OK, so a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim and an agnostic are locked in a basement…
No, it’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s a serious premise that begins the seminal work, A Marginal Jew, five volumes that cemented the marriage of the “historical Jesus” to the “Christ of faith” as a worthy and vital part of theological scholarship. Authored by priest and scholar John P. Meier who died in October at age 80, its opening premise imagines a lively discussion between the five fervent lock-ins wherein they attempt to wrestle out common ground upon which they can all comfortably agree with regard to Jesus of Nazareth.
Published in 1991, with subsequent volumes over the next two-and-a-half decades, Meier’s widely praised opus opened the door to a new era of historical Christian scholarship—wherein faith and reason could together produce a deeper understanding of the Savior—and more importantly signaled an opportunity for unity and cooperation among the varied Christian denominations. Meier practiced what he preached, himself working for nearly 20 years establishing dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Disciples of Christ.
Meier, like many serious scholars, was himself unserious. Colleagues on hearing of his passing regretted losing his wit as well as his wisdom. A beloved educator for nearly a half-century, first at Dunwoodie Seminary, then at Catholic University of America and finally at the University of Notre Dame, Professor Meier was legendary among students and faculty for his epigrammatic summations of the finer points of scripture commentary in particular as well as the wider view of life itself in general:
“It sounds nice but—like so many nice sounding religious statements—is wrong.”
“The Gospel of John is like Texas: everything here is bigger and better.”
“Jesus transformed water into between 120 and 180 gallons of wine: enough to intoxicate a Roman maniple [subdivision of a legion].”
“Almost any position on any book in the Bible can be proven if the defender of the thesis is free to choose which passages from the book will be considered. All the favorable data will be marshaled, and all the unfavorable data will be ignored.”
“Education is the process by which you unlearn everything you once knew.”
Several of Meier’s fellow professors expressed their grief at Meier’s passing.
“We deeply mourn the loss of our friend and mentor,” John Fitzgerald, professor in Christianity and Judaism in antiquity at the University of Notre Dame and a longtime colleague of Meier, wrote. “He was a man of keen wit with an irrepressible sense of humor, but we shall continue to celebrate his life and scholarship for decades to come.”
Doctoral student Jonathan Sanchez, who participated in Meier’s final doctoral seminar during the spring semester of 2021, added, “Professor Meier’s rigor and brilliance were matched by his kindness.”
The scientific method as a procedure of analysis of scripture began in the 17th century and by the 18th century, the German philosopher Hermann Reimarus was trying to identify Jesus in history. The rift between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” found its culmination with Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, published in 1906.
Possibly a reconciliation between faith and science in the study of Jesus was inevitable—perhaps not. But it would be another four score and five years before John P. Meier would bring the two together and by doing so would also create a basis for ecumenical dialogue and understanding. He was the first to do so, but thanks to his legacy he likely will not be the last.