Monday, April 13, 2009

An Evaluation of Geza Vermes’
Jesus the Jew; A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels
Dennis Ingolfsland
Geza Vermes is a world-class Jewish scholar and expert on Jesus’ Studies. He is a “fellow of the British Academy and Professor Emeritus of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford. He is world-renowned both for his work in Jewish studies and for his work on the historical Jesus.

Jesus the Jew is divided into two main sections: Part One is “the Setting”. The first chapter of this section is about “Jesus the Jew” and gives the reader a very brief overview of Jesus’ ministry. Vermes discusses Jesus’ role as an exorcist, healer and miracle worker. He seems to believe that Jesus was known, even in his own day, as a healer and exorcist, though he doesn’t comment on the reality of the events. He does say that miracles like the calming of the story and the feeding of the crowd:

“must be set beside other Jewish miracle tales of a simarlar kind. Others appear to be secondary accretions: for example the story of Jesus walking on the water by night” (26).

Vermes says that from the very beginning the Gospels portray Jesus as a “popular preacher” (26). He goes on to say, however, while some of these teachings were handed down intact, others are “interpolations” or “reformulations of the originals made by the early church” (26). Vermes does not tell the reader how to distinguish between the two.

Vermes ends the chapter with a discussion of Jesus’ resurrection. His conclusion deserves to be reproduced in its entirety:

But in the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion accpetable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike—and perhaps of the disciples themselves—are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb (41).

In chapter two Vermes discusses Jesus in the context of what the historian can know about first century Galilee. He provides a good, though brief, overview of Galilean history and religious culture. Chapter three discusses Jesus in the context of “charismatic Judaism”. In this chapter Vermes covers first century Jewish views on exorcisms and healings, and compares Jesus to other first century holy men such as Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa.

Part two of Vermes’ work devotes a separtate chapter to each of the following titles of Jesus: prophet, lord, messiah, son of man, and Son of God. Vermes sees Jesus as a charismatic prophet, not unlike others of his day. He argues from the evidence of Qumran and the Talmud, that, “contrary to academic opinion”, it is not only possible, but likely, that Jesus was known as “lord (115). Lord is a title which, in Vermes’ view “links Jesus to his dual role of charismatic Hasid and teacher (127).

Vermes does not seem to think that Jesus thought of himself as the Jewish Messiah but that this was something attributed to him by the early church (154-155). He says there is no reason to doubt that Jesus referred to himself as “the son of man”, but that this was only a circumlocution, not a title (182, 185). He does not doubt tht Jesus might have been known as “the son of God”, (200), but is insistant that this pharase does not mean what the Gospel of John or Ignatius mean by it, i.e. God incarnate.

There are several things to commend about Vermes’ work. First, his historical background matrial is helpful. Second, he portrays Jesus as a charismatic prophet (who was believed to have performed miracles, healings, and exorcisms) and teacher. Third, unlike some of the Jesus’ seminar radicals who argue that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs (Crossan) or that none of his original disciples really cared what happened to him (Mack), Vermes recognizes the fact that some of Jesus’ women followers found the tomb empty. Fourth, one gets the impression that Vermes is an honest scholar attempting to do historical research and not just trying to destroy traditional Christianity.

On the other hand, I really did not find Vermes’ work all that helpful. His overview of Jesus’ life was too brief and “unargued” to be of much value. And while he did a thorough job of discussing various isolated aspects of Jesus as a person, the reader never gets a good feel for the life, mission and ministry of Jesus as a whole. The book seems to me to be simply the musings of Vermes over various aspects of Jesus ministry.

Second, Vermes is clearly working within the historical critical (and skeptical) framework, but he does not spell out his criteria for determing what is historical. Like Sanders, above, Vermes just gives his reasons for accepting or rejecting the historicity of various gospel pericopaes on a case by case basis. While there is nothing really wrong with this, it cannot compare to the historiography of Wright or Meier who spell out their criteria and evaluate the evidence accordingly.