I have four items for my write-up today on volume 1 of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.
1. Meier discusses the question of whether or not there was a rumor among Jews that Jesus was born out of wedlock. Meier concludes that Jews in the Diaspora in the mid-second century C.E. started this rumor, and that they were basing it on the Gospel of Matthew. His reason is that Celsus in the late second century C.E. claimed to hear that rumor from a Jew (as Origen relates in Contra Celsum 1.28, 32), but that the rumor does not appear prior to that date—-for example, the Jew Trypho does not mention the rumor when he is arguing with Justin Martyr about the virginal conception. Moreover, Celsus appears to echo the story in the Gospel of Matthew about Jesus’ birth. Meier does not think that Mark 6:3 and John 8:41 attest to a rumor in first century Palestine that Jesus was born out of wedlock. The synagogue audience calling Jesus the “son of Mary” in Mark 6:3 does not necessarily mean that Jesus was born out of wedlock, according to Meier, for men could be identified with reference to their mothers without such being the case (as Joab, Abishai, and Asahel are called the sons of Zeruiah in the Hebrew Bible); moreover, perhaps Jesus was called the “son of Mary” because the people in the synagogue knew her, and their whole point was that Jesus couldn’t be somebody special because they knew him and his family. Regarding John 8:41, in which Jewish leaders deny being born from fornication, Meier observes that the discussion here is spiritual and concerns whether the Jewish leaders arguing with Jesus are true sons of Abraham, meaning (for Meier) that it is irrelevant to Jesus’ birth. I think that Meier makes good points, but I get the impression when reading Matthew’s birth story that there is some attempt to demonstrate that Jesus was not born out of wedlock, and that’s one reason that the narrative stresses that Mary and Joseph did not have sex until Jesus was born, and that the genealogy highlights odd women.
2. Meier addresses the question of what language Jesus spoke, for scholars have debated about whether Jesus primarily spoke Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. Meier goes with Aramaic, even though he acknowledges that Jesus may have known some conversational Greek for business-transactions. For Meier, that most in Palestine did not speak Hebrew is evident in the existence of Targumim, translations (and elaborations) of the Bible in Aramaic. And Josephus talks about his own difficulty with Greek, and so Meier concludes that first century C.E. Jews probably did not speak Greek all that well. According to Meier, Aramaic was eclipsed by Greek in Palestine during the time of Hellenization (in the second century B.C.E.), but that was followed by a nationalistic backlash, as Daniel at that time was written in Hebrew and Aramaic. At the same time, on the basis of the Targumim, Meier appears to regard Hebrew in the first century C.E. as primarily literary, whereas Aramaic was the spoken language.
3. Was Jesus literate? Meier seems to think so, even though he agrees that advanced literacy was not widespread in first century Palestine, for Jesus is familiar with the Hebrew Bible and is able to debate the halakhah with the Pharisees. Meier speculates that Jesus attained a degree of literacy at a local synagogue.
4. Meier believes in a manly Jesus. On page 281, in his discussion of Jesus being a carpenter, Meier states: “…while Jesus was in one sense a Palestinian workman, he plied a trade that involved, for the ancient world, a fair level of technical skill. It also involved no little sweat and muscle power. The airy weakling often presented to us in pious paintings and Hollywood movies would hardly have survived the rigors of being Nazareth’s tekton from his youth to his early thirties.” Occasionally, Meier is quite colorful and edgy in this book!