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Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325
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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
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. He shows how the notion of the Trinity began to take the shape that it finally took with Tertullian (ca.160 to ca. 225). That inevitably raised ferocious debates about whether the Son was subordinate to the Father or co-equal with Him, and whether one aspect of the Trinity, the Son, could ever have been a real human being. The Gnostic idea (Docetism) - that he never was but only appeared to be human - was eventually routed as a heresy, as was Subordinationism.

In addition Vermes traces the development of the Church's structure - loose in the beginning to tighter and more authoritarian even before it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

That post-Pauline and post-Johannine story, too, can be found in many other books (for example in Part II of Diarmaid MacCullough's magisterial History of Christianity - see my Amazon review). What we find in Vermes are many illustrative quotations from the texts of key figures in the story, and most of these will be new to most readers: for instance, I have not myself seen elsewhere his interesting analysis of Justin Martyr's Dialogue with the Jew Trypho. In any case, for anyone relatively new to the history of early Christian thought, this is perhaps as useful a book with which to start as any other.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 21 September 2012
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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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 16 October 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
on 10 July 2012
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.

I find it interesting that he leaves out the Epistle to the Hebrews in his analysis as he does the more anti-judaiser parts of the Epistle to the Galatians, the latter of which is attributed to Paul, which shows a clear drawing away of early Christianity from the influence of judaisers (those Jewish Christians who believed that gentile Christians should follow the Mosaic law) towards a gentile Church, independent of few or no Jewish ritual links. It is interesting that he does not explore this more fully as it shows Christianity moving away from its Jewish roots and becoming an independent faith.

I find Vermes' work both deeply informative and at times deeply unhelpful in that he consistently describes how and why Jesus should be viewed as being no more or less than Jewish holy man and wonderworker (that is, that Jesus would not have understood himself as Christians today understand him) yet he does not show `why' this should have developed. It's almost as if they take place in a vacuum and are done `to' the Church rather than `by' it. There must be reasons why the Church's understanding of Jesus was so radically transformed between the death of Jesus in 33CE, the end of the Apostolic Age and the meeting of the Council of the Nicaea which came to describe and define in the Trinitarian Doctrine Jesus as being: `homousios' (that is of one substance) with God (the Father).

I also wonder at what Vermes' intention is in writing this book - does he intend to show that the early Church would not understand its later form - this is undoubtedly true, our understanding of theology and doctrine has changed significantly over the past two millennia. However, is Vermes claiming that Christianity is based on a misunderstanding? If it is then he does not explain how such a situation/ transformation occurred, or why a Jewish sect came to conquer and transform an empire. In some ways, describing the development of the Church without the action of the Spirit becomes like trying to read the `Odyssey' without reference to actions of the Greek Pantheon. That is to say that the Church is a pneumatically formed community, rather than a society of friends, without the action of the Spirit the Church loses its internal coherence and meaning.

However, I also find Vermes work deeply informative as it helps build an understanding of Jesus as a Jewish holy man and who spoke and acted as one. It helps me to understand what Jesus is saying and how/ why this fits into the culture in which he lived and ministered. This is important we often fail to recognise Jesus as being someone who lived within a context, rather than being contextless. However, to try and limit Jesus to his context misses the point that Jesus has become than a 1st Century holy man, just as Judaism by the 1st Century had become more than just another middle eastern, agrarian fertility religion, to being a monotheistic faith found throughout the Roman Empire.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 16 April 2013
An in depth study beginning by bringing together the Old Testament references appropriate to Jesus and connecting them with the Synoptic Gospels before moving on to the appearance of the early Christians and the efforts that they made to connect with the Jews. There follows a thorough assessment of the major influences of Paul and John in the early years of the development of Christianity and it’s spread to the diaspora and later to southern Europe. The text is heavily interspersed with biblical references which makes it slower to read than you might otherwise expect. The second half of the book covers the major factors in the development of Christianity beyond the end of the first century. It details the many such as Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus and Tertullian who conducted philosophical acrobatics over, for example, ‘ God’ ‘Father’ and ’Son’ and the text of the Creed Up to and including the Council of Nicaea; where it was ended by Constantine who ordered reconciliation.
Look up references in the authorised version of the Bible, thereby avoiding some modern mis-translations.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 August 2014
After reading Eusebious, Henry Chadwick and JND Kelly I must say Vermes book had been by far the most enjoyable read. The author has laid the information with clarity and remained to the point, fast paced and concise.

Having said that these points by themselves do not make this book great. What makes it great is the fact that author has shown clearly how Jesus is in the mode of the old Jewish prophets and sages. His ministry fits the template of Honi and Hanian and the prophets. Vermes also demonstrates to an extent chronologically the development of Christian doctrine and philosophy. You will find it interesting to note that how the giants of Christian theology at their own time were declared heretics later on by the “orthodox church”.

