The Catholic world lost one of its greatest Bible scholars this week when Father John P. Meier [1942-2022] died on October 18. He taught at St. Joseph Seminary, Dunwoodie, NY for the Archdiocese of New York for twelve years, at Catholic University in DC for fourteen years, and the balance of his career [twenty years] at Notre Dame, where he was a beloved figure by his students and colleagues. He was ordained a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of New York at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, in 1967, and was made an Honorary Prelate of the Papal Household (Monsignor) by Pope John Paul II in 1994. He published eight major books and seventy peer reviewed journal studies.
But Father Meier is best known for his remarkable five-volume tour de force, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. In a lecture a few years ago at Notre Dame, Meier recalled that the idea for A Marginal Jew [henceforth MJ] came to him and a friend in the 1980’s, and he envisioned this work as a single-volume book. In fact, he recalled with some humor that his publisher, Doubleday, assuming the contract was for a single volume, never specified a number, and MJ progressed from a single volume to five major tomes. His obituaries note with sadness that he died in the middle of the sixth and final volume; we can only hope that an excellent disciple of Father Meier can complete the final work, on the Passion of Jesus, as I understand it.
It is worth noting here that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI honored Meier for his work; Benedict included Meier as a source in his own writings. This papal respect is even more remarkable given that MJ was an audacious project, the contemporary flagship of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” movement, which had its roots in nineteenth century Germany and, with Meier at the fore, is now in its third major iteration. The “historical quest” is an effort to reconstruct what can be known through historical methodology about Jesus. Millions, perhaps billions of us, profess to “love Jesus.” Meier is asking, “who is this Jesus you claim to love?” We typically compose an image and a persona of the Christ to our own advantage, based upon some elementary schooling and an occasional inspiring person we meet along the highway of life. But where is our concrete point of reference to the words and deeds of Jesus?
History is a science. When a theologian brings science to the study of Scripture texts and their contexts, and uncovers the complexity of its mysteries—or, more to the point, tips over too many of my self-fashioned sacred cows, as it is bound to do—then I run back to my trump card that it is more important to have faith than proof! True enough, but as every great saint/theologian has taught,  faith requires an object, and  faith involves trust in the content of that object. In the first instance, I need to know as much about the object of my faith as I can, in this case the Revelation of God through the reality of the living Jesus Christ. Faith without learning is irrational. The routine of any monastery is a balance of prayer and Lectio Divina [‘divine reading” or “divine study]. In the second instance, one must be growing in constant knowledge of “God’s portfolio,” to continuously make that profession of faith.
Meier understood his role as a historical theologian of Scripture as a resource to the other branches of theology, such as sacramental or moral theology, and to the Catholic community at large in its collective understanding of Jesus. When Meier’s first volume was released in 1991, he summarized his method in a most unconventional way:
“To explain to my academic colleagues what I propose to do in this book, I often use the fantasy of the ‘unpapal conclave.’ Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic—all honest historians cognizant of 1st century religious movements—were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended in his own time and place. An essential requirement of this document would be that it is based on purely historical sources and documents.” [MJ 1, pp. 1-2] He goes on to cite the richness of the project, the value of a common ground of understanding of Jesus that would serve as a starting point for ecumenical dialogue, for example.
It is critical to point out here that Meier never claims to be rewriting the Catholic Creed. He never denied his most basic identity as a Catholic, a priest, and a professional educator/theologian/writer for Catholic institutions and readers. His goal throughout the 3000-some pages of the MJ series to date is to clarify, by historical method, the world in which Jesus lived and the meaning of his words and deeds in the context of a Roman-occupied Israel, in which Judaism itself was divided into at least four identifiable quadrants--Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, and Essenes. [Some speculate that John the Baptist had Essene roots, and one of Jesus’ disciples is known as Simon the Zealot.]
The title “Marginal Jew” has intrigued many reviewers. Meier admits in his first volume that he developed this title as the best description of Jesus’ religious identity—a faithful Jew throughout his lifetime who, at the same time, “marginalized himself” by his distinctive preaching and teaching on the fullness of the Old Testament promises, summarized in his announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God—a kingdom already in their midst in Jesus’ signs and wonders, with its fulfillment in the glorious future at a time known only to the Father. Meier elaborates on Jesus’ “marginalization;”  he walked away from his career as a carpenter and assumed an identity as a powerful preacher, which was met with contempt and scorn by his former townsfolk and even his family;  Jesus’ teachings on issues such as divorce, fasting, celibacy, etc. did not jibe with contemporary Jewish interpretations of the Law;  Jesus’ forceful message and style alienated him from nearly all quadrants of the Jewish population, to the degree that no one spoke for him during his trial and crucifixion. In this sense, Meier writes, Jesus marginalized himself.
