- A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume Three—Companions and Competitors
John Meier himself describes the place of this volume within his justly prized series of handbooks for studying Jesus. The first volume focused on issues of method and the beginnings of Jesus’ career, the second on his announcement of God’s kingdom and miracles. Volume Three broadens the focus deliberately, to deal with Jesus’ relations with his contemporaries. Here Meier wishes explicitly to rectify a recent tendency: “a number of authors engaged in the Third Quest for the historical Jesus have been noteworthy for their lack of focus on the Jewishness of Jesus and his relationships with other Jews” (p. 3). In that aim he succeeds thoroughly, at the same time establishing parameters of consideration that scholars will wish to observe for the foreseeable future.
Part One deals with “Jesus the Jew and his Jewish Followers.” Within this category he includes “the amorphous crowds” (p. 30), about which not a great deal may be said except that they were crowds and seem to have behaved in the way crowds do. The treatment of the disciples is far richer, and Meier concludes with due caution “that Jesus’ mode of acquiring disciples does seem to have been unusual, if not unique, in the Palestinian Judaism of his time” (p. 52). The context of Jesus’ prophetic itinerancy helps to explain his “imperious” call of disciples, as Meier suggests, but I wondered sometimes as I read whether he was accounting enough for the influence of narratives developed in the period of early Christian mission to portray the risen Jesus as the initiator of immediate conversion.
Within the larger group of disciples, Meier also argues, successfully in my view, for the existence of the Twelve. In the process, Meier makes the sort of comment that enlivens the reading of this volume (pp. 143–144): “One regrets the need to plod through such detailed reasoning to prove what should be evident to anyone. But, by their strange denial of the obvious, critics like Vielhauer, Klein, Schmithals, and Crossan make it necessary to argue at length to demonstrate what most people have never doubted.”
To be sure, on the next page Meier points out that, although “going through these strange theories is tiresome,” there is a benefit in being reflectively aware of why one asserts a common sense claim in regard to Jesus (p. 145). Meier sets out the five criteria [End Page 142] of his quest—as it were the critical norms of common sense (“embarrassment,” “discontinuity,” “multiple attestation,” “coherence,” “Jesus’ rejection and execution” [pp. 11–12])— as clearly as anyone has, and he deploys them with greater intelligence and wit than I have ever seen. From Jesus’ choice of the Twelve Meier infers support for the self-consciously prophetic persona he has argued for previously (p. 153–154).
Recent claims concerning the specific persons named as the Twelve show Meier at his most scathing. Referring to the legends of pious imagination in the past, he goes on (p. 199):
Today, it is the pressure in academia to discover something new and so make the morning headlines that pushes professors and doctoral students to rummage through apocryphal literature—Nag Hammadi being a perennial favorite—to come up with the latest find about the Apostle Thomas alias Didymus alias Jude alias Thaddeus, the twin brother of Jesus.
Although I agree that the value of non-canonical sources is often exaggerated for reasons of revisionist fashion, the fantastic quality of the those sources—admittedly later than the documents of the New Testament—can teach us about legendary tendencies within the Gospels. Meier is much more discerning than most analysts in his awareness that the “criteria” by which Jesus is sought measure tendencies of tradition in the first instance, rather than authenticity as such, but at times he seems to put the Gospels in a class all their own as compared to non-canonical sources and even the Acts of the Apostles.