Geza Vermes and Jesus

Last night, I attended a talk given by Prof Vermes, who is apparently the world’s foremost Jesus scholar. Born to Jewish parents who converted to Catholicism, Vermes trained as a priest before returning to Judaism. He has since spent much of his time promoting the idea of “Jesus the man” and emphasising the Jewishness of Jesus, hoping to increase mutual understanding between Jews and Christians. His talk last night was primarily to promote his books, including “The Authentic Gospel of Jesus” and “The Historical Jesus”.

It’s important to note that Vermes’ audience was predominantly Jewish, although I had the misfortune to sit next to a member of Jews For Jesus, a Messianic sect founded by the Catholic Church to try and save Jewish souls. Most Jewish people have a hazy knowledge of Jesus: the conventional wisdom is that he was a wise but misguided rabbi, and that St Paul distorted the facts in order to persecute Jews and shore up his newly founded religion.

Much of the audience, therefore, did not possess the background knowledge (not having been dragged to Sunday School as children and not having had compulsory Christian education at school) with which to pick holes in the talk. For example, Vermes stated that Pontius Pilate (there is ample evidence for his existence), was exonerated by Christians and in fact is regarded as a saint in some quarters. There was a little riffle of astonishment at this, but it’s not strictly true. The Nicene Creed, the Christian affirmation of belief, states that Pilate caused Jesus to suffer and Pilate-worship is practised by a tiny Turkish sect, much to the surprise of most Christians.

My colleague and I have always found the convention of a historical Jesus unsatisfactory. The original sources are lost and can only be inferred from similarities in the existing Gospels. Pliny and Josephus, the main external sources used, are vague, scanty and show clear signs of alterations. They were also written many years after the alleged events. Whilst there are detailed Roman records of other charismatic or seditious Jewish preachers, there are none about this Jesus character. Famously anal about record-keeping, the Romans did not mention his life, trial or execution, but there is Roman evidence for the existence of other characters in the Gospels: Herod (although the historical Herod died 4 years before Jesus was supposedly born), Caesar and Pilate, for example. Writers and apologists like Vermes and Schweitzer invariably fall into the trap of accepting the Gospels as, well, Gospel. Quite frankly, they are not. They are not corroborated by any other sources apart from themselves. They contradict both one another and other books in the New Testament.

The historical Jesus has been a useful construct for many decades and was a bit of a PR coup by the Christians. While it’s acceptable to wonder whether or not Buddha or Krishna actually existed, very few people in the theological mainstream engage in the same debate about Jesus. This means that Christians have a handy lever to try and convert people, as well as giving themselves credibility by claiming that their faith has some basis in historical fact. When I taught Religious Studies, all my textbooks parroted the same line about “Jewish and Roman sources”. These were invariably the same few words from Pliny and Josephus, but the clear intention was to imply that there were many other sources the author could have chosen. The truth is that these are the *only* sources.

While the Gospels are mainly used as the source for biographical information about Jesus, the Pauline Epistles and Acts in fact pre-date the Gospels by several decades. This is not widely known by most people, but it is significant that the Jesus they describe is very different from the realistic, almost domestic figure portrayed in the Gospels. Paul (probably in fact several people) writes about an elusive, spiritual figure and barely mentions the everyday life of Jesus. It’s been suggested that the Gospels were written later on as a PR exercise to bring in Gentile followers who would find a mystic Jesus harder to understand.

Perhaps because of this, most Christians refer mainly to the four Gospels in the New Testament, and the modern meme of Jesus is based on these. In his talk, Vermes barely referred to any other source and in fact at one point stated that there were only four Gospels. This is demonstrably untrue and in fact Vermes himself refers to them in his books. There are up to 100 apocryphal Gospels, including the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were selected for the New Testament presumably because of their relative consistency and plausibility.

It’s important to understand that all the major events that befell Jesus in the Gospels also happened to other, mythical figures like Mithra (a popular god/man figure at the time) and the Egyptian god Osiris. The disciples and the writers of the Gospels are very similar to other mythical archetypes. For example, Mary, Jesus’s mother, is clearly a representation of the ubiquitous mother-goddess. The early Christians needed to offer their converts stories they would understand and identify with, so the Gospels can therefore be understood as being rooted in familiar legends of gods and god-men who walked on the Earth.

