Two Recent Books on the Historical Jesus: A Comparison

by John Dominic Crossan
(HarperCollins, 1991)

by John P. Meier
(Doubleday, 1991)

Despite the avalanche of books on Jesus that have been published over the past decade or so, the appearance of these two scholarly studies within months of each other is highly significant. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of one and a half studies, since Meier's book is only the first installment of a three-volume contribution to the Doubleday Anchor Bible Reference Library; his second and third volumes, dealing with the public ministry, crucifixion and burial (along with an epilogue -- one presumes on the Resurrection), are still forthcoming. [Note: Vol. 2 of Meier's work was published in 1994].

Nevertheless, both books invite comparison with each other, for both place a very heavy emphasis on a variety of sources, both socio-cultural as well as literary, that painstakingly situate Jesus in the world of his time. Likewise, both authors seem to be extra-sensitive to the charge that their studies might turn out to be just additional examples of such historical studies gone awry "join[ing] the legion of scholars who have peered narcissistically into the pool of the historical Jesus only to see themselves" (Meier) or confirming "the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history. . . " or that "the researcher knew the result before beginning the search" (Crossan).

But in their efforts to avoid this pitfall, each author differs rather markedly from the other. Crossan, from the outset, wishes to cast a much wider net for sources than Meier. The first four chapters of Crossan's book are a sociological and literary study of the Mediterranean world and the Roman Empire, followed by six more chapters on Old Testament background. Jesus is hardly mentioned, except in the introduction, for the next two hundred pages.

Meier, on the other hand, launches the reader promptly into a six-chapter discussion of the direct literary sources we have for our reconstruction of Jesus according to the standards of historical research, while leaving the more socio-cultural and other related matters for later consideration as the occasion suggests.

Excepting almost identical estimates of the value of the witness of both the Jewish historian Josephus and that of the Roman Tacitus, it is in the treatment of the scriptural sources that the two books most diverge. Crossan advances the thesis, already contained in his earlier book Four Other Gospels, that other extracanonical documents like the so-called "Gospel of Peter" or the Coptic "Gospel of Thomas" either antedate or stand behind the canonical Gospels, or else contain significant matter that is missing from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

Crossan's claim to finding a greater certainty through additional sources is sharply criticized by Meier, who marshals a host of other scholars to attack Crossan's position as expressed in the latter's earlier work. Meier goes out of his way to demonstrate that these supposed additional sources, even if they were authentic or original, contain little that is significant or that add any reliable information to what we already know from the four canonical Gospels themselves.

Nevertheless, despite this sharp disagreement over the question of additional sources, both the authors largely agree when it comes to analyzing the socio-cultural and religious setting of Jesus' life. Crossan's survey of the whole late classical period -- its politics, its economics, social structure, and even the effect of the Mediterranean topography on all of these -- is an education in itself. But it is in his description of the period's philosophical trends, particularly in his depiction of the stoic philosophers and the lifestyle of the wandering "cynics", that Crossan begins to draw some parallels with the Jewish prophetic tradition and the religious ferment within Jesus' own country and time.

It is in light of all this background material that the titles of the two studies form an interesting contrast. Despite the emphasis on the "historical" in Crossan's title, it is the subtitle, with its depiction of Jesus as "peasant" -- even if, as it turns out, an upstart one -- that, in my estimation, sets the real agenda for his book. On the other hand, although Meier, in his introductory "Marginal Note on Marginality" tries to emphasize how "marginal" Jesus was as a Jew, the major emphasis of Meier's first volume, at least, seems to be mostly on establishing the historical criteria. Even though Meier tends to discount the classical distinction between the "historical Jesus" (the picture of Jesus that we can reconstruct through modern historical methodology) and the "historic Jesus" (his impact on subsequent history), he has to admit that both of these have to be sharply distinguished from the "Christ of faith" (Jesus as understood in the light of Christian beliefs). But all these must be equally distinguished from the "real Jesus" (as he was actually experienced by his contemporaries), who can never be recovered by the historical method, much less by simple faith. Yet far from this latter impossibility being an appeal to fideism, Meier asserts that an informed, theologically reasonable faith (a faith seeking understanding) cannot afford to ignore the results of such a study, no matter how slim or disappointing the results may sometimes seem to be.

By way of further preparation , Meier then takes his reader through some of the intricacies of the two-source theory for the three synoptic Gospels as we now have them. However it may have complicated the issue, it also might have helped, at least for the general reader, to have also included at this point an explanation of the three levels of tradition which, according to the Vatican's Biblical Commission, are contained within the Gospels, or the stages, so deftly exploited by Crossan, by which the documents came to reach their present form.

As long as we are speaking of official approval, it also might be noted that Meier's book (rather inexplicably for a scholarly work of this sort) carries an imprimatur -- which may raise a few eyebrows among academics. But this should not be any more disconcerting than for the pious who may learn, to their dismay, that Meier has to agree with all the scholars who have come to the conclusion that, on the slim evidence provided in the scriptures, Jesus must have had real brothers and sisters, and not just a slew of "cousins" and other more distant kinsfolk back in Nazareth, which was, as far as historical probability is concerned, also the place of his birth.

