Thursday, 21 August 2014

More Lives of Jesus 9: Geza Vermes

It's strange to admit that I've read my way through a fairly large pile of books of Jesus scholarship and pseudo-scholarship, and yet have only just now read any works by Geza Vermes.

Vermes was born in Hungary in 1924, his parents non-practicing Jews who converted to Catholicism during Geza's childhood but were still swept up in the Holocaust.  Geza himself was ordained as a Catholic priest despite being rejected by both the Jesuits and the Dominicans because of his Jewish ancestry.  In the late 1950s, however, he left the Catholic church and reasserted his Jewish identity.  Most of his later life was spent in England, where he served as Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University until his death in 2013.  His book covers quote both the Guardian and the Sunday Telegraph describing him as "the greatest Jesus scholar of his generation".

He has two main claims to fame.  One is as a translator and interpreter of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which he first examined soon after their discovery in 1947 and which he translated into English and edited as The Dead Sea Scrolls in English.  The second is a long series of books on the life and times of Jesus, beginning with Jesus the Jew in 1973.  I have just finished reading the last two books in this series; The Resurrection, published in 2008, and Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325, published in 2012.  There is a wide overlap between his Dead Sea Scrolls study and his work on the life of Jesus, and his most distinctive contribution to Jesus scholarship is placing Jesus in his first century Jewish milieu.

For such a distinguished scholar he carries his learning very lightly.  These are books which penetrate deeply, but are written in a way that any lay person can understand.  He also has a gift for concision and summary which means that instead of wading through a huge tome you get to the point quickly and painlessly.

His overall understanding of Jesus is summarised in Christian Beginnings and I believe explained at greater length in some of his earlier works.  He says there were two strands in ancient Judaism which ran side by side but which were distinct from one another and often in tension.  One is what he calls everyday or mundane Judaism.  This was the realm of the priests and Levites and involved obedience to the Torah, maintenance of ritual purity and regular temple worship and sacrifice.

The other was what he calls "charismatic Judaism" and was the realm of the Old Testament prophets (including Moses but more particularly Elijah, Elisha and the authors of the prophetic books of the Bible) and their latter day successors.  Charismatic Judaism had limited interest in the formal aspects of temple worship and purity (often characterizing them as empty and hypocritical) and emphasised direct encounter with God and personal faithfulness.  They often delivered messages direct from God, and accompanied them by signs and miracles.

As well as describing the characteristics of the Old Testament figures, he discusses examples of this religious stream closer to Jesus' time and place - Honi the Circle Drawer from the mid first century BC, his two grandsons Hilkiah and Hanan, Hanina ben Dosa and of course John the Baptist.  All shared a number of characteristics - they performed miracles including healing and rain-making, they criticised and corrected the religious leaders of their day, they delivered messages from God and they scorned and often flouted purity codes.  They were also self-effacing - rather than claiming any status or taking credit for their miracles, they would attribute them to God alone.

Jesus, he says, was very much a part of this charismatic Jewish tradition.  He shared the key characteristics of both the Old Testament prophets and his closer contemporaries.  He was impatient with purity rules, teaching his followers to focus on what comes out of them not what goes in.  He clashed with the representatives of "official" Judaism, the Pharisees and Saduccees.  He performed miracles but warned their beneficiaries not to go telling everyone.  When people asked if he was the Messiah he often answered evasively.  He called Israel to repentance, deeper holiness and obedience.

This analysis is different to that of Albert Schweitzer in many ways, but its conclusion is very similar - Jesus is a prophet in the line of the prophets of Judaism.  The question is, if Jesus is simply another in a long line of Jewish prophets and holy men, why was the final outcome of his life and ministry so different?  Why did he come to be revered as the Son of God when the others of his time ended up as footnotes in the history of Judaism?

 In these two books, Vermes examines two aspects of the question.  The first, The Resurrection, deals with the fact that Jesus alone of all these figures is described as having risen from the dead.  The second, Christian Beginnings describes the process of development of the idea of Jesus' divinity from the gospels through to the Council of Nicaea.

The Resurrection begins with a summary of Jewish ideas about death and what comes after.  In the Old Testament, he says, the predominant (perhaps only) idea of death was that those who died went to Sheol, the place of the dead, where they lived a kind of half-life for ever after.  There was no distinction between what happened to the good and the evil - all ended up in the same state.  The focus of religious devotion was purely on this life, and it was in this life that any rewards and punishments would be meted out.

This view started to change in the second century BC as a result of the challenge to their faith presented by the religious persecution of the Seleucid emperor Antiochus, who placed the images of the Greek gods in the Jerusalem temple and attempted to force Jewish believers to sacrifice to them, on pain of death.  This represented a complete reversal of the conventional expectation that the faithful would be rewarded in this life, and one response to this was a growing expectation that the martyrs would be resurrected at a later time, the Day of the Lord.

