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In Quest of the Historical Jesus

The fiercest battles now are fought over this larger setting. What was first-century Palestinian Judaism like? The answer to this question determines, to an appreciable degree, the range of possibilities for the reconstruction of the historical Jesus. The writers who maintain that Jesus was anti-Jewish or not noticeably Jewish do not use these crude terms; they say, rather, that since Jesus opposed some of the Law specifically he opposed all of it in principle; that he “harked back” to the great prophets of Israel and disregarded what Judaism had become; that Galilee had been Hellenized and was culturally more Greek than Jewish; that Galilee had remained “Israelite” but had not become “Jewish” in the way Jerusalem was.

The views that Jesus opposed central aspects of Judaism, or that culturally he was not very Jewish, have been resolutely opposed by a surprisingly small number of scholars—who have, however, the better of the argument, since their view corresponds to the evidence. To make Jesus antithetical to his own culture or removed from typical Jewish concerns, one must concentrate on a few sayings, work very hard at interpreting them as decisive, and discard vast quantities of evidence. Moreover, many of the recent views about Galilee, especially its Hellenization, draw on third- and fourth-century evidence and impose it on the events of the first half of the first century.

Among the most prominent twenty or so books by scholars who have written convincingly on Palestinian Judaism in Jesus’ day and who have seen Jesus as thoroughly immersed in that culture, several are by Jews. They include Joseph Klausner’s Jesus of Nazareth (1925); David Flusser’s Jesus (1969); Paul Winter’s On the Trial of Jesus (1961); Geza Vermes’s Jesus the Jew (1973), Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983), and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993); and Paula Fredriksen’s From Jesus to Christ (1988). The new books by Vermes and Fredriksen add considerably to the arguments they have already made.


Geza Vermes is one of the most distinguished living scholars of ancient Judaism. While he has specialized in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which his reputation is unsurpassed, he has an impressive command of all the Jewish sources from antiquity. He has moved from Hungary to France to Oxford, where he served with distinction as Reader and then Professor of Jewish Studies, a position from which he retired in 1991. He was born into a family that was originally Jewish but that had converted to Christianity. He himself subsequently converted to Judaism.3 For most of his life he has studied ancient Judaism and the new Jewish movement that became Christianity.

In 1973, when his book Jesus the Jew appeared, the title itself created a small stir among New Testament scholars, since it challenged the prevailing view that Jesus had initiated Christianity’s break from Judaism, if not deliberately and thoroughly at least in principle. Nevertheless, the book was enormously successful. It established basic parallels between Jesus and a previously neglected “type”: the Galilean Hasid—i.e., “pious” or “Godly” man.4 Under the heading “Jewish Charismatics,” Vermes discussed Honi the Circle-Drawer, known from both Rabbinic literature and Josephus, Hanina ben Dosa, and others. Exploring what is known about these men, he convincingly showed numerous parallels with Jesus. They performed healings and other wonders, and they had a feeling of special closeness to God, as of a son with a father; they engaged in powerful and effective prayer and even in some teaching.

One of the other principal contributions of Vermes’s work was a meticulous study of the titles that Christians eventually gave to Jesus: Prophet, Messiah or Christ (based on the Hebrew and Greek words meaning “anointed”), Lord, and Son of Man. Vermes concluded that Jesus preferred thinking of himself as a “prophet,” while Christians assigned him the other titles for diverse reasons. By 1993 Professor Vermes could note with justified satisfaction that his campaign, in which he had been joined by others, to fit the life of Jesus convincingly into other evidence from first-century Palestine, and especially Galilee, seemed to be widely accepted.5

Professor Vermes has always been interested in the question of how the Jesus of history became the Church’s divine figure. He has now given us a full account of this development. Probably having in mind the titles of books by Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ) and Maurice Casey (From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God), Vermes calls his prologue “From Christ to Jesus.” He traces the process of divinization backward, not precisely chronologically, but according to the degree of “evolution” of the Christological doctrine that Jesus was both entirely divine and entirely human. The line running from the most evolved Christology to the least can be followed, in Vermes’s account, by examining the texts of John, Paul, the Acts, and the synoptic gospels. He briefly discusses other New Testament books en route. After this presentation of various depictions of Jesus in the New Testament, Vermes gives his views of the real Jesus who is “beneath the gospels.”

Summing up his main theme, he writes: “The most prominent features of the Synoptic portrait of Jesus, those of a charismatic healer and exorcist, teacher, and champion of the Kingdom of God, are essentially dependent on the historical figure which other authors of the New Testament progressively disguised.”

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 [Jesus’ return], 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 afterward by the dogmatic speculations of church-centered Gentile Christianity.6

The historical Jesus, Vermes concludes, “was thoroughly Jewish in his roles of teacher, exorcist, and preacher, prophet and son of God,” where “son of God” is understood as it traditionally was in Judaism, a metaphor for the people of God or for someone especially close to God.

