Book Review: Jesus the Jew by Geza Vermes

As stated recently, part of my reading plan this year is to look at a number of different views of Jesus. Vermes is an author that I’ve been longing to read for some time. A renowned expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, he trained as a catholic priest before abandoning his faith and turning to a life of academia.

Subtitled ‘An historian’s reading of the Gospels’, this was the first of a trilogy of books that Vermes wrote on the figure of Jesus, releasing one every 10 years. The opening premise is that Jesus is neither the Christ of christianity nor the heretic of Judaism but something in between the two. With this, we may get a sense of the flavour of what might come, as it is a critical look at christianity and its origins, but which is quite learned, not falling into the silly denialism of the Christ Myth theory, which holds as much as weight as creationism or climate change denial.

Vermes starts with a look at the Jesus that the gospel writers want us to believe in. In other words, he looks at the prima facie case and critiques this before looking at the background setting. It’s not the approach I was expecting, but it makes for a very interesting, if painful reading. I say ‘painful’ because it is a most excoriating work which, if read with the due seriousness and respect it deserves, is enough to shake anyone who professes faith in Jesus, nomatter how conservative or liberal their take is. It is a far more insightful critique than many that are commonly regurgitated. I would thoroughly recommend that anyone interested in christianity, either for or against it, have a read as well as think about the questions raised. Many may well be answerable, but Vermes doesn’t offer us a counter-case here. That is left for others.

After this opening, he then looks at Jesus as a Galilean. i.e. what was the culture in which he existed? This is where Vermes the historian comes to the fore. Almost anyone who has heard of Vermes will probably associate his name with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is from here that he draws most of his source material, though he doesn’t apply the same level of scepticism to the Scrolls as he does to the gospels. I shan’t recount the details here. I shall merely say that it is written with great care, in an accessible manner and with a combination of depth and breadth to enable the reader to get a grip on the time and place – an understanding that is rather lacking in some christian quarters as well as some atheist. A similar kind of picture is, I am led to understand, in E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (focusing more on the latter part of the title than the first).

Having painted the background, there are some other figures that Vermes wants to bring into the picture to show that Jesus was far from unique. Labelled as “charismatic Judaism”, Vermes again draws on the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as various bits of rabbinic tradition. So while I would expect anyone reading this review to be familiar with the figure of Simon bar Kokhba and his revolt, there are others here that we meet who are far less familiar. I certainly admit that I knew very little about Hanina ben Dosa or Honi the Circle-Drawer. The overt intention is to show the kind of charismatic figures that were known in the area at the time, though the intended subtext seems to be to show that there was nothing special about Jesus; that he was just another charismatic preacher and healer.

A couple of interesting points to note: As stated in an earlier piece, my intention is to do a bit more reading around Jesus this year. One thing that Vermes states clearly is that there have been some who think Jesus was a Zealot. This is an opinion that Vermes rejects, saying it has no basis, but he doesn’t explore the possibility in too much detail. So I look forward to reading more about that in Reza Aslan’s recent book on the subject. The other thing is that while Vermes largely follows in the footsteps of Bultmann in supposing that the sources we have for Jesus are more indicative of the beliefs of the early church than an accurate portrayal, he doesn’t address the question of why the church believed what they believed. It is that question that Bart Ehrman takes up in his recent work, How Jesus Became God, which is the next major book on Jesus I’ll be reviewing this year.

The second half of the book is focused on the various titles of Jesus. Specifically, the titles of ‘prophet’, ‘lord’, ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God’.  By far, the most focus here is on the title ‘Son of Man’ which is appropriate, as this is the most common appellation given to Jesus by the gospel authors. The normal view of this title is that it harks back to Daniel 7. However, Vermes is eager to avoid the possibility of this, given the christological implications that that would have. The great irony here is that early in the book Vermes draws a dichotomy between a conservative and a supposedly progressive view (the latter he attributes to Rudolph Bultmann), arguing that the progressive view is quite uncomplicated whereas the conservative view has to jump through all sorts of hoops, with some tortuous reasoning. Yet Vermes employs these kinds of techniques in order to distance the Son of Man of the gospels from the Son of Man in the gospels.

One of the problems with the methodology implicit in Vermes’ work is the assumption that Jesus could not have instigated anything new. If anything does appear to be in line with the early church teaching it assumed to be a back projection on the part of the gospel writers and subsequent editors, while the idea that it could possibly be genuine is ruled out. At the same time, if the gospel writers are in agreement with one another, then the assumption is that they have copied one from the other. So the idea of double attestation is hamstrung from the start. This is a feature that is not unique to Vermes’ writing. If any of you have followed The Jesus Seminar then you will see a similar methodology employed to evade the possibility of concluding that the early church had a true and fair view of who Jesus was.

With all that said, the lasting legacy of the book has been valuable, as it has helped to reassert Jesus’ Jewishness, in contrast to centuries of anti-Semitism that have existed within both the christian and Catholic churches. This is largely helped the more modern scholars such as N.T. Wright, Kenneth Bailey, Richard Bauckham and James Dunn see Jesus as both a key figure marking the culmination of Judaism and the start of christianity, but also as a figure of continuity between the two. It is a complex side to Jesus’ identity, but one that this reader thinks is necessary to grasp if one is to get a firm grip on this figure that so many have tried to mould into the image they like. Vermes was not innocent of this, but his contribution, though disturbing at times and at others contestable, is one that has much value and continues to be worth considering.

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