In memoriam: Msgr. John P. Meier, professor emeritus of theology

Author: Beth Staples

Msgr. John Meier
Msgr. John Meier

Monsignor John P. Meier, University of Notre Dame professor, Catholic priest and renowned biblical scholar, died Oct. 18 at age 80.

Father Meier, the William K. Warren Professor of Theology emeritus, published nearly 80 articles and 18 books during his distinguished career, including the acclaimed “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus” series.

At the time of his death, he was working on volume six. The five completed volumes, published between 1991 and 2016, were translated into Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French.

Pope Benedict XVI heralded Father Meier’s exceptional scholarship in “Jesus of Nazareth,” volume two, “Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.” The pope wrote, “From the immense quantity of literature on the dating of the Last Supper and of Jesus’ death, I would like to single out the treatment of the subject, outstanding both in its thoroughness and its accuracy, found in the first volume of John P. Meier’s book, 'A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.’”

The Biblical Archaeology Society named the first volume the Best Book Relating to the New Testament, and the Academy of Parish Clergy named the second volume its Book of the Year.

Both the American Theological Association and American Council of Learned Societies awarded Father Meier full fellowships during his 2002 sabbatical, which he dedicated to writing volume four. 

David Lincicum, associate professor of theology, said Meier’s epochal series was the most significant contribution to historical Jesus research of the past generation. 

“He began that work with a famous thought experiment: What if four honest historians — a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew and an agnostic — locked themselves in the basement of the Harvard Divinity School and couldn't come out until they had agreed on a set of assured facts about Jesus' life? By using a stringently formulated set of criteria to authenticate words and deeds of Jesus as historical, Meier examined the Jesus traditions in search of that set of assured results. 

“Most consequentially, he approached Jesus of Nazareth as a Jew who lived in the first century, and so his historical work lent itself to interfaith understanding between Judaism and Christianity, two great religions who share the historical Jesus in common.” 

Father Meier also co-authored “Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity.” Experts consider the book — which the Catholic Press Association named Best Book of 1983 — a seminal work about early Christianity. 

In addition to the historical Jesus and New Testament Christology, the biblical scholar’s academic interests included the Gospels of Matthew and John and Palestinian Judaism. 

While Father Meier retired in 2018 from his 20-year career at Notre Dame, he continued to teach courses at the University and write.

“John was a beloved teacher and colleague,” said Lincicum, “with a reputation for wit and humor, and broad knowledge ranging from fine wine to 'Gossip Girl.' His death is an enormous loss to human knowledge.”

Gary Anderson, the Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Thought, recalled how Father Meier’s cultural literacy extended from the sublime to the ridiculous.

“He could speak about almost any opera and recite lines from them in their original languages (French, Italian, German). He never did so ostentatiously — it was just done in a sort of matter-of-fact way reflecting how deeply he loved them and knew them,” he said.

“He was equally attuned to modern movies, TV series and phone apps. He always amazed his undergraduate students with references to things they could not imagine he was familiar with.” 

Father Meier, said Anderson, was also considerate of colleagues, happy to lead a life of material austerity, and modest — never one to put on airs or ruffle feathers.

Before joining Notre Dame’s Department of Theology in 1999, Father Meier taught for 12 years at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in New York, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy in 1964. And he taught for 14 years at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Born Aug. 8, 1942, in New York, Father Meier was ordained a Catholic priest in 1967 at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And in 1995, Pope John Paul II made him a Monsignor — an Honorary Prelate of the Papal Household.

He earned a licentiate in theology, summa cum laude, with the gold medal awarded at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He also earned a doctorate in sacred scripture, summa cum laude, with the gold medal awarded at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. 

Father Meier served as president and trustee of the Catholic Biblical Association, as well as general editor of its The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. He also was on the editorial board of the international journal Dead Sea Discoveries.

A reception of the body and wake will be held from 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday (Oct. 22) at the Chapel of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, 201 Seminary Ave., Yonkers, New York. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 22 at the seminary. Interment will be at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.

Originally published by Beth Staples at al.nd.edu on Oct. 20.