In this book the respected scholar investigates the main events surrounding the nativity in an attempt to determine what really happened. He compares Christmas in Christian imagery with the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke which are contradictory and confusing in many aspects. They agree on only a few basic points but there are many complications and discrepancies. Vermes looks at how various Christian scholars deal with this problem, for example John P Meier in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, and Raymond Brown in Birth of the Messiah.
He analyses the evidence through a detailed textual interpretation, then compares the findings to all the relevant information from parallel Jewish documents, literary and historical sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. First the genealogies of Jesus in the aforementioned gospels are compared (including a side by side comparison) and Vermes succeeds in making even this subject absorbing in light of the strange discrepancies.
Next he examines the concept of miraculous births in Judaism and Paganism: virginal conception, extraordinary birth stories in the Old Testament and the strange account in Genesis 6 that talks of celestial beings interbreeding with mankind that gave rise to a race of giants. The Hellenistic Jewish birth stories of the writer Philo of Alexandria are also considered.
Chapter Five: Virgin and Holy Spirit, explores the gospel accounts with the prophecy of Isaiah concerning a young woman who would give birth to a son. The earliest extant text of Matthew is in Greek so it is perhaps not surprising that the quote of Isaiah 7:14 comes from the Greek Septuagint, not from the Hebrew Bible. This gospel was influenced by the Septuagint's rendering of "Almah" (young woman) as "Parthenos" (Virgin). There are many unexpected, surprising and confusing aspects to the version of Matthew.
The date and place of birth are discussed next. Needless to say, there are problems with the date between the gospel accounts and when measured against what we know about the history. The nearest safe conclusion is that Jesus was born before the spring of 4BC. And alas, even the place seems to in dispute, but here I don't fully follow Vermes when he questions the Bethlehem connection for lack of enough proof.
The Premonitory signs of the nativity are the announcement to the shepherds, the Magi from the East and the star. These are discussed in the light of history and the Old Testament. Next is the murder plot. Geza confirms that Herod had a murderous character. He compares the murder of the children with the murder of the Israelite boys in Egypt, looks at the infancy of Moses and discusses the parallels between the two occurrences.
Chapter 9: The Settlement of Jesus in Galilee, deals with among other issues the meaning of the word "Nazarene." The words Netser (Branch) and Nazoraios (from Nazareth) do not come from the same root and Samson who was called a Nazirite is not a suitable type for Jesus. The last chapter deals with the two supplements to the infancy gospel in Luke: the birth of John The Baptist, including the Magnificat and the Benedictus which are cleverly combined anthologies of poetic abstracts from various parts of the Hebrew Bible, and the account of the young Jesus in the temple.
The Epilogue looks at the infancy gospels in retrospect. There is a summary of differences and a discussion of the relation of the birth narratives to the main gospels. Vermes believes that these were a later addition for the benefit of a gentile audience. It is the prologue just as the resurrection narrative is the epilogue. The Greek narrative was placed over a Semitic original and represents the final stage of the Greek development, manifesting in the virgin conception, the idea of the Son of God as God with us (Emanuel) and the full development of the Messiah Redeemer.
There is a map of the Holy Land and 10 woodcuts by Albrecht Durer. The book concludes with notes, a bibliography and index.
This book raises many questions for the believer. Further research has revealed that according to church fathers like Irenaeus and Jerome there existed a Hebrew (or Aramaic written in Hebrew alphabet) version of Matthew that was used by at least two early groups of believers, the Ebionites and the Nazarenes. Called The Gospel of the Hebrews, it lacked the two chapters on the nativity. The book The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart Ehrman is very informative in this regard.
Apparently the Ebionites rejected the pre-existence, virgin birth, divinity and resurrection. They emphasized the oneness of God and considered Jesus to be the biological son of Joseph and Mary. According to Jerome and Epiphanius, the Jewish believers called Nazarenes also used the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and adhered to Torah but they did accept the virgin birth, the resurrection and the divinity of Yeshua.
I also recommend the work of David Bivin, like Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebrew Perspective and that of Larry Hurtado, especially Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. All of Vermes' books are worth reading but I found The Authentic Gospel of Jesus to be particularly valuable.