The Aims of Jesus

Written by Ben F. Meyer Reviewed By Dick France

When a book dealing with a broad range of issues connected with the life and teaching of Jesus promises the ‘rejection of a large number of current clichés dealing with history or the history of Jesus’, one’s hopes are high. And in general they are not disappointed.

The clichés rejected are widely selected, but most of them belong to the main stream of radical criticism. The round dismissal of Bultmann’s famous ‘closed continuum of effects’ and of the view that ‘judgment of the past is limited by present experience’ (p. 17) points the way. The author’s main guru turns out to be Jeremias, though he calls no man master, and is capable of dismissing Jeremias on occasion. His assessment of the historical worth of the gospels is very positive, both in principle and on individual sayings. He concludes for the dominical origin of nearly all sayings discussed, and is unusually prone to take even their reported narrative settings as serious factors in their exegesis. A bold defence of Matthew 16:17–19 as words of Jesus, spoken on the occasion of Peter’s confession, is typical (pp. 186ff.).

Part 1 (‘Hermeneutical Issues’) aims to break the logjam in critical scholarship by opening up basic questions, in particular attacking both ‘methodical scepticism’ and ‘methodical credulity’. This section (more than a third of the book) is hard going for the mere exegetical and historical technician, as it relentlessly demands that we ask and answer basic methodological and philosophical questions which are usually taken for granted one way or another. It includes a useful section (chapter III) arguing that an essential factor in the gospel tradition was the aim to convey information on past events. ‘Palestinian Christianity was nourished on the memory of Jesus’ (p. 69). Meyer cautions, therefore, against ‘the mistake of relegating the substance of the material tradition to Christian invention’ (p. 74).

There is much excellent material here which will provide ammunition for the defenders of the historical character of the gospels. But they will not have it all their own way, for they, together with the ‘methodical sceptics’, come under the author’s displeasure for their historical insensitivity: ‘There are only two columns, yes and no. For both schools, method, founded on an als ob, its feet firmly planted in the air, makes up for the lack of knowledge. Supposition disposes of residues. “I do not know” is eliminated’ (p. 84). A man who can write like that has got to be worth listening to, however uncomfortable some of his questions may be.

But that, as my great-uncle used to say when one was hoping for the end of the story, was only the introduction. The rest of the book turns to ‘the aims of Jesus’, the overriding intentions revealed in the records of his career. The question is both what, as a matter of historical fact, Jesus’ aims were, and how far he fulfilled them.

To this end two important points of method are set out. First, a sharp distinction is drawn between Jesus’ public proclamation and his private teaching, and this distinction forms the structural framework for the discussion. Secondly, pre-redactional traditions, where they can be discerned, are ‘systematically detached from the redactions’; in other words, the evangelists are as far as possible ignored, and the spotlight falls on Jesus himself. One cannot refuse to admire the boldness of a man who can so openly flout the current consensus!

The result of the discussion is quickly told. Jesus’ aim was the restoration of Israel. John the Baptist set out ‘to gather the remnant of Israel destined for salvation’ (p. 119), and Jesus took up his mantle. Meyer’s stress throughout is on the communal nature of the restoration Jesus intended. It was Israel, not individual Israelites, he came to call. But his call brought division in Israel’s response to him, and so the realistic aim of his mission was to call together the remnant in readiness for the imminent judgment. ‘Jesus’ mission was eschatological through and through’ (p. 202). His aim was ‘national restoration in its full eschatological sweep’ (p. 221).

If this conclusion is, as the author recognizes, not very new, that is not necessarily a mark against its validity, and the persistent reinforcement of this perspective from many different angles adds up to a forceful thesis, which makes a lot of sense in the light of Jesus’ historical situation. If this is not all there was to Jesus’ mission, it is undeniably a central aspect of it.

But the book’s value lies as much in the detailed discussion as in the overall thesis. In order to demonstrate this perspective, Meyer studies in depth an interesting selection of sayings, incidents and themes from the gospels. Some are little classics in their own right, particularly the section on Jesus’ divorce teaching as ‘eschatological Torah’, ‘Torah for a graced and restored Israel’ (pp. 139–142), and the discussion of Matthew 16:17–19 (pp. 185–197). There is a suggestive presentation of the significance of the temple in Jesus’ messianic consciousness, approached by way of the ‘riddle’ of the destruction and rebuilding of the temple, the church built on the ‘cosmic rock’, and the cleansing of the temple as a messianic act (pp. 181–202). And there is much more.

A concluding chapter first shows how Jesus’ aims fit into the contemporary Jewish scene, with its remnant emphasis, and into the development of the ‘new Israel’ idea in early Christianity, and then broaches the question of Jesus’ alleged ‘mistake’ over the time of eschatological fulfilment. Here everyone else’s answers are boldly dismissed as either cavalier or evasive (pp. 242–246). Mayer believes that prophetic knowledge is in essence concerned with symbols not with specific events, and that one-for-one fulfilment should not be sought. ‘The prophet knows mainly the symbols; history—and the end of history—reveal what they symbolize’ (p. 248). What he does not seem to explain is the symbolic value of Jesus’ stubbornly chronological words about ‘this generation’ etc. What was the intention of using such language if the predictions were consciously open-ended?

This is a solid, technical work. But it has the inestimable advantage of not being a doctoral thesis. The author, not needing to satisfy the examiners with scientific pedantry, can offer cultured prose and wide-ranging thought. The technical detail is generally stowed away in the 63 pages of notes, and the text is sometimes a positive pleasure to read. Where it is hard going, the cause is the demanding nature of the material rather than, as so often, sheer inability to communicate.

Dick France

Llangelynin, Gwynedd