I was starting to give up on Meier. With repeated promises of the end in view, A Marginal Jew kept growing in size while diminishing in punch. If Volume 1 was the bedrock pointing forward, Volume 2 a breathtaking tour-de-force of eschatology and miracles, Volume 3’s sketch of Jewish groups came somewhat as a let-down, leaving me anxious that the author’s heart wasn’t in the project anymore. Those fears have been dispelled by Volume 4, which tackles halakic issues with verve aplenty, and draws challenging conclusions for anyone who has firm ideas about Jesus’ teachings about the law.
The mantra of this book is, “the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus”, aligning more with an E.P. Sanders than a John Dominic Crossan, yet a Jesus who at least occasionally rescinded the law on his own authority.
“Here we touch on the real enigma in Jesus’ teaching of the Law… His approach seems to be neither total rejection of the Law, nor a dialectic that embraces yet in effect rejects the Law, nor a total affirmation of the Law that simply involves legitimate though debatable interpretations of individual practices. The real enigma is how Jesus can at one and the same time affirm the Law as a given, as the normative expression of God’s will for Israel, and yet in a few individual cases or legal areas (e.g., divorce and oaths) teach and enjoin what is contrary to the Law, simply on his own authority.” (p 3)
Christological ideas about Jesus fulfilling the law, as in Mt 5:17 (easily dispensed with as a church creation, pp 41-43) can be of no help in resolving this tension, any more than modern anachronistic notions of a Jesus who affirmed moral requirements at the expense of cultic ones (pp 43-47). Jesus was capable of using dialectical negation as much as a prophet like Hosea, but neither were opposed to ritual per se.
Meier continues using the classic criteria of authenticity to assess what may or may not go back to the life of Jesus, as well as the evidence of other Jewish and pagan sources. Especially in this volume he critiques attempts to get at Jesus mostly on the basis of gospel data in view of Old Testament and rabbinic material, while virtually ignoring the Dead Sea Scrolls (especially texts from Cave 4), Philo, Josephus, and the OT Pseudepigrapha. He certainly doesn’t rule out rabbinic material apriori, but treats it as cautiously or distrustfully as he does the gospels, sometimes even more given how late the material is.
With this in mind, let’s see how Meier assesses Jesus’ (alleged) sayings on (1) divorce, (2) oaths, (3) sabbath, (4) purity, (5) love, and (6) the Golden Rule.
The divorce traditions (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9; Mt 5:32/Lk 16:18; I Cor 7:10-11) are a good place to start, and Meier offers a thorough background on the subject, from the Torah to the classical prophets to the intertestamental writings to the rabbis. What’s clear is that men had near complete freedom to divorce their wives from the get-go, as in other surrounding cultures. The texts of Deut 24:1-4 (forbidding a twice-divorced wife to remarry her first husband), Deut 22:13-19 (forbidding a husband who falsely accuses his wife of being a virgin to divorce her), Deut 22:28-29 (commanding a man who rapes or seduces an unbetrothed virgin to marry and never divorce her), and Lev 21:7,13-14 (forbidding a divorced woman from marrying a priest), all presuppose divorce as the norm and attempt to regulate specific cases.
Looking at Mal 2:16, Meier calls attention to the frequent English (mis)translations. “For I hate divorce, says Yahweh the God of Israel”, is not what the Masoretic Text or other original manuscripts actually say. In the MT, the Hebrew reads, confusingly, “For he hated, send away,” while other manuscripts actually counsel divorce: “But if you hate her, send her away.” (see pp 81-82). Despite what many of our bibles imply, Malachi doesn’t provide a precedent for Jesus’ sweeping prohibition.
