By now it’s clear that John Meier is the George Martin of biblical studies. His Marginal Jew project practically sings the Song of Ice and Fire. Both series began in the ’90s, fueled by modest ambitions. Three volumes at most, said their authors. Each is now up to five in a plan of seven, the end still far away. Readers wait impatiently (or not) during the 5+year intervals in-between. Each series has produced a quasi-lemon (Companions and Competitors was Meier’s Feast for Crows), but the other volumes have been worth the wait, and Meier’s fifth book, released this month, is a sort of functional equivalent of A Dance with Dragons. It tries to tame the untamable — the parables resist discipline as much as Jon’s soldiers and Daenerys’s citizens — and ends where you might not have hoped, certainly not expected. Of more than 30 parables, Meier judges only four of them — yes, four — to go back to Jesus. If A Marginal Jew began with the promise of knocking down minimalist claims of the Jesus Seminar, it has also proven capable of its own massive skepticism.
I used to accept the dominant wisdom: “Virtually everyone grants that the parables are the surest bedrock we have of Jesus’ teaching. The early church hardly ever told parables.” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, p 31). And even this: “Though the burden of proof usually falls on the one who would claim the authenticity of a Jesus saying, the case with the parables is otherwise. Here the burden of proof should fall on the one who would claim that the originating structure of a parable is not from Jesus.” (Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable, p 63). It strikes me that the parables are a lot like the phantom Q gospel, appealing to both evangelicals (like Snodgrass) and liberal revisionists (like Scott), and on the strength of that wide appeal don’t suffer the hard scrutiny they deserve. In this sense, Meier’s book is the new Case Against Q, shooting hole after hole in the common wisdom. He meets Scott’s burden of proof with relative ease, and throws back the burden on the optimists. However we sift his individual judgments, I believe he’s right that the parables, on whole, cannot be taken as a guaranteed “voice” of the historical Jesus. Circular reasoning alone justifies that position.
Admittedly, there is one traditional argument that has some force — that the early church never used parables, and so unlikely invented them on the lips of their savior. But Meier points out the fallacy (see volume 5, pp 53-54): While the argument works when comparing Jesus to Paul and to other non-synoptic NT writers (who obviously didn’t use parables), it says nothing about the creativity of the anonymous “key players” in handing on the synoptic traditions in the early decades. Did they never learn from what inspired them, and develop parables themselves? Those who preserved and passed on the parable traditions could have obviously, and would have likely, imitated that tradition.
Before addressing the parables, however, let’s backpedal and review some of Meier’s findings from the previous volumes.
The Miracles: 15 out of 31. Volume 2 of the Marginal Jew project pronounced half the miracle tradition historical. Remember that by “historical”, Meier doesn’t mean that the miracle in question necessarily happened as a supernatural event, nor even that it necessarily happened. There are no ontological judgments and his goals are modest. An historical event is an event that was known during the course of Jesus’ lifetime; reports of the event circulated in the earliest days. Obviously that increases the likelihood that the event happened (in some way), but not necessarily. Meier breaks the miracles into four general categories, and some pass the test better than others:
- Exorcisms? Yes, with a capital “Y”. Meier judges 5 out of 7 exorcist accounts to be historical. The possessed boy (Mk 9:14-29/Mt 17.14-21/Lk 9.37-43a) and Mary Magdalene (Lk 8:2) are judged to be historical with a strong level of confidence. The demoniac at Capernaum (Mk 1:23-28/Lk 4.33-37), the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20/Mt 8.28-34/8.26-39), and the blind & mute demoniac (Mt 12:22-23a/Lk 11:14) are judged to be likely historical. The mute demoniac (Mt 9:32-33) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28) are judged to be unhistorical. Jesus was so renowned as an exorcist that he was accused of being in league with demonic powers, for “casting out demons with the aid of demons” (Mk 3.22-27).