What then of Bethlehem, the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and above all the doctrine of the Virgin Birth? Here Meier is one with Raymond E. Brown and his 1977 study The Birth of the Messiah. The infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke cannot be taken as reliable history but should be seen instead as parallel yet remarkably divergent stories based on an early theological tradition.

But it is also clear from such background information that Jesus was not a mere "peasant" in the more common sense of the term. Rather, as Meier asserts, Jesus was numbered among those "artisans" who, although their roots were in the peasantry as distinguished from the more privileged classes, were nevertheless hardly among the "poorest of the poor." In terms of the religious milieu, Meier makes a strong case for seeing Jesus' own background as that of a resurgent Galilean "fundamentalism" that was distrustful of both the worldly sophistication of Hellenistic Judaism and of the priestly aristocracy, as well as of the punctilious piety of the Pharisees.

With this background, our actual reconstruction of the historical Jesus has to begin with his baptism in the Jordan. And it is at this point that we have to leave further comparisons, save one, between Crossan's book and Meier's work, the second volume of which will presumably begin at this point.

According to Crossan, here we have an event that so embarrassed early Christian believers that the four canonical Gospels went to great lengths to explain away its more obvious meaning -- or as in the case of  [the Gospel of]  John, to recall the scene, yet ignore the fact of Jesus' having been baptized by John [the Baptist] altogether! The initial reason for this discomfort, however, may have had more to do with the debate over the content and meaning of their preaching than it did over puzzlement as to why the sinless "Son of God" would be baptized. Did Jesus intend to repeat the Baptist's call for repentance in preparation for an imminent, even apocalyptic, arrival of the Kingdom of God? Or was Jesus appealing for a more immediate inner transformation? And if so, what would be the consequences for Israel -- and even beyond that, for the world? This is, as we shall see, an all-important question, one that could betray one or another bias either author may already have.

As for Jesus' miracles, here Crossan proves quite ingenious, perhaps too much so, considering his unflinching claim that Jesus fully fits in with the classical type of the "magician" who heals -- a type pretty much taken for granted in the ancient world. Yet all the evidence points to this, so much that it can be said that no one, even his enemies, doubted for a moment that he was a wonder-worker extraordinaire. But healing miracles are one thing, while nature miracles, like multiplying loaves of bread, walking on water, or calming a storm, are something else. And it is here that Crossan's ingenuity at rearranging the texts to try to explain the inexplicable tends to overreach itself.

Crossan's dazzling textual dexterity becomes more than a bit disconcerting, especially when it comes to dealing with what most scholars accept as being reliable data which in turn underlie the central mysteries of the faith. And it is also at this point that Crossan's book departs from what seems to be a strict analysis of the historically probable to becoming open advocacy of a reinterpretation of Jesus' passion and death that he argued in an earlier book. In it Crossan postulated the existence of a hitherto unknown "Cross Gospel" reconstructed from the "Gospel of Peter" from which he claims all the existing passion narratives are drawn. Not only that, but in the process the Last Supper accounts, including the institution of the Eucharist, are dismissed as a fiction.

So too, while other scholars have long pointed out that the claims of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus are confusing, or even contradictory in places, at least they are content to admit that from the beginning there seems to have been a certain unanimity among his followers that in some way God had vindicated him and had delivered him from death. But Crossan even seems to doubt that this claim was made until many years later -- too late to take any claims of eyewitnesses of his death, much less of a risen Jesus, at all seriously.

While it is hard to overlook these latter examples as some of the more strange results of Crossan's methodology, I'm intrigued by some of the insights in the more historically grounded parts of Crossan's book. And while we may cringe at Crossan's concluding caricature of Jesus and his followers as being among those who were "hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies", is not this also something of what Meier asserts when he calls Jesus "a marginal Jew"?

Still, as to just what this marginality or non-conformism suggests, while Crossan seems to center more on the social consequences of what he calls Jesus' "Brokerless Kingdom" within a world where access to both political power and religious respectability were "brokered" by the privileged elites, Meier strongly denies that Jesus had any overt social or political revolution in mind.

Here I would suggest that we would do well to retain the distinction between the "historical" and the "historic" that Meier tends to discount. Crossan's analysis of the ancient world may help us to understand why the impact of Jesus became truly historic in the world-shaking sense of the word. But I predict that Meier's work, for many years to come, will be considered by far the most authoritative on the historical Jesus and as close as we'll ever get to an accurate picture of the "real" Jesus as he walked this earth.

Richard W. Kropf
(First Published in The Catholic World, January/February 1993)

Return to Dialogos Issue #6, Comments & Responses

File:Cwcmrev.htm 1/18/2000