Being a Muslim myself I may not have agreed with some minor interpretations of the author on intellectual level. I do take an objective approach to history and don’t let by biases come in the way. Thank you for reading my comments :-)
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on 2 July 2015
Geza Vermes in ‘Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea A.D. 30-326’ (2012) has produced a very stimulating book, packed with references and material to think deeply about. It’s challenging in its confrontation to what, perhaps only in theory, is understood about the nature of Jesus and the Church. The author for 50 years has been considered an expert on the early Church (especially the preceding period of the lifetime of Jesus) and is clearly a master of his resources. The book certainly made me think deeply, look again at sources and consider arguments. For all that I’d recommend ‘Christian Beginnings’.
But – and it is a very big ‘But’ – I feel it’s a work spoilt by a number of flaws. The basis of my argument stems from four points in the author’s biography. He was born in 1924 of Jewish ancestry. At the age of 7 he was baptised as a Roman Catholic and later became a priest. Thirdly, he’s written several books on ‘Jesus The Jew’. Finally, and (most importantly), he’s an acknowledged expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran which reveals some of the thinking behind his approach.
The book deals with how the charismatic teacher from Galilee, working among and explaining the scriptures of his people was transformed, largely under the influence of Greek philosophy into a component of the Trinity made up of God the Father, God the Son & the Holy Spirit. Before I bought the book I glanced through the reviews and was especially struck by 3-starred review by trini "HWS" which quotes Rowan Williams at length. On reading it more deeply I note an approach in dealing offering an alternative perspective is different from my own.
Almost right from the beginning the findings at Qumran and other such groups are erected as the touchstone of much practice and teaching- note on P. 85 the rejection by the Ebionites by the Pauline Epistles etc. is depicted a fundamental fault line in the Christological approach. As far as I understand it, the whole subject matter of such groups is controversial, the Essenes Qumran were not orthodox, and some of the interpretation of Qumran is disputed. I’m moved to suggest it’s as if archaeologists uncover the archives of the Latter-Day Saints and decide that represents Christianity. How far was Jesus in contact with Essenes or influenced by them? I suspect Vermes would rate that much higher than other scholars. Much of the origins of such groups is hidden away in the Apocrypha whose very name challenges transparency.
The author soon shows his assessment of the ‘historical Jesus’ as a charismatic healer/teacher rests fully within the Jewish tradition. It’s a practical demonstration of the necessity of Works in the worship of God. Consequently, exorcism is accepted & its absence from the Fourth Gospel ‘bodes ill for the general historical reliability of John’ (P.35) However, Vermes rejects the two ‘nature miracles’ – the storm on Galilee (Mk 6:31-44) & the walking on water (Mk 6: 45-52). Why? Because they ELEVATE Jesus above his interpretation. ‘Healing, exorcism and resuscitation are the principal features of the charismatic Jesus’ (P.37) plus the 41 cases of teaching he notes in the Synoptic Gospels (P. 38). Anything else is disparaged – the feeding of the 5,000 being a case of mass hypnosis (P.37). By now, the original perverters of the image of Jesus and his works have been noted as the writer of the Fourth Gospel (aka John) and the writer of the Epistles accredited to Paul, Note my language as Vermes demonstrates the most sceptical analysis to some parts of the New Testament which have twisted the view of the charismatic preacher, believing the End is near. In this he can be scathing as in the comment (P. 50) on Mt, 24:36 ‘the divine Father is omniscient while the ‘Son’ lacks the knowledge of the most crucial chronological detail, the H-hour of D-0day’.Of course, he does because he’s HUMAN otherwise he never would have suffered or died at Calvary – and his teaching more than just an example of Millenarianism disturbing human history. Another naive criticism is that ‘Acts’ ‘includes no mention of the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus’(P.85). Because it’s not a BIOGRAPHY of Jesus but a review of the founding of the Church.
Vermes insists that various passages have been interpolated into original texts. So although he quotes, ‘Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them’ (Mt. 28:19) as one of ‘three odd occasions’ (my emphasis) in the Synoptic Gospels (P. 59) he can state also on Page 67 that ‘no authentic command to bring the good news to all the nations in the world can be traced to Jesus’. His argument would the text has been corrupted ‘probably under Pauline influence’ (P.59) – though that comment directly refers to ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Lk 22:19). Later he states the ‘breaking of the bread...... under Pauline influence, became linked with the ceremony of the Last Supper’(P.75). This argument would explain the scores of scattered references to those aspects of modern Christian belief which don’t tie up with the belief systems of first century Palestine
Vermes himself can impose ideas on what ISN’T there. ‘The non-mention of natural catastrophes and of the suffering innocents is typical of Jesus’s optimistic outlook regarding the end time’ because God ‘would eliminate all the miseries of the world’ (P.48) and, for support he refers the reader to Origen’s ideas on P.222 (but note the ‘seems to be’ on line 9 showing even he has his doubts!). Here’s another one: ‘the nomenclature applied to Acts signals, not a superhuman being, but a chosen man of God, the hero prefigured in the charismatic Judaism of the Old Testament’ (P.77). This follows on from a comment on Jesus that ‘neither his death nor his resurrection were announced by him’ (P.76). I think the writings of a lot of theologians, alive or dead, might question such comments.
