Facing Up To The Jewish Jesus

The Changing Faces of Jesus by Geza Vermes, published by Allen Lane The Penguin Press 2000.

The Author

Most of the data in this section first appeared in the Jerusalem Report August 17, 1998

Vermes, the first Professor of Jewish studies at Oxford, (and now Emeritus Professor) grew up a Jew in prewar Hungary but knowing nothing of Judaism. His family converted to Christianity in 1930, when he was 6.

At the age of 18 he became a Roman Catholic priest, left the Church when he fell in love and finally returned to Judaism.

After the war, Vermes found himself strangely drawn to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish subjects. He taught himself to read Hebrew, and became obsessed with the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls (his book on the subject, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English has sold some 300,000 copies.

In Paris in the 50s, Vermes was one of a small group of Catholic scholars from Jewish backgrounds who became convinced that the entire Christian concept of Judaism was wrong. "The religious textbooks were hateful and superior, totally horrible and distorted.”

It was not theology, though, but love that caused Vermes to leave the Church. In 1957, when he was 33, he took a "leap of faith" to be with an English woman, Pam Hobson. They were married for 35 years, until her death in 1993.

In 1970, he joined the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London.

The Book

Anyone familiar with Jim Veitch’s work on the New Testament or Jim Stuart’s The Many Faces of Christ will find Vermes presenting us with familiar ideas.

Of Paul

  • "Without any doubt, Paul was the most imaginative and creative writer among the authors of the New Testament, even though his ingenuity often resulted in twisting and sometimes undoing the genuine message of Jesus."
  • "The Pauline myths ... do not depend on what Jesus taught or even on what he did, but on the consequences, assumed to be providential, of what happened to him. ... Paul's perception is unique and is clearly distinguished from that of the Synoptic evangelists and John.
Of the Synoptics:

  • p157. "The main topic of Jesus[' teaching] was the Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of heaven and its moral requirements."
  • p158. Jesus’ authority arose from the healings and exorcisms which accompanied his teaching..
  • p174. "... looked at from an existential stance, the genuine Easter miracle can be seen in the metamorphoses of the apostles.
  • p187. "There is not a single instance in Mark, Matthew or Luke in which Jesus as 'Lord' is associated with anything to do with divinity.
Of Acts:
  • p135. “The expectation of God's Kingdom, essential to the religion of Jesus and the theology of Paul, but almost totally ignored in John, still occupies a central position in the early Christianity of the Acts of the Apostles."
  • p144. The theology of Acts is closer to Jesus than is Paul or John.
Of John
  • pp10, 25. John and the Synoptics are irreconcilable
  • p41. "In the Fourth Gospel the life-giving Redeemer is a heavenly traveller in temporary exile on earth who is longing to return to his real home.”

Paint Stripping

Like the furniture restorer, Vermes strips off the top layer of interpretive overlay (“John”’s Gospel) first. Then (anachronistally but perhaps justified on the grounds of the amount of paint he used), Paul’s contribution is stripped off. Then Acts goes and lastly, being closest to the historical Jesus, the Synoptic Gospels.

This reverse-order revelation is a novelty as is the total non-reference to The Jesus Seminar which has dug over the same ground with broadly similar findings.

An account of a dream experienced by the author makes up a short but largely irrelevant epilogue.

The Chronology and Bibliography are useful but an Index would have been even more so.

Noel Cheer