In the intertestamental period, Philo (On the Special Laws, 3.5) and Josephus (Ant. 4.8.23) hold to the absolute divorce rights of a husband. The Essenes forbid polygyny in a way that might imply an attack on divorce when followed by remarriage (the Damascus Document), though this isn’t clear. Only much later than the first century do we find actual debates about divorce, in the rabbinic texts, with the House of Shammai restricting a husband’s power somewhat (his wife has to shame him to warrant a divorce), while the House of Hillel holds to “absolute” tradition. “Despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the ‘background’ of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronistic use of later texts to explain earlier ones.” (p 95) And so we’re left with a sweeping prohibition of Jesus that sticks out like a sore thumb in the pre-70 period.
In Meier’s judgment this radical prohibition passes all the criteria of authenticity: multiple attestation (with flying colors, since Meier accepts the Q hypothesis; but even for Farrer advocates like me it’s reasonably secure), discontinuity (since nowhere in pre-70 Judaism can we find any debate about divorce, let alone a definitive prohibition against the practice), embarrassment (as evidenced by the “squirming” of later Christians as they created wiggle-room for their Lord’s uncompromising commandment — Paul allowing it when a pagan spouse is unable to live in peace with the Christian partner, Matthew allowing it in cases of unchastity), coherence (other sayings of Jesus make harsh demands that are costly; and celibates like Jesus have an easier time forbidding divorce than “realistic” married men, perhaps one reason the Catholic clergy continues to preach against it while many Protestants make more allowance).
So while the narrative of Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9 is a Christian composition, it draws on authentic memories about how Jesus debated over divorce (p 124). Using Genesis to trump Deuteronomy (Mk 10:6-9/Mt 19:4-6), Jesus claimed that men who divorce their wives and remarry commit adultery (Mt 10:11/Mt 19:9, minus the Markan addition about women who divorce their husbands, reflecting Greco-Roman practice). These core parts of the dispute narrative, along with Mt 5:32/Lk 16:18, I Cor 7:10-11, are judged to be generally authentic.
All fine and well — and most Jesus-questors agree that Jesus spoke against divorce, even if for some blatantly eisegetical reasons. Other than suggesting eschatology as a backdrop, Meier doesn’t get into the “why” behind Jesus’ attack on divorce (I’ve given my own take here), only “that” he condemned the practice. But did this prohibition put him into actual conflict with the Torah?
E.P. Sanders says no, since Jesus was only forbidding what Moses allowed rather than commanded (see Jesus and Judaism, p 256-260). Meier objects to this rationale as follows:
“It is odd to see Sanders play the role of the Pharisees in Mk 10:4… To be sure, the Law of Moses did not command divorce in the sense of commanding individual men to divorce their wives. But the Law of Moses did accept and sanction divorce… By completely forbidding divorce, Jesus dares to forbid what the Law allows — and not in some minor, obscure, halakic observance but in one of the most important legal institutions in society. He dares to say that a man who duly follows the Law in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery… a serious sin against one of the commandments of the Decalogue… The disturbing, even shocking nature of Jesus’ total prohibition cannot be appreciated unless we understand how unthinkable such a prohibition was in a society that (like all ancient Mediterranean societies) considered divorce, however regrettable or painful in individual instances, to be the natural and necessary course of things.” (pp 173 n122, 113)
I still think Sanders has a valid point, though so does Meier. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that while Jesus’ prohibition against divorce didn’t technically violate a Torah commandment, it nevertheless called the Torah into question since doing what Moses permitted caused one to sin against the Decalogue. And because the prohibition was so socially outrageous, it would have been perceived by many as an attack on the law, nuances notwithstanding.
Building on his two-part article published in The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (“Did the Historical Jesus Prohibit All Oaths?”, Part 1: 5.2, pp 175-204; Part 2: 6.1, pp 3-24), Meier demonstrates that no Jewish teaching around the turn of the era prohibited oaths entirely (pp 196-198). Ben Sira warns against frequent swearing, and Philo says to avoid it whenever possible, but even they don’t dare forbid what the Torah commands in two cases: for a person who loses goods entrusted (Exod 22:9-10) and for a wife suspected of adultery (Num 5:11-31). If Jesus prohibited oaths as reported in Mt 5:34-37, and as implied in Jas 5:12, then we have another case — even clearer than the one of divorce — in which Jesus abrogated the Torah.