That said, MJ is a remarkable testimony to the fact that Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew. I have often wondered how it is possible to follow Jesus—or, for that matter, to teach and catechize about him—without a grounding in Judaism, from the days of Abraham to the present day. We subconsciously assume that Jesus was a fellow Roman Catholic during his lifetime, which means we view him through a prism that distorts the radical nature of his message. The Romans—with popular support—thought Jesus dangerous enough to condemn him to the worst form of public execution. To ignore Jesus in his Jewish setting is to domesticate him to a point where we can live comfortably in a religious status quo existence that gets us nowhere.
Generally, I write reviews for Amazon of books I read, but I was never able to review the two volumes of MJ that I did read when they appeared within the thousand-word limit imposed by Amazon, and so I can hardly do justice to the content of these works here in this posting. I have a special affection for the first volume, for I read it during my early years of recovery from alcoholism in the early 1990’s and I was utterly captivated and rejuvenated by so many features of Meier’s writing—on historical methodology, on the pagan and Jewish sources of information about Jesus [including the Dead Sea Scrolls], and the delicate task of extricating what one might call “raw history” from the Gospels, which were written primarily as “faith attestations.”
Under the guidance of the Spirit, each evangelist—Mark, Matthew, Luke, John—wrote a “theological history” or a “faith history” based upon both the belief of the earliest Christians and an oral tradition of the flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture—particularly the Gospels—depends upon a marriage of faith and history. The very doctrine of the Incarnation—God becoming man—depends upon our belief that Jesus was indeed a real human in history, not a mythic figure, a legend, or some angelic figure. Thus, while the evangelists wrote their Gospels to express the meaning of Jesus, i.e., what we need to believe about him, they could not ignore the history of Jesus, for it is through the Savior’s words and deeds that we discover his meaning.
Meier’s forty-year project was a quest to provide the most reliable historical baseline to date, data that stands the test of time not simply for Christians, but for all people of good will seeking to answer the question, “Who do men say that I am?” To appreciate the discipline and genius of Meier, there is no substitute for taking one of his five volumes into your hands and following his research. To read all five [and hopefully a sixth] volume of Meier is probably beyond the reach of most of us, given the sheer investment of time that, at least in my case, is becoming more precious with each progressing birthday.
All the same, it is worth considering a plunge into at least the first volume of MJ, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person . Yes, this may be the most challenging Scripture study you will read in your life but consider the object of your study—He who has called us into his Kingdom in this world and the next. MJ may rejuvenate your thirst for Scripture study in general, and consequently your spiritual thirst to know the fullness of Him who is the center of our personal universe. Reading MJ is not only an academic challenge; it is a humbling realization of how truly little we know about the Gospels and the meaning of Jesus, shamefully little when it comes right down to it. On the other hand, reading MJ for the first time is something like looking at those new pictures from the Webb satellite—a deeper look into a universe we had no idea was so magnificent.
I will outline here the chapters of the first volume to give you a feel for the nature of Meier’s work:
The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus
Sources: The Canonical Books of the New Testament
Sources: Other Pagan and Jewish Writing
Sources: The Agrapha and the Apocryphal Gospels
Criteria: How Do We Decide What Comes From Jesus?
In the Beginning…The Origins of Jesus of Nazareth
In the Interim…Part I: Language, Education, and Socioeconomic Status [of Jesus]
In the Interim…Part II: Family, Marital Status, and Status as a Layman
“In the Fifteenth Year”: A Chronology of Jesus’ Life
Volume 2, A Marginal Jew: Mentor, Message, and Miracles  is worth the price of admission just for its 233-page treatment of Jesus and John the Baptist. I might add here that Amazon readers who reviewed the book admit that they skip the lengthy and detailed footnotes. That is a mistake. Some of the author’s best writing can be found here.
Meier would be the first to admit that he has not had the last word on the quest for the historical Jesus. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 by a shepherd boy opened an entirely new vista of historical Judaism at the time of Jesus, and who is to say that continued research will not yield greater finds and insights into the Judaism of Jesus’ day. But as the saying goes, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and Meier’s research will serve as a benchmark, not only for scholars, but for all students of the Bible in the quest for Jesus.