- Healings? Yes, though perhaps not to the degree the gospels imply. 6 out of 15 healings are deemed historical: the paralyzed man let down through the rooftop (Mk 2:1-12/Mt 9.1-8/Lk 5.17-26), the sick man by the pool of Bethseda (Jn 5:1-9), the blind beggar (Mk 10:46-52/Lk 18:35-43), the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26), the deaf mute (Mk 7:31-37/Mt 15.29-31), and (with some reservations) the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13/Lk 7.1-10/Jn 4.46b-54) are judged to be likely historical. The other 9 healing accounts in the gospels are judged either non-liquet (indeterminate) or unhistorical.
- Raising the dead? A strong yes. 3 out of 3. The daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43/Mt 9:18-26/Lk 8:40-56), the son of the widow at Nain (Lk 7:11-17), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45). (Again, whether Jesus actually brought these people back from the dead isn’t an issue for A Marginal Jew. The conclusion is that accounts that he did so circulated during his lifetime.)
- Nature miracles? No. Of the 6, Meier does make a case for one of them — the feeding of the multitude with bread and fish (Mk 6:32-44/Mt 14.13-21/Lk 9. 10b-17 /Jn 6.1-15). But by his own concessions, the glaring influence of the Elisha miracle and the Last Supper/eucharist traditions effectively make the judgment non-liquet (indeterminate). The other 5 nature miracles are shown to be blatantly unhistorical. The cursing of the fig tree (Mk 11:12-14,20-21/Mt 21:18-20) is the only vindictive miracle attributed to Jesus and works purely in the Markan context of the temple’s destruction. The fish catch (Lk 5:1-11/Jn 21:1-14) is a post-resurrection story that has been turned into an apostolic commission (to leave all things, including “the catch”, to follow Jesus). The walking on water (Mk 6:45-52/Mt 14:22-33/Jn 6:16-21) is not a “sea rescue” that would cohere with Jesus’ means of using power to help those in need; it squares with the agenda of the early church toward a high christology that makes Jesus the functional equivalent of God; it has an epiphanic thrust saturated with Old Testament allusions. The same is true for the calming of the storm (Mk 4:35-41/Mt 8:23-27/Lk 8:22-25); it’s not a sea-rescue, since the disciples aren’t in mortal danger; it’s another epiphany-like wonder meant to evoke astonishment; its Christological message transcends and reverses the events in Jonah (where sailors avert God’s wrath by throwing Jonah overboard into the storm). And finally, the water-to-wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) is transparently unhistorical, since if we subtract from the story everything that John would have likely invented plus everything that raises historical problems, the entire story vanishes.
Law Disputes: 2 ½ out of 6. The subject of volume 4 was “law and love”, and Meier found most of the relevant gospel disputes to be unhistorical and a reflection of later church controversies, as Gentiles became part of the Christian movement. Jesus, according to the Marginal Jew project, was a devout Israelite, respected the Torah, kept it, and reinforced it. But he also occasionally rescinded it (in the cases of divorce and oath-taking), in view of God’s in-breaking power. (Christological ideas about Jesus fulfilling the law, as in Mt 5:17, are easily dismissed as a church creation.) For full details of the following points, see my review of volume 4.
- Condemned Divorce? Yes. Though Jesus’ prohibition against divorce (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9; Mt 5:32/Lk 16:18; I Cor 7:10-11) didn’t technically violate a Torah commandment (he was forbidding what Moses allowed rather than what Moses commanded), it obviously called the Torah into question, and because the prohibition was so socially outrageous (all Mediterranean societies considered divorce to be the natural and necessary way of things), it would have been perceived by many as an attack on the law, nuances notwithstanding. Jesus dared to say that a man who duly follows the Torah in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery — a serious sin against the Decalogue. That would have been considered by an effective attack on the law. Meier grounds Jesus’ motive in eschatology, but Jesus may also have been trying to protect the economic well-being of families, especially women’s families.
- Prohibited Oaths? Yes. Jewish teaching never prohibited oaths entirely. 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 — which Meier finds historical — then he went further than anyone else on record, and abrogated the Torah.