For Meier, the prohibition against oath-taking passes the criteria of discontinuity with early Judaism (again, we know of no pre-70 texts prohibiting oaths), discontinuity with early Christianity (Paul swears left and right, the author of Hebrews presupposes the practice without disapproval, the author of Revelation portrays an angel taking an oath), and multiple attestation (Matthew and James). I’m not sure what discontinuity with early Christianity proves (unlike the case of divorce, it’s not as if we see other NT writers coping embarrassingly with the saying), and Meier has to jump through a few hoops to get Jas 5:12 to qualify as an independent source (though I think he’s reasonably successful). Moreover, the criterion of discontinuity with early Christianity seems to oppose that of multiple attestation — it’s basically “heads I win, tails you lose”, reasoning that the saying isn’t accessible enough, and yet is accessible enough.
In any case, the prohibition of oaths stands as a second example of the historical Jesus’ revoking individual Torah commandments (p 205). As for motive, eschatology is again advanced: Jesus’ followers already lived proleptically in the kingdom of God (p 206).
The sabbath accounts in the gospels involve mostly healing controversies, posing a serious problem. As Meier demonstrates, there’s no indication of any pre-70 view that healing illnesses or treating physical deformities was prohibited on the sabbath — not in the Hebrew Bible, the Deuterocanonical Books, Jubilees, the Damascus Document, the Qumran Cave 4 fragments, Philo, or Josephus. Only by the time of the Mishna do we find passages forbidding certain acts of healing or relieving pain on the sabbath, and in Meier’s view, they reflect post-70 rabbinic innovations (p 251).
There are, of course, many other sabbath prohibitions listed in the above sources, ranging from agricultural work (especially sowing and reaping), treading the wine press, loading beasts of burden in order to take things to the market, buying and selling, carrying burdens through city gates or out of homes, leaving one’s place to undertake a journey, lighting a fire, and preparing food by cooking. The Essenes were especially strict, even prohibiting the rescue of a human being from a pit with a ladder or rope — one had to use a cloak or something that wasn’t a tool. (Later rabbinic texts prohibit the rescue of only animals, though one could throw it fodder to keep it alive until the next day). But again, no healing prohibitions until the rabbinic period.
Some of Jesus’ healings on the sabbath occasion no dispute at all (Mk 1:23-28/Lk 4:33-37 a public example, Mk 1:29-31/Lk 4:38-39 a private one), which is what we would expect. But most of them call forth outrage, and in Meier’s judgment, not one of these narratives can survive scrutiny. In the case of the man with the withered hand (Mk 3:1-6/Mt 12:9-14/Lk 6:6-11), the healing itself already received a judgment of non liquet (“not clear”) in Volume 2, and Jesus’ act of speaking in order to heal would not have been considered a forbidden work in the pre-70 period (pp 255-256). Ditto for the healings of the woman bent over (Lk 13:10-17) and the man with dropsy (Lk 14:1-6): each miracle was pronounced non liquet in Volume 2, and again, as sabbath controversies they makes no sense (ibid).
The sabbath healings in John, the paralyzed man (Jn 5:1-9a) and the man born blind (Jn 9:1-7), pose a different problem. While Meier gave each the stamp of authenticity in Volume 2 as miracles, his reconstruction of the primitive forms of the stories don’t retain the sabbath: “The sabbath in each of these two chapters functions simply as an artificial literary and theological link, connecting what were originally short stories of healing with the lengthy Johannine discourses” (p 258). Another dead end.
A more promising avenue appears in two sayings incorporated in the Matthean parallel to the healing of the man with the withered hand, and Luke’s account of the healing of the man with dropsy. Jesus is reported as saying, “What man among you, if he has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not take hold of him and draw him up?” (Mt 9:11); and “Which of you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, will not immediately pull him out on the sabbath?” (Lk 14:5). In Meier’s judgment, these secondary sayings may reflect an historical halakic debate behind the fictional healing stories.