Vermes’s substantial chapters on John and Paul are immensely perceptive. It is difficult for someone who is Jewish to read John or Paul sympathetically. John demonizes the Jews as children of the Devil; Paul is for many Jews, especially including Jewish experts in Christianity, the great apostate who destroyed the Jewish message of Jesus and began his transformation into a God of the Gentiles.7 All things considered, Vermes’s treatment is remarkably sympathetic as well as penetrating. He sees that the divinity of John’s Christ, who sometimes claims to be “one” with the Father (John 10:30), is significantly modified by statements indicating that he is inferior to and dependent on the Father (e.g., John 8:28; 14:28). Moreover, just as John’s Christ is united with the Father, so also the believers are united with him and the Father. Are they gods too? Many readers of John miss this complexity entirely.

Vermes also correctly emphasizes the mysticism of John: in his gospel the union of Christ, God, and believers is based not on their having the same “essence,” but on verbs and prepositions indicating deep personal relationships. Jesus loves the Father, the Father loves him, they love the disciples, who love them, they all abide in, or “indwell,” one another. This is quite different from the Chalcedonian assertion that Jesus has two essences, one human, one divine. It is principally John’s prologue that, by identifying Jesus with the preexistent divine communication (“In the beginning was the Word”), pushes him toward the Chalcedonian definition.

Paul, Vermes writes, relied primarily on “heavenly communications and visions” and “deliberately turned his back on the historical figure, the Jesus according to the flesh.” Vermes quite correctly emphasizes the importance of the death of Christ for Paul, who concentrated not on the historical figure, or even on the “risen and glorified Lord, but the Jesus who expired on the cross.” As in the case of John, Vermes recognizes Paul’s distinctive form of mysticism. In his analysis, Christ’s death, though sometimes described as an atoning sacrifice, more importantly provides the opportunity for the believer to participate mystically in that death and thus to leave behind the old sinful life. This mystical death and new life provide the believer “with as it were a ticket for participation in the final real resurrection,” which lay in the very near future.

Vermes goes on to argue that the Acts of the Apostles, a history of apostolic missionary work, is close to the synoptic gospels in its view of the person and work of Jesus, and that the synoptic gospels are not very far from the real Jesus, who was a charismatic prophet, healer, and ethicist.

Though Vermes often emphasizes that Jesus was eschatological in outlook, expecting the Kingdom of God to arrive, he describes in detail and strongly emphasizes the importance of the present in Jesus’ teaching. “The eyes of Jesus were resolutely focused on the present, on the duty of the moment, and closed to anything pertaining to the more distant future.” Vermes brings future and present to-gether, summing up Jesus’ message as a command to “do all that is required for the fulfillment of the plea, ‘Thy Kingdom come.’” Probably recognizing that readers might regard Jesus’ error about eschatology as making his message partly irrelevant, Vermes adds that “the absence of a literal fulfillment of his belief does not detract in any way from the fundamental truth that no religious attitude is real without an all-pervading sense of urgency which converts ideas into instant action.”

Vermes is particularly helpful in his discussion of the various titles given to Jesus—Messiah, Son of Man, etc. In fact, those who want to understand the historical Jesus and the evolving ways in which he was perceived in the following decades can do no better than to read his book. It is the masterly statement of a great scholar who has spent decades considering his topic, and whose work is gentle, irenic, relatively unargumentative, and written with exceptional skill. Although firmly insistent that Christianity has substantially disguised the historical Jesus, who, when recovered, is a recognizable Jewish figure of the first century, Vermes is not stinting in his praise of Jesus. He was, Vermes writes, a Galilean Hasid—but not just another Hasid: “Jesus stood head and shoulders above them.” He was in some respects like the great prophet Amos, but “he surpassed the prophets.” Above all, Jesus’ teaching sets him apart. “The gospel preached by him is fire, power, and poetry, one of the high peaks in the religious creativity of the people of Israel,” Vermes writes, and he cites Martin Buber and Joseph Klausner to the same effect. In Vermes Jesus has found his best Jewish interpreter.

  1. 3

    See his autobiography, Providential Accidents (London: SCM Press, 1998).

  2. 4

    These hasidim are not to be confused with later Hasidic Jews. For a discussion of the ancient category of the Hasidim that applies the term much more broadly than does Vermes, see Adolph Büchler, Types of Jewish-Palestinian Piety from 70 BCE to 70 CE: The Ancient Pious Men (1922; reprinted by Ktav, 1968).

  3. 5

    See his book The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Fortress Press, 1993), p. 6.

  4. 6

    It is not accurate to say that Paul lived a generation after Jesus and his disciples; they all belonged to the same generation. Vermes occasionally confuses chronological sequence with the evolution of Christology. Paul’s letters are appreciably earlier than the syn-optic gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

  5. 7

    For a sensitive and highly perceptive Jewish reading of John, see Adele Reinhartz, Befriending the Beloved Disciple (Continuum, 2001).

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