Because I had never taken the time to catch up with John Meier's multi-volume work on the historical Jesus, I took the last few weeks (in preparation for his fourth volume) to read through the previous three. For the most part this was new territory, though I had read bits and pieces depending on my particular research needs. So, in what follows I admit at the outset that I might indeed be a bit "Meiered-out" and will try my best not to let any critique arise from sheer fatigue.
I enjoyed the first volume, and much of the second. The third volume had the most promise for my interests, but didn't seem to deliver much at all. The fourth will fall somewhere in the middle. And as I worked through this examination of Jesus I couldn't help but notice that Meier was somehow rubbing me the wrong way, though I had a difficult time placing my finger on the problem. When I asked the opinion of a certain friend of mine, he mentioned that he thought that Meier's biggest problem was that he simply lacked 'historical imagination.' This is the critique for which I had been searching, and it aptly summarizes my own feelings which I was finding difficulty in expressing. Rather than try to match the breadth of this work point-by-point, I want to make a few brief comments regarding "Chapter 34: Jesus and the Sabbath" and allow this to speak for my thoughts on his work as a whole.
Let me first say that I appreciate Meier's detailed and methodical approach to the historical Jesus. His is an exhaustive approach, with the data that he selects, and serves the work of all Questers well regardless of one's level of acceptance with Meier's conclusions.
But to claim that Meier lacks historical imagination is simply this: if he does not readily understand a passage (or its telling, inclusion, redaction) he will mostly dismiss it as inauthentic. In other words, if something doesn't sound like a first century rabbi then it probably cannot be traced back to the historical Jesus. This is frustrating when so much of this appears to be assumed rather than reasoned in the text, which should have enough space to include actual interaction with those who claim otherwise. The other reason why this is a problem is that A Marginal Jew as a whole is built on investigations which use the 'criterion of dissimilarity' as foundational to historical inquiry. That is to say, sometimes something that doesn't sound like a first-century rabbi means that it probably is connected to the historical Jesus. Unfortunately this cannot swing both ways without further explanation, which I feel is missing from the arguments.
Another bit to understand when reading through Meier is that while some of his historical method(s) are quite questionable in practice (it appears that some texts have already been assumed inauthentic before given a chance in the discussion), is that about once or twice in every chapter Meier arrives at some exegesis which is quite brilliant. So there are reasons to read through this work, but so many reasons to be frustrated at the same time.
In capturing the historical Jesus, Meier rightly notes: "The historical Jewish Jesus must be seen as a Jesus immersed in the halakic discussions, debates, and actual practice of 1st-century Palestinian Jews" (267 emphasis in original). Such a statement captures the need for pastors and theologians to get the context right when approaching Jesus. But the remainder of the chapter seems preoccupied with 1) Jesus' "misinterpretation" of 1 Sam 21:2-10, and 2) Jesus' teachings about the Sabbath not being like anything which a first-century rabbi would have taught (thus inauthentic). And these latter two discussions are done so in the vacuum of assumption.
At the end of it one might be left to wonder if so much of what Jesus said and did could not have been unlike the teachers and leaders of first-century Israel, then why on earth was he regarded as something unlike anything Israel had ever seen before? Regarding the narratives which concern Jesus and the Sabbath, Meier asserts: "Not one narrative can survive close scrutiny" (295). Perhaps because they have not been given much of a chance.
I would recommend this series overall, and believe that one can learn a bit about the historical Jesus and christology from them. But amazingly little from the amount of work required to read through his material. I suppose Meier is debunking the gospels and reconstructing an historical Jesus. But, to what end?
[N.B., The final paragraph of volume four references the 'next volume' (658), making this single-volume-work-turned-three-volume-work-turned-four-volume-work now turned into a five volume examination. May God have mercy on us all.]