How Much Storytelling?

The Nativityby By Geza VermesDoubleday. 192p $17.95 (hardcover)
The “Christmas story” that we re-enact annually is based for the most part on the infancy narratives found in the first two chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Those texts combine historical details, fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies and theological affirmations about Jesus. In The Nativity, Geza Vermes, a scholar of ancient Jewish texts and history, seeks to get behind those texts and play detective in order to arrive at the historical truth. His thesis is that this truth “belongs only very slightly to history and mostly derives from man’s hopeful and creative religious imagination.”

Vermes’s method is exegetical, comparative and historical. He provides detailed literary analyses of the individual passages that make up the New Testament infancy narratives, compares those texts with parallel Jewish and Greco-Roman documents and tries to clarify the history and the meaning of the story of Jesus’ nativity. He claims to approach the birth stories in the Gospels in the same way that he would deal with any other problem in the history of religion.

Vermes acknowledges how much he enjoyed Christmas as a boy in his assimilated Jewish family in pre-World War II Hungary. His family eventually became Catholics, and Vermes studied theology at Louvain and was ordained a priest. As he has pointed out in many of his previous writings, including his autobiography (Providential Accidents), he left the priesthood, returned to Judaism, settled in England and taught Jewish literature and history at several British universities, most notably at Oxford, where he is now emeritus professor of Jewish studies. His earliest research was on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and his English translation of those texts has become the standard work.

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Vermes has also published several books on Jesus and Judaism over the past 35 years. He contends that we can know a good deal about Jesus as long as we place him in his first-century Jewish context. He regards Jesus primarily as a Galilean “holy man,” one who combined the roles of Jewish teacher and miracle worker. He also contends that Jesus the Jew would have been amazed and embarrassed by the theological claims that the church has made about his virginal conception, divinity and resurrection.

According to Vermes, the basic Christian mistake about Jesus has been taking Jesus out of Judaism. Through his many books about Jesus, Vermes seeks to bring Jesus back to his rightful place within first-century Judaism. His examination of the New Testament infancy narratives is one of the last steps in that project.

After noting elements of the “Christmas story” not found in the New Testament (Dec. 25, Joseph as an old man, the friendly beasts, the three kings), Vermes shows that the Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives agree on only a few points. He argues that there are major discrepancies between the two genealogies of Jesus; that the accounts of Jesus’ birth are best understood in light of other accounts of miraculous births in Judaism and paganism; that the idea of his virginal conception is a late accretion to the Gospels; that Jesus was born before 4 B.C. (when Herod the Great died); that Bethlehem as his place of birth is questionable; that the premonitory signs (the angelic announcement to the shepherds, the mysterious star, the Magi) owe more to theology than to history; that Herod’s murderous decree is plausible but historically unlikely; and that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, and may well have been born there.

Vermes discerns three stages in the development of the infancy narratives: a main narrative transmitted in Aramaic in Palestinian Jewish circles, changes introduced first in Aramaic and then in Greek and the thorough reworking of these materials by Matthew and Luke and/or their editors.

He contends that the infancy narratives in their present form have been attached to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as a kind of prologue and a counterpart to the equally wondrous (and non-historical) epilogue about Jesus’ resurrection. On the theological level these texts emphasize Jesus’ messianic dignity (Son of David) and his special relationship to the Deity (Son of God).

At one point in his exposition Vermes describes his work as “deconstruction.” Indeed, the book as a whole is historical-critical deconstruction of the infancy narratives in the Gospels. Vermes brings to the task vast learning as well as the ability to write in a concise, clear and engaging manner. The reader is invited to follow a clever detective.

The problem, however, at least for most Christian believers, is that we know Vermes’s conclusion before his detective work begins. If we limit Jesus of Nazareth to his first-century Palestinian-Jewish context and imagine him only as a Galilean holy man, then what does not fit with that image cannot be historical or authentic. This kind of skeptical scholarship (while learned) is what Pope Benedict XVI has inveighed against as revealing the limitations of a historical-critical approach to Scripture that has no place for uniqueness and supernatural causality. (With its insistence on keeping the man Jesus within first-century Judaism, Vermes’s approach contrasts sharply with the pope’s historical-theological approach in Jesus of Nazareth, which argues that only recognition of Jesus’ divinity can make sense out of early Christianity and the New Testament.)

Most of the material treated by Vermes has been discussed at much greater length in Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah. Vermes’s little book might provide the occasion for an interesting comparison between these two readings of the infancy narratives (sometimes converging, sometimes diverging) and for reflection on the theological presuppositions that can and do shape the application of the historical-critical method.

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