on 16 August 2014
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 Judaism from Moses to Jesus, 2) The Charismatic Religion of Jesus, 3) Nascent Charismatic Christianity, 4) The Christianity of Paul, and 5) Johannine Christianity. The second half of the book takes us outside the canonical New Testament writings, up to and including the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD - the full range of Vermes's book.
Vermes's book involves a consideration of the whole of the Old and New Testaments, and the subsequent theological writing up to Nicaea, and it is impossible to critique every statement of Vermes. I shall limit myself to just a few observations, dealing only with the New Testament and its Jewish background.
I give this book only a two-star rating, because although it is "A beautiful and magisterial book", as Archbishop Rowan Williams says of it in the last sentence of his review published in the Guardian (and this is quoted on the front cover of the paperback Penguin edition), I also agree very strongly with what Williams immediately adds (but the Penguin edition does not also add): "but it leaves unsolved some of the puzzles that still make readers of the New Testament pause to ask what really is the right, the truthful, way to talk about a figure like the Jesus we meet in these texts."
I hope I will be excused if I quote in full the rest of this last paragraph of Williams: "Vermes's account, for all its lucidity, does not quite allow us to see the energy behind such a movement of ideas. Nor, as other commentators have said, are we helped to see why this particular charismatic wonder-worker rather than others attracted the extraordinary claim that he was the vehicle of unconditional creative power and the enabler of a new kind of worship - the paradox that the creed of [Nicaea in AD] 325 enshrined, in words Christians still use."
I underline immediately Vermes's insistence on the `charismatic' background to the Jesus story, In the first four chapters he uses the word `charisma/charismatic' more than eighty times, and he ends his first chapter with the statement, "In short, without a proper grasp of charismatic Judaism it is impossible to understand the rise of Christianity". This may be true, but charismatic pre-Christian Judaism (Vermes's Chapter 1) does not explain the WHOLE of the Jesus story. Should we not also have a study of all the rest of Jewish prophecy, from Abraham and Moses through the `mainstream' prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel et al., to see if and how in some way Jesus might have reflected the nature and the ministry of these prophets also? I call attention to the fact that several modern New Testament scholars have written books with titles like Jesus the Pharisee, or Jesus the Zealot, or Jesus the Galilean exorcist, or whatever.
I make the general comment, that Vermes is right to quote the texts which he does, but wrong not to quote ALL the evidence. And we are not made aware that he is not giving us all the evidence.
The question arises, why did Mark and Matthew and Luke write their gospels? Vermes has a chapter on Paul, and a chapter on John. I need a chapter on each of the Synoptics too. If one considers only the evidence which Vermes puts before us, the Synoptics would have seen Jesus as no more than Honi the circle-drawer and Hanina ben Dosa, Jewish `holy men' from just before and just after Jesus' time. These are Vermes's real heroes. In his present book, Vermes says not a word about why Jesus was crucified by Jewish-Roman agreement. The whole passion narrative is simply wiped out of view, as are the subsequent resurrection narratives. And all the body of the text of the synoptic gospels which look forward or relate in any way to the passion and resurrection narratives are passed over without serious analysis. But we need absolutely to know what was in question, and who was in question, in the last chapters of all the Synoptics, and of John, and in the first chapters of Acts, which deal with the last week and the last days and the first post-Calvary weeks in Jesus' life and in the life of nascent Christianity. If Jesus was just another Honi or Hanina, where is their comparable legacy? Matthew's 28.18-20 matches John: "All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth. Going therefore make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the end of time". (I always point out: the word `all' in this quote occurs all four times in the original Greek.) Mark and Matthew and Luke wrote to tell us about the Risen Christ, not just about Jesus the charismatic miracle-worker.
In `The Way of the Lord - Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark' (T & T Clark, 1992), Joel Marcus finds in Mark the influence of not only the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52/53 (and the other Servant Songs) but also Daniel 7, Zechariah 9-14, Psalms 2 and 110, and a very large number of the OT Psalms of the Righteous Sufferer. This is the wide OT sourcing for the NT vision of Jesus the Suffering and Rising Messiah. So then, the near-contemporary Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls (also adduced by Marcus, and whose influence on the Christian view of the Messiah is often stressed) confirm, but do not originate or create, the NT view of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus did not need the example of some ill-defined 'Qumran Messiah'. His role is already, solidly, in the OT - though of course one welcomes its expectation and further development in the Intertestamental literature.
Let me call attention to some other books which directly relate to Vermes's thesis in `Christian Beginnings'.
1) `The Messiah Before Jesus - the Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls', by the Jewish Jerusalem scholar Israel Knohl,
Knohl claims that he can identify an actual Qumran sectary called Menahem, who fulfilled the messianic hopes of the Qumran community, but who was killed by the Romans at the time of Herod's death in 4 B.C. This is a truly extraordinary claim, and in order to support it Knohl states boldly that the New Testament claims for the Person and Work of Jesus Christ are not Christian inventions, but were already part of, and were drawn from, the Qumran Essene expectations in the first century before Christ.
