Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Applicable Teachings? Eschatological Prophet and Guide

I finished volume 4 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. I have two items.

1. In volume 4, Meier talks about Jesus' attitude towards the Torah and how to apply it. Meier believes that it is important to look at Jesus in light of his Jewish background. And, when Jesus' teachings strike us as offensive----as when Jesus prohibits divorce and oaths altogether----we should remember that Jesus' teachings were offensive to his original audience as well, and we should use Jesus' radical insights as a check on our own assumptions. That's Meier's viewpoint. In my opinion, that's different from regarding Jesus' teachings as authoritative and from God. But it's still interacting with Jesus' instructions and seeking to learn from them.

How can Jesus' teachings illuminate us and check our own assumptions, according to Meier? Regarding divorce, Meier believes that Jesus prohibits it because Jesus thinks that creation is reverting back to how it was originally, back when there was no divorce. Jesus' eschatological mindset plays a significant role in his stance on divorce, as far as Meier is concerned. Meier dismisses common justifications for Jesus' stance: that Jesus wanted marriage to be for life out of a sense that people should be unconditionally loving towards their spouses, or that Jesus was prohibiting divorce in order to protect women, who were vulnerable when their husbands unilaterally decided to divorce them. Meier sees no evidence that Jesus prohibited divorce for these reasons.

So how can Jesus' teaching on divorce illuminate us? Jesus opposed divorce because he felt that the end was near and that creation was in the process of reverting to its original state. As far as I can see, that did not happen. Is Jesus' teaching wrong because his eschatological justification for that teaching did not pan out? Or should we regard the ideal that was set forth in the biblical creation stories as something to emulate?

Regarding Jesus' prohibition of oaths, Meier states on page 654 that the reason for this command is "the majestic transcendence of the all-truthful God, who is not to be dragged into court as a witness to the sometimes truthful statements of mere humans." I think that there's some principle that can illuminate us here----that we should not drag God into the sordid things that we do, or that we should respect God rather than use his name when we embellish or bend the truth (without technically lying).

2. Meier believes that Jesus saw himself as an eschatological prophet preparing Israel for the eschaton. For Meier, if I'm not mistaken, Jesus viewed himself as the Elijah to come (though Meier said in his previous volume that, near the end, Jesus regarded himself as the Davidic Messiah). What's that have to do with Jesus' teachings on how to observe the Torah? Meier refers to rabbinic passages from the Mishnah that claim that Elijah will come and "settle legal disputes among the rabbis, and/or resolve questions of legal ownership" (page 656). Meier also appeals to I Maccabees 14:41, which states that Judas Maccabeus dismantled the altar that was defiled by Gentiles and stored the altar's stones until a prophet should come and tell the Jews what to do with them. According to Meier, there was a belief that a prophet would come and tell the Jews what to do, and Jesus thought that he had that role.

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