"Companions and Competitors" - and Context?
A reading of John P. Meier, Marginal Jew: Rethinking the historical Jesus; Volume Three: Companions and Competitors (New York: Doubleday, 2001)
by Professor William Loader, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia
To review volume three of John Meiers magnificent opus is not simply a matter of reviewing a section of a larger work; for the work is to some extent still in progress, so that volume three, while dealing with particular themes, also responds to critique of previous volumes. The delay, occasioned by "a number of serious illnesses and operations" (xiii), has provided Meier with the opportunity to reflect on previous volumes and their significance. This happens in the introduction which also places the third volume in relation to the previous two. "No human being is adequately understood if he or she is considered in isolation from other human beings. A human being becomes fully human only by entering into dynamic relationships of friendship and love, enmity and hate, control, subordination, and collaboration with other humans" (1-2). This is, thankfully, a descriptive not a prescriptive statement. Meier continues: "To tell the story of Jesus is to tell the story of his various relationships: his relation to individuals like Peter or Judas, to groups of followers like the disciples or the Twelve, and to Jewish movements like the Pharisees or the Sadducees" (2). This is the focus of the volume.
It is at this point that Meier alerts the reader to controversy: "Whatever the reason, the full range of Jesus relationships with Jewish groups and individuals has not been a central concern of the type of Jesus research lionized in recent years by the American media" (3). The butt of this comment is the Jesus Seminar and the related works of John Dominic Crossan, Burton L. Mack and Robert Funk, in whose works "one finds Jesus the Cynic philosopher or Jesus the generic Mediterranean peasant or Jesus the social revolutionary or Jesus the religious iconoclast largely overshadowing if not obliterating the specific 1st-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus" (3). By contrast Meier stands with those who emphasise the Jewishness of Jesus, represented in the work of E. P. Sanders and G. Vermes, and more recently: Dale C. Allison, Bart V. Ehrman, Paula Frederiksen, Bruce Chilton, Jürgen Becker, N. T. Wright and Jacques Schlosser (3). This tension is in the background of much of what follows in the volume.
At the same time Meier is engaged in subtle refinement of our understanding of Jesus the Jew. For instance, he is happy to speak of "what various scholars call mainstream or common Judaism in 1st-century Palestine (and also in the Diaspora)" (7), but cautions: "this concept of mainstream Judaism should not be confused with the erroneous idea that there was some monolithic normative or orthodox Judaism at the time" (7). In this context Meier has to address a misunderstanding which has arisen because of his works title: "a marginal Jew". Meier locates Jesus self-definition and primary context as "mainstream" Judaism centred on the Jerusalem temple (which included the Pharisees and Sadducees) rather than sectarian Judaism (such as we find at Qumran). Meier used "a marginal Jew", not to provide a definition so much as to open up questions. Part of his intention was to underline "the simple fact that, as far as Jewish and pagan literature in the century after Jesus was concerned, Jesus was at most a blip on the radar screen." It was also to emphasise that Jesus in a sense marginalised himself by his particular teachings (eg. on divorce and voluntary fasting) and his warnings of the temples destruction, a marginalisation which succeeded at the hands of his executioners.
The introduction concludes with a reminder of the task, by recalling "the fantasy of the unpapal conclave: a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic - all honest historians cognizant of 1st-century religious movements - are locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they have hammered out a consensus document on Jesus of Nazareth" (9). It is a hopeful assertion against those who would proclaim only the "real Jesus" of the scripture records and faith experience to matter or those who might imagine future generations stumbling across the skeletons of forgotten scholars who failed to unlock the door because they could not agree, even about Sparta. We need to be reminded that serious scholars of the previous century would have deemed the task impossible, certainly impossible on the scale now being undertaken in Meiers multivolumed work.
Meiers review of method stands under the heading: "A Reminder about the Rules of the Road". Travelling into the third volume is somewhat like gliding into familiar lanes. The first half is about companions, the second half, about competitors. In the first half we begin with the broader categories (crowds) and move inwards to specific disciples. The going is quite smooth, but every now and again there are bumps as Meier helps us negotiate trouble spots. Such is the section on the crowds. We pass by the old construction site where some raised the notion of a "Galilean spring". Noting its dependence on harmonisation and an uncritical use of John 6:66, Meier comments: "If I were to hazard any guess in the matter - and it can only be a guess - it would be that Jesus influence was continuing to grow as he undertook his final journey to Jerusalem" (27). He concludes: "as with the quest for the historical Jesus so with the quest for the historical crowds, the results are distressingly vague and meager." Noting that: "variations in numbers, variations between Galilee and Judea, variations in social status, variations in the crowds estimation of Jesus - all these are lacking", he goes on to comment: "This is the constant problem of trying to apply the social sciences to Jesus research. ... Abstract models from the social sciences will not supply concrete data that are otherwise lacking" (27).
The allusion to the social sciences might have slowed us into some major roadworks, particularly when one takes into account their important role, for instance, in Crossans reconstructions. Instead Meier discusses "the varying degrees of poverty and social insecurity" in Palestine. Noting that Jesus related to a range of people, including the more well-off, Meier concludes: "Jesus did concentrate on the "poor" (with all the various meanings that word had in 1st-century Palestine), but he did not do so in the narrow, partisan spirit attributed by some streams of liberation theology" (28). I was surprised that we passed this by in less than a page with a single footnote referring only to Volume One, where the issue also receives little attention. I was left wondering whether there is another place where Meier returns to the social context.
Following close after is a carefully nuanced discussion of the relation between the notion of "the crowds, "sinners" and the "amme-haares". They are not to be equated, not even on the basis of John 7:48, where the crowd is "accursed" not because they fail to observe purity laws correctly, but because they give an unacceptable interpretation of Jesus (29).
