Historical Jesus

The Need for Big Books: A Comment John P. Meier Made in 1979

I am putting together a reading list for a summer course I am teaching on Matthew. In the process, I went back and revisited John P. Meier’s classic book, The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church, and Morality in the First Gospel (New York: Paulist Press, 1979). Although the book contains some dated material–which is not surprising given its publication date–it contains a lot of helpful material. The book tries not to be overly technical and is, as one might suspect, very readable. After all, Meier is an excellent writer.

As I was looking at this book, I ran into a quotation that made me laugh out loud.

For most scholars, the name John P. Meier immediately calls to mind his massive multi-volume set on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991-2016). Meier has not written a big book on Jesus; he has written five. And he is not done; more books from him are expected. Whatever you think of his method or his conclusion, you have to grant his erudition and thoroughness.

Of course, today “big books” are strongly discouraged. In a world where a plethora of books are published every year, it is understandable that more slender volumes are especially desirable. Attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, explore the book exhibit, and one quickly realizes just how much there is to read. Find a recently released book in your field with a large page count and it is almost enough to lead you to despair.

To be fair, in some ways, smaller books are harder to write. Being both economical and responsible is a nearly impossible challenge. Those who can pull it off are more likely to have their work read and to have their scholarship engaged by other scholars.

Nevertheless, one should never lose sight of the necessity of big books. In some ways, smaller books are harder to write – but not in all ways! Writing a comprehensive volume on a topic means one does not have the luxury of saying, “Space prohibits a fuller discussion of this matter.” If one is going to write a big book on a topic, it means that one actually has to deal with all of the key data. Frankly, many do not have the patience for that. Meier, however, would seem to have it no other way.

And that is why I laughed when I came across this line, which was written by Meier nearly a decade before the publication of his first book in the Marginal Jew series:

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.

John P. Meier, The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church, and Morality in the First Gospel (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 3.

Of course, John Meier would write this. Meier does not want to make an argument that does not, in his mind, fairly treat all of the evidence and engage the various debates surrounding them. Even The Vision of Matthew, which aims at a non-specialist audience, is a sizable contribution (280 pages). Meier is always careful and thorough. I profoundly respect him for that.

Honestly, I read many academic books that do selectively treat data and that do conveniently ignore counterarguments. One may not always agree with Meier, but it is hard to make such charges against him. Agree or disagree, Meier does not cut corners. It is no wonder that he went on to write a massive multi-volume set on Jesus.

In short, bring on the big books. We need them.

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