I've been getting plenty of emails on a private account in response to a piece I wrote not long ago on my renewed interest in the historical Jesus. A few folks are hoping that I see a light of some sort. Several others have made recommendations for future reading. I am compiling a reading list and working my way through the material.
Perhaps the most impressive piece of scholarship I have thus far tackled is volume one of John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (Doubleday, New York, 1991). This is the first of a four-volume study. Volume four is expected out sometime this spring, I am told.
Meier is a Catholic priest and professor of the New Testament at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. His work, however, is not theological. His goal is to apply the best methods available to historians to discern what can be known about Jesus. While his faith unquestionably colors his commitment to the project, he is quick to note the influence of his beliefs; I recommend the footnotes as a means of tracking the author's engagement with his faith as he confronts the historical record.
Central to Meier's work is the paradoxical character of the research project. A conventional biography of Jesus is impossible, given the paucity of contemporary material. Even the Gospels were written decades after the crucifixion. From the standpoint of a trial lawyer, there is nothing but rank hearsay in the record; hence no admissible evidence about the real Jesus. (The fundamentalist staple of Biblical inerrancy is theology not history.)
Even with so little evidence, Jesus's influence is an historic fact, as is his contemporary relevance. We seem to live on uneasy terms with this man from Nazareth, or is it Bethlehem? I tour bookstores everywhere I go. The other day I was in the Elliot Bay bookstore in Seattle, a true gem of a shop with books on every conceivable topic. Odd, I noted, that the Bibles and books on the Bible where hidden in an obscure corner. That is by no means uncommon in other shops. Are we ashamed of our cultural heritage?
We can make judgments about what is reliably attributable to Jesus. The so-called historical Jesus is a construction of this reality. It is not the still small voice of those who claim to converse with the living God, and it may not be enough to satisfy the hunger for something real in a world of flux. But it is something, even if it falls far short of the theologian's portrayal of the man, or is it God, or is it God and man?
Meier devotes 200 pages of this work to basic problems of historiography. Indeed, nearly 500 pages of text serve mostly to introduce the actual study of Jesus which commences in volume two, a massive, door-stopping thousand plus pages of scholarship. The first volume was pure pleasure; I started the second yesterday and was much in the frame of mind of a marathon runner toeing up to the line on a hilly course. Will I be up to the challenge?
The work is part of the The Anchor Bible Reference Library by Doubleday.