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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mistaking a Marginal Jew



I have, in the past several days, been reading John P. Meier’s book A Marginal Jew: the Roots of the Problem and the Person. This is one of the books that I bought with my Christmas gift card.  Great stuff.  This is the first of four volumes by Meier in this series.  Last year I read Volume Three: Companions and Competitors.  I realize that I'm reading them out of order.  It doesn't bother me all that much.

PhotobucketI have only recently become interested in reading about “the historical Jesus” but I have for years seen references to Meier’s work in other books that I’ve read.  And, not knowing the book, I misunderstood the title. My mistake wasn't as extreme as the illustration to the right might suggest, but was a powerful mistake none-the-less.  In those days of ignorance I thought “historical Jesus” books were all trying to disprove the fact of and faith in Jesus.  And I thought the title “A Marginal Jew” was an attempt to denigrate Jesus in some way.

Ignorance is a terrible thing.

Meier intends his description of the historical Jesus as a “marginal Jew” to be an invitation to discussion and inquiry.  It’s meant to be a bit ambiguous and a bit of a riddle.  But it is not (as I wrongly assumed) intended to marginalize Jesus.

From the historian’s vantage point, Jesus was marginal.  He lived in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, he didn’t travel outside of his homeland, he didn’t found a school, and he left behind no writings.  And, outside of the New Testament authors, he is hardly mentioned among writers of the time.  He was not a world leader.  He held no position of prestige or honor. He abandoned his career as a carpenter to become a homeless, itinerant preacher, and was condemned and executed as a common criminal.  In these ways, and many more, Jesus was only a “marginal” Jewish figure.

And yet the mystery and wonder is that this marginal figure has become the central figure of much of world history since. 

Meier’s book attempts to answer the question: What can we know about the historical Jesus?  Can we prove that he existed? Can we know something (anything) about his life and teaching?  The gospels, written in the afterglow of the resurrection, are documents of faith, not historical, objective fact.  But does that mean we must reject them completely as sources of historical information?  And though there was precious little written about him outside of the New Testament, do these extra-canonical sources help us to know him any better?

Anyone interested in better knowing the person of Jesus should read these books.


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