- Sabbath Disputes? Not really, no. According to Meier, none of the sabbath-healing accounts which call forth dispute are historically 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). The motive, again, was eschatology: the roots of the sabbath lie in creation, but a creation, in his view, was soon to be restored, and that meant the sabbath had to serve the good of humanity, rather than vice-versa. But most of the sabbath controversies seem to reflect later church conflicts.
- Purity/Kosher Conflicts? No. The famous passage of Mk 7:1-23/Mt 15:1-20 tells us virtually nothing about the historical Jesus, says Meier, with the possible exception of the qorban saying of Mk 7:10-12. On whole it’s a much later creation. There is no evidence for any Jewish group in the pre-70 period urging laypeople to wash their hands before eating meals, and as for keeping kosher itself, that governed everyone’s daily living. To abolish it 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 in general, and Mk 7:15 in particular, becomes an uphill battle. If Jesus had revoked the Torah’s food laws, he would have been reviled and distrusted by virtually every Jew in Palestine. And of course 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, for which he can cite Jesus.
- Commandments about Love? Yes and no. Yes, to the command to love God and one’s neighbor (Mk 12:28-34/Mt 22:34-40/Lk 10:25-28), and to the command to love enemies (Mt 5:44b/Lk 6:27b). No, to the command to love one another (Jn 13:34, 15:12,17). John’s commandment to love one another implicitly opposes Mark/Matthew/Luke’s commandments to love one’s neighbors and enemies. For John there is no greater love than self-sacrifice for one’s friends, and indeed, for him and his community, love of neighbors and enemies isn’t even on the radar screen. (Note: Meier isn’t saying that Jesus would have objected to the idea of loving “one another”, family and friends, only that Jesus didn’t explicitly teach this or stress the idea. The commandment is only in John, which as a sectarian gospel has a fierce agenda to not love one’s enemies. The commandment, in other words, was born in a community that was hostile to outsiders.)
- The Golden Rule? No. The Golden Rule (Mt 7:12/Lk 6:31) fails the criteria miserably. It was common wisdom found in the Greco-Roman world, 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. Not only does it fail every single criterion of authenticity, it’s inconsistent with Jesus’ demands stated elsewhere, and thus unable to meet even the bare-bones standard of coherence. Jesus had no use for a Golden-Rule like ethic of reciprocity. He says, rather, that “if you love those who love you, what credit do you gain?”, and that “if you give loans to those from whom you hope to receive payment, what credit do you gain?”, etc. “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”. Yes, Jesus could have been inconsistent, but there are understandable inconsistencies and not-so-understandable ones, and this is the latter. The Golden Rule is best understood as entering the tradition at a later date as the Christian movement grew and became mainstreamed. It becomes a near apologetic strategy to argue that Jesus actually taught it.
The Parables: 4 out of 32. This brings us to the current volume 5. “The last thing I expected,” says Meier, “when I began writing A Marginal Jew was that I would one day decide that most of the parables cannot be shown with fair probability to go back to the historical Jesus… The historical-critical method is an equal-opportunity offender. I may not now suddenly retreat from or discard this method simply because I don’t like the outcome in the case of the parables.” (pp 20, 230-31) Here is that dismal outcome, the four stories which Meier can justify tracing back to Jesus.
- The Mustard Seed. The meaning of Mk 4:30-32/Mt 13:31-32/Lk 13:18-19/Thom 20, from Jesus’ lips, was that God’s rule was already at work in his preaching and healing activities, and that however small his mission seemed at the moment, there was an organic connection between it and the visible coming of God who would set things right on the last day.
- The Wicked Tenants. Jesus’ version of Mk 12:1-11/Mt 21:33-44/Lk 20:9-18/Thom 65 was the dark story of Mk 12:1-8 that offered no hope of consolation: the son is murdered, his corpse dishonored, and the murderous farmers remain in possession of the vineyard. This later called forth the two different correctives — first the punishment of the farmers in Mk 12:9, then vindication of the son by making him the “cornerstone” or keystone of the new state of affairs in Mk 12:10-11 (which obviously refers to the resurrection). “It’s nigh impossible that the primitive form of the parable in Mk 12:1-8 was composed by some believer in Christ in the early post-Easter period of the church”. But from Jesus it makes sense. He was saying that he knew full well what awaited him if he pursued his confrontation with Jerusalem authorities, and that as an Elijah-like prophet of the end times, he accepted his destiny of martyrdom. His parable ended with his anticipated death at the hands the temple authorities (the vineyard tenants), and that was the end, period, with no reversal of the injustice.
