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John Paul Meier is a Biblical scholar and Catholic priest. He attended St. Joseph's Seminary and College (B.A., 1964), Gregorian University [Rome] (S.T.L, 1968), and the Biblical Institute [Rome] (S.S.D., 1976).

Meier is the author of nine books and more than 60 scholarly articles. He was editor of The Catholic Biblical Quarterly and president of the Catholic Biblical Association.

Meier is Professor of New Testament in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Damemarker. Before coming to Notre Dame, he was Professor at The Catholic University of Americamarker.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus

Meier's critically-acclaimed series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus employs tools of historical-critical research to delineate who Jesus of Nazarethmarker was and what he intended. Meier suggests that such research might admit agreement of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and agnostic scholars.

Volume 1 (1991) differentiates the historical Jesus from the Biblical Jesus. It analyzes sources, including the New Testament and non-canon works. The latter include the agrapha, the apocryphal gospels (such as the Gospel of Thomas), Josephus, and other Jewish and second-century Roman works. For deciding what comes from Jesus as distinct from early Christian tradition it proposes these primary criteria (pp. 168-77):
1. The criterion of embarrassment: Why invent what would invite difficulty for the early church?
2. The criterion of discontinuity: Why reject as words or deeds of Jesus what cannot be derived from the Judaism of Jesus' time or the early church?
3. The criterion of multiple attestation: Is it more plausible to deny words, sayings, or deeds attributed to Jesus in more than one independent literary source (e.g., Mark, Q, Paul, and John) or literary genre (e.g., parable, miracle story, or prophecy)?
4. The criterion of coherence: Given the claims to historicity from any of the above criteria, are different sayings or deeds evidently inconsistent?
5. The criterion of rejection and execution: If Jesus' ministry came to a violent, public end, what of Jesus' words or deeds could have alienated people, especially powerful people?
The criteria are to be used in concert for mutual correction. Still, any claim is only to the probable, not the certain. The rest of Volume 1 discusses the origins of Jesus as to formative years, "external" influences (language, education, and socioeconomic status), and "internal" influences (family ties and marital and lay status). The volume concludes with a survey of Jesus' life chronology.

Volume 2 (1994) is in three main parts: The kingdom of God in the second part (pp. 235-506) is examined as to:
  • the Old Testament, related writings, and Qumranmarker
  • Jesus' proclamation of a future kingdom
  • the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus' words and deeds as already present in his ministry (pp. 451-53).

The third part applies the same criteria of historicity to miracle stories as to other aspects of Jesus' life. Rather than adopting say an exclusively agnostic or Christian perspective or relying on philosophical arguments whether miracles can occur, it poses narrower data-based historical questions (pp. 510-11, 517). (Meier is quoted in a 1997 interview as saying: "The proper stance of a historian is, 'I neither claim beforehand that miracles are possible, nor do I claim beforehand they are not possible.'") Meier finds that Jesus' performance of extraordinary deeds deemed miracles at the time is supported most impressively by the criteria of multiple attestation and the coherence of Jesus' deeds and words (p. 630). In moving from the global question of miracles to the particular, Meier examines each miracle story by broad category. That examination drives the conclusion that no single theory explains all such stories with equal assurance and applicability. Rather, it is suggested that some stories have no historical basis (such as the cursing of the fig tree) and that other stories likely go back to events in the life of Jesus (though theological judgment is required to affirm any miracle) (p. 968). At the global level again, Jesus as healer is as well supported as almost anything about the historical Jesus. In the Gospels, the activity of Jesus as miracle worker looms large in attracting attention to himself and reinforces his eschatological message. Such activity, Meier suggests, might have added to the concern of authorities that culminated in Jesus' death (p. 970).

Volume 3 (2001) places Jesus in the context of his followers, the crowds, and his competitors (including Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Samaritans, scribes, and Zealots) in first-century Palestine.

Volume 4 (2009) deals with the ministry of the historical Jesus in relation to Mosaic Law, such subjects as divorce, oaths, and observance of the Sabbath and purity rules, and the various love commandments in the Gospels.


Selected references

  • John P. Meier, "Jesus," in Raymond E. Brown et al., ed., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice-Hall, 1990, pp. 1316-28, ISBN 0-13-614934-0 (a concise, detailed prospectus for the series that followed)

1991, v. 1, The Roots of the Problem and the Person. ISBN 0-385-26425-9
1994, v. 2, Mentor, Message, and Miracles. ISBN 0-385-46992-6
2001, v. 3, Companions and Competitors. ISBN 0-385-46993-4
2009, v. 4, Law and Love. ISBN 0300140967

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