“When it comes to the endangered ox, Jesus and ordinary Jewish peasants stand on one side of the question (of course, one would do that!) while Essenes and Pharisees stand on the other (no, you cannot directly draw out the animal yourself). When it comes to endangered human life, Jesus, ordinary peasants, and probably the Pharisees stand on one side (of course, you can pull your son out!) while the Essenes, perhaps with some discomfort, stand on the other (well, maybe you could throw him your cloak, but no direct use of a ladder or rope is permitted)… Jesus rhetorically draws his audience to his side with the presumption that he and they will agree on these humane measures that are so obvious to them as they are to him.” (pp 265-266, 263)
Since sectarians seem to be chiefly targeted here, we have a rare instance of Jesus “fighting a battle-at-a-distance with the Essene movement (or other sectarian groups in Palestine) for the loyalty of ordinary Jews” (p 263). The Pharisees would have probably agreed with Jesus about human beings, unless their position was opposite their rabbinic successors.
As for the account of Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the sabbath (Mk 2:23-28/Mt 12:1-8/Lk 6:1-5), Meier finds it transparently fictional. Following Sanders, he emphasizes the incredible setting: Gestapo-Pharisees suddenly popping up in the middle of a field looks like something out of a Broadway musical (p 274). On top of this, says Meier, Jesus makes a horse’s ass of himself in appealing to scripture. He claims that David had companions with him when he came to the priest at Nob, and that David gave some of those loaves of the presence to “those with him”. In fact the priest explicitly asked David, “Why are you alone and no one is with you?” (I Sam 21:2) The text of I Sam doesn’t even imply that David is hungry. Skewering scholars who keep trying to salvage exegetical escape hatches, Meier concludes that the entire dispute is incredible:
“We need to recall the agonistic culture of the ancient Mediterranean world, where public debates between contending parties were a matter of honor and shame. According to Mark, Jesus has chosen to counter the Pharisees’ challenge by challenging them on their own knowledge of the text of I Sam 21:2-10… Jesus’ challenge hopelessly falls to pieces if he immediately proceeds to document his own glaring ignorance… If this scene gives us a true picture of the scriptural knowledge and teaching skill of the historical Jesus, then the natural and very effective response of the Pharisees would have been not fierce anger and concerted opposition but gleeful mockery. They would have laughed their heads off (and invited the populace to do the same) at this uneducated woodworker who insisted on making a fool of himself in public.” (p 277-278)
But would the masses have laughed their heads off, and was Jesus making a fool of himself? I think the opposite: Jesus’ appeal to David is an ingenious pieces of one-upmanship. The genius lies in the double entendre of Jesus repeating David’s deceptions as though they were true in his own deceptive argument. David lied to the priest (claiming that he was working for Saul, when he was actually fleeing him), and now Jesus lies to the Pharisees (claiming that David gave sacred food to his men, when he didn’t have any men with him). No one is really deceived by this, of course, but the “bullshit-within-bullshit” is the whole point. As William Herzog puts it, Jesus identifies with “David the fugitive, the coyote figure who lives by his wits while others are seeking to destroy him. This is a David figure who would be appreciated in the villages.” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 188) Far from making an ass of himself, Jesus would have acquired plenty of honor in the eyes of watching peasants.
So against Meier, I lean to the historicity of this account. Unlike the healing episodes, I have a hard time seeing how the issue of plucking grain would fit the agenda of the early church. As Maurice Casey says, these points seem to be natural in the life of the historical Jesus, but not afterwards (Writing History, Constructing Religion, edited by Crossley, p 132). We don’t necessarily have to buy the picture of Pharisees out-on-patrol in the fields (yes, that’s hard to swallow). It could be that legal teachers got wind of what of the disciples’ were doing and challenged Jesus in another setting.
