|The Changing Faces of Jesus
Geza Vermes, Penguin Books, 2001
From hills to plains
In one sense this book is mostly a summary of New Testament
scholarship. In another sense it establishes (or re-establishes) what we
have long known - that the Jesus of tradition is not single, unified
person but a man of many faces.
Vermes is unambiguous: "By the end
of the first century Christianity had lost sight of the real Jesus and of
the original meaning of his message." The question I asked as I read
this book was whether or not the author thinks he is able to discover
"the original meaning" of the message. Indeed, does he claim to
know what the original message was? Does he know the
From my no doubt limited and amateurish
standpoint, it seems to me that there is today a distinct gap between two
approaches to the "real" Jesus. The first can be broadly termed
an historical approach. The second is the approach in "faith".
The historical position in relation to
the real Jesus is of two strands. Both claim to be historical in the sense
that they capture Jesus "as he really was".
One strand admits as data most of the gospel
accounts, including Johannine narrative, as well as data gleaned from the
Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. It excludes only those parts of the
data which appear grossly impossible in the light of modern knowledge,
such as Jesus walking on water.
The other strand applies rigorous standards
designed to meet the requirements of non-Christian historians. It is left
with comparatively little knowledge of Jesus "as he really was"
- but what it retains is relatively powerful in that it would be confirmed
by many secular historians.
The approach from faith doesn't mind
exactly how much of "the real Jesus of history" we can salvage -
though it would prefer more than less good information. This is the result
of a position which holds that being a Christian is less about the
historical Jesus and more about faith. By the latter is meant acceptance
that history takes us only so far, beyond which we are called to trust in
the witness of early Christians.
So although evidence for the physical
resurrection of Jesus might not be all we'd like, for example, we need not
worry because we rest ultimately upon the testimony of honest witnesses in
the first place, and upon our existential experience of the Risen Lord in
Vermes' intention in this excellent book
appears to be:
To give equal weight to the Old and
New Testaments. The Jewish books, he says, have been used as "...
servants and auxiliaries, allowed to speak only when spoken to."
To examine the effects of the
transition from the spoken words and observed acts of Jesus to the
relatively elaborate interpretations of the New Testament "... in
order to discover changes and developments in meaning, and even
He tackles his subject in reverse, as it
were. Instead of progressing along a timeline from Mark to John, he begins
with the latter, putting "... the engine into reverse" to search
for the human Jesus, moving "... from the Everest of the Gospel of St
John and the high peaks of the letters of St Paul towards the much more
this-worldly figure of the Jesus of Jewish Christianity in the hills and
on the plain of the Acts of the Apostles and the Synoptic Gospels, in the
hope of catching a glimpse of the real Jesus concealed beneath the
accounts of Mark, Matthew and Luke."
FIn one sense Vermes gives us little new in his review of the Jesus of
the New Testament. His summaries of the enormous body of scholarship which
underpins his conclusions are succinct yet accurate. There are
frequent flashes of insight. The author is a world-figure in relation to
the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes, a group of Jewish ascetics who were
Jesus' contemporaries. He's also Jewish - and so is able to bring to his
readers a broader perspective than they usually get. In short, he brings
to life the social and literary background in which Jesus lived.
It bears mentioning in passing that this
book has nothing for the Christian fundamentalist who has concluded that
the Bible contains the original, undistorted words of God. Vermes is
firmly in the camp which considers the New Testament in terms of
analytical history. Indeed, his central thesis rests upon a distinction
between history and the a-historical intentions and methods of the
So, for example, the long monologues in
John's Gospel purporting to be "what Jesus really said" mustn't
be taken as anything else but the theology of its author. Vermes takes his
readers quickly but accurately through the extreme difficulties of
treating much of John's Gospel narrative as good history.
The Jesus of John differs radically from
the Synoptic Jesus of Mark, Matthew and Luke. He is "... a mysterious
stranger, a celestial being in human disguise, who came from above and was
to re-ascend into heaven ... In contemporary jargon he could be called an
ET." John's account of Jesus "... postdates Jesus by at least
seventy years, [so] the chances of hearing the genuine voice of the
Galilean Master are minimal."
Vermes discovers many faces of Jesus in
the Fourth Gospel alone - Jesus as teacher, prophet, Messiah, king, son of
God, Lord, lamb of God, son of man, the "personified Holy
Spirit" and (in more philosophical mode) the very logos or
Word of God.
Even though Paul uses the concept of
Jesus as God's son, Vermes establishes convincingly that this is not
equivalent to John's Son of God. More than that,
... Paul's prayers
and liturgical blessings are regularly addressed to God or the Father, and
not to, though often through, Jesus Christ. As a result, Christ is neatly
distinguished from God.