Turning to "the disciples" Meier notes the absence of the Greek term in the LXX and outside the gospels and Acts in the New Testament and the almost complete absence in biblical and other literature of the period (including Qumran) of its Hebrew equivalent talmid, which is used from the second century CE onwards to designate disciples of rabbis (42). Mathetes does occur (but only 14 times) in Philo for people who are taught, including those taught by God, and in Josephus (15 times), whose use includes it as a description of the relation of Elisha to Elijah, and stands under the influence of Greco-Roman school traditions. Jesus use of the word "may reflect the Hellenistic milieu that had come to influence Palestine from the days of Alexander the Great onwards. But for Jesus, a more immediate influence and model would have been supplied by the Baptist and his group of disciples, to which Jesus may have for a while belonged" (44-45).
The recognition of Greco-Roman school influence prompts Meier to observe: "As a religious figure within the Greco-Roman period, Jesus not surprisingly bore some resemblances to other philosophical or religious teachers of his time, notably in his desire to assemble followers or students around him. Hence, while Jesus resemblance to wandering Cynic philosophers has been greatly overemphasized, one should not deny all similarities to philosophers in the broad Cynic-Stoic stream, mixed as it sometimes was with Pythagorean traits" (47). To this Meier provides an important footnote (90-91 n. 22) where he responds to recent assessments of the Cynics and their significance for historical Jesus research in which he concludes: "in the end, the Cynic portrait of Jesus, especially as sketched by Crossan and Mack, fails to take seriously his Jewishness, his prophetic eschatology, and the specific socio-religious situation in the towns and villages of rural Galilee in the 1st century A.D" (91). A key to this argument is Meiers understanding of "the specific socio-religious situation in the towns and villages of rural Galilee in the 1st century A.D" - beset with the problems of the use of the social sciences to which he alludes above. Crossan has since expressed himself more cautiously in The Birth of Christianity.
The primary model for discipleship comes from Jesus use of the Elijah/Elisha typology which Meier has already argued in Volume Two in relation to the miracles and to which I imagine he will return in Volume Four. In discussing discipleship Meier notes Jesus authoritative call. Other distinctive features include its open-endedness both geographically and temporally (55). It included warnings of potential danger. Here Meier speculates: "it may well be that his sayings on the cost of discipleship come mostly if not entirely from the final days of his career, as the storm clouds of conflict with the Jerusalem authorities were gathering and darkening" (56) - maybe, but maybe not. The journey takes us through a helpful exegetical discussion of sayings about saving and losing ones life (56-64), denying oneself and taking up the cross (64-67), and facing hostility from ones family (67-73). In the latter context Meier notes the role of the extended family as a safety net in peasant society and that "Ancient Mediterranean society was largely a society of dyadic personalities, where ones identity was formed and maintained in relation to other individuals in ones social unit" (67). This vista from cultural anthropology makes me want to take a closer look, but it is quickly passed.
It was at this point also that I wanted Meier to slow down and say more about the relationship between the itinerant disciples and the "sedentary supporters" (72). More particularly, I wanted to hear more about the coherence in demand on each. I also wondered whether there might be a place for more discussion about the theological issues raised by the challenge to some to abandon the covenant blessings of the land (or, at least, the locality) and the blessing (and attendant obligations) of the stable family. These belong together with the insights from cultural anthropology, although one might counter that the theological issue has to be assumed; it is not explicit. Meier does return to discuss "supporters of Jesus who did not leave their homes" (80-82). He speaks of them as "committed adherents who did not take the plunge of complete discipleship - or who were not summoned or allowed by Jesus to do so - but who showed their devotion and loyalty to Jesus by offering him hospitality" (82). The discussion requires more, I think, than is offered here with its reference to support systems. It need not be only speculation as Meier describes Richard Horsleys attempt. The historian also needs to imagine what might be the shape of local expressions of a positive response to Jesus and his message.
In a carefully nuanced discussion Meier takes us through the issues of women among the followers of Jesus. None is called a "disciple" - perhaps the male form mathetes included women. Meier concludes: "Did the historical Jesus have women disciples? In name, no; in reality - putting aside the question of an implicit as opposed to an explicit call - yes. .. The sight of a group of women - apparently, at least in some cases, without the benefit of husbands accompanying them - travelling around the Galilean countryside with an unmarried male who exorcised, healed, and taught them as he taught male disciples could not help but raise pious eyebrows and provoke impious comments" (79). But, here, too, I note that there is no explicit mention of this as an offence in controversy anecdotes or elsewhere. I want to defend Meiers right to controlled speculation where social context raises the levels of probability. I regret that he does it too selectively.
In relation to the closer circles of followers Meier mounts a strong case for the existence of the Twelve already during the ministry of the historical Jesus on grounds of multiple attestation (including its use in Markan tradition, in Johannine tradition, the diverse yet largely overlapping lists of names, the Q tradition Matt 19:28//Luke 22:30 and 1 Cor 15:5), embarrassment and the "general flow of the tradition" (128-147). The argument from embarrassment relates especially to the role of Judas as one of the twelve and the difficulty of explaining this tradition otherwise.
Reflecting on the views of Klein, Schmithals, Vielhauer and Crossan, Meier writes: "Amid all these disagreements among the critics, one espies the all-determining point of agreement: come what may, the Twelve must not exist during the life of Jesus, for this would contradict all the portraits these critics paint of Jesus - especially the popular American one of Jesus the egalitarian Cynic with no concern for the future eschatology of the people Israel" (145). Later he observes: "Going through these strange theories is tiresome" (145). I am not sure that Meier needs "strange" and "tiresome" for his argument. It might be said of much research and belongs to the task. When we recognise the importance of Jewish eschatology as the background for Jesus mission, the old dispute takes a new turn. Meier makes this point strongly. "The mission of the Twelve, no less than the institution of the Twelve, was a symbolic, prophetic act. Carrying forward the eschatological thrust inherent in the creation of the Twelve, Jesus sent the group out in mission to Israel and thereby performed a further prophetic=symbolic gesture that embodied the events of the end time" (162).
