The National Catholic Review
Daniel J. Harrington
The Resurrection is a twin to Geza Vermess The Nativity (reviewed in America, 11/5/2007) in size, scope, methodology and results. In this book Vermes, an expert in ancient Jewish texts and history, again takes on the role of the historical detective and seeks to discern the factual realities behind the New Testament passages pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus. Just as he found little solid historical evidence behind the infancy narratives, so he contends that the evidence for what the churchs tradition has taught about the resurrection is thin, to say the least.

Vermes taught for many years at Oxford University and is especially well known for his English translation of the Dead Sea scrolls. A former Catholic priest who reverted to Judaism, he has taken a special interest in the figure of Jesus and in a series of books has tried steadfastly to interpret Jesus within the framework of first-century Palestinian Judaism. Throughout this multi-volume project, his goal has been to bring Jesus back to Judaism and so release him from the churchs interpretative tradition.

The thesis of this book is that the idea of resurrection lay on the periphery of Jesus own preaching, and was based on his central idea of the kingdom of God. Paul, however, turned resurrection into the centerpiece of his mystical and theological vision, which was soon to become identical with the essence of the Christan message. According to Vermes, not even a credulous nonbeliever is likely to be persuaded by the various New Testament reports pertaining to Jesus resurrection. He maintains that none of them satisfies the minimum requirements of a legal or scientific inquiry.

Vermes notes that bodily resurrection was a Jewish idea. It entails the corporeal revival of the dead, the reunification of the spiritual soul and the material body of a deceased person. In the Judaism of Jesus time the idea of resurrection was promoted especially by the Pharisees and was placed in the context of eschatology and the final judgment. The Christian church claims that Jesus resurrection constitutes the first fruits in the hope of believers for their own resurrection.

In the first part of The Resurrection, the author surveys attitudes toward life after death in the Jewish world before Jesus. He traces the development of afterlife expectations from the shadowy existence of the dead in Sheol in pre-exilic times, through metaphorical uses of resurrection terminology by Ezekiel, to clear statements about resurrection and/or immortality in Daniel, 2 Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon. He gives particular attention to the role of martyrdom in Maccabean times in this development, on the grounds that God must reward after death such faithful and heroic behavior. On the whole, Vermess treatment of the Jewish evidence is comprehensive and balanced. However, he tends toward minimalist interpretations, especially in treating the Dead Sea scrolls, where some of his own translations point in the direction of a lively hope for blissful existence after death, and some even suggest bodily resurrection. And he ignores three Jewish writings (Pseudo-Philos Biblical Antiquities, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch) that deal extensively with life after death and are contemporary with the New Testament writings. Minimalist also is his conclusion that the notion of bodily resurrection propagated by the Pharisees was alien to first-century Hellenistic Jews and was unfamiliar in most layers of Palestinian Jewry.

The second part is a critical assessment of the New Testament evidence pertaining to resurrection and eternal life. Vermes argues that resurrection did not play a major role in Jesus own teaching (despite Mk 12:18-27), that the passion-resurrection predictions attributed to Jesus are filled with oddities, and that the resuscitation accounts in the Gospels and Acts are based largely on Old Testament stories about Elijah and Elisha and are highly symbolic.

Vermes maintains that the New Testament accounts about Jesus empty tomb and the risen Jesus appearances are so full of uncertainties and discrepancies that they cannot provide a firm historical foundation for belief in Jesus bodily resurrection. Rather, he attributes the early Christians belief in Jesus resurrection to their convictions about Jesus ongoing spiritual presence active within them. In other words, Jesus lives on in the hearts of men. It was through Paul, Vermes insists, that resurrection became the kernel of the Christian message.

As in his other books on Jesus, Vermes is an engaging and challenging guide through the ancient Jewish and early Christian texts. From Jesus the Jew (1973) to this book, he has located Jesus within the boundaries of first-century Judaism and tried to show that Christians have made a tragic mistake in taking Jesus out of Judaism. His insistence on reading the New Testament as a historian means that he shows little interest in the literary and theological dimensions of the texts. Moreover, he is quite selective in choosing which texts to read and how to read them. His dismissal of the Book of Revelation, for example, ignores the fact that the book is from beginning to end about the risen Christ and resurrection.

Vermes follows a longstanding tendency in Jewish interpretations of Jesus when he points the finger at Paul as the one who got the early Christian movement off track regarding Jesus and resurrection. He ignores, however, the pre-Pauline hymns preserved in Phil 2:6-11 (Christ the Servant) and Col 1:15-20 (Christ the Wisdom of God) that celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as the great turning point in the paschal mystery. These hymns and the pre-Pauline credal statements scattered throughout the Pauline letters (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3-5) indicate that in the 25 years between Jesus death and the composition of Pauls letters the resurrection had already become the kernel of Christian faith. The description of this period as an explosion rather than a development is quite appropriate.

Jesus may well live in the hearts of men. But the New Testament says much more than that. Indeed, belief in Jesus resurrection is foundational to the New Testament from start to finish. For a fuller, sounder and more orthodox treatment of the material that Vermes covers, I recommend N. T. Wrights The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.