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Geza Vermes

CHRISTIAN BEGINNINGS

From Nazareth to Nicaea (AD 30–325)


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Geza Vermes, who died in 2014, was an advocate for the view that Jesus can only be properly understood in a Jewish context, something he argued in more than twelve books; see, for example, The Changing Faces of Jesus. He portrays Jesus as a rural Galilean prophet, exorcist and healer who preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God but made no claim to divine status.

Christian Beginnings, as Vermes explains in his introduction, takes the story further. It is "an attempt to sketch the historical continuity between Jesus portrayed in his Galilean charismatic setting and the first ecumenical council held at Nicaea in AD 325, which solemnly proclaimed his divinity as a dogma of Christianity".

Vermes is not the first to describe this extraordinary transformation, of course, but he does so in an unusual way. Naturally he uses the New Testament sources, especially Paul and the Fourth Gospel, but he also draws on other sources that are likely to be unfamiliar or even unknown to most non-specialists. These include, for example, the Didache, or Teaching of the Apostles. Written in the late first century, it describes the initiation of new church members and the organisation of the infant church. It has been said to be one of the most significant literary discoveries in primitive Christianity. A little later than the Didache we have the Epistle of Barnabas, which was nearly included in the New Testament.

The two documents present differing views of Jesus. For the Didache, whose author was evidently Jewish, Jesus is the Servant of God but not himself divine. He is a great teacher but not a superhuman being. Barnabas, in contrast, refers to Jesus as Son of God, who is pre-existent from eternity; this is similar to the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel. The author of Barnabas was apparently a Gentile and there is an implied criticism of Judaism in the way the text is framed as a dispute between 'us' and 'them'.

Between the end of the first century and the middle of the second century there is a group of writers known as the Apostolic Fathers: 1 and 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas and Diognetus. They provide an idea of how the church was developing at this time and of progressive changes that were occurring in Christians' view of Jesus as he moved towards full divinity.

In the late second and early third centuries we find the "Three Pillars of Wisdom": Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. All made important contributions to Christianity although both Tertullian and Origen were later declared to have been heretical. At this period Christianity faced danger externally, from the hostility of Rome, and also internally, from conflict with Gnosticism. Both problems were addressed by these writers.

Origen is particularly interesting because although he was very influential in early Christianity he is little known to non-specialists today except perhaps for having castrated himself for religious motives at the age of eighteen.

The power and the originality of the teaching of Origen were bound posthumously to inspire conflicting attitudes towards the great Alexandrian. His admirers worshipped him and his critics subjected his name to vituperation. Attacks on Origenism, on ideas some of which he actually held and others erroneously attributed to him, continued for centuries. The chief points of controversy concerned the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls, Origen's purported rejection of the literal sense of the Bible in favour of allegorical exegesis and his denial of the eternity of hell. … The greatest mind and most creative thinker of early Christianity was anathematized by the church of second-rate followers.
Like other Christian writers at this time, Origen struggled with the theology of the Trinity. The Trinitarian conundrum is in fact surely insoluble; the modern Roman Catholic church describes it as a Mystery, which seems to mean it resembles a Zen koan (the sound of one hand clapping). The problem is to explain why saying that God contains three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit doesn't imply there are three Gods.
The only escape route away from the trap of suspected formal polytheism was by denying equal status to the various persons within the single Deity. Only the Father was fully the God; the Son was only the second or lower God and the Holy Spirit, something vague and unspecific, floating somewhere below the Son.
This idea, Vermes thinks, was what prevailed in the whole church before Nicaea and was already foreshadowed by Paul and John. It was expressed clearly and logically by Arius, the founder of the Arian heresy. But it "was challenged, attacked and finally overturned by a minority of bishops with the backing of the emperor at the Council of Nicaea".

Even so, the arguments continued for over half a century, until the Emperor Theodosius declared Arianism illegal in 381. Divergent opinions were no longer tolerated.

Christianity, as generally understood in the light of its Gentile development, is focused not on the genuine existential spiritual legacy of the Jewish Jesus, but on the intellectual acceptance of the divine Christ and his superhuman existence within the mystery of the church's triune Godhead.
The book provides a readable if rather detailed account of the arguments that shaped Christianity in the first few centuries. Its chief interest will probably be to Christians who are curious about the early years of their faith and are prepared to look at the question through critical but not hostile Jewish eyes. Secularists may well find the whole subject esoteric and obscure, but given the continuing importance of religion in general and Christianity in particular in the modern world, some will probably feel it worth while to explore this unfamiliar territory.

21-03-2018


%T Christian Beginnings
%S From Nazareth to Nicaea (AD 30–325)
%A Vermes, Geza
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 2012
%P xvi+243pp
%K religion
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018

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