AT the dawn of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer, whom the
whole world later remembers as an African missionary doctor, wrote
an eloquent book, "The Quest for the Historical Jesus." Decades of
scholarly renditions of Jesus as the world's grand moral teacher
and thousands of sermons on Jesus the ethical exemplar were
shattered by this bombshell of a book.
Using evidence from the Bible itself, enriched by what German
scholarship had learned about the religious tensions of
First-century Judea, Schweitzer depicted the Jesus of history as
opposed to the Jesus of church doctrine or the believer's
As a contemporary preacher, I read through Schweitzer from time
to time to remind myself that there is usually a great gap between
the Jesus of my tame sermons and the historical Jesus. Too many of
my sermons, like those 19th-century "biographies" of Jesus (such as
Ernest Renan's "The Life of Jesus," 1863) look down into a deep,
unfathomable well named Jesus and see there little more than the
reflection of my own face.
As useful a corrective as this quest to recover the actual Jesus
may be for believers, it faces a large problem - a modern historian
has precious little to work with when attempting to uncover or
rediscover Jesus as he was to his contemporaries. Considering the
import this First-century Jew has had on the world, little was
written about his life.
Gospels like Matthew and Luke tell tantalizingly little about
his birth and much of what they tell is in conflict with one
another. Mark and John begin their accounts of Jesus with his
adulthood. Only a couple of ancient historians mention Jesus. The
Romans who crucified him apparently considered him unworthy of
Ironically, a Jewish, sometime turncoat, would-be collaborator
named Josephus provides the best, though neither wholly reliable
nor textually accurate, account of Jesus. Historians, who dig about
in the writings of the past, verifying events by discovering
collaborating documents, hoping to "get back" as close as possible
to originating events, have a tough time getting back to Jesus.
Which makes all the more surprising a recent religious
publishing event - two massive works attempting (again) to get us
back to Jesus. Both volumes carry provocative titles - somewhat
more provocative than their contents, I might add.
John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,
Vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (Doubleday, Anchor
Bible Reference Library, 484 pp., $25) is the first volume in a
proposed two-volume work on the historical Jesus by this Catholic
University of America professor.
"Suppose," says Meier, "that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew,
and an agnostic - all honest historians cognizant of First-century
religious movements - were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard
Divinity School library ... and not allowed to emerge until they
had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was
and what he intended...." "A Marginal Jew" is the supposed result.
Meier's methodology apparently requires that his hypothetical
Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic forget that they have
confessional loyalties or histories. Although Meier knows enough
about the postmodern assault on notions of objectivity and
value-neutral, allegedly "scientific" historical research, and
although he makes an admirable attempt to lay out his guiding
assumptions and methodologies at the beginning, value judgments
must be made at every turn in this sort of undertaking.
Forgive the reader for being skeptical of Meier's claims to have
depicted "a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and
what he intended." From the first, Jesus provoked many reactions in
people - consensus was not one of them.
Reading Meier is terribly slow going and the results of this
huge effort are meager. When one is determined to find historical
answers to questions like "Was Jesus married? …