Meier reflects on the disappearance of "the Twelve" and its absence from most of the New Testament, noting that perhaps no attempt was made to replace those who died and that perhaps their power was eclipsed. I would suggest further explanations might include the failure of an early fulfilment of eschatological expectation and the lessening relevance of the symbolism of Israel as the church moved to encompass Gentile followers and in many areas lost or diminished its Jewish links (as in Messiah becoming Christ the name).
Turning to individual members of the Twelve, we drive right on by past some who are little more than signs on the roadside. We no longer recognise "Zealot" as indicating that our Simon was anachronistically a member of the movement so named in the Jewish war. "Thomas" spawned fantasies which belong to later centuries, as do many of the attempts to fill gaps of knowledge with the speculative constructions of piety. "Iscariot" remains "an enigma, but probably a placename. "Boanerges" is probably a designation deriving from Jesus, but its intent is lost. The Markan anecdote about the brothers ambition (10:35-40) coheres with the Q promise about thrones (Matt 19:28//Luke 22:30) and on grounds of embarrassment (its prediction was not fulfilled) may be deemed to rest on historical tradition (220).
Turning to Peter, Meier begins: "On the evangelical principle that the first shall be last, Peter, who is always mentioned first in the four lists of the Twelve, comes last in our survey" (221). The word, evangelical, took me into wondering whether a Protestant allusion was authorial intent or another good example or the text taking over of a common subtext asserting itself. In any case no dust would be stirred in the Harvard stacks by Meiers judicious assessment. On the naming he suggests we need not see the tradition reflected in Matthew 16 as a naming (225). Meier outlines a plausible case for taking Matthew 16:17-19 as reporting an event during Jesus public ministry only to weigh more heavily the counter arguments. Ekklesia in Matthew, as in the rest of the New Testament, belongs to the post-Easter context and in Matthew comes in the context of church discipline. Parallels with John 21:15-17 and with Gal 1:15-17 suggest that "Matt 16:16-19 is best understood as a scene originally laid in a post-Easter setting, a scene that Matthew or his tradition has retrojected into the public ministry" (235).
By contrast it is "probable that Jesus fiery rebuke to Peter as Satan is historical" (237), but not as a rejection of messiahship. Meier concludes: "In my view, the conjecture that unites Mark 8:29 directly with 8:33 and sees in this creation a historical event cannot construct a plausible tradition-history for such a pericope in the early church" (238). I wonder. How early was the sensitivity that "Messiah" was likely to be misunderstood, that it was true and false at the same time? How early is the irony implicit in the passion narrative about messiahship? Meier is confident about the rebuke, but concludes that we do not have enough to identify its setting (238).
Meier sees Lukes hand in Luke 22:31-32 seeking to rehabilitate Peter, to show his failure was only momentary. He writes: "I am tempted to think that this small unit is a creation of Luke himself" (242) but then acknowledges the weight of Lukan scholars who see a tradition here, sufficient to declare: "non liquet" (242). Peters denial, on the other hand, has strong claims to authenticity on grounds of the criteria of embarrassment and multiple attestation (244), even if the threefold form may be an aspect of storytelling and the prediction, uncertain.
The conclusion to the discussion of Jesus companions not only summarises the findings. It also reflects particular concerns. One is to qualify the use of "egalitarian" in relation to Jesus. Affirming its appropriateness as expressing well "the leveling influence his message would have had on Israelite society of the time", Meier continues with the warning: "But what the present-day historian must not do is retroject modern thought about social classes, revolution, utopian egalitarianism, and theoretical anarchy into the mind of a 1st-century Palestinian Jew for whom Israel always had been and always would be, in one way or another, an ordered society" (250). As "the eschatological prophet bearing the mantle of Elijah .. Jesus instituted the particular structure of the Twelve for the Israel of the end time, he chose to stand over against the circle of the Twelve as its founder instead of making himself one of its members" (250).
By joining this with the observation based on his work in Volume Two that Jesus established practices to help shape identity (for instance: baptism, rejection of voluntary fasting, joining in festive meals with outcasts, rejection of divorce, the Lords Prayer) Meier is able to respond to the question whether Jesus intended to found a church. He concludes: "While the early church as we know it would not have arisen without the ministry of the historical Jesus as a necessary precondition, the ministry of Jesus, taken by itself, did not create the early church" (251-252). Its immediate matrix was the crucifixion, the claim that he was risen, and the experience of the Spirit. One might want to add that some of the beginnings of the church make best sense if we see them as the kind of actions one might envisage of a group who had been convinced that what Jesus said and did was vindicated and what he said and did should be continued and expanded. One could then, in turn, examine those behaviours and see if they do not also tell us something more to confirm or add to our picture of the ministry of the historical Jesus.
In the second half of the volume Meier turns to Jesus relation to competing Jewish groups. He begins with a concise history of tensions in which he then locates the Pharisees and the Sadducees and identifies other groups. It is selective in focus, concentrating largely on politics. I was looking out the window to see if I could catch the colours and textures of the social contexts, but these were not in view. At some stage these important dimensions, fraught with the difficulties of the social sciences, as Meier has noted, will have to receive attention. Meier notes: "The brief historical outline I have just sketched as a kind of chronological grid for the reader has been kept skeletal on purpose. In particular, the outline has been restricted as much as possible to verifiable external events" (299).
The discussion of sources for describing the Pharisees and the others echoes the discussion of criteria for historicity from the first volume, as it should. The overview and careful assessment of the issues in relation to the use of Josephus and to Rabbinic Literature is invaluable. Meier challenges Josephus claim in his Life that he was a Pharisee from the age of 19 as inconsistent with what he says and does elsewhere and motivated by the dominance of Pharisees in the late 1st century. He concludes: "We may not naively approach Josephus as the one totally reliable source about the Pharisees on the grounds that he was himself a Pharisee for the whole of his adult life" (305). Meier puts it bluntly: he was lying (303).
