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Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325 [Kindle Edition]

Geza Vermes
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Geza Vermes, translator and editor of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls and worldwide expert on the life and times of Jesus, tells the enthralling story of early Christianity and the origins of a religion.

The creation of the Christian Church is one of the most important stories in the development of the world's history, but also one of the most enigmatic and little understood, shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding. With a forensic, brilliant re-examination of all the key surviving texts of early Christianity, Geza Vermes illuminates the origins of a faith and traces the evolution of the figure of Jesus from the man he was - a prophet fully recognisable as the successor to other Jewish holy men of the Old Testament - to what he came to represent: a mysterious, otherworldly being at the heart of a major new religion. As Jesus's teachings spread across the eastern Mediterranean, hammered into place by Paul, John and their successors, they were transformed in the space of three centuries into a centralised, state-backed creed worlds away from its humble origins. Christian Beginnings tells the captivating story of how a man came to be hailed as the Son consubstantial with God, and of how a revolutionary, anti-conformist Jewish sub-sect became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.


'A beautiful and magisterial book' Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Guardian

'An exciting and challenging port of call, sweeping aside much of the fuzzy thinking and special pleading that bedevils the study of sacred scripture ... courteously expressed and witty' Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Times

'A challenging and engaging book that sets out to retrace the route by which a Jewish preacher in 1st-century Israel came to be declared as consubstantial and co-equal with the omnipotent, omniscient only God' Stuart Kelly, Scotsman

'A major contribution to our understanding of the historical Jesus' Financial Times

'A very accessible and entertaining read' Scotland on Sunday Books of the Year

'A magnum opus of early Christian history and one of the year's most significant titles' Bookseller

Product Description


The subject is not exactly the Christian Church, which makes an appearance effectively only half way through the text; it is Jesus - what he was, what he said he was, and what Christians said about him after his crucifixion. For anyone puzzling over such questions, this is an exciting and challenging port of call, sweeping aside much of the fuzzy thinking and special pleading that bedevils the study of sacred scripture ... [a] courteously expressed and witty little book (Diarmaid MacCulloch The Times)

This book represents the summation of [Vermes's] thinking about the early history of Christianity. It is a challenging and engaging book that sets out to retrace the route by which a Jewish preacher in 1st-century Israel came to be declared as consubstantial and co-equal with the omnipotent, omniscient only God (Stuart Kelly Scotsman)

A major contribution to our understanding of the historical Jesus (Financial Times)

A magnum opus of early Christian history and one of the year's most significant titles (Bookseller)

A very accessible and entertaining read (Gareth Williams Scotland on Sunday BOOKS OF THE YEAR)

About the Author

Geza Vermes was born in Hungary in 1924. He studied in Budapest and Louvain, and was the first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford. He is one of the world's greatest experts on early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From charisma to doctrine 23 July 2012
By Ralph Blumenau TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For people who have studied the transformation of the perception of Jesus' teaching from something that was fully in the Jewish tradition to something that made it unacceptable to Jews, the story told here is nothing new in essence, and has indeed been told by Vermes himself in several earlier books to which he refers the reader in notes. He has always portrayed the original Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels as a figure very much in the tradition of charismatic individuals in the Hebrew Bible: eloquent prophets or preachers, miracle workers, healers, casters out of demons, concerned with social justice and always opposed to and resented by the priests of their day.

In the first half of the book Vermes shows that the message of this original Jesus was unencumbered by subtle philosophical or theological definitions or theories, how these developed and how the Jewish Jesus sect was transformed into Pauline and Johannine Christianity. He credits Justin Martyr, ca.100 to 165, with being the founder of "Christian theology, ... a theology linked to Greek philosophy and totally different from Jesus' non-speculative mode of thinking." One can see - and it is made clear in the last four lines of the Postscript - that Vermes' sympathies lie with the pre-theological phase of Christianity, scrupulously though he deals with the succeeding phases.

In the second half he deals with the continuing elaboration of theories and definitions by post-Pauline theologians, up the Council of Nicaea in 325. By that time the charismatic element (still very much present in Paul's day) and an emphasis on the message - WHAT JESUS HAD TAUGHT - had given way to an emphasis among theologians on the messenger - exactly WHO JESUS WAS and to an intense concern with his precise relationship with God.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly insight into early Christianity 21 Sept. 2012
By David
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The history of religion is bedevilled by the fact that those who are sufficiently motivated to undertake it are often too closely involved in a certain form of it to remain dispassionate. Geza Vermes is a happy and valuable exception. His broad sweep through history starts in pre-Christian times, drawing a distinction between two forms of Jewish faith: 1) the law- and ritual-bound religion of the temple and 2) the charismatic faith of various miracle workers.

Jesus, he contends, falls into the second category, and hence falls into one of the established religious traditions. Following the text of the synoptic gospels closely, he shows that Jesus was a miracle worker and healer, and beyond this, made no very extravagant claims of divinity or godhood.

