A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus

Updated: Nov 9

by John P. Meier

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



As scripture scholar Daniel Harrington, SJ, states in his remark on A Marginal Jew, this is exactly the book we need now. A judicious evaluation of the biblical and extra biblical evidence about Jesus, plus a bold and sober assessment of modern scholarship. It offers light on a murky but irresistible area of research.


This book grapples with the greatest puzzle of modern religious scholarship “Who was Jesus?” To answer the question, author John Meier imagines the following scenario: “Suppose that a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew and an agnostic all honest historians cognizant of first-century religious movements were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended. This book so what Meier thinks that document would reveal.


Meier’s book represents the first time an American Catholic biblical scholar has attempted a fill-scale, rigorously scientific treatment of the historical-Jesus. By the “historical Jesus” Meier means the Jesus whom we can recover or reconstruct by using the tools of modern Historical research. Granted the fragmentary state of the sources and the indirect nature of the arguments, the resulting portrait is incomplete and at times speculative. Still Meier argues, something precious is gained. The ‘consensus statement’ that emerges is open to probing and debate by all interested parties – Catholic, Protestant, Jews, believers and agnostic alike. It can serve as common ground for ecumenical dialogue and further research. Among the difficult questions Meier confronts: Was Jesus virtually conceived? Did he have brothers and sisters? Was Jesus virginally conceived? Was he married or single? Was he illiterate? Did he know Hebrew and Greek as well as Aramaic?


Meier’s sober, well-reasoned account of the life of Jesus is nothing less than startling, as though almost two thousand years later we were sexting Jesus for the first time as his contemporaries would have seen him – a marginal Jew- with all the implications and questions raised by this deliberately provocative title. Indeed the author has here sketched out for us the portrait of Jesus for the end of the twentieth century.


The basic text of the book is cast in language intelligible to a university student on the master’s level, or perhaps even to a well-read undergraduate, as well as to the general educated reader. As far as possible, more technical and detailed discussions of literature are relegated to the notes, where doctoral students and scholars can pursue particular problems at greater length and find references for further reading. My hope is that this two-tiered approach will make this volume accessible and useful to a wide range of readers. Neither completely original nor in any sense definitive, ist simply seeks to introduce new students to the scholarly conversation about Jesus and to make a modest contribution to those already engaged in the dialogue.


This book is divided into four major part, with Parts One and Two forming Volume One Part One, “Roots of the Problem” deals with all those messy issues of definitions, methods, and sources that most people even scholars would prefer to bypass to get to the ‘good stuff. All too many popular presentations of the historical Jesus show the confession and superficiality that result when one goes questing for Jesus without first checking one’s flashlight and road map. A careful weighing of what w=exactly we are looking for and ow we are to look for it will prevent many false steps later one.


Part two: “Roots of the Person” then begins the quest at its most intractable point: the birth, the years of development, and the cultural background of Jesus. Making a virtue of necessity, I use these relatively lank years to fill in some of the linguistic, educational, political and social background needed to understand the stage onto which Jesus steps as he begins his ministry.


Part three< which begin Volume two, will be occupied with the public ministry proper. Since as will be clear from Chapter 11 (on Chronology). We do not for the most part know the order of events between Jesus” baptism and the final week of his life, the major actions and sayings of the Nazarene will be ordered topically: proclamation of the kingdom of God, table fellowship with sinners, miracles, etc.


Part four will bring us to the momentous and tragic final days of Jesus’ life, ending with his crucifixion and burial. As will become clear in Part One, a treatment of the resurrection is omitted not because it is denied but simply because the restrictive definition of the historical Jesus I will be using does not allow us to proceed into matters that can be affirmed only by faith.


The epilogue will then attempt some initial reflection, both historical and theological, on all that we will have seen. As I will make clear at that point, this entire work is, in a sense, a prolegomenon and an invitation to theologians to appropriate from this particular quest what may be useful to the larger task of a present-day Christology something this book pointedly does not undertake. If this invitation is accepted, then this book will have done its work and achieved its ultimate purpose.


As a person who loves evidence and attention to detail, this is a book any scholar or interested person will not be able to put down. Entice someone else to read it!

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