The discussion of Rabbinic Literature is equally useful. Noting that "the rabbinic passages that present perusim and sudduqin locked in debate most probably preserve traditions that reach back to pre-Palestinian Judaism" (306) Meier offers a careful discussion of the one extended passage where the two groups are opposed to each other m. Yadaim 4:6-8 (306-307). Reviewing Neusners project to recover pre-70 Pharisaism, he concludes that we "cannot presume that the pre-70 legal traditions preserved in the Mishna and other rabbinic writings were necessarily Pharisaic" (308). Nor can we be sure that Hillel and Shammai were Pharisees. The matter of sources is expanded when Meier moves directly to offer his own treatment of the Pharisees. I think it is a pity that Meier holds back from using Qumran material in relation to the Pharisees and identifying, as many do, the Pharisees with "the seekers of smooth things".
Turning to the Pharisees we are immediately confronted by mud on the windscreen with the opening sentence: "the dirty little secret of NT studies is that no one really knows who the Pharisees were" (311). It is hard to see our way forward. Confident reconstructions litter the side of the road, at least on Meiers line of approach. Due respect is given the major contribution of Jacob Neusner that "the Pharisees were driven by an ideal of priestly holiness" (311). After the end of the Hasmonean dynasty, according to Neusner they withdrew from politics to become, as Meier summarises it, "a holy dining club" (311). By contrast E. P. Sanders, among others, argued lack of evidence for concern with such a priestly purity in everyday eating. Meier also reviews criticism of the withdrawal theory, noting the role of the Pharisee Pollio and his disciple Samaias in Herods reign, of Saddok in the revolt of 6 CE and of involvement of Pharisees in events leading up to the war of 66 CE and in an official delegation sent to relieve Josephus of his post.
Meier then seeks to establish six points. "The Pharisees .. were a Jewish group with both political and religious interests, active in Palestine prior to the First Jewish War" (313-314). Secondly, they "enjoyed a reputation for their exact or precise (akribes) interpretation of the Mosaic Law" (314). Thirdly, the struggle with Jesus or early Christians over Law issues was part of a wider struggle over interpretation of Torah at the time (315). In this, writes Meier, "what made the Pharisees distinctive was that they openly admitted that some of their legal views and practices were not to be found as such in the written Mosaic Law, that such practices were instead venerable traditions that had been handed down by the fathers or the elders, and that such practices nevertheless were Gods will for all Israel" (315). In this they sought to persuade the common people to follow their lead, but did not consider people who did not, beyond the pale in a sectarian sense. The veneration of such interpretations is the precursor of what in later rabbinic literature became the notion of an oral and a written Torah (318). One may trace the beginnings of this later idea in Pirqe Abot 1. Of the chain of tradition listed in m. Aboth 1 Meier writes: "we cannot be absolutely sure that any of these teachers .. were actually Pharisees" (318). Gamaliel I was probably a Pharisee. His connections and those of Simeon with the House of Shammai make it probable that "the Houses (or Schools) of Hillel and Shammai were Pharisaic" (319).
Fourth, the "cluster of concerns, attested both by early Gospel traditions and early mishnaic traditions, includes the following: Purity rules concerning food and vessels containing food and liquids; .. purity rules concerning corpses and tombs; .. purity and sanctity of the cult apparatus; .. tithing, priests shares and dues; .. proper observance of the sabbath and holy days; .. marriage and divorce" (320-321). Fifth, "most of what is attributed to Pharisaic teaching in the NT and Mishna refers to legal rulings or opinions regarding concrete behavior (halakot)." Such material is almost always the basis for the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees according to the Gospels. Yet they appear also to have held to particular doctrines, such as resurrection of the dead and probably eschatological expectation of a Messiah. One of Meiers arguments here is based on what one may surmise about the pre-Christian Paul for whom messianic expectation, belief in the resurrection of the dead, eschatological readings of the Old Testament and reverence for Torah appear to have been central. At least "Paul may well reflect one type of 1st-century Pharisee whose legal study and practice were part of a larger theological vision" (325). Josephus may well reflect their belief in Gods direction of history towards the judgement when he attributes to them a belief in fate.
In his summary Meier returns to the point that they were more than a religious group, but also had political interests, rightly noting that we should not import our modern notions of a separation of church and state. He writes: "They never withdrew completely from the political arena to become merely a pious group of laymen pursuing holiness through meals celebrated in ritual purity with fellow Pharisees. In other words, Pharisaism never became a quietist sect" (331). Such observations call out for more discussion of Meiers claims that at least some Pharisees looked for a messiah and for resurrection from the dead: how political was that? How were such hopes imagined?
A final section examines Jesus relation to the Pharisees. It begins by noting the extensive redactional contribution to the gospel image of the Pharisees. Mark 2:1 - 3:6 is a prime example, as Joanna Dewey has shown. Matthew and Luke add in the term, "Pharisees", where it was absent. Meier portrays them as the dominant opposition. Meier observes that "reviewing all these data about the Pharisees in the Gospels, we find ourselves faced with a problem not unlike the one faced by those examining Jesus miracles" (336): it is difficult to move beyond the relatively secure historical claim that Jesus claimed to work miracles and others claimed this of him. Some instances of clashes with Pharisees nevertheless have a certain probability: the dispute over marriage and divorce; the woes pronounced on Pharisees and others who reject his message; parables which use Pharisees as antithetical figures; some instances of sympathy (Nicodemus; Simon) (337).
