University scholar John P. Meier discusses how the Jesus of faith
is linked to the Jesus of history. By John Bookser Feister
THE MAIN ALTAR
at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington,
D.C., looms a powerful image of Jesus. Towering over all from the
sanctuary, he has a stern face, regal robes, flames shooting in three
directions from a halo. The mosaic is framed by the proclamations
of the Church throughout history: Christ Conquers, Christ Reigns,
Christ Rules, Eternal Vicar, Eternal King, His Power Is Everlasting
Power That Shall Not Be Taken Away. Word, image and architecture
together express a cosmic message.
Not a five-minute
walk behind that worship space, in an old stone building on The
Catholic University of America campus, a different portrayal of
Jesus is under way. There Msgr. John P. Meier labors over ancient
texts, exchanges e-mail with scholars of several faiths and many
nations, and produces books about Jesus that have brought Meier
worldwide attention. His three- or four-volume work (two volumes
are published), A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,
weighs heavily in a raging scholarlyand sometimes publicdebate
about Jesus of history, Jesus of Nazareth who walked this earth.
believe that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, true
God and true man, as we say in the Nicene Creed each Sunday.
For at least the third time since the birth of modern scientific
thinking in the 1700s, there is a renewed interest among some
biblical scholars in what they call the historical Jesus.
These scholars seek to find the man behind the many traditions surrounding
Reimarus was a German scholar whose book, An Apology for the
Rational Worshipper of God, started the first historical Jesus
quest in 1774. There was another surge of interest in the 1800s,
focusing on the religious personality of Jesus. Criticism
of that quest culminated earlier this century with the writings
of Rudolph Bultmann, who tried to separate Christ from the historical
Jesus. During the past two decades we have been full swing in a
new quest, with scholars publishing a steady stream of works on
Jesus of history.
Photo courtesy of The Basilica of The National Shrine of The Immaculate Conception
of Jesus inspires a wide range of interpretation. Christ in
Majesty, a mosaic, is at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The book cover on the right draws on Jesus human dimension.
a peculiarly modern questunlike the ancient or medieval worlds,
our age wants the facts. Some in our society would say, If
you cant measure it scientifically, it isnt real.
Meier doesnt buy that. And he would fault the most publicized
current historical Jesus scholarshipnotably a group called
the Jesus Seminarwith falling into that trap.
Jesus Seminar was founded in 1985 by Robert W. Funk, a prestigious
scholar who left Ivy League university life and moved west. The
Seminar has conducted a highly publicized examination of biblical
texts, attempting to sort out what in the New Testament Jesus truly
said and what was ascribed to him by the New Testament writers.
Their findings seem guaranteed to create a public uproar each time
the 60-plus-member seminar meets. The Seminar scholars meet and
debate what Jesus really said and did as opposed to what is written
in the New Testament. Then they vote with color-coded beadsred
for Jesus really said it, pink for less certainty, gray
and black for even less.
of his disagreements with the Jesus Seminar, Meier draws a careful
distinction between Jesus of history and Jesus the object of our
faith. Theres a connection between the two, certainly, but
history cannot measure what we learn through faith, he says. His
study of the historical Jesus paints a picture not unfamiliar to
ChristiansJesus was indeed the real historical figure that
the New Testament says he was. Yet the New Testament is not a modern
55, is a professor of New Testament in the Biblical Studies Department
at Catholic University of America, where he has taught since 1984.
He holds a doctorate in sacred Scripture (1976) from the Biblical
Institute in Rome, where he graduated summa cum laude and
received the papal gold medal. He had received the same honors in
1968 when he graduated from the theology program at Gregorian University.
He is a former president of the Catholic Biblical Association (1990-91),
has authored numerous books and is widely published in a variety
of journals and reference works. He has been editor of Catholic
In a recent
Catholic University interview with St. Anthony Messenger,
Msgr. Meier explains why he considers studying Jesus of history
to be worthwhile and what he sees as the serious shortcomings of
some scholars studying the historical Jesus.
of the Beholder
do we need Jesus scholarship in the first place?
A: The need
is in the eye of the beholder. If one is a professional historian,
then one is interested of course in the great figures of history
that had an impact on history, whether one believes in them or not....I
dont think we need any more apologetics for a quest for the
historical Jesus as a historical discipline, say in the department
of history, than you would have to apologize for trying to find
out something about the historical Socrates or the historical Plato
or the historical Mohammed.
a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that people claim they
are doing a quest for the historical Jesus when de facto
theyre doing theology, albeit a theology that is indeed
historically informed. Go all the way back to Reimarus, through
Schleiermacher, all the way down the line through Bultmann, Kasemann,
Bornkamm. These are basically people who are theologians, doing
a more modern type of Christology [a faith-based study of Jesus
a historian rule out miracles and divine intervention, then?
is a very ticklish subject. I dont know how in the world you
would decide historically whether or not Jesus did or did
not in fact perform miracles possible only by God alone. Its
a matter of faith.
