Reviews - What do customers think about The Aims of Jesus (Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 48)?
A Jesus book of substance Jan 27, 2008
I was reading N. T. Wright's, The New Testament & the People of God, when he recommended ch. 4 of Ben Meyer's book, The Aims of Jesus, as giving "what is probably the finest statement on historical method by a practicing contemporary New Testament scholar" (Wright p. 98 n32). Meyer died in 1995. Wright has written a new introduction to this edition of Meyer's book, indicating that "we are dealing with a book which stands out from the crowd" (Meyer, p. 9l)
I took his recommendation, read Meyer's chapter on historical method, and I have to agree that this is a superb discussion on method but it also gives a realistic view of the historical Jesus in the midst of postmodern reconstructions by people such as J. D. Crossan.
Meyer's historical method involves 4 principles: (1) History is knowledge; (2) Historical knowledge is inferential; (3) The technique of history is hypothesis; and (4) Hypotheses require verification (pp. 88-92). The practice of this method goes through these steps: questions (about the topic), developing hypotheses to test, and verification or otherwise of the hypotheses. This requires, interpretation and explanation, controlling the data, establishing the facts, and arriving at conclusions that are "beyond criticism" (ch. 4).
The beauty of this book is that Meyer then fleshes out his application of this method to examine the Jesus of history and faith. In discovering "the aims of Jesus," he pursues the judgment and salvation of Israel through an understanding of John the Baptist. The public proclamation and career of Jesus is found in the Gospels. He also assesses "the secret of the reign of God" (ch. 8) before arriving at his conclusions.
While critical scholars of the Quest have used criteria for historicity such as embarrassment, discontinuity, multiple attestation, coherence, rejection & execution (Crossan 1998), Meyer prefers to describe these as indices of historicity that "will necessarily be open, supple, and delicate. . . No method will be admitted to which caution, nuance, and the admission of doubt are alien" (Meyer p. 84).
Meyer comes to the Gospels with a view that they have data on past events about Jesus, but he comes without a prior view about genre. This means that the data are examined without excluding "the possibility of legend, midrash, folklore, parable, paradigm, and so forth" (p. 72).
He asks what conclusion can be drawn from the form critical approach that "the form of the gospel traditions is narrative about Jesus but their substance is the earliest church's expression of its own self-understanding and concerns". He rejects it as an "inexplicable" supposition (pp. 82-83).
This is not a bedtime storybook but is a scholar's book for scholars of the historical Jesus. But be warned! He gives a solid review of the skeptical quest for the historical Jesus from Reimarus onwards, observing that "scholars of the Straussian cast, like Wrede or Bultmann, make no effort to reconstruct history, whereas the fearless hypotheses of a Reimarus or a Schweitzer collapse like playing cards" (Meyer p. 24). Meyer could have applied the same judgment to the fellows of the Jesus Seminar and questers such as Funk, Crossan, Mack & Borg.
This is an outstanding book defining methodology, assessing Jesus from gospel data, and showing how the Gospel materials about Jesus can be scrutinised on solid historical grounds.
One of the most important books on Jesus ever written Apr 7, 2006
It's great to see this book back in print. I read it about 15 years ago, and it, along with N. T. Wright's New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and What St. Paul Really Said completely rearranged my thinking about Christianity, eventually leading me from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism.
The Aims of Jesus literally revolutionized Jesus studies. If nothing else, it contributed two lasting achievements: it made critical realism the hermeneutic norm, and it launched the Third Quest for the historical Jesus, followed by Wright, Witherington, Meier, and others.
The idea behind the book is really rather simple: Let's treat Jesus like any other historical figure, such as Alexander the Great. That is, let's see if we can determine what Jesus' project was, what he hoped to accomplish, what his aims in life were. Can we find out what he thought his purpose on earth was, and can we also make a determination about how successful he was?
In order to be able to do this, it's necessary to get proper "hermeneutic access" to the materials that give an account of his life, primarily the New Testament gospels and letters. That's where "critical realism" comes in--which is simply a method for analyzing texts. It involves situating texts in their proper community context, looking at their historical value in relation to the events they recount, placing the figures they portray (primarily Jesus and the Disciples) in their early first century Jewish setting, and assessing the movement that arose as a consequence of their lives and acts. It is not generally concerned with determining the authenticity of particular sayings; rather it is more concerned with the picture that emerges from a "hermeneutics of generosity" as opposed to a "hermeneutics of suspicion" which has dominated Jesus studies for the past three and a half centuries.
What you get with this approach is a way to link the most important aspects of Jesus' life and mission together: his Jewish background, his preaching ministry, his death and resurrection, the documents that recount these events, and the movement that arose following his departure from this earth.
If the conclusions are not startlingly original, the book nevertheless provides readers with new access to who Jesus was (and is, for Christians), and, especially, to the events of his life in relation to the rise of the Early Church.
Ben F. Meyer was certainly one of the greatest Jesus scholars of the last century. It would also be wonderful to have his other classic text, The Early Christians: Their World Mission and Self-Discovery, back in print.