The interaction of Jesus with Pharisees is explicable given their common focus on all of Israel (and not just on an elite), on Gods will as laid out in the Law and the Prophets, including Gods election of Israel and Gods future for Israel "involving restoration .. , a final judgement, the resurrection of the dead, and perhaps some sort of eschatological or messianic figure as Gods agent in the end time" (338). Conflicts were bound to arise because of Jesus present-yet-future eschatology which claimed a central role for himself, saw it evidenced in some of miracles and expressed it in some unusual halaka (prohibiting divorce; affirming celibacy as an option; rejecting voluntary fasting; neglect or rejection of family obligations and purity rules). Meier is nevertheless careful to note that nothing in the earliest tradition suggest that such clashes led to Jesus execution (33). We are promised a more detailed discussion of Jesus teaching on the Law in Volume Four.
Our lack of knowledge about the Sadducees has not been a secret. Source issues are similar to those faced in dealing with the Pharisees. In addition there are textual problems in the rabbinic sources. Meier opts cautiously to restrict himself "for the most part, to the relatively few cases where sadduqin is clearly opposed to perusin in the Mishna" (391). He then proceeds to offer a sketch of what can be said, beginning with the most widely accepted and moving to the more tentative and uncertain.
First, the Sadducees are widely acknowledged as having existed "as a religious-political group active around the turn of the era" (392). Meier then goes on to identify their role in history using Josephus, whose information suggests that "the Sadducees conceivably could enjoyed uninterrupted power under the Hasmonean rulers for roughly half a century" (392). The interruption came with Salome Alexandra after whom allegiances are less clear. Their return to power came with the direct rule of Rome in Judea. In the period of direct Roman rule most prominent Jews would have been Sadducean, including high priestly families and the lay aristocracy. But, as Meier rightly cautions, "not all Sadducees were priests, and not all priests were Sadducees. Likewise, not all aristocrats were Sadducees" (395-396).
Their name most probably derives from the appeal to Zadok who served both David and Solomon. They would have largely belonged to the priestly aristocracy of the post-exilic temple state who were forced from the early second century to accommodate the Hasmoneans, hence their emergence as a party. The probability that Annas and his family were Sadduceans means that they would have dominated the high priesthood for at least 34 of the 60 years since the beginning of direct Roman rule.
On their Halaka Meier reminds us that evidence does not support the later patristic assertion that they accepted only the Pentateuch as canonical. They would had their own extra-Pentateuchal traditions on such matters as the temple calendar and we know of disputes about details of ritual practice, for instance, about when and where the high priest should begin burning incense before entering the holy of holies at Yom Kippur. The disputes recorded in m.Yadaim 4:6-8, already discussed in relation to Pharisees, illustrate Sadducean halaka in relation to purity issues surrounding scrolls of scripture, the pouring of liquids, water flowing from a cemetery and about civil liability. Generally in civil law their stance in relation to the latter coheres with Josephus claim that they were more strict. On other matters it is not possible to conclude that they were generally more lenient or more strict. It varied. The generalisation that they rejected innovation is also difficult to sustain (counter instance: the calendar).
Meier suggests that the difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees might have been that the former acknowledged their additions and the latter denied they had any, in the sense that they asserted that their additions were all derived from the written Law (405). The former developed an ideology of authority to warrant their claims: traditions of the elders, whereas the latter asserted correct interpretation. They were not "wooden literalists or fundamentalists".
Turning to their doctrine Meier identifies the well attested claim that they rejected belief in resurrection of the dead. This is consistent with all but Daniel in the biblical tradition. They would have also rejected the Jewish apocalyptic eschatology which assumes it. This need not mean they rejected eschatological hope focused on expressed in the prophets, focused on David rule and the temple on Mt Zion (407). Meier acknowledges this is speculative. I would want to add that their disenfranchised priestly colleagues at Qumran had similar earth based eschatological hopes. Meier addresses the claim in Acts 23:8 that they also rejected belief in angels. This cannot mean rejection of angels and spirits such as we find in the Pentateuch. Nor is it likely to be another allusion to post mortal life because, Meier argues, this would be "unusual and harsh". We may be dealing with an erroneous conclusion on Lukes part based on his reading of Jesus dispute with the Sadducees. Perhaps; I find an allusion to post mortal life not so unusual or harsh. On the rejection of fate Meier argues that this is a case of Josephus exaggeration, just as are his comments about the Essenes.
The chapter ends with a long discussion of Mark 12:18-27 parr in which Meier argues that the anecdote will have circulated most likely in its present form (at most with two minor alterations) before Mark in the first generation and that it reports an historical encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees. Use of anastasis may, as Meier suggests, indicate a pre-Markan source, although the verb is strongly present in Mark. I do not find the argument that the well worked rhetorical coherence of the anecdote counts against its having existed in an earlier shorter form any more convincing than I would see some of Matthews magnificent work indicating the same. I still find it coheres well with other anecdotes to see here a story with a simple single bipartite punchline characteristic of many Markan anecdotes: "God is not God of the dead but of the living", a brilliantly multivalent aphorism and probably deriving from Jesus, himself.
Part of Meiers exegesis is a careful and sensitive apologetic for the nature of the argument at the core of the anecdote. Warding off the denigration of the proof as an inappropriate use of scripture, Meier teases out its logic which speaks of God in relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, assumes that God would not be God of the unclean dead but of the living and presses home to the conclusion that God must be in living relationship with these now or in the future. It is still far from a convincing argument, but it works on Jesus presuppositions, as such arguments from within are wont to do, or does it? It assumes Jesus thought is driven by assumptions about the realm of the dead as unclean.
