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The elusive face of God

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

The Authentic Gospel of Jesus Geza Vermes

Allen Lane, pp.439, 20

The biographical note on the jacket of this magisterial book tells us that Professor Geza Vermes was born in Hungary in 1924 and that from 1957 to 1991 he taught at the universities of Newcastle and Oxford. It also tells us that ‘his pioneering work on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the historical figure of Jesus led to his appointment as the first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford’.

His moving autobiography Providential Accidents, which is not mentioned in this short blurb, tells us how he was caught up at the most painful imaginable level in the central drama of 20th-century history in Europe, namely in the culmination of centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. He last saw his mother, a devout Roman Catholic convert from Judaism, when she came to see him at a seminary in Hungary. She was wearing a yellow star sewn to her clothes. She perished, of course, with six million others. The fact that both his parents had converted years before to Catholicism did nothing to save them. ‘Are they Hebrews?’ asked the Apostle Paul. ‘So am I!’

Geza Vermes went on — another fact which his publishers omit from his jacket blurb — to be ordained as a Catholic priest at a period of European history when the Christian churches were, as we can now see with the perspective of 50 years, at a crossroads, a spiritual and intellectual crisis. The Protestant theologians who stand out from this period were Germans, and it had been their central contention that the historical Jesus was irrecoverable. The fact that an actual Jew went about in Palestine 2,000 years ago teaching and healing was, if not irrelevant to theology, something which was only part of the picture. You can see why it might have been convenient in the Third Reich to soft-pedal the fact that, for 2,000 years, the Church had been worshipping a Jew as the Incarnate God. When I was taught theology in the 1970s at Oxford these German theologians were still very much to the fore. ‘Nothing,’ said one of the disciples of Rudolf Bultmann whose lectures I attended, ‘can be known of the historical Jesus. Nothing.’ Meanwhile, as Bultmann and other German Protestants wrote of an existential Christ and a realised eschatology, the Catholic Church taught a mystic or a Eucharistic Christ. It was his body the Church who were now his representatives on earth and who could best interpret his teachings.

Both lines of approach, Protestant existentialist and Catholic sacramentalist, overlooked the historical fact that Jesus, if he existed — and there were even some scholars who cast doubt on this — was a first- century Jew.


Geza Vermes’ book Jesus the Jew (1973) had an extraordinary effect when it was published on a whole generation of theological students, of whom I was one. By the time it was published, Father Vermes the Catholic priest had become Professor Vermes, the laicised proponent of a mild form of liberal Judaism. He had been working for over 20 years on the world of first-century Palestinian Judaism. He was an acknowledged expert — it would perhaps be truer to say the acknowledged expert — on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Jesus whom he depicted in that book, and whom he has continued to describe in a series of books since, was a figure who had been conveniently forgotten in the Germany of the Thirties as well as in the Catholic Church.

Not only do I find Geza Vermes’ Jesus plausible, but I have come to feel that there is an obvious kinship between kindly, humourous, anti-dogmatic Vermes, preaching a Martin Buberish faith in the Fatherhood of God through the simple metaphors of everyday Galilean life — mustard seeds, vines, flowers of the field and fowls of the air — and the Galilean prophet whom he has so frequently brought to life for us. How do you tell an ‘authentic’ saying of Jesus from one improvised by later piety? Well, you can’t. But the Vermes approach is, roughly, to believe those sayings which are ‘hard’ from a Christian point of view. If there is one saying that Jesus wanted only to speak to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and another that he wanted to baptise all nations, Vermes would assume that the first saying was ‘authentic’ and the other was the product of later, church Christianity.

I continue to believe in this. But — and all the previous paragraphs were bound to be followed by a but — reading this latest book, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, has, after 30 devoted years as a Vermes fan, given me pause. I remain a fan, but the words which give me difficulty are ‘authentic gospel’.

I have devoted so much of this article to biography not of Jesus but of Vermes because these details are so obviously revelant.

In this book, he offers the Jesus who is familiar to us from his earlier books, and he attempts, more or less plausibly, to separate the sayings which might very well have been spoken by a first-century Galilean prophet from those which have been put into the mouth of the mystic Christ by the later Church. The method he uses, paradoxically, is that very separation of each individual saying and episode in the Gospels into distinct constituents which characterised the Formgeschichte of Bultmann and friends. With the intellectual honesty and patience of one of the 19th-century New Testament scholars beloved of George Eliot, Vermes, a latter-day Strauss or Renan, writes that

compared with the dynamic religion of Jesus, fully evolved Christianity seems to belong to another world. With its mixture of high philosophical speculation on the triune God, its Johannine logos mysticism and Pauline Redeemer myth of a dying and risen Son of God, with its sacramental symbolism and ecclesiastical discipline substituted for the extinct eschatological passion, with its cosmopolitan openness combined with an in-built anti-Judaism, it is hard to imagine how the two could have sprung from the same source.

It is perfectly true that if you tried to reconstruct what the first-century Jesus might actually have been like, you are probably not going to get a more authentic portrait than that of Vermes, now built up over four or five books. It is equally true that, after the terrible history of the 20th century, such a corrective as Vermes’ work was necessary. Yet, much as I revere and indeed love Geza Vermes as a man, I finished his latest book with the gravest misgivings. Long ago, Albert Schweitzer warned of the dangers of ‘the quest for the historical Jesus’ and the chief of these was that liberal Protestantism, in looking for the face of Jesus, would actually see no more than the reflection of its own face. What was said of early-20th-century Protestants can also be said of early- 21st-century liberal Jews, particularly of a Jew who is trying to purge his Christian past, and who saw at first hand, in Hungary during the Nazi period, where the anti-Judaic myths of the New Testament could lead.

We should remind ourselves, and there is no one better qualified than Professor Vermes to do it, that the origin of Christendom was an actual man, a prophet without honour in his country, who was put to death by the Romans on a cross. Yet, reading this book, I find myself asking why this archaeological reconstruction, this Jesus according to Vermes, should be seen as any more ‘authentic’ than the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel, the Jesus of such great Byzantine mosaics as can be seen in Monreale and in Venice, the Jesus worshipped in the poems of George Herbert or the Jesus whom children will kneel to adore this Christmas in the crib. I am bound to say that I see more forcefully than I ever did before why those lecturers in Oxford warned us against the quest for the historical Jesus.

Let us suppose that the figure of history was very much like Vermes’ Jesus. Certainly, we are all in Vermes’ debt for having drawn such a plausible likeness of Jesus. For years, though, under Vermes’
hypnotic spell, I have felt that this meant I had to discard Jesus the High Priest of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus the Lamb of the Apocalypse, Jesus the Word of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus the Eucharistic offering in Paul. Why? These are the ways in which people have known Jesus for the last 2,000 years. The prophet, recovered first by 19th-century doubters, and again by Vermes, remains a shadowy figure. Dare one say there is a whiff of the schoolroom or the lecture hall in this reconstruction? It lacks that authentic living quality to be found in all faithful experiences of Jesus. And the weight of scholarship amassed by Vermes goes no way to answer the question which, by implication he asks in the paragraph I quoted earlier. How did Jesus, the disappointed Galilean exorcist of Vermes’, Strauss’s or Schweitzer’s vision become the Jesus known to Christians through 2,000 years? No academic research has ever been able to answer this question. Poets, icon-painters, mosaic artists, musicians have tried. So has the liturgy. So have children with their Christmas plays. Maybe their approach is wiser than that of a Professor Emeritus.


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