As for the conclusion to the grain-plucking story, Meier allows that the Markan “sabbath was made for man” saying (Mk 2:27) could go back to Jesus (as cohering with the leniency urged in Mt 12:11/Lk 14:5, the sabbath being a gift from God grounded in creation, which should be interpreted humanely), while arguing that the “Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” saying (Mk 2:28/Mt 12:8/Lk 6:5) is too Christological to be trusted. Both judgments are reasonable, though the latter gets into complex issues surrounding the “Son of Man” title which Meier will be treating at greater length in Volume 5.
So despite the abundance of sabbath incidents spread across the gospels, Meier finds very little (almost nothing, in fact) that’s historical. None of the sabbath-healing accounts which call forth dispute are reliable. At best, we get a window onto the historical Jesus in the traditions of Mt 12:11/Lk 14:5, and Mk 2:27. When it came to endangered animals, the historical Jesus sided with peasants against the Essenes and (possibly) the Pharisees. When it came to endangered people, he sided with peasants against a murky position of the Essenes (or other sectarian influence). As for motive, Meier again appeals to eschatology: “the roots of the sabbath lie in creation itself, but a creation that is meant to serve the good of humanity created by God in the beginning and now restored by him in the last days” (p 296). I largely agree with Meier, but would maintain that most of the grain-plucking episode is historical too.
Meier begins this section by distinguishing different forms of impurity regulated in the Hebrew Bible: ritual impurity, a temporary and contagious condition resulting from birth, disease, sexual activity, and death — not sinful itself, but requiring immersion-plus-sunset before one can enter the temple or handle sacred things; moral impurity, a more permanent and non-contagious condition resulting from sinful acts like murder, incest, homosexuality, bestiality, and idolatry — requiring the offender to be “cut off” from God’s people (whether by execution or banishment) or to have the impurity purged by temple sacrifice; and then dietary impurity, often associated with the former, but in truth somewhere between it and the latter.
The third category concerns us in the famous passage of Mk 7:1-23/Mt 15:1-20. In a lengthy treatment of the Markan text, Meier concludes, “almost against his will” (p 17), that it tells us nothing about the historical Jesus, with the possible exception of the qorban saying of Mk 7:10-12. Let’s see why.
Mk 7:1-5. This part is actually treated last, shown to be inauthentic by what follows. Since almost all of 7:6-23 is unhistorical (see below), the introduction to the narrative has to be. Also notably, there is no clear evidence for any Jewish group in the pre-70 period urging laypeople to wash their hands before eating meals.
Mk 7:6-8. Here we have the citation of Isa 29:13, but Jesus is reported as quoting the Septuagint version, not the Hebraic. Since Jesus spoke Aramaic and the line of argument in Mk 7:1-13 requires the Greek version, it’s an uphill battle for those who claim this goes back to Jesus: “What was in the Hebrew simply a denunciation of mechanical, routine liturgy in the Jerusalem temple now expands in the LXX into a denunciation of merely human teaching that implicitly is set over against the true teaching of God that is Torah” (p 372). In the Markan narrative, the Pharisees and scribes complain that Jesus’ disciples don’t observe the traditions of the elders, and Jesus parries by saying that the commandments and teachings of men denounced by Isa 29:13 are precisely the traditions of those elders. Jesus’ line of argument makes no sense on the assumption that he originally appealed to the Hebrew Bible.