Meiers argument for historicity of more than just the aphorism is nevertheless strong: its uniqueness in focusing on the Sadducees; its obscure focus on levirate law and sexual activity, its non christological grounding of belief in resurrection; its unique use of Exodus 3:6, and its coherence with other sayings which assume a resurrected body (Matt 8:11 par.; Luke 14:14; Matt 11:21-24 par.; Matt 12:41-42 par; Mark 9:43-47 parr. and Matt 5:29-30; Mark 14:25; John 5:28-29). Meier concludes: "The historical Jesus believed that, at some point in the eschatological drama, past generations would rise from the dead and that faithful Israelites would share in a new type of life similar to that of the angels, one that left behind old relationships established by marriage and sexual activity" (443). Earlier in discussing Mark 12:25 Meier notes two grounds why the latter might be so: no reproduction is necessary and heaven is a cultic place (424). Meier proffers both without further exploration. My own research would indicate that the latter was an influential assumption, while the former, Lukes preferred explanation, makes assumptions about sexual intercourse existing solely for the purposes of procreation, a notion that has other roots.
Beside treating the major groups, Pharisees and Sadducees, Meier attends to the range of others of varying significance in a separate chapter. First among these are the Essenes and Qumran. Already this description indicates espousal of the widely held but not undisputed position that the Qumran community or least the community of the Community rule represents one form of the Essene movement which, as illustrated in the Damascus Document, also included cells scattered through the land and more engaged in daily life. Jesus had no interactions that we know of with either kind of Essene group, despite the speculative constructions of Thiering, Eisenman and others, who see structures in the shadows and offer signposts to dead ends. Meier then drives us through a series of comparisons and contrasts between Jesus and Qumran.
On eschatology both Jesus and Qumran had a present and future eschatology, but the realisation in each case was different. Qumrans "realized eschatology found expression especially in the routinized liturgy of the group" (495). Jesus made his message of the kingdom palpable "by his healings and exorcisms, his table fellowship with religious outcasts, and his parables" (495). One might also reflect on the way the eschatological vision in each to some degree determined the structure of its life in the present (a priestly hierarchy with a twofold leadership of Aaron and Israel compared with a circle of twelve, although twelve also featured in Qumrans group structures). The figures of eschatological expectation also differ, from the twofold priestly and royal messiahship of Qumran, with sometimes also a prophetic figure, to the Elijah based prophetic image of Jesus and only a hint of royal messianism at the end of his ministry. 4Q521, on the other hand, provides a much closer parallel, especially with Matt 11:2-6 parr., where it hails miracles, including raising the dead, and announcement of good news to the poor as characterised of Gods activity in the end time. The stringing together of Isaianic predictions (and in 4Q521 with Ps 146:7-8), not least in combination with Isaiah 61:1, an important text in early christology, suggests common ground. The scrolls images are unusual at Qumran (I would add: parallelled in the use of Isa 61:1 in 11QMelch) and may reflect a theme cherished more broadly among Jewish groups of the time (498).
Both Jesus and Qumran were concerned with the temple. For people at Qumran their aspiration was to regain control of the temple and reestablish correct calendar and liturgy. They also looked to a future eschatological temple from God and saw themselves in the interim as symbolically a temple. Jesus, on the other hand, both frequented the temple, participating in its rites, and predicted its destruction. He also announced an eschatological temple from God. Meiers list of texts indicating Jesus acceptance of the temple include his command to the lepers, his affirmation of tithing, his comments about sacrifice and reconciliation, his affirmation of its sanctity as Gods dwelling place, his assumption in a parable that it is an appropriate place for praying, his teaching in the temple and in Johannine tradition his indication of its superiority to the Samaritan claims. One might add the description "My fathers house" and "My house" in the two accounts of the expulsion from the temple, though the latter derives from the Isaiah citation.
On "rules governing behavior" Meier notes a shared stringency in sexual matters. Qumran shows great concern about nakedness, an element not receiving particular attention in the traditions about Jesus. He writes: "Perhaps one reason that we have so little from the historical Jesus on sexual topics is that, apart from the two special cases of divorce and celibacy, where he diverged from mainstream Judaism, his view were those of mainstream Judaism" (503 - italics in original). Even on divorce Jesus and Qumran do not converge. Some of the documents belonging to the latter groups assume divorce in certain instances as they also assume marriage. Nevertheless the Community Rule appears to reflect the Essene espousal of celibacy which Josephus, Philo and Pliny hail, even though, as Josephus records, other orders did not apply this rule. By contrast Jesus spoke of celibacy not as a demand on his followers or on an order of his followers, but as appropriate for some "for the sake of the kingdom of God, on the model of Jeremiah. Meier speculates further that perhaps such eschatological prophets took on themselves the character of the new age in which like angels they no longer had need to reproduce (507-508). By contrast those at Qumran were more likely to be influenced by concerns for holiness, especially since they saw themselves as a temple, since priests ministering at the altar of the temple liturgy were obliged to abstain from sexual activity. Or perhaps their sense of being prepared for Holy War and encampment with angels led to the commitment to celibacy. The differences Meier assumes here may need to be further nuanced. At an earlier point in discussing Jesus response to the Sadducees (424) Meier acknowledges that behind the notion of a future where people do not engage in sexual activity may also be ideas of cultic purity. The lack of need to reproduce is not likely to have been the major factor in the background to Jesus stance.
There is a similar stance on oaths, although on both sides the evidence is diverse and not fully consistent. There are some similar concerns with abuse of oaths for personal benefit and with frivolous oaths. Common ground in relation to property and wealth lies more in common rejection of prevailing attitudes than in actual practices. Both the Qumranites (through their enforced common property) and the Essenes living in towns (with their common fund for the needy) avoid accumulation of personal wealth (514). In sketching Jesus attitude Meier argues for the historicity of the anecdote in Mark 10, using the criterion of embarrassment in relation to Jesus initial response about not being good and in relation to Jesus failure to win the man (516). It does not represent a universal demand but illustrates Jesus warnings about the dangers of wealth (517). Grounds for waiving interest in wealth are expressed in Matt 6:25-33 par and also Matt 6:24 par., where Jesus imaginatively "personifies Mammon as a false god" (518). The criterion of embarrassment also secures Luke 12:13-14 because of Jesus extraordinary response that he has not been appointed judge. Meier concludes: "The overall argument from multiple attestation of sources and forms indicate that the historical Jesus did take a strong stance against excessive concern about or trust in money and property" (520). This contrasts with the demand that property be surrendered at Qumran and more subtly with the claim of the Qumran community that they were "the poor," whereas Jesus "never directly calls himself poor, and he does not make that word the defining title of his entire movement" (522).