St. Paul is chiefly responsible for what’s gone wrong, according to the author, and he’s highly dismissive of Paul’s work (see Chapter 4). So his preaching at Athens was ‘a complete fiasco and made no impact on educated Greeks’ (P.78). Read Acts 18:33-34 and there’s another picture – but Vermes might say that’s just been interpolated. Paul’s ‘qualifications’ are mentioned in Acts but ‘it is rather odd that Paul never alludes to them in his letters’ (P.87). Not when there are 13 Epistles in the Bible, 4 referred to and perhaps half-a-dozen ‘forgeries’ making the total of 23 or so at much less than one a year for his known career.
Vermes will omit whatever doesn’t suit his cause. He may even give a false impression – e.g. on P.140. when dealing with the ‘Didache’ (‘a model for later church regulations) he insists baptism would be ‘not in the name of the Trinity, but ‘in the name of the Lord’ (Did. 9.5) . But he dismisses the earlier Didache 7.1 ‘baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 28:19 in living water.’ as of doubtful ‘historicity’ and bypasses Didache 8 : ‘as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, thus pray: Our Father who art in heaven....’(my emphasis) which would tie up with his quote. On Page 98 he discusses deaconesses and says ‘the office was open to....’ stating his description comes from 1 Tim 5: 3-13 but that passage describes those widows RECEIVING charity.
The author argues the Epistle of Barnabas demonstrates the intrusion of the Christological Jesus as being used in a rejection of traditional Jewish practices. However, in Barnabas there exists early forms of the medieval styles of Exegesis (Literal, Typological (esp. Allegorical), Moral and Anagogical (e.g. Prophecy). Vermes clearly doesn’t appreciate this form of approach. The word ‘Jesus’ appears 21 times in Barnabas yet ‘curiously Barnabas never directly quotes the words of Jesus’(P.152). The reason is because Barnabas is trying to use allegory from the Old Testament (e.g. Jesus as the Brass Serpent in Num. 21:8-9) or prophesied in Exodus 17:14) to explain God’s purpose. Styles like that may be rare today but they’re frequently found in the past (including Jewish Exegesis).. Vermes paraphrases (P. 153) but does he accept Barnabas’s explanation for the Incarnation: ‘For if He had not come in the flesh, how could men have been saved by beholding Him? Since looking upon the sun which is to cease to exist, and is the work of His hands, their eyes are not able to bear his rays.’(Chapt 5)? Perhaps this is but another stage ‘along the meandering path of Christology’ (P.154) but also maybe that meandering path has been there virtually from the beginning.
The treatment remains the same for later theologians. For the Epistle of Clement there is: ‘it continues roughly the Pauline theological speculation with Jesus being considered as the Son of God without any further speculation’(P. 162). In his rather dismissive treatment of Clement’s 2nd Epistle Vermes doesn’t touch on ideas such as ‘The church being spiritual, was made manifest in the flesh of Christ, signifying to us that if any one of us shall preserve it in the flesh and corrupt it not, he shall receive it in the Holy Spirit’ (Chapt. 14). It certainly is an interesting concept of the church which just bypasses Vermes by..
With Ignatius of Antioch Vermes regrets (P.168) the rejection of’ the ancient records along with the ‘Judaists’ with their prolonged links to Judaism. Ignatius, however, claims the ’Judaists’ were saying ‘If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel; on my saying to them, It is written, they answered me, That remains to be proved ‘- (‘Epistle To Philadelphians’ Chapt. 8) Such an attitude would have produced a stranglehold on Christianity, especially among the non-Jewish world..
By the time he reaches the mid-2nd century the battle for Vermes has been lost. The Christological distortions have triumphed over the charismatic preacher. Only the actual position of Jesus within the Trinity is open to question. Vermes briefly gives an summary of SOME of the various disputes on that topic. His great heroes are clearly Arius, ‘a clear-minded man’(P. 227) who was condemned at Nicaea (325A.D.) and even more, Origen (c.185-254) whose ideas were condemned several times and finally at the Lateran Council in 649 when ‘the greatest mind & the most creative thinker of early Christianity was anathematized by the church of second-rate followers.’ (P. 222)
I think the book should been concluded with the Chapter on the Apostolic Fathers (P. 176). Thereafter the approach of Geza Vermes has become irrelevant to the structure resting on Pauline Christological lines. It’s a stimulating book, making me look again at some of the work by the Early Fathers of the Church. Although I cannot accept the idea of wholesale interpolation into the Synoptic Gospels of Pauline ideas, I am having second thoughts about the magnificent opening to the Fourth Gospel as a POSSIBLE intrusion. Why the caveat? There is so much that is different in that Gospel, raising questions regarding its traditional authorship – but NOT authority.
However, I can only award 3 stars to ‘Christian Beginnings’ because of the effects of the author’s predilections for contemporary Jewish sects, justification by works and an obvious ambivalence towards the creeds underlying the Christian religion, which produce distortions, omissions etc. in what otherwise would be a first-rate academic study.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 15 November 2013
I am a long standing committed Christian and found this book extremely interesting and challenging. It was recommended during a Sunday morning sermon in Gloucester Cathedral. I find Vermes style engaging and this book has opened up to me an area of scholarship concerning the early development of the Christian Church. The book has certainly informed me but has left me puzzled on a number of fronts.