Knohl's initial synopsis ends thus: "This book should reshape our understanding of Christianity and its relationship to Judaism." It does - but it reshapes it not by supporting Knohl's case for the existence of his Essene Messiah Menahem, but by solidly supporting Christianity's claims for its Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Knohl quotes Geza Vermes from Vermes's `Jesus the Jew' (1981): "Neither the suffering of the Messiah, nor his death and resurrection, appear to have been part of the faith of first-century Judaism' (Knohl, p. 106, Notes, top of page). But Knohl then devastatingly says (p.2): "In this book [`The Messiah before Jesus'] I intend to counter these claims [quoted in the note just mentioned]. I propose to show that Jesus really did regard himself as the Messiah and truly expected the Messiah to be rejected, killed, and resurrected after three days, for this is precisely what was believed to have happened to a messianic leader [Menahem] who had lived one generation before Jesus". This is a sensational claim. However, while the Church and the New Testament exist as historical authentications of Jesus' messianic claims, one must ask, humbly but bluntly: what is there to authenticate Knohl's claim that his Qumran Messiah was killed but then believed by his followers to have been resurrected after three days and to have risen to heaven in a cloud (p. 45)? Proofs for this belief (Knohl quotes only Revelation 11.12, and Lactantius) and for this resurrection simply do not exist.
2) I also adduce the book `The First Messiah - Investigating the Saviour Before Christ', by the American biblical scholar Michael O. Wise. This mingles scholarship and guesswork, and completely fails to convince .
The first major flaw in Wise's thesis is that he invents an almost entirely fictitious biography for the Teacher of Righteousness of the Dead Sea Scrolls around 70 BC, whom he identifies as his `First Messiah'. Furthermore, the TOR never calls himself Messiah, and none of his followers, either during his lifetime or after his death, ever called him Messiah.
Given the discussions about the meaning of `Messiah' in Vermes, Fitzmyer, Brown, Charlesworth, JJ Collins, Lim, Brooke, etc., Wise needs to have more clearly defined why he would call his `Judah' a Messiah. Fr Raymond Browns says: "... we know of no historical Jew who ever claimed to be the Messiah or was called the Messiah except Jesus of Nazareth" (`An Introduction to New Testament Christology', p. 159). Note that Brown does not say that intertestamental Judaism was not expecting a Messiah - see e.g . the translation of rthe Dead Sea Scroll 4Q521 in Geza Vermes's own translation, 'The Complete Dead Seas Scrolls in English', pp. 390,391): " ... [the hea]vens and the earth will listen to his Messiah ... And the Lord will accomplish glorious things which have never been ... For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor (Isa. lxi, i) ". ..This DSS fragment is rightly referred to as 'the Resurrection fragment', for Jesus quotes his raising of the dead as proof, to the messengers of John the Baptist, that he is indeed the eexpected Messiash. This DSS fragment, translated by Vermes himself, directly contradicts Vermes's own view that all such ideas were unknown to pre-Jesus Judaism
I can sympathize with Wise's belief that the TOR showed some of the characteristics of the Messiah/Prophet/Priest/Teacher/King/Saviour/Shepherd/Isaianic-servant/Righteous-sufferer/Melchizedek/Son of God/Son of Man/Son of the Most High, hoped for and sketched out in the OT, the DSS, and the other Intertestamental literature.
In fact this is the only really valuable contribution made by Wise. He and Israel Knohl, who published his `The Messiah Before Jesus' at roughly the same time as Wise (see my Review of Knohl) confirm decisively that there is not a single New Testament reference to the person and work of the Divine Messiah Jesus Christ that can any longer be ruled out as contrary to the 'Judaisms' of the late second Temple period.
Wise suggests (page 275) "that we reconsider what much scholarship has denied: that the Jesus of history did make these [messianic] claims, just as the Gospels say". But Wise immediately adds: "Whether the claims were true or not is a different question." I believe, contra Vermes,, Knohl and Wise, that strictly historical scholarship, as well as faith, point strongly to an almost certainly 'yes' answer to that question. . .
Unfortunately for Wise and Knohl, from the same DSS data, for his `First Messiah' Wise chooses a `Judah', the TOR, who died in 72 BC, while Knohl chooses an `invented' Menahem, a different Qumranite leader, killed in 4 BC by the Romans during a Jewish revolt following Herod's death. Too many claimants for the same position!
And, decisively, neither of these claimants was a 'successful' Messiah. Therefore not a Messiah. Where are their legacies now?
Did they bring in the Kingdom of God? Were they acclaimed as Messiah? Did they rise from the dead? Were they acclaimed as God?
In his book `The Changing Faces of Jesus', Vermes denies, contrary to the evidence, all of these Christian claims. He is forced to believe this instead: that in spite of their last view of Jesus being of his body bloodied from the scourging, crowned with thorns, crucified as a deluded messiah/king, dead, "[Jesus] yet rose in the hearts of his disciples who had loved him and felt he was near" (quoting Winter, pp. 174,175). No bodily resurrection, for Vermes, no change in Jesus' body: just a sudden surge, a sudden change, in the minds of the apostles, making them realize that this was their Messiah, after all. This is incredible and impossible invention on the part of Winter/Vermes by which they seek to explain away the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and the disciples' devotion to preaching unto their deaths the truth of this resurrection. Winter/Vermes are simply lamentable.
The OT foreshadowings are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and not in any other Jewish holy man (see the despairing and nihilistic book by Dan Cohn-Sherbok, `The Jewish Messiah', T & T Clark, 1997). Judaism has only ever produced one candidate as Messiah, Son of God, God-with-us - Jesus Christ. Both methodologically and exegetically, the Christian position stands.
The writings of the New Testament show irrefutably that one such Messianic figure did emerge and leave an everlasting legacy - Jesus of Nazareth. On grounds of pure biblical scholarship, DSS research strengthens, beyond cavil, the Christian claims for the divine Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth, because no other successful Jewish claimant can be produced, while every claim made for any such claimant is successfully exemplified in Jesus.
See my reviews of many of the books which I have mentioned above.
May I also recommend Larry Hurtado's `How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God - Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus' (Eerdmans, 2005), which, without once mentioning Vermes in the book, is a compelling refutation of the Vermes view.
I very much missed, and needed, an Index of Biblical and Intertestamental references.