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Here Geza Vermes has collected, thematically classified and succinctly commented on every word attributed to Jesus in the Gospels of Luke, Mark & Matthew. To a lesser extent he refers to the Gospel of John and rarely also to the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. To understand the evidence within the historical framework and for purposes of comparison, he draws on the intertestamental records of Judaism: the Apocrypha, Pseudo-Epigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, the work of Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus plus the legal and interpretative rabbinic literature.

The aim is to rediscover the core message preached and practiced by Jesus, whose statements are grouped into nine chapters by literary category: narratives & commands, controversy stories, words of wisdom, parables, scripture quotes, prayers, Son of Man sayings, Statements about the Kingdom of God, and Eschatological Rules of Behaviour. The commentary following these quotations endeavors to separate the different levels of superimposed meaning with the goal of establishing their primary settings and significance.

In the final chapter Vermes attempts to formulate the principles that establish parameters for the authenticity of these words. He probes beneath the layers produced by evangelists, the early church and 2000 years of Christianity in order to discover the true meaning of the original teachings. The work culminates in the Epilogue in which the author attempts to outline the essence of the message and personality of the real Jesus based on the words judged most likely to be genuine.

The section titled The Religion of Jesus reveals that there was nothing abstract, theoretical or speculative about it. Jesus tried to teach his listeners how to draw close to God through concrete action and behaviour. There are five major themes: the Kingdom of God, observation of Torah in the final age, eschatological piety, prayers, and view of God. Jesus saw God as a loving father who cares, comparing him to a good shepherd, a generous employer and all-knowing head of a family aware of all his creatures' needs.

In essence, there is absolutely no harshness or severity in the God of Jesus Christ. In my opinion, based upon much reading and study of religion and spirituality, this portrayal corresponds most closely to that of Jewish mysticism and what is variously called New Thought, Divine Science or Mental Science. For proof, please compare The Hidden Power of the Bible by Ernest Holmes, The Sermon on the Mount by Emmet Fox and above all, Bible Mystery and Bible Meaning by Thomas Troward. Jesus considered anxiety, worry and fear of the future as denial of God according to Matt 6:25 - 34 & Luke 12:22 - 31, judged to be examples of his genuine teaching.

The modern varieties of Christianity with their blend of philosophical speculation on a triune deity, logos mysticism, Pauline theology, sacramental symbolism, ecclesiastical discipline and widespread anti-Judaism appear remote, even alien, from their claimed source. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart Ehrman is a valuable primer that shows how the aforementioned notions and practices developed and eventually triumphed in Constantine Christianity whilst Larry Hurtado's brilliant book How on Earth did Jesus become a God? sheds a fascinating light on the early origin of devotion to Jesus. Vermes remarks that his reconstruction of the genuine religion of Jesus is nowadays espoused only by single individuals or is distorted by sects and cults.

The author proceeds to discuss the conduct and eschatological motivation of the followers of Jesus after the crucifixion. They continued his charismatic activity of healing and exorcism while still awaiting the imminent arrival of the Kingdom. When the feverish expectation of his return began to subside, the church became a maternal and this-worldly substitute for the Kingdom. In this regard, see also Lord Jesus Christ by Hurtado. Vermes concludes with the counsel that earnest seekers in the Christian tradition ought to heed what Jesus himself taught instead of blindly accepting what has been taught about him.

The appendix contains a register of the sayings discussed in chapters 1 to 9. An asterisk marks those that Vermes considers authentic or probably authentic. The rest is "editorial," ranging from the probably genuine but substantially reworked to the almost certainly inauthentic that represents the view of the early church from approximately 70 to 100 AD.

The book includes a map of the Holy Land in the time of Jesus, a chronological table of important events from 197 BC to 135 AD and concludes with an index of Gospel citations from the Synoptics. For other interesting perspectives, I have found Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church by Ron Moseley and Yeshua by Yacov Rambsel very instructive and thought-provoking.
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on 25 May 2005
This is an intelligent and well written book which dissects the synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew) in order to find a 'real' Jesus behind the Christian writing. That is to say, the author wants to take Christianity out of the Christian sources, to reveal a Jewish prophet with no claims to divinity. In this sceptical attitude, he goes beyond what other scholars writing in a similar vein, like Sanders and Ehrman, have recently done, Vermes with less balance and success in my view. Whilst others have tried to retrieve the narrative ethos of each of the synoptic gospels in order to interpret particular passages, Vermes has a better idea: destroy (or perhaps de-construct) the narratives as they exist, to reveal a new genuine gospel by a 'real' pre-Christian Jesus. Passage by passage, eliminate any little sentence or word that smacks of Christianity as an implausible accretion - do not even concede the possibility that some passages might be both authentic and useful for later Christian doctrines. The flaw with this method of deconstruction is that it narrows what Jesus was to what Vermes, with his own bias, imagines a Galilean Jew could have been. More damaging, the transition from Vermes' purely Jewish Jesus who never intended to preach to the gentiles, to the resurrected Jesus perceived by those Jewish Christians (like James, the brother of Jesus, or Peter) who then started the Christian movement amongst both Jews and eventually gentiles, is unexplained. (I am leaving Paul, another Jew, out of this argument, but of course he was crucial in spreading the new Jewish sect of Christianity to the gentiles, introducing some hotly contested adaptations). That is to say, with his pruning Vermes takes away some of the elements that make the emergence of a Jewish Christian sect understandable. Having said this, I am not questioning the now very old principle that the gospels are not accurare historical records. It is well established amongst scholars that the Jesus of the gospels was an interpretation and that the narratives were written by devout men who combined various sources and probably never knew Jesus directly. In their views they were influenced by many events, from the death of Jesus to the destruction of the second temple. It is therefore clear that much of what the synoptic gospels (let alone John) contain can not be taken at face value, as they even contradict each other on points of history. Breaking down the narratives passage by passage has some use, but can be no substitute for trying to understand each narrative in its own context.

