YONKERS, New York — A funeral Mass was celebrated Oct. 22 at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers for Msgr. John P. Meier, a Scripture scholar, professor and an indefatigable writer whose book “A Marginal Jew” hit bestseller lists in the 1990s.
Meier, died Oct. 18 at the age of 80.
He was born in New York City in 1942 and received his undergraduate theological training at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, followed by graduate studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1967.
His first assignment was as an associate pastor. But by 1972, he had returned to St. Joseph’s Seminary, this time as a professor and soon afterward he returned to Rome to obtain a doctorate in sacred Scripture in 1976 from the Pontifical Biblical Institute.
He led the seminary’s Scripture studies department before taking on a professorship at The Catholic University of America in Washington, in 1984. He taught there for 14 years before moving on the University of Notre Dame in 1998.
Meier retired in 2018 after 20 years in Notre Dame’s theology department, but he stayed on campus to take on occasional teaching assignments and to continue his research and writing.
Regardless of where he taught, writing always went hand in hand for Meier. Through his first two decades of priesthood, his highest-profile book may have been “Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity.”
But when “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus” hit bookstores in 1991, it ascended up bestseller lists. In 1995, a second volume of “A Marginal Jew” captured the seventh spot on the initial monthly list of Catholic bestsellers compiled by the Catholic Book Publishers Association.
It was with “A Marginal Jew” that Meier became known beyond theological circles — although not all those in theological circles were enamored of the book.
In a review for Catholic News Service, Father J. Michael Beers, an assistant professor of Scripture and patristics at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, complimented Msgr. Meier for making “a significant contribution to biblical scholarship,” but warned that, until more work was published in this vein, “we are left with a Christology that is not only marginal, but incomplete.”
Then-Father Avery Dulles, not yet a cardinal, also criticized Meier’s work.
In remarks in 1992, he said Meier “admits that there must be some continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, since the risen Jesus was previously the man from Nazareth.” But “he leaves it unclear, at least to this reader, whether any particular assertions about the earthly career of Jesus are required by faith. His discussion of the virginal conception of Jesus and of the Resurrection may be used as examples.”
Dulles said faith did not originate in historical study of the Gospel accounts, but came from “God’s revealing word as conveyed by the testimony of the church.” Nonetheless, the future cardinal added that most Catholics consider themselves committed to belief in some historical facts about Jesus.
Disputes over positions taken in “A Marginal Jew” did not dampen either the priest’s writing or his ministry. St. John Paul II elevated the priest to the rank of monsignor in 1994.
Meanwhile, Meier wrote four additional “A Marginal Jew” books and was at work on a fifth when he died. It is not known whether someone else will complete the work or whether it will remain unfinished.