Mk 7:9-13. Since this section serves as a concrete example of the Isaianic denunciation in 7:6-8, it must also be unhistorical, or at least as it stands in the gospel. Meier thinks the qorban saying of Mk 7:10-12 could reflect some halakic teaching of the historical Jesus (p 378). (Qorban was the vow to dedicate one’s possessions to the temple, which prevented that wealth from being used to help people in need, in this case one’s parents.) Various streams of Judaism at the turn of the era were debating oaths and vows, and, as we’ve seen, Jesus had no use for them. Using the criterion of coherence, the saying of Mk 7:10-12 aligns not only with Jesus’ position on oaths, but divorce:
“There is a remarkable similarity here with Jesus’ approach to divorce in Mk 10:2-12. In the case of the specific institution of divorce, Jesus appeals back to the more basic and primordial institution of the union of man and woman ordained by the Creator in Genesis 2-3. In the case of the specific institution of qorban, Jesus appeals back to the more basic and primordial commandment of the Decalogue. Apparently Jesus operated at least implicitly with the conviction that there were certain fundamental commandments and institutions in the Mosaic Torah that overrode or annulled any secondary obligations or institutions that came into conflict with them.” (p 379)
Whether or not the vow of qorban was being enforced in the manner attributed to the Pharisees is unclear, but the evidence of CD 16, Philo, and Mk 7:11 suggest that there was considerable debate around the turn of the era about this vow which could deprive one’s parents or neighbors of vital support (p 381). Jesus may well have debated it too, in a context now lost to us.
Mk 7:14-15. One of the most prized passages of Christian theology gets axed from Meier’s historical portrait, convincingly, thoroughly, and one might hope finally. But is this fair? In view of the way Jesus rescinded the Torah elsewhere, why couldn’t he have effectively declared all foods clean? Meier explains (pp 391-392) that while Jesus’ total prohibition of divorce would have been outrageous, in practice it would have effected only some Jews at some point in their lives, not every Jew every day. Ditto for oath-taking: Moses commanded it in two cases (goods entrusted to someone then lost, and the wife suspected of adultery), but these weren’t everyday occurrences for most people. Food laws, on the other hand, governed everyone’s daily living, and to abolish them would have obliterated the basic distinction between clean and unclean, not to mention an essential part of Jewish identity.
Add to this the fact that no gospel ever reports Jesus or the disciples eating forbidden food, and a case for the authenticity of Mk 7:15 becomes yet another uphill battle. If Jesus had revoked the Torah’s food laws, he would have been hated and distrusted by almost everyone. And as we know, Paul is unable to cite Jesus in a case like Rom 14:14 (“we know that no food is unclean in itself”), unlike the case of divorce. Meier suggests, as others before him, that Mk 7:15 is influenced by Rom 14:14, rather than vice-versa (pp 395-396).
Mk 7:17-23. Since this section is an extended explanation of Mk 7:14-15, it can be no more historical than what came before, and Meier regards the whole of Mk 7:14-23 as fiction.
So much for Mk 7. The qorban saying can be salvaged, but nothing else. But before leaving this subject, it’s amusing to contrast the judgment of Meier’s unpapal conclave with that of the Jesus Seminar. What’s “pink” for Funk & Co. (Mk 7:14-15) is “black” for Meier; and what’s “black” for them (Mk 7:10-12) is “pink” for Meier. (See The Five Gospels, pp 67-70). Fantasy conclaves seem to work better than real seminars.
No sooner is this filthy four-letter word invoked than it summons up dated caricatures and useless abstractions. But thankfully Meier isn’t concerned with everything Jesus ever said about love, forgiveness, and compassion (which would have been shared by many of his opponents anyway), but, in keeping with the spirit of Volume 4, individual commandments or prohibitions that relate to the Torah. There are three relevant sayings: the double command to love God and one’s neighbor (Mk 12:28-34/Mt 22:34-40/Lk 10:25-28), the command to love enemies (Mt 5:44b/Lk 6:27b), and the command to love one another (Jn 13:34, 15:12,17).
While none of these commandments enjoy multiple attestation, Meier thinks there are good reasons to view the synoptic sayings as historical. The third is judged to be a product of John.