Early Christianity either did not believe in the Trinity at all, or else saw God (the father) as the more important element, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit following in decreasing order of importance.

Thus, the `heretic' Arius probably represented what had, up until his time, been the majority view. The book ends with the changes make at the Council of Nicaea, and the emergence of modern Christianity.

One might have thought that a historian of this period had little evidence to go on. In fact, Vermes's painstaking textual analysis convinces one the evidence is clear, and one feels surprised at not having seen it more clearly before.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jesus first, last and only a Jew 16 Oct. 2012
One of my reasons for reading Vermes is his perspective on Jesus. As the John Meier wrote in A Marginal Jew(Vol 4, p 7), it is one of the gains of the third quest for the historical Jesus that scholars like Vermes and Sanders have 'hammered home' the message: 'Jesus first, last and only a Jew'. Like Meier I am from a Christian background.
As another reviewer has said, there is repetition here but it has been edited and is, I thought, essential to the BIG question Vermes raises in the book: why was this Jewish holy man subsequently elevated to the status of God incarnate over the next few hundred years and proclaimed as such by the council of Nicea in 325 CE? It is not a new question but the more we understand the Jewish Jesus the more obvious the need to ask it. It would seem a logical conclusion to Vermes' work.
So, although he does not say so, it is a sort of a detective story, a "Who done it?" based on an analysis of the New Testament contributions of Paul and John, followed by the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Apostolic Fathers and great figures of the Second and early Third centuries. One person is given special mention but I please see for yourself!
I appreciated the greater clarity in his pages on Paul and John and I was especially pleased to read his analysis of the others because they are less accessible to many of us.
The analysis is inevitably limited because claims about Jesus' divinity are a matter of faith, but the historian is still able to play a valuable role, as historian, in presenting us with his (or her) evidence regarding what these men said and, as far as possible, why. I added `her' because I am also reading Paula Fredriksen's related but much more detailed From Jesus to Christ, which I would recommend to anyone interested in this area.
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44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
This is an interesting take on the history of the Early Church - most histories have been written by Christians and Christian theologians, which gives them a particular bias in their understanding of the development of the Church. Vermes of course has a completely different bias, as an atheist-Jew, formerly a Roman Catholic Priest-Scholar who readopted the Jewish mantel of his ancestors, being from a family of assimilated Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, he has a very different view of Christianity and its origins. These have been expressed in a number of works, most notably in `The Changing Face of Jesus', in the post-script of which we has Jesus disassociate himself from Christianity. This book, therefore, follows in that vein.

Vermes begins by discussing the origins of Christianity (and more importantly the perception and concept of Jesus) within Judaism and in particular ecstatic and prophetic Judaism, placing Jesus within this context as a typical first century Jewish holy man and wonderworker - that is, that there is nothing that is unique about Jesus, his sayings, actions and miracles are typical of a holy man of his time and do not clash with contemporary Jewish theology. He then goes on to chart how the Churches understanding of Christ has changed, from the early beginnings, through Paul (who sees Jesus not as Messiah or as `of one substance with the God [the Father]' but as being subordinate to the Father). His argument being that those parts of the Pauline epistles that argue that Jesus is of one substance with God are not part of the original letter. He then goes on to explore Johannine Christianity (which he argues is more Greek than Levantine) and then onto the Didache and the Early Church Father, culminating at Nicaea.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
well written
Published 18 days ago by willie
4.0 out of 5 stars Clarity
No drum to beat, just well researched and clearly presented information. Contains names and places which encourage the reader to extend knowledge about them too.
Published 1 month ago by James Thomas Black
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A fascinating account of the early church.
Published 4 months ago by Yafiah Katherine Randall
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
very good
Published 5 months ago by john.t.jones.
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
useful sum.ary
Published 5 months ago by lilley
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Much needed scholarship for those wanting to make up there own minds about the origins on Christianity
Published 6 months ago by Michael Duerden
2.0 out of 5 stars Christian Beginnings were not as Vermes saw them
I have just (August 2014) read Geza Vermes's Christian Beginnings right through, and then immediately re-read the first half of the book, with chapter headings 1) Charismatic... Read more
Published 8 months ago by trini
5.0 out of 5 stars Having said that these points by themselves do not make this book...
After reading Eusebious, Henry Chadwick and JND Kelly I must say Vermes book had been by far the most enjoyable read. Read more
Published 8 months ago by soban anwar
4.0 out of 5 stars At times as I was reading I thought I could ...
At times as I was reading I thought I could feel the author being Jew , but in the whole this book was really to me liking and the expertise of the author is clear when he he is... Read more
Published 8 months ago by EOtti
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as his image
The author is supposedly an expert on Christ, but the book disappointed me as it has a constant underlying disbelief in what happened. Read more
Published 11 months ago by A Johnson
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