More generally Meier underlines the huge differences between a two century long movement and a ministry of a little over two years, between a group shaped by priestly aristocracy and concerned with structures and buildings and "a Jewish layman from Nazareth" with "no professional education as a scribe or student of the Law" (523). Providing a foretaste of Volume Four Meier profiles Jesus attitude towards the Law as somewhat ad-hoc and "grounded in his prophetic-charismatic authority" (525). Jesus rejects the kind of fierce focus on purity rules and on what he saw as minor points of the Law characteristic of Qumran and instead affirmed the Law as expression of Gods will interpreting it liberally. Meier illustrates this with Jesus applications of sabbath law and his approach to food laws. In these he is almost the antithesis to the people at Qumran. At least conflict with the Pharisees made sense. To Essenes Jesus would have seemed beyond the pale, which probably accounts for their absence as playing a role in Jesus encounters. The major emphasis on correct calendars, hating outsiders, and establishing hierarchical leadership sets Qumran far apart from Jesus. Similarly his focus on miracles and healing represents an interest which hardly features at all in their scrolls (531-532).
The rest of the chapter deals with the Samaritans, the Scribes, the Herodians and the Zealots. Meier takes us through the various versions of Samaritan origins, concluding in line with current scholarship that "both Samaritanism and Judaism were latter-day forms of the ancient religion of Israel" (541). "Neither religion was immediately derived from the other and neither broke away from the other" (541). They were not "a type of syncretistic polytheism combined with Jewish elements" but "tended to represent a rather conservative expression of Israelite religion, more rigorous than many Jews in their observance of the sabbath and more wary of innovations - a characteristic that may partly explain their restriction of the canon to the sacred books of the Pentateuch" (542).
In discussing the gospel texts which contain references to Samaritans, Meier weighs the possibility that the prohibition of the emissaries against going to the Gentiles and entering a city of Samaritans in 10:5-6 may derive from the historical Jesus, but concludes that it "is more likely a product of some group within the first Christian generation that opposed widening the proclamation of the gospel to groups other than the Jews", even though paradoxically "it seems to reflect accurately what in fact happened during the public ministry: neither Jesus nor his immediate disciples pursued a formal, programmatic mission to the Samaritans as a group in the way that they pursued such a mission to their fellows Jews in Galilee and Judea" (544).
Lukes Samaritan leper and the Samaritan village which rejects Jesus may contain historical tradition, but this is far from certain. Lukes Samaritan parable probably does, and "supposes that Jesus deplores the hostile relations between Samaritans and Jews of his day" and "took a benign view of" the former (547). John 4 incorporates "early Christian-Jewish tradition that is well informed" on the rival temple locations, purity concerns about common use of utensils and about Samaritan women (including moral concerns), and the eschatological expectation of a Taheb. In addition 8:48 appears to assume a connection between Samaritan and consorting with demonic agents (549). Meier concludes: "In the end we are not left with very much by way of hard data about the historical Jesus interaction with or views about the Samaritans" (549).
Turning to "the scribes" Meier debunks the notion all scribes were Torah scholars and vice-versa as "hopelessly simplistic" (550), drawing attention to the widespread use of scribe in the Mediterranean world where it had as wide a range as the modern term, "secretary" (550). In Palestine "the creation, transmission, and gradual canonization of the Mosaic Pentateuch would have given a special aura and cast to at least some Jewish scribes in Palestine that would have had no exact correlative in the Greco-roman world" (552). We find this reflected in the gospels where in Mark the picture of their hostility is tempered by one positive encounter and in Matthew where the terms use to describe some Christian teachers stands beside what is otherwise an undifferentiated approach. Luke, in Acts, also enables us to see the broader non Palestinian usage. Jesus, himself, probably encountered a range of scribes from village scribes with minimal education to Jerusalem scribes who were prominent and affluent. Meier surmises: "If some of the dispute stories of the Gospels actually go back to events in the public ministry of Jesus, it is possible that, though the narrative framework of Mark later placed these clashes in Galilee, they may actually have taken place in Jerusalem" (559). But they were far from being "a homogenous religious group with a united theological agenda as well as with a distinct power base" (560). We await more on the controversies in Volume Four. The speculation that some originated in Judea is thought provoking.
Meier lists 13 of the many attempts to identify "the Herodians" who appear but twice in the gospel material. The Latin formation, Herodiani, which appears to lie behind the Greek term, Herodianoi, probably indicates supporters of Herod (whichever one or ones may be meant, in our case probably Herod Antipas) as Kaisarianoi meant Caesars partisans and supporters and Pompeianoi, Pompeys. Their presence at strategic points in Mark in an introductory (12:13) and concluding verse (3:6) is best understood as a work of Markan symmetry (564). "Zealots" were a movement of the Jewish war. "As far as the historical record permits us to judge," Meier writes, "there were no organized, armed groups of Jewish revolutionaries active during Jesus public ministry," despite the popularity of mass-media presentations which assume the opposite (567). The broader use of "zealot", such as in Simon the "zealot", probably indicated Jews intensely zealous about the Law in particular "as a means of separating Israel from the idolatrous and immoral Gentiles round about", even to the extent of engaging in acts of violence (566). The call of Simon, like, later the call of Saul, put an end to that.
