(RNS) – John P. Meier, theologian and biblical commentator whose multi-volume “A Marginal Jew” transformed the Catholic approach to critical historical scholarship on the life of Jesus and religious faith, died Tuesday, October 18 in South Bend, Indiana.
He was 80 years old.
Meier was born in the Bronx, New York, on August 8, 1942. He entered the Archdiocesan Seminary of New York for college and studied for the priesthood at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, just outside from Yonkers. After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1964, Meier studied at Rome’s historic Jesuit university, the Gregorian.
A priest in the Archdiocese of New York, he was ordained in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on December 21, 1967. He obtained a doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 1976.
After a stint at a parish church in Bronxville, Meier returned to Dunwoodie Seminary in 1972 to teach and eventually served as chairman of the seminary’s Bible studies department before transferring to the Pontifical United States University. , the Catholic University of America, in 1984. He taught for almost 15 years at the Catholic University of America before taking a position at the University of Notre Dame in 1998. He retired after 20 years in the theology department of Notre-Dame, in June 2018.
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Meier’s fame stemmed primarily from his “A Jew on the Margins,” first published in 1991, which presented a new perspective on “historical studies of Jesus.”
“A Marginal Jew” opens with the thought experiment of an “unpapal conclave” in which a Catholic, Protestant Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and agnostic scholar is locked in the basement of Harvard Divinity School until that they come to a conclusion: a collective white paper on what they can agree on about Jesus of Nazareth only on historical bases and reasoning based on the texts and the available archives.
The book, extended to five volumes, attempted to outline the conclusions that might result from an interfaith “conclave”.
During Enlightenment Europe, from the 17th to the 19th century, scholars applied the emerging fields of historiography and the scientific method to the texts of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Beginning with the German philosopher Hermann Reimarus in the 18th century, these scholars began to distinguish between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith”.
The first systematic quest for a historical Jesus began with the German theologian Albert Schweitzer in 1906. Schweitzer published a book “The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of His Progress from Reimarus to Wrede”, which attempted to assess and to synthesize the portraits of the historical Jesus then existing.
The “historical Jesus” who emerged from these works usually took the form of a Jewish prophet and preacher who had lived, worked, preached, gained a considerable following, and died at the hands of the Romans. According to this approach to biblical studies, the subsequent deification of this Jesus in God had taken place after his death and was a product of his followers and could not be traced back to the historical figure.
Meier’s work launched a new wave of historical scholarship on Jesus.
Rather than emphasizing the antagonism between critical historical research and religious faith, Meier’s work showed how faith and scientific reason could complement each other and lead to a deeper understanding of history, the culture and context of a sacred text. The “Jesus of History” and the “Christ of Faith” could coexist.
His scholarship highlighted the potential for Christian unity and cooperation in understanding Scripture among Christian denominations. Meier also participated in an ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the followers of Christ for nearly two full decades.
“A Marginal Jew” was released in 1991 to wide acclaim, and the publication of subsequent volumes in 1994, 2001, 2009, and 2016 cemented Meier’s reputation as a critical scholar for biblical research.
Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote a meditative theological trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth in the early 2000s, cited Meier’s work as a key source of inspiration for his own writings and reflections.
“From the immense amount of literature on the dating of the Last Supper and the death of Jesus, I would single out the treatment of the subject, remarkable both for its rigor and its precision, found in the first volume of John P. Le Meier’s book, “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,” the pope emeritus wrote in the notes to his 2011 volume.
Benedict XVI has elsewhere called Meier’s multi-volume work a “model of historical-critical exegesis”.
Meier retired from his position as the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in 2018. He continued to teach and work on the sixth volume of his “A Jew on the Margin” project during his retirement. . He was a much-loved figure on campus. His colleagues called him “a Renaissance man” and “a one-person prince”.
Meier was a prolific preacher who quoted scriptures from memory in English and Greek. Beloved teacher, Meier’s dry wit and wisdom entertained and delighted students, one of whom was this author.
“That sounds good, but – like so many beautiful religious statements – it’s wrong,” said one of Meier’s class bon mot.
“Education is the process by which you unlearn everything you once knew,” was another.
“Professor Meier’s rigor and genius were matched only by his kindness,” said doctoral student Jonathan Sanchez, who participated in Meier’s graduation doctoral seminar in the spring semester of 2021.
Several of his colleagues in the theology department have expressed grief over Meier’s passing.
“We deeply mourn the loss of our friend and mentor,” John Fitzgerald, professor of Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Notre Dame and longtime colleague of Meier, told Religion News Service by e -mail. “He was a quick-witted man with an irrepressible sense of humor, but we will continue to celebrate his life and scholarship for decades to come,” Fitzgerald said.
The Archdiocese of New York has confirmed that his funeral will be held at his alma mater, St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, on Saturday, October 22. Cardinal Timothy Dolan will preside.
As Meier often said, great works of biblical scholarship were often left unfinished. His sixth volume of “A Marginal Jew” remained unfinished at the time of his death on October 18, 2022.
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