Notre Dame Scholar Debunks Myths about Jesus

October 26, 2009 • Josh Stowe

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Professor John P. Meier

Professor John P. Meier continues his work to correct common misconceptions about what Jesus thought and taught.

This year, the Notre Dame theology professor published the fourth volume of his larger work, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. In this latest volume, Law and Love, Meier explores Jesus’ relationship to Mosaic law.

Meier argues that Jesus interpreted the law as a faithful Jew, not as someone opposing or seeking to overturn the law, although he notes that in some cases Jesus’ words marked a departure from individual rules.

“My latest work addresses the old misconception—and facile opposition—that claims Judaism is a religion of fear and dreary legal observance while Christianity is a religion of love, freedom, and joy,” says Meier, who holds the University’s William K. Warren Foundation Chair in Theology.

“That is an absurd caricature that ignores the importance of love and joy in Judaism and the importance of obeying God’s commandments—as taught by Jesus—in Christianity.”

Jesus’ Explanation of Law

In his new book, Meier highlights instances where Jesus is commonly thought to be merely repeating Jewish legal tradition, where in reality he is employing a sophisticated analysis of that tradition. He cites Jesus’ dual command to love God and neighbor as an example.

“In fact,” Meier says, “no other Jewish teacher before, during, or immediately after the time of Jesus ever explicitly joins together these two specific separate commands and declares that they are, respectively, the first and second commandments of the Mosaic Torah.”

This leads Meier to an interesting observation: “Jesus’ skill in interpreting the Scriptures raises the question of whether he had received more formal education than is generally supposed.”

Meier also points to what he calls Jesus’ “startling and laconic” command to love one’s enemies. Although the substance of this command appears in some Old Testament laws, he says, the exact wording does not: “Nowhere in Judaism before the time of Jesus do we have this precise, sharp, and concise expression of the command.”

Quest for the Historical Jesus

Meier’s work is the latest in a series of noteworthy volumes. Previous volumes have examined Jesus’ background, analyzed the influence John the Baptist had on him, and explored both Jesus’ central message about the kingdom of God and the way in which he fit into first-century Judaism.

Meier’s ongoing scholarship has drawn significant critical acclaim. A 2007 survey placed A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus among 100 great Catholic books. The same year, a book by Pope Benedict XVI described it as one of the most important recent books about Jesus, citing its historical-critical exegesis. This year, America, a national Catholic weekly, devoted its October 19 cover article to Meier’s most recent volume.

The volume is the latest major undertaking by a scholar who has written six other books and more than 60 articles for books or journals, served on an international advisory committee for theology and church life, and helped to edit several scholarly publications.

This volume in the Marginal Jew series, Meier says, underscores “the genuine Jewishness of Jesus”—a reality he argues is often overlooked or misrepresented.

“It is important to remember,” he says, “that Jesus was born, lived, taught, and died as a Jew.”

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