The final chapter, "Integrating Jesus Jewish Relationships into the Wider Picture", is a useful summary of where we got to thus far over the three volumes. Some snippets may suffice: "It is unlikely that Galilean Jews of the countryside had the learning or the leisure necessary to study, debate, and practice the niceties of observance developed in the halaka of the three rival groups centered in the south" (618). "There is no hard proof that Antipas rule was any more politically unjust, socially exploitative, or economically burdensome than most of the other regimes in the ancient Near East before or after him" (619). "I emphasize this point of relative peace and stability in Galilee because all too often Jesus is portrayed as an angry social rebel emerging from a seething cauldron of intolerable social and economic injustice" giving Jesus "a type of social conscience and political concern for which there is precious little proof in the Gospels" (619). Jesus "was not, strictly speaking, a peasant"; he was not among "the poorest of the poor" and is never designated as poor by the evangelists (620). It is interesting that Meier turns to social comment, even if briefly, in the conclusion. It certainly deserves attention and perhaps there is more to come.
"The Sheer Oddness of Jesus" Meier finds firstly in his lack of "particular credentials as a highly educated Jew", secondly in his celibacy, including the fact that he called other men to leave their families to follow him, and .. allowed unchaperoned women to join his traveling entourage" and could earn the reputation of being a "glutton and wine-drinker, a friend of toll collectors and sinners" (622) and thirdly in his association with that odd Jewish prophet, John the Baptist (622). "In imitation of Elijah, Jesus undertook an itinerant ministry, largely (not entirely) in northern Israel" (623). "As the prophet of this kingdom, it was Jesus task to prophesy this world-changing advent of God and to begin the preparation of Israel by calling it to repentance, baptism, and a renewal of moral life within a loving, compassionate society" (624). "Jesus intended both to anticipate and to set in motion what God alone would fully accomplish at his coming. All these symbolic-prophetic acts of Jesus were understood by him to unleash the powers of the kingdom that they foreshadowed. At the same time, though, these acts were only symbolic and prophetic. They were not pragmatic programs intended to set up a new political regime in Palestine" (624). But "Jesus, even more than John, was not so charismatic that he totally neglected the question of how to structure his movement and give it distinct identity within Palestinian Judaism" (626).
The issue of structures leads Meier to note that "the Qumranites evinced a veritable mania for structure". One might add these were also symbolic. He continues: "We need not be surprised, then, that Jesus the eschatological prophet supplied his movement with a few basic identity badges and structural elements" (626). I wonder about the category, "identity badges". This may be apt as a sociological description of their effect, but are such things originally intended as identity markers in that sense? Apparently so, according to Meier, who writes: "Perhaps to mark off his disciples from those of John as well as from other Jewish movements of renewal, Jesus adopted a number of practices quite different from those of John and most other pious Jews" (626). These included most strikingly the prohibition of voluntary fasting (626) but also conviviality with the low life, and the Lords Prayer (627). I wonder if this is a confusion of categories. Surely these activities were generated from a particular understanding of eschatology, not from an intention to create markers.
From 626 we move into a summary of the conclusions from the present volume. Here I would note just a couple of observations. On Qumranite realised eschatology Meier writes: "For the Qumranites in particular, the present time, for all its trials, already allowed participation in the life and worship of the angels" (633). I would have thought that their structures and their holiness also reflected a sense of participating in advance in the future blessings. Or maybe that should be seen as prefiguring rather than fulfilment.
Volume three leaves me with a few questions. Meiers "a marginal Jew" opened itself to misunderstanding in part because of its echoes in discourse about the oppressed, marginalised, and disadvantaged. That is not Meiers discourse; if anything, that is an emphasis Meier avoids. But for me, the misunderstanding is symbolic of an aspect about which I want to hear more. Meier is happy to speculate about what Jesus accompaniment by women might have looked like in the culture of the time (79). He draws attention to dyadic personality (67). He touches briefly on assessments of levels of poverty or otherwise in Jesus context (28). But is it possible to have an adequate reconstruction of the historical Jesus without a more substantial reconstruction of the socio-economic setting? So far all such references have been incidental.
The difficulties in obtaining data for such reconstruction (27) does not alter the fact that there was a socio-economic setting and, just as Meier cautions against separating the political and pious in discussions of the Pharisees (331), so also it is difficult to separate individuals and relations among individuals from social, cultural and economic contexts. This need not end up in a reconstruction which avows Jesus as the social reformer or political activist. It is a matter of understanding more fully the soil in which the seeds of hope grow, at least, of entering the world so often depicted incidentally in the parables. What might people have imagined by the kingdom of God? What counter images and experiences gave such hope its meaning? How are we to imagine the impact of such hope in the present, in its effects and in its interim realisation?
This is not a matter of the docetism which would elevate Jesus to the role of modern social theorist and of other such fundamentalisms which must make Jesus the font of all best theory and practice. Perhaps Jesus says disappointingly little about structural, social change - why should one expect otherwise? But as Meier employs such categories as social markers to describe some of Jesus rites (626), might not the discourses of broader social, cultural, economic analysis offer contours within which to imagine him? Jesus was also much more than his individual relations with other human beings, much as modern individualism would want us to remain bound by such categories. I sense that Meiers dissatisfaction with attempts to apply such disciplines has led to overcaution and neglect of what they can offer. The limitation of the outline of history at the beginning of the second part of the volume to political events was deliberate (299), but even so, it makes some account of the historical social context all the more pressing. Such a treatment in Meiers thorough and painstaking manner would be a welcome enrichment of what is already so immensely valuable and finely done.
The final volume will have the theme, "The Enigmas Jesus Posed and Was". Meier will, I am sure, not allow this to degenerate into an apologetic ploy, as some have done. Instead we look ahead to his treatment of the vexed issue of Jesus attitude towards Torah, the puzzles of his parables, the riddles of his self-designations, and the questions posed to us by his death. Along that road Meier will swerve to avoid facile assumptions about Jesus observance of Torah, the alleged authenticity of parables, and the centrality of so-called christological titles. It will be an interesting end to the journey.