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.