Home > Uncategorized > The historical Jesus: Meier and Sobrino revisited

The historical Jesus: Meier and Sobrino revisited

In June 1988, at a conference of the Catholic Theological Society of America on the “Sources of Theology,” biblical scholar John Meier critiqued liberation theologian Jon Sobrino for his inadequate treatment of the historical Jesus (he also considered Juan Luis Segundo, but I’ll focus on Sobrino here). In short, Meier contended that Sobrino has not demonstrated the historical veracity of the claims that he makes about the historical Jesus. The problem with this criticism is that it depends on a fundamental equivocation. Is the “historical Jesus” equivalent to that construct of probable facts about Jesus which any reasonable community of scholars, regardless of confession, would hold to be true in light of the evidence (i.e., the historico-critical Jesus of Meier’s A Marginal Jew)?  Or is the “historical Jesus” the Word incarnate in a particular historical context in the past (first century Palestine) and sacramentally mediated in the liberating praxis of the church in analogous contexts in the present (e.g., late twentieth century El Salvador) (i.e., the historico-theologal Jesus of Sobrino’s Jesus the Liberator)? 

Both ways of seeking the historical Jesus risk sacrificing Jesus’ reality–that is, who he actually was and what he actually did: Meier by restricting his gaze to the demonstrably probable, Sobrino by pursuing a theological interpretation which is not pinned down on every point by demonstrable probability.  Sobrino, it should be noted, does cite historico-critical scholarship in defense of many claims.  Moreover, there is room to question the objectivity of any historical report–especially if it is about a religious figure such as Jesus–even if there are scholarly arguments, such as Meier’s, in place.

But the point I want to make here–and it is in some ways a point against Meier and in favor of Sobrino–is that reason has no absolute dominion over history.  What is most true historically is not necessarily what will convince a neutrally disposed committee of experts.  I don’t doubt that Meier’s meticulous work is of great value.  Certainly it is!  I do claim, however, that Sobrino’s reflection on the historical Jesus engages reality in a way which may be unavailable to those concerned primarily with academic consensus.  Understanding Jesus, for Sobrino, implies discipleship in history.  This, it seems to me, has more to do with who Jesus actually was than does any text which one might produce as a disinterested observer.

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  1. Todd Walatka
    February 21, 2010 at 11:54 am


    I really like your post but let me challenge back a little (unexpectedly I am sure). Meier is incredibly clear about what he is and what he is not doing. He is clear about the limits of his “search” for both theological work and the Christian faith. He recognizes that he sacrifices a great deal (including the Resurrection!), that his work is not a Christology, and that doing Christology would necessitate using many other sources not deducible to disinterested historical reconstruction.

    I think that you describe Sobrino (and Segundo’s) use of the “historical Jesus” well. What we have at work here is the hermeneutical circle. Historical data is being filtered through ideological suspicion, particular historical interests, and a concrete following of Jesus Christ in discipleship. Thus, both attempt to give an historically plausible reading of Jesus with an eye to and mediated through their context (your second defintion of “historical Jesus”). Nevertheless, statements are sometimes made which I see as “historico-theologal” but which are claimed to be “historico-critical” (the equivocation you apply to Meier above). I’ll give one example from Segundo but which I think would apply to Sobrino as well:

    Segundo says that historically speaking, we know that the pharisees were “religous fanatics,” sincere but exercising a “terrible legalism,” hard of heart, living with an “insensitivity to the evident needs of their neighbor, an insensitivity excused by appealing to higher, divine precepts”; they were “hypocrites” and the “enemies par excellence” of Jesus. I would argue that this reading functions theologically in Segundo – the oppression of the people by the Jewish leaders provides the backdrop for interpreting Jesus’ work in a political manner (since Segundo rejects an appeal to Jesus as an anti-Roman zealot). Nevertheless, Segundo emphasizes the historicity of this description (this would be the “historical Pharisees”). These are the points at which someone like Meier, who is responding to over a century’s worth of projection onto the “historical Jesus,” becomes worried about the use of “historical”.

    How would you read such a description of the Pharisees (or Sobrino’s description in Jesus the Liberator) and the claim of it being an accurate historical description?

  2. andrewlp
    February 21, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    This question gets at something like the problem I mentioned in my post on “Jewishness” in Ellacuria and Balthasar (https://memoriadei.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/jewishness-in-ellacuria-and-balthasar/). Theological reasons may motivate dubious constructions of historical Judaism.

    Your challenge also gives me a chance to clarify why Meier’s meticulous work is of great value. I believe it can have both a corrective and a clarifying role to play. Historical claims for which there is strong counter-evidence probably have no place in any theology, however hermeneutical or practical. But when an argument arises over a specific question of historicity, it’s not the case that the position of an historico-critical exegete is always to be preferred. We’ve got to question whether the historico-critical method, which is employed in order to satisfy reason, may in certain cases obscure what is most historically true. Meier’s critique of Sobrino seems to downplay this danger, and thereby overlook the ways in which Sobrino may be more historical than Meier himself.

  1. July 28, 2010 at 10:48 am

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