Scripture Scholar Explores Historical Jesus in Seminary Anniversary Lecture

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Msgr. John P. Meier, noted scripture scholar and a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, returned to St. Joseph’s Seminary Feb. 3 to deliver a lecture on “The Historical Jesus: An Overview” in celebration of the 125th anniversary of his alma mater.

More than 260 people attended the event on a rainy, cold evening.

Msgr. Meier is the author of 12 books, including “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,” a five-volume series. With a beguiling smile, he described his lecture as a quick glide through the 3,481-page opus with second thoughts and new insights. Msgr. Meier said he spent 34 years “researching, pondering and writing” the series and is now working on a sixth volume. When he began the work in 1988, he and his first publisher anticipated he would produce a single volume.

“The question of the historical Jesus turned out to be more complicated and recalcitrant than I ever expected,” Msgr. Meier said. “The real Jesus is not the historical Jesus and the historical Jesus is not the real Jesus,” he said. “The total reality of this First Century Jew named Jesus of Nazareth is made up of everything Jesus said or did for the whole of his life.”

Because most of Jesus’ life is not recorded, “The total reality of Jesus is unknowable to us,” Msgr. Meier said. “The historical Jesus is a modern abstraction or construct. He is the Jesus we can recover using the scientific tools of modern historical research.”

Such research can be done by a person of any faith or no faith and is distinct from Christology, a subdivision of theology he described as “faith in Jesus Christ, seeking further understanding of Jesus Christ.”

“The quest for the historical Jesus may not invoke what you know by faith, but that doesn’t mean we betray or deny faith; we prescind from, or bracket, faith for the sake of the scientific method,” he said.

Msgr. Meier was surprised that some people were offended by the title, “A Marginal Jew.’ He said “marginal” is a sociological term meant to pose the question of where Jesus belonged on the broad spectrum of Judaism in his time. “It was not being used to diminish Jesus’s genuine Jewishness,” he said.

“I’m still working on my own satisfying answer to that question mark called ‘Jesus’,” he added.

Msgr. Meier said he seeks reliable sources for his historical research and subjects them to rigorous testing.  “Just because (the evangelist) Mark tells me Jesus Christ said or did something, I can’t accept it. I must first test its historicity,” he said.

“Historical warrants must be produced. Mere attribution to an early sage will not do,” he added.

Msgr. Meier said one of the most delightful aspects of dealing with the historical Jesus happened with his undergraduate Christology students at Notre Dame. He said some students were skeptical that Jesus actually existed. His course material included the first-century writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus, both of whom describe the historical Jesus. 

He said, “To see various people opening their eyes for the first time was one of the most satisfying pastoral moments of my ministry. Yes, Virginia, there was a Jesus!”

Msgr. Meier was born in the Bronx and studied at St. Joseph’s and the Gregorian University and Biblical Institute, both in Rome. He was ordained a priest of the archdiocese in 1967. He served as parochial vicar at St. Joseph’s parish, Bronxville.

He was chairman of the Scripture department and professor of New Testament at St. Joseph’s Seminary, 1972-1984; was professor of New Testament at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1984-1998, and recently retired after 23 years as William K. Warren professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop James Massa, rector of the seminary, said St. Joseph’s was famous for biblical scholarship in the early 20th century.  “Some of the pioneering scholars were ahead of their time and fell afoul of the Holy See,” he said.

Msgr. Meier’s lecture “is a way to tap the rich theological tradition here at the seminary and hold it up as something of which all Catholic New Yorkers can be proud,” Bishop Massa said.

He said, “Msgr. John Meier is one of the real giants in the world of Catholic biblical scholarship. That he has been given the platform of this lecture is a real gift. While our mission here is primarily the formation of future priests, we also open our degree programs to permanent deacon candidates, catechists and other lay leaders in the Church. All of these ecclesial roles require familiarity with the biblical word, where people encounter Jesus Christ,” Bishop Massa said.

Msgr. Meier’s lecture is available on the seminary website, dunwoodie.edu. 

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