On every cover of John Meier’s comprehensive series on the historical Jesus one sees, prominently displayed, the subtitle of the series: “Rethinking the Historical Jesus.” This is important. Although each volume is given its own name (e.g., vol. 4, Law and Love), the overall project’s title is: A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Look carefully and you will see that Meier is all about “rethinking.” Why this emphasis?
In the fourth volume, Meier writes:
If we find Jesus’ total rejection of divorce or oaths bizarre or unworkable, we might at least take comfort in the thought that most of his contemporaries probably felt the same way. In offending most moral people now as then, Jesus (whether one believes in him or not) remains relevant by simply saying no—no to values and actions that most moderns take for granted and would defend as moral and necessary. There is a value simply in being forced to rethink what we have always taken for granted. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume Four, Law and Love (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009), 650.
I am struck by this line. In a lecture he gave offering an overview of this volume, Meier once talked about how “each chapter harbored unexpected results and caused second thoughts.” (Text here. See the video here.)
I truly admire Fr. Meier for his willingness to engage in this project of “rethinking.” I do not always agree with his conclusions, but I have learned immensely from him. There is absolutely no question about his brilliance, his erudition, and his willingness to go in unpopular places due to the evidence as he interprets it.
Yet, for Meier, this commitment to “rethinking” is not just an academic responsibility. It is ultimately what Jesus himself was all about. After all, if we are not willing to rethink, how can we ever respond to a key aspect of Jesus’ message—the need to repent?