- The Great Supper. The common core of Mt 22:2-10/Lk 14:16-24/Thom 64. Meier shows that the Lukan version has almost as much redaction as the Matthean (all the more impressive given that he is a Q-advocate), and when all redactions are removed, Jesus’ story tells of a bunch of people who refuse to attend a banquet to which they were specially invited; their insulted host reacts in a most pissed-off fashion, by sending out surprise invitations to virtually anyone, no matter how undeserving, who can be found in the streets. Jesus, according to Meier, was warning observant Jews that their place in the kingdom can be taken by those who socially or religiously marginalized, including even Gentiles.
- The Talents. Like the Great Supper, the story of Mt 25:14-30/Lk 19:12-27 is an unusual example of a parable preserved not by Q (assuming it existed) but in the separate streams of M and L. Jesus told it as an exhortation-plus call to the disciples. Along with sovereign grace, serious demand, and superabundant reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hellfire for refusing the demand contained in the gift.
What justifies claiming historical privilege for these four? Meier’s cautious use of the classic criteria, and some curious features. For example, in the case of the Wicked Tenants, the nimsal (commentary or application of a parable’s message) in Mk 12:9-11 sticks out like a sore thumb. In all other parables, when there is an application or nimsal present — whether to provide allegory (as in the Fish Net), a brief general truth (the Laborers in the Vineyard), an assurance of God’s answer to prayer (the Unjust Judge), or to issue a specific challenge (like the Good Samaritan) — it is appended only after the parable’s story is finished. Nimsals don’t complete stories that are otherwise left hanging; they don’t advance the plot within the story. The sole exception is the Wicked Tenants, which sticks out. The original story had a nihilistic Miami Vice-like ending, which was soon “corrected” in the post-Easter days to provide closure and consolation.
And so forth. All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged non-liquet. If Meier is right, then the parable corpus turns out to be a lot like the wondrous mirage we call “Q”. They aren’t a gateway to an earlier period of subversive wisdom or surprising revelations.
It’s a bit deflating to accept this; I didn’t like giving up Q either. But the more I look, the more I appreciate the limits of historical inquiry. The recent decade has seen an increased humbling of the historical-Jesus enterprise, with scholars like Dale Allison and Mark Goodacre urging that the criteria of authenticity are overrated if not useless, and Richard Carrier making a plausible (if problematic) case that Jesus never even existed. The Marginal Jew project relies on a fading methodology critiqued by these skeptics, and yet, ironically, reinforces strong measures of skepticism on its own terms.
The irony owes, I believe, to the fact that Meier uses the classic criteria as objectively as humanly possible. He has consistently surprised me by what he feels constrained to “let go” from the lips and actions of Jesus. In volume 2 he judged texts like Mk 9:1/Mt 16:28/Lk 9:27 to be unhistorical — texts which would only have helped his thesis for an eschatological prophet. In this volume he banishes classics like the Good Samaritan, stories so deeply embedded in our consciousness. I believe he’s right: it has been on the strength of that influence and our cultural heritage more than objective reasoning that scholar after scholar so readily accepts the authenticity of these stories. Meier’s extended analysis of the Good Samaritan is wonderful (see pp 200-209), and his conclusion hard to dispute. Our hearts may be warmed by that famous Samaritan… but it is Luke and not Jesus who is the “space heater set next to our souls”.
Volume 2 remains the masterpiece of the Marginal Jew project, but Volume 5 is the tome of painful truths. I consider it a landmark in parable studies, and it’s already forcing me to reassess my own approach to the stories (like The Talents), which has been too confident.