As other reviewers have so fully and capably explained, Vermes describes the development of thought in the Christian Church over the first 3 centuries regarding the person and purpose of Jesus Christ. Vermes appears to consider that this development of thought on `who Jesus was', leading up to the Council of Nicea, is a deviation from the `truth' as expressed by Jesus himself and as exhibited by the attitude of the Jewish-dominated early church in the first half of the first century. I am puzzled by this conclusion since the work of the Holy Spirit in the early Church would have naturally led to a developing appreciation of `who Jesus was'. It seems completely reasonable that the Holy Spirit after the death of Jesus should lead the Church into a deeper truth regarding the nature of Jesus. This point is surprisingly not addressed in this book but was certainly appreciated by Vermes. This topic was touched on when Vermes was the guest in 2000 on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs (podcast still available). In this programme Vermes explained briefly his approach of restricting his consideration of documents to those originating from the Jewish dominated early church (omitting writings for example of St Paul, St John and later writers). The interviewer pointed out that during the more than 20 years when Vermes was a Catholic Priest he would have presumably held a different view (inferring that he would have accepted a wider range of sources). In response Vermes makes the interesting comment: `If you believe in the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church you can be truthfully satisfied'. He would not be drawn into an explanation when he was then asked directly why he gave up his Christian Faith. At some point he was presumably unable to maintain a belief in the work of the Spirit in this way. I find the omission of discussion of the role of the Holy Spirit (in the development of the early Church's understanding of Jesus) a glaring gap. I so enjoyed this book that I have ordered some of Vermes earlier texts and hope to get an insight into his personal return Journey from Judaism to Christianity to Judaism.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 16 August 2012
Geza Vermes has published many boooks about Jesus, told from a Jewish perspective and made his reputation translating the Dead Sea Scrolls and preapring them for publication in English. In this his latest book Vermes is concerned to show, in his view, how the origianl New Testament Jesus, who Vermes characterises as one in a long line of charismatic Jewsih prophets, was gradually transformed into the divine Jesus, both God and man, two natures in one person, of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. I found his analysis of the documents - both New Testament and those written after the Canon of the New Testament was closed, fairly convincing. What Vermes fails to answer is why so much energy was devoted to developing the divine Jesus - particularly as this was being done in the face of persecution, and eventually forced the separation of Christianity from its parent Judaism. This is a fascinating read, but Christian readers in particular will need to decide where, why and how they depart from Vermes' analysis.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Well the subject matter wasn't/isn't my wheelhouse, but I thought I'd give it a go. Much of the material is interesting, but the author's constant references to other books he's written (which are supposed to prove the arguments he makes) start to get a bit tedious after a while. Rightly considering the subject matter, he backs up his ideas with footnotes directing the reader to specific passages in the Gospels, so it's a good idea to have a bible handy - reading the book on kindle was a distinct advantage here, because I have a bible downloaded on it so I could just 'switch channels' so to speak pretty much immediately. I think, to be fair to Geza Vermes, this is a book for those of us who prefer our history books to be more narrative and less academically driven. Me, I'm a bit of an amatuer when it comes to this stuff, so I found it relatively hard going. I think if you have a real interest and some experience (or greater experience than mine) you will get more out of it than I did.
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