan priority is an unreasonable presupposition for HJ research. I just can’t understand why, if Mark wrote after Matthew, he would cut out so much valuable material (the birth narratives, Sermon on the Mount, resurrection appearances, Great Commission) and why would he edit Matthew in such a strange way (e.g. comparing Matt 19:17 to Mark 10:18; Matt 13:58 to Mark 6:5; or Matt 4:1 to Mark 1:12). It seems to me that Matthew corrects Mark’s grammar or edits Mark’s christology. And maybe “rejudiaze” is the wrong word, but is it so pitiable when matthew is the only gospel to have Jesus say that he has not come to abolish but fulfill the law (Matt 5:17), which almost seems directed at Pauline theology? Just some questions, hopefully not to detract from your solid review.

  6. Thanks, guys.

    John, that’s an elegant solution, but is it really something that would be likely in a literate culture?

    Mike, Mark is clearly directed at Gentiles, Matthew at Jews. Where in the history of the earliest Church is that more likely to happen and when? Pre-70 in Jerusalem. Matthew is exactly what we would think the first Gospel should have been, completely of a piece with the books of the Maccabees and other Hellenistic Jewish histories.

    The trick with the Synoptic Problem is that there is a set of data that is liable to several solutions. It is only when particular elements begin to line up, and the “Minor Agreements” in Mt and Lk are one of these, that we have probative evidence that the simple Two Source Hypothesis is simply wrong. This is why the Two Source Hypothesis has grown increasingly/impossibly more complex, to respond to such things. But such is just special pleading, in the end.

    What I find probative is the kind of argumentation used by Jesus in Matthew is precisely of the form used in later Rabbinic Judaism. It is only in Matthew of the Synoptic Gospels that the necessary order of elements and therefore the arguments are preserved intact. Luke and Mark alter the material, scattering it about, for their predominantly Gentile audiences in the diaspora. The forms of narratives in Mk and Lk, presenting Jesus more in terms of a Gentile philosopher with great, pithy quotes, rather than a Rabbi arguing with other Rabbis (which a Gentile would not understand), shows this reworking of material in bald alteration and explanation for Gentile audiences. They are clearly, entirely, absolutely not original.

    Both Jesus and Paul are saying the same thing: the Law is not being abolished, but being made even more stringent, going from dealing not only with actions, but thoughts. As Gentiles were not permitted into the Temple, they didn’t need to avoid the things that would render them impure. This was a part of the Law that was debated, but the line drawn (entry into the Temple) was clear until the Temple itself was destroyed. The transformation of Judaism into a philosophy commences from that point, and immediately comes into conflict with Christianity.

    I’ll have to write more later. I’ve run out of time!

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