I reccommend that readers of this book also consider the excellent books by Sanders and Ehrman as better introductions to the quest to find a historically plausible Jewish Jesus behind the Christian myths.
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on 21 June 2010
The book sets out to ascertain what was the probable true life and teaching of Jesus the charismatic preacher and healer. The book examines all the teachings of Jesus and identifies those which are probably genuine and those which are probably false, and explains why. That in itself is a great resource. The book has the feel of being written with great care and understanding and not just as another of those dreadful 'religious potboilers'. Turns out that Jesus would have fully adhered to the traditional Jewish teachings, but he kept pointing out that it was no use just observing the letter of the Law but that the human implications had to be bourne in mind. He taught that 'God' was like a father, a parent, and that we could approach 'HIM' direct. This teaching, that God did not just act 'through a nation', as it were, was taken up later by Paul of course. Jesus' short career was carried out within just a few small fishing towns and his visit to Jerusalem was his last. His charismatic power apparently continued after his death and this led his followers to conclude that he was somehow still alive. To the dispersed jews living in the wider Greek influenced world the clear monotheism and the 'direct approach' to God appealed greatly, but the observances of the traditional jewish world were gradually lost. Together with Paul's teaching this paved the way for the religion 'about Jesus' which replaced the religion of Jesus. A useful reference book and and a very important read.
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on 3 January 2014
Vermes is brilliantly sound on the subject of what we can really know about Jesus, and has a marvelously clear eye for the history. He shows with literally every word attributed to Jesus whether you can regard it as an authentic tradition of something he said (not verbatim, obviously - the gospels were written a generation after he was executed, and anyway he spoke aramaic and the gospels were written in Greek), and shows why others are less reliable, including the later editorial changes and inventions etc. For a militant atheist, this stuff is grist to the argumentative mill, but I can't imagine how a Christian could fail to be interested in what the man actually said and believed, rather than the fictions their clergy peddle to them.
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on 21 March 2015
Fascinating insight into the early life of the Christian church. Details the change from a fledgling Jewish spiritual collective through power struggles as a specifically Christian polemic begins. Sets out a clearer idea of who Jesus might have been and why the Christian church came to be what it was. Geza Vermes was an amazingly insightful writer.
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on 11 August 2004
This is a wonderful book, all the individual sayings of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are studied one by one in the context of the Judaism of the time, and comparisons are made with the Qumran texts, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Old Testament. The figure of the historical Jesus that emerges is a very credible one: Jesus had an eschatological hope of an imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. After his death, the disciple's experience of his resurrection led to the awaiting of his second coming, the Parousia, with a Final Judgment.
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on 4 November 2014
An informative read for all, I just wish the Church of England would read and digest and then reflect in services - one can dream.
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on 23 November 2012
The structure is what it says it is going to be - picking though quotes attributable to Jesus. Unfortunately those quotes - parables, teachings and so on, are actually rather insubstantial. The messages are ambiguous and inclined to be contradictory. Vermes' arguments are sometimes - like other commentators have remarked - questionable, but you feel he is making the best of what little there is to go on.
What he tries to do is distil a simple direct message, all the time according respect to Jesus as a special person. If you are religious, you might enjoy thinking about that.
However if you are not committed, what you get from this book is an insight into an analysis that presumably features in other Vermes' books.
Jesus essentially was a died-in-the-wool Jew. He wanted people to urgently confirm to canonical Judaism. He wasn't inventing a new religion. He wasn't really proposing a new testament. He thought he was preparing people for an imminent Armageddon, so there wasn't too much time for philosophising. He'd only just got going when he slightly oversteps the mark. You didn't do that in those days and the next minute - contrary to the script - instead of sitting at the table in the new Kingdom of God, Jesus finds himself being executed.
This spanner in the works, coupled with the inexorable passage of time - and no end of the world, leaves the original proposition a bit ragged. However the Christians develop a whole new philosophy now centring on Jesus. It also moves from Jesus's almost exclusive target of the Jews to mainly non-Jewish members, and a growing anti-Jewish spin.
If you are a Christian looking for fresh insights, I don't think this book will give you what you might be looking for. For me, it answered a lot of questions about the birth of Christianity. I guess Vermes latest book - Christian Beginings - might carry the story forward to essentially where we are now.
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on 29 December 2014
Good product, & received on the said date.
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on 1 April 2016
Very happy with the quality of the book.
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