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.