John Meier’s fourth volume of A Marginal Jew came out last spring, and is focused on placing the historical Jesus within the Jewish Law of his time. The title of his introductory chapter, “The Historical Jesus is the Halakic Jesus,” is an excellent summary of his thesis, and as he says later, “The historical Jewish Jesus must be seen as a Jesus immersed in the halakic discussions, debates, and actual practice of 1st-century Palestinian Jews.” The word halaka (Hebrew for “walking,” “conduct,” “behavior,” etc.) is used to refer to a legal opinion or ruling concerning specific human conduct.
The idea of understanding Jesus better by sorting out how he fits in to the local religious context and controversies of his day is hardly new, but Maier does an excellent job. We Mormons, with our focus on conduct and behavior, in particular may have quite a bit to learn from this approach. One of my favorite observations so far comes from an illustration of one of the criteria frequently used by questers for the historical Jesus, the criterion of discontinuity. Fr. Maier writes,
To take a curious example…: when asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replies by citing the two commandments enjoining love of God with all one’s heart and love of neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28-34). At first glance, the reader will perhaps be surprised to see that I invoke the criterion of discontinuity to establish the historicity of this anecdote. After all, the two commandments, taken by themselves, are simply citations of two precepts contained in the Pentateuch (Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18b). True, but what is “discontinuous” is what Jesus does with these texts. He (i) cites each commandment word for word, (ii) joins the two of them back to back, (iii) ranks them explicitly as “first” and “second,” and (iv) concludes by declaring that no other commandment is greater than these two. This fourfold configuration of a double commandment of love is found nowhere else in the OT, the literature of Second Temple Judaism, the rest of the NT, or the early patristic writings. All this constitutes a glaring discontinuity of teaching that often goes unremarked.
One could consider that Jesus’ discontinuities of religious conduct were as innovative and provocative in his day as Joseph Smith’s new prescriptions for religious conduct have been in our day. Maier’s eventual summary seems to be that in the end, it is fruitful to consider Jesus’ command to love in the same sort of strict, behavioral context that laws on purity, divorce, sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions were viewed: a very concrete, observable, even measurable context.
Beyond the scholarly interest — and Maier is an engaging writer, in my view — for us such an analysis also seems to raise the question: while Mormons do an excellent job of measuring conduct on a remarkably similar set of criteria (dietary restrictions, sabbath observance, purity, etc.), do we as a community treat the commandment to love with the same rigor?