Of late I have been reading John B. Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus . I have enjoyed it, not least because the book is clearly and carefully written, even if the Jesus who emerges from these pages is not exactly the “startling” figure promised by the dust jacket. But I have also been remembering the standard critique leveled at the several different quests for the historical Jesus: that the questers found in Jesus someone who turned out to reflect their own place and time. If Meier’s portrait is, as the dust jacket again assures us, “ the portrait of Jesus for the end of the twentieth century,” what does that tell us about our time and place?
One sentence in particular brought me up short. As Meier begins to discuss what we can know of the family of Jesus, he notes that in ancient Palestine the “family” would be a large extended family. “Correspondingly,” he writes, “an ‘individual’ understood himself or herself differently in the ancient world. The individual was not an isolated, completely autonomous person”as some Americans foolishly think they are today”but rather a part of a larger, sprawling social unit.” Now, teaching ethics as I do, I am programmed to respond to such sentences. And what a peculiar sentence this is from the pen of one who seeks, as does Meier, to be a careful scholar, never saying more than the historian can honestly say. What makes him suppose he can toss off normative judgments so cavalierly”unless, of course, he has simply taken them in from the surrounding culture, without really thinking them through?
My concern here is not to defend the notion of the autonomous individual”a problematic enough notion, but one for which there is at least something to be said”but, instead, to puzzle over the casual nature of Meier’s judgment. Whenever in the course of his investigation of the historical Jesus Meier encounters arguments for which little evidence is offered, he likes to say that “what is gratuitously asserted may be gratuitously denied.” Yet when he strays from his own discipline into another, he himself seems to have gratuitous assertion near at hand. Constantly attempting, as he tells us, to bracket from his scientific method of investigation “faith-knowledge” and to “prescind” from the teachings of the church, he nevertheless”in as naive a fashion as one can imagine”fails to bracket the “knowledge” he has imbibed from the political culture around him, knowledge which assures him that our society has been mistaken in its exaltation of the individual. Of one thing we may be confident: the Jesus whom Meier will find and present (in further promised volumes) is not likely to be one who establishes an encounter between the lone individual and God, nor one who thereby is a formative influence in the Western understanding of the individual.
But Meier is far more a child of our political and moral tradition of individualism than he realizes. Indeed, the hypothesis he uses to frame his undertaking is, I think, more a political metaphor than a scientific method. Here is his way of explaining what he is up to in the book:
Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, 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, 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.
Meier recognizes that such a document would not tell the whole truth, since it would have to find a way around some differences and would inevitably have a somewhat narrow focus. But it would also, he suggests, give us some sense of what any reasonable person would say about the historical Jesus and thus might provide “a starting point for dialogue between Christians and Jews, between various Christian confessions, and between believers and nonbelievers.” Another way in which he describes the resulting document is, however, more revealing, and is essentially a political metaphor (though one taken from the religious disputes of the sixteenth century): the document would be a “formula of concord.” It would, that is, be a means for warring factions to get along in some kind of peace and harmony. It would offer something analogous to what political theorists call a “thin theory of the good””seeking agreement only on what seems necessary for our common life.
The longer we think about this use of a political metaphor, the less appropriate it may seem”and the less certain we may be about what it even means. How exactly does the conclave work when this Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic”scrupulous scientific historians all”get together? How is it that they reach some consensus? Perhaps Meier imagines them as occupying John Rawls’ “original position,” knowing none of the particularities of their personal histories. But that can hardly be; for then the gathering might be any four people. There would be no significance at all to the fact that this consensus is achieved among four people of different religious commitments. It might just as easily be four Protestants; for whatever the participants are in particular has been checked outside in the lobby. This is, of course, only another way of saying that, on Meier’s hypothesis, the four participants”since they could be anyone”would be the isolated, completely autonomous persons whom Meier says it would be foolish even to imagine.
If that is not the right way to picture this conclave, what is? Perhaps we should think of the participants as carrying along with them their sincerely held beliefs about the good and the true but agreeing, for the sake of consensus, not to put forward those beliefs in the course of the conversation. This would mean that they are in effect agreeing to adhere to some other vision of the truth”a vision governed, evidently, by a notion of what scientific history permits or requires. That vision all the participants would share, and to it each could add whatever other beliefs he may acquire from “faith” or from ecclesiastical authority.
As a political method for achieving a certain measure of freedom and security in our common life, such an approach has merit. Even in politics it fails us sometimes, when the stakes are just too high. It fails us, in particular, when crucial issues about the meaning of our humanity and the scope of our community are at stake-as it did when our nation finally confronted the fact of slavery, and as it does in some respects when we argue about abortion today. But most of the time this method serves us well, because in politics”at least, the liberal politics of our tradition from which Meier’s metaphor derives”we do not seek the truth. We seek only a framework within which all can pursue their respective visions of the true, the good, and the eternal. As a method aimed at seeking truth, however, this approach is misplaced. If we seek to export it from the realm of the political into the whole of life, it will lead us to suppose that some of our most important beliefs can be simply detached from the rest of our “knowledge” without thereby altering in any way what is left.
This seems unlikely. Even more important, perhaps, it seems boring. Certainly it does not seem very promising as “a starting point for dialogue between Christians and Jews, between various Christian confessions, and between believers and nonbelievers.” For in that dialogue what I need and want to hear from you is not what you can say after you have bracketed the things you believe most deeply. What I need and want to hear is the faith you live by. And, interestingly, when I hear that from you I am hearing not from “an isolated, completely autonomous person” but from one who belongs to a very extended “family” indeed. It turns out, I fear, that Meier’s scientific historian is the isolated, autonomous individual”dependent on his own insight to eke out an account that seems rational to him. Whether this is really a method of scientific history”or just the influence of our liberal political tradition creeping in where it has no business, because we have not learned to think hard enough about politics to know when to keep it in its place”is, I think, a question worth pondering.
Gilbert Meilaender, a frequent contributor to First Things , teaches in the Department of Religion at Oberlin College.