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Geza Vermes

The Changing Faces of Jesus

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

In this book Geza Vermes looks at Jesus from a Jewish standpoint. He considers the New Testament sources for our knowledge: John's gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul's writings, and the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Somewhat unusually, he reverses the presumed chronological order of these documents and begins with John, followed by Paul, the Acts, and finally the Synoptics.

The reason he follows this scheme is that he sees Jesus as a thoroughly Jewish figure, whose message was framed in a Jewish context and was intended only for Jews. He hopes that by tracing the development of the New Testament in the opposite direction from that usually followed he can bring out Jesus's Jewish background more clearly. Jesus, he maintains, never wished to found a new religion, let alone a world religion, but the early Christian church transformed him into a divine person whose preaching was supposed to be for the whole world.

Vermes begins with John because he thinks that the Fourth Gospel is the furthest removed from the historical Jesus, both in time and in its conception of Jesus, while the Synoptics, and especially Mark, give us at least an approximation to a portrait of the man. Together with the letters of Paul, John's gospel is largely responsible for the view that Christians have formed of Jesus and his role.

The Fourth Gospel reflects a composite picture of the face of Jesus in which the traditional elements, culminating in the figure of 'the Messiah, Son of God', are overlaid by the visionary discoveries of John the Divine. Looking ahead through his mystical lens, the evangelist was convinced that he had perceived in the by then distant person of the Galilean Jewish teacher Jesus, not only the Saviour of mankind, but also the Stranger from heaven in whom he recognized the reflected image of the countenance of the Father.
Most of the great doctrinal controversies of Christianity in the first millennium concerning the Trinity and the two natures of Christ had their origin in the Fourth Gospel.

Paul's contribution is equally or even more important. Vermes regards him as the most creative and imaginative among the authors of the New Testament. His thought is complex and often baffling, at least to a modern reader, but Vermes does a good job of making it comprehensible by relating it to the setting in which Paul thought and wrote. The two chapters that discuss Paul are well worth reading for anyone who has tried, but failed, to understand much of what the self-styled apostle was driving at.

Unlike John, Paul did not think of Christ as divine, nor was he interested in the historical figure of Jesus. His emphasis was on Christ as redeemer of humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, and on the Second Coming, which Paul believed was imminent. He described a 'mystery drama of salvation', which still shapes most Christians' understanding of their religion today.

Put … simply, for Paul and his Christians the resurrection of Jesus signified the availability of a spiritual renaissance for spiritually dead sinners, for those who through their union with Christ's death inherited a share in his new life.
Once we move away from John and Paul, we no longer see a divine person or a redeemer. We experience 'a stupendous sea change … we encounter in the Acts of the Apostles a Galilean prophet elevated by God to the dignity of Lord and Christ after raising him from the dead.' This 'sea change' is even more pronounced when we come to the Synoptic gospels, of which the Acts are a continuation.

Vermes thinks that many Christian commentators have been unwilling to 'face up to the real Jesus' as portrayed in the Synoptics and hence have seen the gospels primarily as presenting 'a doctrinal message disguised as history'. Instead, Vermes holds, the evangelists were 'popular story-tellers'. Even so, Mark is the only evangelist who 'enables us to hear today an occasional and faint echo of what may have been … Jesus' own words in his own language.'

In his penultimate chapter Vermes provides his own portrait of 'the real Jesus' as it emerges from the Synoptics. Many would say that this is an impossible task, but Vermes thinks that we may be able to catch a glimpse of Jesus by recreating the milieu of his time. So Jesus emerges as a Galilean carpenter, relatively unsophisticated and rather rough in his manner. His fame arose from his activities as an exorcist and a healer, not as the Messiah. Jewish history provides numerous accounts of holy men who acted in much the same way, and Vermes recounts their stories at some length to make the comparison. But Jesus was different from other healers in significant ways.

For one thing, he was apparently unmarried. For another, none of the other healers left a legacy of incomparable sayings, whereas Jesus did. His emphasis on an eschatological vision and his tragic death are also distinguishing features.

The face of this Jesus, truly human, wholly theocentric, passionately faith-inspired and under the imperative impulse of the here and now, impressed itself so deeply on the minds of his disciples that not even the shattering blow of the cross could arrest its continued real presence. It compelled them to carry on in his name with their mission as healers, exorcists and preachers of the Kingdom of God. It was only a generation or two later, with the increasing delay of the Parousia [Second Coming], that the image of the Jesus familiar from experience began to fade, covered over first by the theological and mystical dreamings of Paul and John, and afterwards by the dogmatic speculations of church-centred Gentile Christianity.
The view of Jesus and his message which Vermes presents here is unlikely to find favour with most Christian commentators, but his case seems to me to be hard to counter. That Jesus was a thoroughly Jewish man, speaking to an audience of Jews, is obvious, and no Jew in first-century Palestine could possibly have thought that any human being could share the nature of God. Anyone who reads the Synoptics without bringing Christian preconceptions to bear (a difficult task, after two thousand years of Christian indoctrination) will, I think, find that the Jesus of the Synoptics and the Christ of later Christianity are so different that it is difficult to relate one to the other in any meaningful way.

1 November 2006

%T The Changing Faces of Jesus
%A Vermes, Geza
%I Allen Lane: The Penguin Press
%C London
%D 2000
%G ISBN 0-713-99193-2
%P 274 pp
%K religion

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