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interesting but biased
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.