Notes on Meier: Matthew 12.11

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.


  1. It’s refreshing to see this view of Matthew. Do you have a recommendation for a commentary on Matthew with this Hebraic emphasis and that will not re-introduce me to Q.

    1. Hi Bob,
      Unfortunately, I don’t know of any such commentary. The combination of approaches (Two Gospel Theory and Matthean Priority, early dating of the Gospels, a different take on text critical issues, and a proper approach to the Rabbinic sources) is pretty unusual, and, particularly in including the proper approach to Judaica, would need to be pretty recent, as that work is all pretty much new, dating to the last two decades or so. Perhaps something will come along in the future. It would certainly be a welcome addition.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Quick, loaded, question for you: if modern scholarship drives a wedge between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith (i.e. ancient creeds), how does the average, non-PhD person, attempt to sift through all the differing (and competing) theories on the historical Jesus, and relate this to our Christian faith?

    PS: You seminary-bound this fall? I sure hope so! 🙂

    1. Well, that’s an interesting question, Jason. For myself, all the way through my studies, from high school onward, everything has passed through a kind of filter of faith backed by a rational critique of some of the more silly excesses of scholarship. I’d have to recommend that kind of approach to anyone, which only takes trust in God and a large dose of common sense. But really, if one of the faithful is actually disturbed by any of the historical Jesus stuff, they should simply avoid it. There’s no reason for a Christian to bother with it, aside from a kind of prurient interest in the direction that scholarship is going on any given subject. The academy separated itself a long time ago from the Church (at least in most of the places we live), and made itself irrelevant to issues of the Faith thereby. It can contribute nothing to the Church because it is separate from the Church, and its concerns and conclusions therefore aren’t of any interest to the Church. They are worlds orbiting different stars, which may see one another, but don’t interact.

      After I get some feedback from some people, I’ll start posting a pretty lengthy series, or perhaps just a gigantic web page, covering different responses to various commonplaces of scholarship that contradict Church teaching. There are alternatives to nearly everything, ones that can be defended historically as well as by the Tradition of the Church. But the academy finds its own way in these things, and often prefers the maunderings of nineteenth centry antisemitic German alcoholics to anything else. Someday someone will make a fine study on the kind of dissociation from reality involved in such an approach.

      On seminary, if I get my butt in gear, I may make it there this fall. Otherwise it’ll be January or next fall. I have to do the GRE and some other stuff that I haven’t had time to do over the last few months. So, it’s a matter of being slowed down by paperwork. Ugh. Thank you for the support!

  3. Kevin,

    Thanks for the response. I confess that I don’t give historical studies on Jesus too much time, mainly because I think the Gospels depict a history that accurately captures the Christ of faith. This seems to be at odds with much of modern day historical Jesus scholarship who see the Gospels as pure myth or a creation of the Church that in no way depicts the Christ of history. One question raised by historical studies on Jesus that somewhat troubles me concerns the Church’s confession of Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity, as defined by Chalcedon: did the historical Jesus believe the same things confessed about Him in the creeds? And if he didn’t, what does this mean to our faith—if anything? Or perhaps stated another way, is the historical Jesus of John Meier’s the Christ of the Church, and if it’s not, what does this mean?

  4. You’re welcome, Jason. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s only when a person finds the Gospel accounts impossible or somehow invented that they resort to this “historical Jesus” humbug.

    I have two answers to your different questions, and I hope they make sense. First, your last! Meier’s historical Jesus is absolutely not the Christ of the Church. He explicitly makes a distinction. So, of what worth is this great stack of footnotes of his? As part of the Self-perpetuating Historical Jesus Gravy Train, it is integral, something of a foil to others involved in the same, yet still, the best-documented and most well-researched of the bunch. I think that’s unquestionable. It’s of great value in keeping that ball rolling, despite the fact that historical Jesus research has had, does have, and will have absolutely no effect on the image of Christ in the Church. This is simply the academy, sundered from real Theology, spinning its wheels.

    Now for our former question, and my latter answer! “[D]id the historical Jesus believe the same things confessed about Him in the creeds? And if he didn’t, what does this mean to our faith—if anything?” The way I think about this is quite simple, and wholly, I think, within the dogmatic theology of the Church. God knows His own nature in a way that we never will, just as each of us humans knows our own selves in ways that other humans never will. The creeds and dogmas are designed not to give full expression to the Godhead, but to forestall the inroads of heresies by guiding toward a proper understanding through some specific terminology and statements which exclude the use of other terminology and statements which would support other beliefs. The key is to prevent wrong belief that lies outside what is understood as proper worship (“ortho-doxy”). Within the usage of the terminology and statements, we find dogma, that is, beliefs earlier held but unexpressed in the same terminology. God understands Himself much better, in Himself, than we do, as God knows His essence, yet we can’t, don’t, and never will. This knowledge was assuredly accessible to our Lord in His earthly life, being fully God and fully man. Did He express this? Not in those formulas we use, but in other words from which we developed those statements used in the creeds and in dogmatic theology: “I and my Father are one,” “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father,” “I have come to reveal the Father to you,” “Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and so on. So, the short answer to your question is, “Yes. And He believed much more, as well.”

  5. Hello Kevin. As always, thanks for the thoughtful reply, and thanks for your time.

    Have you read anything by N.T. Wright (his magnum opus is an ongoing work with three out of “X” volumes published: The New Testament and the People of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, V1; Jesus and the Victory of God, V2; The Resurrection of the Son of God, V3) or Luke Timothy Johnson (The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels; Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel)?

    If you haven’t read anything by Wright, I humble ask that you add him to your growing summer reading list! Wright is a world-class NT scholar and does battle with the NT scholars who think that the historical Jesus is nothing (or at the very best, a faint fabrication) like the Jesus of the gospels. I’ve read a little of Wright, and liked what I’ve read—but perhaps that’s because he speaks highly of Jesus. Or in short, Wright sees a connection between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.

  6. You’re very welcome, Jason! I’m glad it was helpful.

    I’ve read both the Johnson books you mentioned, but not any of Wright’s books. I’ve heard good things about them from several quarters, generally, but they just haven’t drawn me in. But, then again, as I’ve mentioned before, the historical Jesus thing isn’t really my thing. I read the Johnson ones back when they came out in the 90s, in the heyday of the now-passé Jesus Seminar, Crossan’s Stoic peasant Jesus, and the late Robert Funk’s various fulminations. I doubt I’d be interested in them now. It seems a bankrupt field to me, not one to waste any time on. I’m wondering whether I’ll even finish the Meier volume, as I’ve already set it aside for richer pastures, so to speak.

    Nevertheless, thank you for the considerate recommendations!

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