I have four items for my write-up today on volume 4 of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.
1. Meier argues that Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies was discontinuous from what came before him and after him, demonstrating that the command probably came from the historical Jesus. Meier acknowledges that, prior to and after Jesus, there were people who believed in non-retaliation or even doing good to one’s enemies. But, in Meier’s eyes, those are not the same as loving one’s enemies, for they were rooted in waiting for God to punish the enemies (the view of Qumran and Paul), or in the practical benefits of refraining from retaliation (i.e., peace with one’s neighbors, or inner peace, for the Stoics).
(UPDATE: At the same time, Meier observes that there are parallels between what Jesus says about love for enemies in Matthew 5:44-45 and what the pagan philosopher Seneca said. For example, Jesus said that we should imitate God, who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and the bad alike, showing that God loves even the wicked. Similarly, Seneca in De beneficiis 4.26 says that people should imitate the gods, who give gifts even to the ungrateful: “for the sun also rises on evil men, and the seas lie open to pirates.” Meier goes on to note that Seneca did not consider his rule on helping ingrates to be universal, for Seneca thought that helping some ingrates was a wasted effort. That may differ from Jesus’ teaching. Yet, Meier is open to the possibility that Jesus was influenced by Hellenism.)
2. On page 537, Meier offers his view on how we could regard the attitudes of vengeance and hatred that we encounter in the Bible. Meier says: “Then as now, the Near East and Middle East were often nasty, brutal, murderous places where the law of the wild was kill or be killed. Perhaps we should be startled not so much at the curses demanding vengeance as at the OT passages speaking of moderation, nonretaliation, and forgiveness.” Meier also states that, in a collection such as the Hebrew Bible that spans a millennium, it should not be a surprise for us to find in it “a mixed bag containing some very mixed-up people.”
3. Meier does not believe that the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12 goes back to the historical Jesus. He thinks that Matthew himself “creates the impression that a common saying of popular pagan ethics sums up, in Jesus’ eyes, the Jewish Scriptures” (page 552). Meier has a variety of reasons for thinking that the Golden Rule does not go back to the historical Jesus. First of all, it’s not discontinuous from what came before Jesus, for both the positive (do unto others) and the negative (do not unto others what you don’t want them to do for you) formulations of the Golden Rule appear in pagan ethics. Second, in terms of the New Testament’s sources, the Golden Rule only appears in Q, so it’s not multiply-attested. Third, Meier does not think that the Golden Rule coheres with other teachings of Jesus. Whereas Jesus wanted us to love our enemies, regardless of how they treat us, the Golden Rule focuses on how we want others to treat us. Fourth, Meier appears to think that it’s bizarre to root the Golden Rule in divine revelation (the Torah and the prophets), for the Golden Rule bases its ethic, not on what God commands, but rather on how we want others to treat us.
Some of this I like, and some of it I don’t like. What I like is that Meier highlights that pagan ethics had a positive Golden Rule. I get tired of how some evangelicals wax eloquent about how revolutionary Jesus was to teach the positive Golden Rule, whereas Hillel had the negative Golden Rule. Others had the positive Golden Rule, too! At the same time, I wonder why a saying has to be utterly original (or discontinuous with what came before) in order to be from the historical Jesus. The inadequacy of the criterion of discontinuity may be why Meier brings in other criteria: multiple attestation, coherence, etc.
I also am curious as to why Matthew would attribute a pagan system of ethics to Jesus. Was Matthew trying to show Gentiles that Jesus agreed with a renowned pagan ethic? Was not Matthew a Gospel for Jewish-Christians? In part, but Meier has argued that the Gospel of Matthew was also directed to a lot of Gentiles.
4. I enjoyed Meier’s discussion of the Gospel of John. The way Meier tells it, the Gospel of John differed from the synoptics on the issue of the coming of the Son of Man and also love. The synoptics thought that the Son of Man would come in the future as a judge, after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Within the synoptics, we also see a belief in ethics, as Jesus teaches people to treat their fellow human-beings kindly. In the Gospel of John, however, the belief is that the coming of the Son of Man occurred at Jesus’ first coming, which is why John has a realized eschatology in which Jesus is acting as judge while he is on earth, and people are judged already according to how they view Jesus. Moreover, according to Meier, Jesus in the Gospel of John does not publicly teach ethics; rather, he saves his ethical teaching about love for his disciples, and even then, he exhorts them to love one another, without mentioning love for the outside world (which is presented as hostile to Christians).
Meier may be on to something, but I don’t treat his description as absolute. First, the Gospel of John contains a concept of futurist eschatology, not just present judgment (John 5:28-29; 6:40). Second, although I agree that John manifests a cliquish us vs. them mentality, John also talks about Jesus drawing all men unto himself (John 12:32). Third, even though Jesus’ miracles are primarily signs of who Jesus is in the Gospel of John, they still appear to be acts of beneficence, particularly for those not yet in the Christian community—-healing a blind man and a lame man, making a man whole on the Sabbath, enhancing the joy of people at a wedding feast by changing water into wine, etc.
(UPDATE: On pages 567-568, Meier says that Jesus in the Gospel of John differed from the Essenes in that he did not promote hatred for outsiders: “The belief that God so loved the God-hating world that he sent his only Son to save it, the hope that the community’s mutual love may act as an attractive witness, drawing others to believe, and the final prayer of Jesus that the world might be saved—-all these factors keep the Fourth Gospel from inculcating a positive obligation to hate (cf. John 3:16-17; 11:51-52; 12:20-24, 32; 17:20-23; 20:21-23).”)