Which Jesus is Ours?

Christian Beginningsby Geza Vermes

Yale University Press. 228p $30

Voltaire remarked that all Christology is somehow autobiographical. Geza Vermes, born into a Hungarian Jewish family converted to Christianity, political refugee, Catholic priest who later returned to the Judaism of his ancestors, first professor of Jewish studies at Oxford, died on May 8, 2013, at the age of 88. To my knowledge, this book, begun in 2008, finished in 2011 and published in 2013, was his last. Among biblical scholars, Vermes was well known for his work on the Jewish context and characteristics of Jesus and his teaching. He demonstrated that there is nothing attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels that cannot be found somewhere in Jewish sources earlier than or contemporary with Jesus.

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Vermes’s writings on Jesus over the years have consistently portrayed him as a charismatic leader in the prophetic tradition. The present book continues that line, following Max Weber’s understanding of the charismatic figure as one who commands authority by his actions, which in the case of Jesus are healing, exorcism and resuscitation. Vermes begins with a chapter on what he calls the “charismatic Judaism” of the biblical prophets through the Essenes of Qumran, seen as healers, to near-contemporaries of Jesus with spiritual power attributed to them, like Hanina ben Dosa. His concluding remark to this chapter sums up much of Vermes’s thinking: Without an understanding of charismatic Judaism, we cannot understand the rise of Christianity.

The next chapter on the charismatic Jesus is Vermes at his best. To the healing, exorcism and resuscitation characteristic of the charismatic leader, Jesus adds special attention to the poor and children along with a sense of eschatological urgency. The fact that there is not a single exorcism in the Gospel of John becomes a cogent criterion against its general historical reliability. Subsequent chapters take up the development of faith in Jesus beyond Jesus himself. The first generation’s religion is identical with that of Jesus. The “primitive church” (an expression not often used anymore in English language scholarship) confirmed by its own healings, exorcisms and glossolalia that its charismatic authority continued beyond Jesus, as witnessed in Paul and Acts. Their principal beliefs, the kingdom of God, the crucified/glorified Messiah and the parousia held until the mid-second century, when other strains brought in from philosophy altered the terrain. Along the way, Paul’s gospel is based on a crucified and exalted Christ accessed through baptism and Eucharist. Vermes drops a quiet bomb with the remark that the “mystical significance” of the eucharistic meal comes not directly from the Synoptic Gospels but from Paul, mediated to Matthew and Mark through Luke, Paul’s disciple. The implied theory of Lukan priority in the Synoptic relationship is one hardly considered elsewhere and taken no further here.

Vermes then moves out of his comfort zone to survey early Christian literature beyond the New Testament. The so-called Apostolic Fathers, the miscellaneous collection written mostly in the early second century, are considered individually but without much enthusiasm except for the Didache, the most strongly Jewish document, where the “hypocrites” who fast on alternate days are probably those who wish to remain with Pharisaic observance, and the community meal does not yet have the sacrificial significance that it was acquiring elsewhere. For Vermes, the Didache is “the first and last expression of Judaeo-Christianity after the New Testament.”

By contrast, Ignatius of Antioch, bishop, martyr and letter writer on the way to his death in Rome, makes clear assertions of the divinity and at the same time the physical reality of Jesus and is adamant against the practice of Judaism. Thus begins the trajectory of early Christian theology in which the legitimacy of Judaism is assailed and the figure of Christ is more and more exalted, in inverse proportion. The Letter of Barnabas attacks the heart of Judaism by arguing that Jewish observances were never meant to be practiced but rather interpreted allegorically. Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis and Irenaeus were key in the development of Christological understanding, Justin being the first to introduce Hellenistic philosophy into biblical interpretation. Tertullian’s innovative Trinitarian theology moved Christian theology forward in significant ways and is well handled here, as is Origen.

And so it comes to Nicaea in 325. Vermes argues that all Christology prior to the council was subordinationist, that is, even with full affirmations of Christ’s divinity, it was understood with Jn 14:28 that “the Father is greater than I,” rather than complete equality of being between Father and Son. Nicaea and Athanasius after it introduce a new element. From there it is a short distance to the compromise formula of Chalcedon in 451, with its assertion of full humanity and full divinity in Christ. The problem is, how does that work? Karl Rahner, S.J., said that “crypto-monophysism,” that is, belief that Jesus is either human or divine but not both together, has always dominated Christian thought. Vermes solves the dilemma by suggesting that the whole Christological development was an aberration from the original charismatic Jesus. Aberration or development? Each community of believers in Jesus gives its own answer.

Some of the advertising for this book calls it “brilliant.” I wouldn’t go that far. The scholarship is not new; in fact, it is rather traditional. The book is certainly a learned and well-articulated compendium of early Christian theological history up to Nicaea, from the point of view of one who placed himself deliberately outside it but nevertheless knew it well. I can think of ways in which he could have pressed his point further, for example the charismatic authority of Ignatius that underlay his authority as bishop. He could also have made much more of Montanism, the influential mid-second-century charismatic and prophetic revival that eventually included Tertullian, instead of following the traditional dismissive disdain communicated by its enemies. He makes no distinction between ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism and does not include in his arc the Hellenistic Judaism of scholars like Philo, who was integrating Platonism into his thinking a century before Christians like Justin began to do so. He laments the defeat of Arian Christology, but makes no mention of its widespread success in the evangelization of northern Europe. Much scholarship has happened in recent years with which Vermes seems not to have connected. Nevertheless, this is a good summary of how we got from Nazareth to Nicaea.

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