The Command to Love God and Neighbor. Jesus joins two different scripture texts (Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18b) and sets them above every other commandment in the Torah. Meier thinks they satisfy the criterion of discontinuity (joining Deut 6:4-5 with Lev 19:18b is unparalleled in Jewish thought), and coherence (fitting Jesus’ mission of regathering a scattered Israel in the last days: the first command could have naturally begotten the second in such a context). Later we apparently see a taming of the double command in Gal 5:14, Rom 13:8-10, Jas 2:8, Mt 5:43b, 19:19, all of which cite “love of neighbor” but not the Shema of Deuteronomy. As later Christians dealt with problems in their communities (Jews vs. Gentiles, rich vs. poor, etc.), it was inevitable that the “neighbor” half of Jesus’ double command took over. But as Meier says, the halakic Jesus originally emphasized that love of God couldn’t be reduced to love of one’s neighbor, far less collapsed into it (p 494). They were explicitly distinct and ordered: God first, neighbor second.
The Command to Love Enemies. Like the double command, this one satisfies the criterion of discontinuity (“love your enemies” is unparalleled in Jewish thought), and coherence (Jesus went out of his way to express inflammatory teachings in blunt formulations, like “let the dead bury the dead”, “you cannot serve God and Mammon”, “whoever loses his life will save it”, and “this is my body”). As a hard selfless command, it almost shouts Jesus’ autograph.
The Command to Love One Another. Unlike the synoptic commands, delivered in public and to all Jews, John’s command is directed to the disciples alone and in private, and it implicitly opposes loving one’s neighbors and enemies: “Love for one’s friends is proclaimed to the be the greatest love that can exist, period. No greater love than self-sacrifice for one’s friends exists on John’s theological radar screen. Put more bluntly: love of [neighbors and enemies] does not exist on the radar screen.” (p 567). Meier rightly judges this to reflect the Johannine sectarian ethic, not to mention a reciprocal one (like the Golden Rule, as we’ll see, it contrasts with the historical Jesus’ intolerance for reciprocity). Though the criterion of discontinuity might look promising, “the lack of parallels in Jewish and pagan literature is best explained by the thoroughly Johannine character of this love command” (p 573), something not true of the synoptic commands.
Meier’s emphasis bears repeating: that Jesus ranked love of God and then neighbor above all other commandments doesn’t mean he thought they were virtually the only commandments necessary. “For Jesus you need the Torah as a whole. Nothing could be more foreign to this Palestinian Jew than a facile antithesis between Law and love.” (p 576) That’s why I call “love” the filthy four-letter word of the NT. The vulgar Paul maintained that the law was obsolete (the best it ever had to offer was now available by another route, the spirit) even as it was fulfilled by love. But there’s little evidence that the historical Jesus was anti-nomian.
The Golden Rule
First things first: the Golden Rule isn’t a “love” commandment, just because scholars say it is, nor does it apply particularly to enemies — certainly not in Matthew (7:12), though Luke (6:31) makes a closer connection. There’s nothing especially radical about the saying at all, in fact; it was common pagan wisdom, usually expressed in the more negative form, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.” Essentially, a person decided how he or she wanted to be treated and then made that the standard for treating others. It’s wonderful secular wisdom, not requiring a belief in God, and a favorite of atheists and Unitarians like myself.
Too bad for us, because as Meier shows, the Golden Rule doesn’t meet any of the criteria of authenticity, least of all discontinuity, enjoying a wide reputation in the Greco-Roman world, going back as far as Herodotus and the sophists. In the NT the saying is only singularly attested (in Q according to Meier, in Matthew according to Farrer-advocates) and seems to have been placed on the lips of Jesus by those who revered him as an ethical master (pre-Q or Q, according to Meier; pre-Matthew or Matthew, I would say), attributing common wisdom to him.
The Golden Rule is inconsistent with Jesus’ demands stated elsewhere, and thus unable to meet even the criterion of coherence. Jesus criticized the ethic of reciprocity left and right (“if you love those who love you, what credit do you gain?”, “if you give loans to those from whom you hope to receive payment, what credit do you gain?”, etc.), and the Golden Rule is all about reciprocity. It just doesn’t square with the preachings of an uncompromising apocalyptic. “The clash between the Golden Rule and Jesus’ withering blast against a morality of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ is as astounding as it is little noted by Christians” (p 556). Yes, Jesus could have been inconsistent, but there are understandable inconsistencies and not-so-understandable ones, and this one, to me, smacks of the latter.