By Jesus' day, the idea that there was life after death was still very much a minority view, although a growing one.  There was also no single unified view of what it meant.  Palestinian Jews were more likely to believe in a physical bodily resurrection, most often of martyrs alone or of righteous Jews in general, sometimes including a judgement of the wicked after death.  Hellenic Jews were more likely to believe in the idea of an immortal, immaterial soul imported from Platonic philosophy.  But by far the majority of Jewish religious leaders continued to believe that death was the end of meaningful existence.

Jesus' teaching in the synoptic gospels (which Vermes regards as largely based in the teaching of the historical Jesus although with some later interpolations) is likewise fairly "light-on" and not very specific.  Jesus was clearly a believer in resurrection but this was not a major theme of his teaching and was not spelt out in a great deal of detail.  It is only in John (which Vermes regards as a later production and only loosely connected to the historical Jesus) that the idea becomes front and centre.

On the other hand, all the gospels agree on the resurrection of Jesus himself.  What do they actually describe?  They don't present a consistent story - it is not clear how the tomb is opened and by whom, how long Jesus remains around after his resurrection, precisely who he appears to and where.  However, a number of things are clear.  In most cases, the people to whom Jesus appears don't recognise him, he returns significantly changed.  They are not expecting him, his appearance is a surprise, and they are slow to believe it if they haven't seen it for themselves.  He is physically present - he eats, speaks and can be touched (although in one scene he forbids Mary to do so).  Yet he does not have the same physical limitations - he walks through closed doors in John, disappears suddenly in Luke.  His appearances are small in number and private, limited to his close followers.  After a short time (between three and forty days, depending on the source) he disappears to "return to his Father".

How are we to interpret these accounts?  Vermes steers a middle course.  He does not believe they are a carefully constructed later legend because they don't show the signs of careful invention.  They are inconsistent and confusing.  Women are among the principal witnesses, despite their testimony being seen as unreliable in ancient societies.  He does nothing spectacular after his resurrection and the wisdom he imparts is left unstated.  He also accepts the point made by commentators from across the theological spectrum that something clearly happened to turn the disciples from a frightened, dispirited band to a cohesive, confident and rapidly growing religious community.

Yet he also struggles to see the resurrection as an objective historical event.  His best suggestion, although tentative, is that the key point for the original disciples was their sense that Jesus was now alive and in heaven and helping them to perform charismatic acts of their own.  This experience of continuing power then led them to search backwards for the stories of resurrection which would explain how they got from a crucified leader to a real, present power.  Personally I find this perspective intriguing but I remain to be convinced.

Even with a resurrected Christ, there is still some distance to travel before we get to the concept of the Trinity as formulated at the Council of Nicaea.  In Christian Beginnings he traces the stages of this belief.  I can hardly summarise is adequately here.  Suffice to say that he traces four stages of the development of the idea of Jesus' divinity in the New Testament - the prophet of the base synoptic material, the risen and returning prophet of the beginning of Acts, the exalted Jesus of Paul, and the Logos made flesh of John.  This development continues in the second and third centuries, with a number of interpretations of Jesus' status jostling for attention.

It was only during the Arian controversy at the beginning of the fourth century that the idea of the Trinity and the full, equal divinity of Father, Son and Spirit become the official doctrine of the church.  Even then, it seems that the majority of church leaders favoured the Arian side and many (especially from the Latin church) did not fully understand the controversy which centred around the meaning of key Greek terms.

Where does all this leave us?  Well, one option is to look at this as Leo Tolstoy did - that all the religious trappings of Christianity are a distraction or worse, and the important thing is Jesus' teachings.  However, important as I think these teachings are Tolstoy appears to jettison too much.  It is too easy to paint Paul as the villain who betrayed Jesus' message and created a new religion.  This undersells both Paul's profundity and the practical wisdom of much of his teaching.

However, the collapse of Christendom and the Reformation have opened the way to a lot more than the diminution of the authority of the Pope.  All sorts of things are open to re-examination.  In the light of modern scholarship, it is hard to continue to accept the authoritative teaching of the established church.  Instead, the diversity of the apostles and pre-Constantinian church has returned with a vengeance.  We live in an age where Christianity is no longer just one thing.  There is no going back, we can only go forward and see where it takes us.


Kerry said...

You wrote "When people suggested he was the Messiah he denied it." Can you refresh my memory on where that is? Thanks.

Jon Eastgate said...

Hi Kerry, I was citing Vermes rather than the Gospels but I did so inaccurately, which I've fixed above. My apologies for sloppy reviewing! Vermes point is that when Jesus is asked about his messianic status he answers evasively.

He doesn't cite examples but in Mark 8 when Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah he neither confirms nor denies, and forbids them from telling anyone. In Mark 11:27-33 the religious leaders ask him by what authority he does his deeds (shortly after the cleansing of the temple) and he responds with a counter-question about John the Baptist. When they refuse to answer his question, he refuses to answer theirs. In Matthew 26:44 when the high priest asks him if he's the messiah he replies "you have said so", although Mark's version of the same scene has him answering "I am."

In the context of the description of charismatic prophets, this doesn't necessarily indicate that he didn't see himself as the messiah. It's more in line with their self-effacing nature, deflecting attention from themselves and on to God.