Yet is it
fair for a historian to enter into the question saying that obviously
miracles are impossible and, therefore, Jesus did not perform any
should try as much as possible to be quite modest in claims about
what can be known about claims about miraclesespecially from
the ancient past where our sources are quite fragmentary. The proper
stance of a historian is, I neither claim beforehand that
miracles are possible, nor do I claim beforehand they are not possible.
Truth of the Resurrection
historians address the Resurrection, then?
A: We can
verify as historians that Jesus existed and that certain events
reported in the Gospels happened in history, yet historians can
never prove the Resurrection in the same way. Why not?
some fundamentalists would claim you can. Apart from fundamentalists,
perhaps even some more conservative Catholic theologians would claim
you could. I myself along with most questers for the historical
Jesusand I think a fair number of Catholic theologians as
wellwould say the Resurrection stands outside of the sort
of questing by way of historical, critical research that is done
for the life of the historical Jesus, because of the nature of the
of Jesus is certainly supremely real. However, not everything that
is real either exists in time and space or is empirically verifiable
by historical means.
The resurrection of Jesus is certainly supremely real....Not everything real is verifiable by historical means.
do you think happened to Jesus body?
A: The true
Jesus who had died rose in the fullness of his humanity into the
full presence of God. That is, I think, the essence of belief in
the Resurrection. What the relationship of that risen body is to
the body that was laid in the tomb is first of all not something
that is historically verifiable. It is not subject to historical
research at all.
theologians among themselves disagree on that question. The fundamentalists
would almost have a rather crass resuscitation view. Most traditional
Christians have at least read Paul, First Corinthians 15 about the
necessary transformation, as well as the Resurrection appearance
narratives in the Gospels. They think in terms of transformation
as well as continuity.
risen body of Jesus is indeed in continuity with the body laid to
rest in the tomb. But nevertheless it has undergone radical transformation
as a glorified, risen body. It is no longer of this world of time
and space and not subject to its laws....There is a whole range
of speculative possibilities about the precise relationship of the
risen Jesus to the body laid in the tomb. As a person trying to
pursue historical work, that is something beyond what I can investigate.
Faith and Reason
there a relationship between the historical study and faith-reflection
A: I would
say very much. But does basic, authentic Christian faith absolutely
have to have a historical quest for the historical Jesus? The answer
is obviously no. Ancient, medieval, early Christians never had such
a thing. Who would question the legitimacy of their Christian faith
in Jesus Christ?
the historical quest for the historical Jesus is not essential for
simple, authentic Christian faith. Even today in the Third World
there are all sorts of uneducated, illiterate peasants who would
not know a word about historical Jesus, theology or anything else,
who Im sure have a very strong, authentic Christian faith
and maybe much better than mine.
never floats outside history. Its not very surprising, therefore,
that Reimaruss quest during the Enlightenment looks rather
different from Schleiermachers quest during German romanticism,
looks rather different from Bultmanns quest during the heyday
of existentialism in Germany. It all looks very different from the
Jesus quest whose Jesus looks like a politically correct American
academician whos an egalitarian feminist at the end of the
with the rebirth of Aristotelian thought in the Middle Ages in the
West, that meant a certain Aristotelian approach. If he was going
to both reflect the culture of his time and speak meaningfully to
educated people of his time, what else was he to do?
Christians today wish to articulate their faith in Jesus Christ
in a fashion that reflects and speaks to the culture they live in,
there has to be some awareness of historical critical consciousness.
The patristic and medieval periods did not have that concern.
each age, then, cast Jesus in its own image?
is perhaps something of both the danger and the challenge; yet theres
a relevance there. You notice that doesnt hold true so much
for the basic affirmations of faith. Thats the importance
of certain basic credal affirmations that try to remain as fundamental,
as unspeculative and undeveloped as possible. They try to boil down
what is essential....For example, the Council of Nicea [in 325]
basically says the same thing in the creed that we recite today.
There are certain basic faith affirmations that as far as possible
try to steer clear from extensive philosophical systematic development,
that try to say only the essential. That is what is required
for membership in the Church.
Church has never required for membership that you must accept Augustines
neo-Platonic understanding of the Trinity by way of an intellectual
analogy. Catholics are not required to accept the whole Thomistic,
neo-Aristotelian system of the Middle Ages, or accept Karl Rahner
or Bernard Lonergans 20th-century understanding of Christology.
