Meier was born in New York. He attended St. Joseph's Seminary and College (B.A., 1964), Gregorian University Rome (S.T.L, 1968), and the Biblical Institute Rome (S.S.D., 1976). Meier is William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. His fields include biblical studies and Christianity and Judaism in antiquity. Before coming to Notre Dame, he was professor of New Testament at the Catholic University of America.
John P. Meier's series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus begins by invoking the methods of modern historical research to "recover, recapture, or reconstruct" the "historical Jesus." Meier suggests that such research might admit agreement of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and agnostic scholars as to "who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended" (v. 1, 1991, p. 1).Volume 1 (1991) differentiates the historical Jesus from the Biblical Jesus. It analyzes sources, including the New Testament and non-canonical works. The latter include the agrapha, the apocryphal gospels (such as the Gospel of Thomas), Josephus, and other Jewish and second-century Roman works. For deciding what comes from Jesus as distinct from early Christian tradition it proposes these primary criteria (pp. 168–77):
1. The criterion of embarrassment: Why invent what would invite difficulty for the early church?
2. The criterion of discontinuity: Why reject as words or deeds of Jesus what cannot be derived from the Judaism of Jesus' time or the early church?
3. The criterion of multiple attestation: Is it more plausible to deny words, sayings, or deeds attributed to Jesus in more than one independent literary source (e.g., Mark, Q, Paul, and John) or literary genre (e.g., parable, miracle story, or prophecy)?
4. The criterion of coherence: Given the claims to historicity from any of the above criteria, are different sayings or deeds evidently inconsistent?
5. The criterion of rejection and execution: If Jesus' ministry came to a violent, public end, what of Jesus' words or deeds could have alienated people, especially powerful people?
The criteria are to be used in concert for mutual correction. Still, any claim is only to the probable, not the certain. The rest of Volume 1 discusses the origins of Jesus as to formative years, "external" influences (language, education, and socioeconomic status), and "internal" influences (family ties and marital and lay status). The volume concludes with a survey of Jesus' life chronology.
On the question of references to Jesus in the Talmud, Meier considers the thesis of Joseph Klausner (1925) that some very few rabbinic sources, none earlier than about than late 2nd or early 3rd century, contain traces of the historical Jesus. He presents further considerations and arguments, including those of Johann Maier (talmudic scholar) (1978) who maintains that the Yeshu texts are later medieval corruptions, and writes that:
While not accepting the full, radical approach of Maier, I think we can agree with him on one basic point: in the earliest rabbinic sources, there is no clear or even probable reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, ... when we do finally find such references in later rabbinic literature, they are most probably reactions to Christian claims, oral or written.
Volume 2 (1994) is in three main parts:Jesus' relationship to John the Baptist (as 'mentor')
Jesus' message of the kingdom of God
accounts of Jesus' miracles in ancient and modern minds.
The kingdom of God in the second part (pp. 235–506) is examined as to:the Old Testament, related writings, and Qumran
Jesus' proclamation of a future kingdom
the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus' words and deeds as already present in his ministry (pp. 451–53).
The third part applies the same criteria of historicity to miracle stories as to other aspects of Jesus' life. Rather than adopting say an exclusively agnostic or Christian perspective or relying on philosophical arguments whether miracles can occur, it poses narrower data-based historical questions (pp. 510–11, 517). Meier is quoted in a 1997 interview as saying: "The proper stance of a historian is, 'I neither claim beforehand that miracles are possible, nor do I claim beforehand they are not possible.'" Meier finds that Jesus' performance of extraordinary deeds deemed miracles at the time is best supported by the criteria of multiple attestation and the coherence of Jesus' deeds and words (p. 630). In moving from the global question of miracles to the particular, Meier examines each miracle story by broad category. That examination drives the conclusion that no single theory explains all such stories with equal assurance and applicability. Rather, it is suggested that some stories have no historical basis (such as the cursing of the fig tree) and that other stories likely go back to events in the life of Jesus (though theological judgment is required to affirm any miracle) (p. 968). At the global level again, Jesus as healer is as well supported as almost anything about the historical Jesus. In the Gospels, the activity of Jesus as miracle worker looms large in attracting attention to himself and reinforces his eschatological message. Such activity, Meier suggests, might have added to the concern of authorities that culminated in Jesus' death (p. 970).
Volume 3 (2001) places Jesus in the context of his followers, the crowds, and his competitors (including Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Samaritans, scribes, and Zealots) in first-century Palestine.
Volume 4 (2009) deals with the ministry of the historical Jesus in relation to Mosaic Law, such subjects as divorce, oaths, and observance of the Sabbath and purity rules, and the various love commandments in the Gospels.
Volume 5 (2016) challenges that consensus and argues instead that only four parables-those of the Mustard Seed, the Evil Tenants, the Talents, and the Great Supper-can be attributed to the historical Jesus with fair certitude.
Antioch and Rome was reviewed in 1984 and 1985 by Larry W. Hurtado 1993 and William Loader.... (1976). Law and History in Matthew's Gospel. Rome: Biblical Institute.
... (1979). The Vision of Matthew. New York, NY: Paulist Press.
... (1980). Matthew. Lex Orandi. 3. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
... (1980). Access Guide to Matthew. New York: Sadlier.
with Brown, Raymond E. (1983). Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity. New York, NY: Paulist Press.
... (1990). The Mission of Christ and His Church. Wilmington, DE: Glazier.
... (1991). A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person. Anchor Bible Reference Library Series (Reissued ed.). New York: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-3001-4018-7.
... (1994). A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume 2: Mentor, Message and Miracles. Anchor Bible Reference Library Series (Reissued ed.). New York: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-3001-4033-0.
... (2001). A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume 3: Companions and Competitors. Anchor Bible Reference Library Series (Reissued ed.). New York: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-3854-6993-7.
... (2009). A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume 4: Law and Love. Anchor Bible Reference Library Series. New York: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-3001-4096-5.
... (2015). Jésus et le divorce. Paris: Les Editions du CERF.
... (2016). A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume 5: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables. Anchor Bible Reference Library Series. New York: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-3002-1190-0.
... (1990). "Jesus". In Brown, Raymond E. (et.al.). The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. pp. 1316–28. ISBN 0-13-614934-0.
... (2008). "The Historical Jesus and the Historical Sabbath". In Udoh, Fabian E. (et.al.). Redefining First-Century Jewish and Christian Identities. E. P. Sanders Festschrift. 1. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press. pp. 297–307.
... (2010). "Petrine Ministry in the New Testament and in the Early Patristic Traditions". In Puglisi, James F. (et.al.). How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church?. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. pp. 13–33.
... (2011). "Basic Methodology in the Quest for the Historical Jesus". In Holmen, Tom; Porter, S. E. Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus. 1. Leiden: Brill. pp. 291–331.
... (2012). "The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30): Is Thomas's Version (Logion 57) Independent?". Journal of Biblical Literature. 131 (4): 715–732.
... (2012). "The Parable of the Wicked Tenants of the Vineyard: Is the Gospel of Thomas Independent of the Synoptics?". Frank Matera Festschrift. 1. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
... (2012). "Is Luke's Version of the Parable of the Rich Fool Reflected in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas?". Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 74 (3): 528–547.
... (2013). "The Historical Figure of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and His Historical Parables". In Estrada, Bernardo (et.al.). The Gospels: History and Christology 2 vols. 1. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. pp. 237–60.