It may be objected that just because the philosophers applied the rule reciprocally doesn’t mean that Jesus did. James McGrath, for instance, says that “the Golden Rule does seem rather distinctive… and doesn’t seem to reflect an ethic of reciprocity. As attributed to Jesus, the meaning seems to clearly be to do to others what we would want them to do to us, not what they have done nor what we expect them to do.” But one could say the same for the pagan versions. As Meier reminds us, the rule never made the reciprocal expectation explicit, but it was always clarified that way: the person following the rule hoped or expected that his behavior would call forth similar behavior in others (see p 553). It could be that later Christian ethicists co-opted the saying in the less reciprocal manner suggested by McGrath, but it’s unsound to claim that Jesus made this move with quicksand under our feet. As a secularist who warms to the Golden Rule, I regretfully agree with Meier that we’re wise to leave it out of our reconstruction of the historical Jesus.
For amusement’s sake, it’s worth examining the Jesus Seminar’s take on the Golden Rule, because Funk and Co. are almost as skeptical as Meier, though for different reasons. The Seminar voted it “gray”, on grounds that while Jesus wouldn’t necessarily have been hostile to the rule, it “veils a calculating egoism”, suggesting that “one should not go beyond self-interest”:
“It calls for making oneself the standard of the treatment of others, rather than making the other the standard of that treatment. Had the golden rule taken this form, ‘Treat people in the way they want to be treated,’ it would have come closer to Jesus’ perspective. In its traditional form, the golden rule expresses nothing that cuts against the common grain.” (The Five Gospels, pp 296, 156)
The Seminar is actually describing the 20th-century Platinum Rule (“do unto others as they want done to them”), but while I agree that this is superior to the Golden Rule (and have blogged plenty about the subject), I think it unreasonable to expect Jesus to have anticipated George Bernard Shaw (who advised: “do not do unto others as you would want done unto you, because their tastes may not be the same”). That’s a rather eisegetical dismissal. By ancient standards, the Golden Rule was progressive wisdom. It just doesn’t seem to have been Jesus’ wisdom.
A Marginal Jew has remained consistent in methodology over the past 18 years, retaining the air of an earlier period when questors were putting Jesus into one of a zillion boxes (“rabbi”, “cynic”, “magician”, “social prophet”, whatever). Meier’s box isn’t so small that it chokes out unwanted data in favor of a pet theory, and for that reason alone will stand the test of time as a worthy reference series. His Jesus remains, in general terms, the eschatological figure who was heralding a new age, speaking for people on the margins of society.
Meier’s results confirm something I often make a point of: the mistake of distinguishing too sharply between the Torah and interpretations of it. Reality doesn’t break down so neatly or cater to our Cartesian sensibilities. Jesus evidently thought he was Torah-observant — despite even his sweeping prohibitions against divorce and oath-taking — though his opponents could easily refute that. There was no monolithic view of the Torah or how it should be followed, and recognizing the simple point helps us come to terms with the “enigma”, as Meier puts it, of Jesus’ various stances to the law.
Finally, a word about criteria. In recent years I’ve become more skeptical about using the the classic criteria to get at sure results (though not quite as skeptical as Mark Goodacre), but if one takes them as a premise for proceeding, Meier applies them more impressively than most, and without fearing where the road takes him. For a moderately conservative priest, he reaches some remarkably “minimalist” conclusions in this book (which is stamped with a Vatican Imprimatur like the other volumes), often evidently against his will. I think the criteria can be useful, but suspect methodologies which rely on them heavily are nearing their end.
In sum: Meier’s unpapal conclave is still a fine muse. Its mantra in this volume is, “the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus”, but that Jesus will leave Jew, Catholic, Protestant, and agnostic alike nonplussed in the knowledge that most boxes will be too small for him.