Ben Meyer’s, The Aims of Jesus, a brief review [1]

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 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. eight) 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.

The End

[1]This review was sent to Amazon .com as “A Jesus book of substance,” since I purchased the book from Amazon.

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