Jesus in Paul's writings is, says
Vermes, essentially a theological figure. His importance and power derive
from his significance in the light of Paul's vision on the road to
Damascus. That Paul made the cross central to his interpretation of the
meaning of Jesus is old hat - but nevertheless worth reiterating. Vermes
is, I think, entirely convincing when he writes that the Pauline
"myth" of redemption
...though consistently structured, is
essentially supra-rational, and although designed with vaguely historical
strokes as the culmination of a salvation mystery, the last Adam repairing
the harm caused by the first, it is painted with faint, almost
The implications of this position are
not spelled out by Vermes. His concerns lie elsewhere. He makes the point,
however, that Paul's accounts of the resurrection of Jesus and the last
supper are governed by Paul's own assertion that they are the tradition he
received. That is, he informs his readers and us that there is a tradition
and that it includes these two centre-pieces of the Christian faith. His
letters to the Corinthians probably date from around 55, so we can be
reasonably sure that the tradition is early.
But far more importantly if Vermes is
correct, Paul's purpose is quoting these traditions was not historical.
That is, by quoting them he was not making a statement about historical
veracity. This was not his need; it was not the need of those he was
writing to; it was not even a concern of the followers of "The
Way" - the early Jewish and pioneer Gentile Christians. They did not
and could not think of history as we do. Nor did or could Paul himself so
think. Our analytical, scientific desire to know "what really
happened" would, to put it bluntly, have been considered little short
of absurd. We, not they, would have been considered the fools.
The evidence is solid that Paul regarded
his revelation of "Christ crucified" as independent of what had
been handed down. At the same time, he was not ignorant of the tradition.
What is so hard for us to realise is that the tradition was never meant to
be history. It was theology, proven correct by Old Testament
prophecy and teachings of ancient holy men.
In the same way, Paul's
teaching of Christ crucified was not intended to "prove" that
Jesus did die on the cross - that went without saying because it had been
forecast (and, by the way, writes Paul, so-and-so spoke to so-and-so who says he was
there). It was a statement about revelation and the understanding of God's
purposes this conveys, not an historical proof.
A synoptic Jesus
Vermes makes what was for a me puzzling assertion as he embarks on a
journey through the Synoptic Gospels. He writes:
... the portrait of
Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels takes the form of a biographical sketch ...
they acted as narrators of the life, ideas, activities, teaching and death
of a holy man of flesh and blood.
I searched in vain for a
"biographical sketch" as Vermes summarised the background and
content of the gospels in what seemed to me a far from unusual way. He
spells out the literary sources, describes the carpenter from Nazareth,
Jesus the teacher, healer and exorcist is some detail. In the process he
gives the Jewish background in which Jesus lived and died.
In the event, I suspect that my
definition of "biographical" and his differ. His knowledge of
the cultural background enable him to draw some conclusions about Jesus
which, though not new to me, might surprise some. I found his account of
the Jesus of the gospels thorough, if brief. Of this figure he says,
"It mirrors in some way, but is not identical with, the Jesus of
history." The figure created by the Gospel authors is, he writes,
destined to be gradually changed
...step by step. It started with
the miraculous birth recorded in Matthew and Luke, and continued through
Paul and John by the Fathers, the theologians and the councils of the
Hellenised Gentile church.
My interest perked up with the chapter
entitled, "Beneath the Gospels: The real Jesus." Vermes, as far
as I understand him, intends to show that the nature of the Jewish
religion and society in the time of Jesus is extremely unlikely to have
suggested or nurtured the idea that this holy man, who preached love and
peace, and was killed as a threat to public order, would have thought of
himself as the Messiah - and certainly not as the "Son of God".
Nor would his immediate followers have dreamed of so naming him.
The Jesus of the Church grew rapidly
from small beginnings:
The fact that Jesus was admired, or
suspected, as a potential Messiah started a complex process of theological
speculation which in the course of three centuries culminated in the
elevation of the carpenter from Nazareth to the rank of the second person
of the triune Godhead.
The Hebrew Bible, popular religion in Jesus'
time, Rabbinic literature and models of holy men - none of them either
allow or encourage such a conclusion.
Christ the God and an object of worship,
Vermes makes clear, arose because "By the end of the first century
Christianity had lost sight of the real Jesus and of the original meaning
of his message." How could this happen? The original person and his
message were transferred within decades of Jesus' death from a
Semitic, Palestinian setting, a Jewish religious framework, to a
Greek-speaking pagan world. The transfer happened too early and too fast,
spurred on, no doubt, by the destruction of Jerusalem and the final
dispersal of the Jewish nation.
"The aims, ideas and style of life
of Christianity had no time to properly crystallise and develop." And
because of the confused tensions after 70, says Vermes, "... must be
added another dark factor, the growing anti-Judaism of the church."
Does Vermes discover the
"real" Jesus? He summarises New Testament scholarship well. He
illuminates beautifully the various theological portraits of Jesus as
Messiah, as they grow gradually more and more detailed and descriptive
over the years. He eliminates the supposition that there is or ever was a
unified understanding of Jesus even in the first century. He provides
interesting and well-informed background to Jesus the Jew. We are left in
no doubt of the role played by Gentiles in the formation of the
traditional Jesus and of Paul's "revelation" in the history of
the Church and its reformation. Perhaps we understand the shadowy Jesus
more clearly as his Jewishness is explained.
If the "real" Jesus is a
man in history, then Vermes adds slightly to the facts "as they
really are". Our knowledge of "what really happened" is
expanded somewhat, but the historical Jesus remains as slight a figure as