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on 20 June 2017
Quite hard going - more so than his other books - determined to get through it but if it were a physical book I would donate to charity on finishing it knowing I would be unlikely to ever return to it
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on 15 June 2017
Very interesting
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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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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 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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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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on 26 March 2017
A solid academic argument, completely reasonable from a historical perspective for the clear difference between Jesus' charismatic mission to the Jews vs the Pauline and Johnannine Christ inventions.. and ongoing further extensions all way to the farce of Nicea. In short Christianity as a very much post Jesus creation. Compared to many works the depth of knowledge that the author displays is huge which gives the book all the more validity.
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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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on 7 May 2014
The author is supposedly an expert on Christ, but the book disappointed me as it has a constant underlying disbelief in what happened. Kind of "I'm an intellectual and I write about this stuff but I don't believe in any of it". This gets reflected in a dry kind of approach with little real detail on early fathers of Christianity. One does not feel for them as they struggle. Nor is it clear how the Roman clique came into ascendance at Nicea.
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on 26 April 2017
Must be closely read from cover to cover. The scholarship is impressive and carries conviction.
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