The Church has never imposed the grand philosophical system of the
day on ordinary believers as a necessary part of believing.
been revealed by God through Jesus Christ is the object of our faith,
says the Church. We then in any given culture try to tease that
out, try to understand it first for ourselves and make it intelligible
to the world around us. Thats a necessary undertaking in every
think of Augustines great tracts, when you think of Thomass
Summa, were they addressed to the peasants working out in
the field? Obviously these were intellectual approaches to the faith,
were meant to speak to educated people.
face it: In any given age its the educated people who are
more tempted to an intellectual despising of Christianity....Making
the faith intelligible to an educated group in any given society
is an important part of the process. Given the fact that our culture
is a historically critical one, its very important.
once described Jesus scholarship as being currently in the terrible
twos. What did you mean by that?
A: I was
talking there precisely about the discourse and debate among scholars,
back and forth. Certainly at this point in the quest for the historical
Jesus among the Jesus Seminar, Catholics replying to the Jesus Seminar,
evangelical Christians replying to it, even mainline and more liberal
Protestants who dont like whats going on, you do have
a very lively if not at times raucous debate among scholars today.
I simply said, Well, what do you expect? Isnt
that true of scholarship in many fields at given times? Precisely
when theres great ferment theres going to be a lot of
arguing back and forth and a lot of negating of positions. Theres
nothing wrong with that.
back-and-forth critique is just an essential part of the scholarly
A: I think
its a positive stimulus....I guess whats bedeviling
is that so much of the controversy is picked up by the secular press
and reported so widely that it leaves a lot of us wondering whats
exegete at Louvain University had been writing me recently and I
sensed that both he and I think a good number of Europeans are completely
puzzled, if not aghast, at the Jesus Seminar and the phenomenon
around it. I wrote him saying, well, you have to understand all
life in the United States including academia, including scholarship,
has undergone a certain O.J. Simpsification. Everything
has been turned into televised soap opera. Robert Funk, head of
the Jesus Seminar, at one point was planning televised sessions
of the Jesus Seminar in which thered be debates and then scoring;
it almost sounds like a hilarious send-up. You cant mock it
because it is such a caricature even to begin with!
But I think
one of the great problems is precisely that. Serious scholars havemy
goodness, down from Reimarus onwarda whole history of writing
serious works on a serious topic. And none of them, thank God, ever
descended to the TV tabloid-show approach. This, unfortunately,
is a uniquely American phenomenon of just the past two decades.
Whats bedeviling is that so much of the controversy is picked up by the secular press and reported so widely....
that approach to scholarship, with the voting and so on, point to
some kind of malaise?
A: The way
Funk trumpeted it, the way he had the newspeople in, the original
colors of beadswhich I believe theyve given up nowwas
so much P.T. Barnum showmanship that I think you have to ask: Was
form overcoming substance at some point?
I think from early on certain leading figures in the Jesus Seminar
were quite determined to push through their agenda and their picture
of the historical Jesus: namely, it was going to be a Jesus without
future eschatology, a Jesus speaking totally about the present moment,
a Jesus therefore who looked somewhat gnosticisizing [Gnostics believed
Jesus was never human and that the physical realm is evil] rather
than a Jewish prophet or apocalyptic figure.
It was going
to be a Jesus at least in some cases who turned out to be a Greco-Roman
Cynic philosopher, which was especially mind-boggling!
you tell us in plain language what is a Jesus without a future
seems so central in Jesus teaching as it lies there in the
Gospels is that he is speaking of a future coming of the kingdom
of God, a consummation of Israels history in the apparently
near future, that would bring about a radical change in human life.
This change would not be brought about so much by human effort but
by a definitive action of God at the end of time, at least time
as we know it. Thy kingdom come is a very central petition
of the Lords Prayer itself.
contend that that was all later Church apocalyptic fantasy; that
wasnt Jesus himself at all. To them Jesus was simply this
wise sage and Cynic philosopher telling everybody just to realize
the presence of the invisible presence of the kingdom right in their
own everyday lives....
We may have
found this Jesus figure useful to wake us up but basically thenin
true American fashionwe are self-saved because we realize
how wonderful we are.
this Jesus is a projection of American culture?
A: I think
theres a great amount. When you find out that Jesus actually
was a radical egalitarian feminist socialist with a social agenda,
one cannot help but think that a great deal of politically correct
80s and 90s academic life is being read back into this
John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this publication. He holds an M.A. in humanities from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He is coauthor with Richard Rohr, O.F.M., of the 1996 book Jesus Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (St. Anthony Messenger Press).