Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Meier on Christology: "In the Beginning Was the Grab Bag"

In my latest reading of volume 2 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Meier was talking about the Gospel story in which Jesus walks on water, and the one in which he stills the storm.

Meier believes that these miracles display a high Christology----one that views Jesus either as God or as an epiphany of God. Meier's reason for this is that the Hebrew Bible ascribes to God the sorts of things that Jesus does in these stories: "ego eimi" (John 6:20), which means "I am" or "I am he" or "It is I", calls to mind God's words in Exodus 3:14-15 and Second Isaiah; Jesus says "fear not", which God says in Second Isaiah; Habakkuk 3:15 and the Septuagint for Job 9:8 say that God walks on or tramples on the sea; Mark 6:48 says that Jesus wished to pass the disciples by, which recalls God passing before Moses in Exodus 33:19; and God in the Hebrew Bible calms the storms (i.e., the story of Jonah).

But do not Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a low Christology, one that regards Jesus as a prophet, teacher, and king, not as God? Why do they present Jesus doing divine sorts of things? Meier responds to this by saying, "In the beginning was the grab bag" (page 919). According to Meier, after Jesus was believed to have risen from the dead, a variety of ideas circulated about him----some of the ideas reflecting a high Christology, and some of them reflecting a low Christology. Meier believes that the Gospel writers drew from these diverse ideas. Mark, for instance, presents Jesus doing divine things, but he also "has no difficulty in speaking of Jesus' inability to heal people because of their unbelief or of Jesus' ignorance of the date of the parousia" (page 919).

Meier does not accept the model that Christianity started with a low Christology and that a higher Christology came later, for the hymn that Paul uses in Philippians 2:6-11 has a high Christology and is early, whereas Luke's Gospel is late but has a low Christology that presents Jesus as "a good prayerful man through whom God's power flows" (page 919). (At the same time, it is interesting that Luke 7:16 presents people saying in response to Jesus' miracle that God has visited the people.)

What is Meier's stance regarding the historicity of Jesus walking on water and calming the storm? My impression is that Meier believes that these stories were invented by the early church. The story of Jesus walking on water appears close to the story of him multiplying the loaves, and Meier observes connections between Jesus' multiplication of loaves and the Eucharist. For Meier, the story of Jesus walking on water was told during the celebration of the Eucharist. On page 923, Meier beautifully states:

"What I am suggesting is that, to a small church struggling in the night of a hostile world and feeling bereft of Christ's presence, the walking on the water likewise symbolized the experience of Christ in the eucharist. Once again, with all the power of Yahweh bestriding the chaos of a rebellious creation, Jesus reveals himself in a secret epiphany to his frightened, beleaguered disciples, telling them: 'It is I; fear not.' The story of the walking on the water reflects the fact that, for the early church, the eucharist was the ritualized experience of an epiphany of the risen Jesus, coming to a small group of believers laboring in the night of this present age; once again he gave courage and calmed fears simply by announcing his presence."

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