Essentially Vermes’ whole talk consisted of exposition based entirely on the four Gospels. He tried to entice us into a narrative about Jesus as a man, without first of all establishing that there was a real man to start with. He told us Jesus liked the countryside, because most of the big scenes were set in rural areas. He came up with exact dates: from the astronomical evidence and details in the Gospels, Jesus would have been crucified on April 8th. All well and good, but that does not prove there was a Jesus to crucify in the first place. He extrapolated from the Gospels to suggest what Jesus was like as a person, what he liked, what he didn’t like: but again, this tells us nothing about whether Jesus was *real*.

Vermes did throw the sceptics a couple of bones, however. He suggested that a couple of incidents in the Gospels probably didn’t happen in the way described, but then said something quite staggering. “Some events may sound unbelievable, but they are so detailed that they must be true,” he declared. Alice in Wonderland is a very detailed book. Frank Herbert’s Dune books are written in agonising detail. This doesn’t necessarily make them true. He stated that one should believe the plausible events in the Gospels, and discount the improbable (apart, of course, from those improbable events that described in detail).

Vermes also mused about Jesus’s thoughts when alone, for example in Gethsemane. Unless Jesus broke out of prison to tell his disciples how he felt just before he was arrested, then broke back into prison, this can be nothing more than exposition.

So far, so unremarkable. I felt the same slight disappointment I get when watching some sort of psychic/paranormal show on Sky One, as my prejudices get borne out again and again and nothing new or interesting is revealed that might challenge my way of thinking. This is why sceptics get the reputation of arrogance: when you are consistently proven to be right, it goes to your head.

We went on to the questions, which were odd to say the least.

The first questioner said, “We know most liberal Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah, but will Orthodox Jews ever do the same?” There was some considerable muttering from the audience, since this is blatantly untrue. Vermes gave a long, incoherent and rambling answer, in essence stating the standard Jewish response that Jesus did not fulfil the prophecies and that he never admitted to being the Messiah in the Gospels.

Throughout this reply, my J4J companion kept hissing “He *is* the Messiah!” and “The prophecies *were* fulfilled!” I hissed back: “*You* think he is,” and “No, they weren’t.” She, wisely, ignored me and consulted her pamphlets.

The second questioner was just plain bizarre. “What was the religion of the Zealots?” Quite how this related to the talk, which had made no mention of the Zealots at all, was a mystery. However, Vermes tried his best, and gave another five-minute answer.

The third question asked Vermes whether the Romans really did have an annual prisoner amnesty as described in the Gospels, where the mob is asked to choose between Jesus and Barabbas. Vermes said that it sounded untrue, so it probably was. Much huffing and puffing ensued from my neighbour.

And then the meeting ended. We did not have a chance to ask the most fundamental questions of all: why does Vermes think the Gospels are a reliable source, and on what other information does he base his ideas?

He flaunts his credentials as a Jesus scholar, but all this really means is that he knows the Gospels backwards, forwards, up and down and in the original languages. He did after all translate the Dead Sea Scrolls – but of course the New Testament doesn’t feature in those. It’s clear he has never paid much attention to the issue of whether or not Jesus existed, perhaps because he’d be out of a job if he did.

In the issue of the existence or otherwise of the historical Jesus, Vermes is an insignificance.

13 thoughts on “Geza Vermes and Jesus”

  1. I found a Vermes book in a local shop (for local people), but decided not to purchase it. Firstly because I wanted a book on Immigration to the UK, and secondly because I recalled this. Thank You.

  2. I don’t give up and I don’t accept your arguments from authority. I have already stated that Josephus was an unreliable source – the passage you quote does not appear in the earliest version of his writings which suggests rather strongly that his work was posthumously tampered with.

    As for the religion lasting 2,000 years, I’m afraid there are many religions that have lasted longer than that: Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism are just some of those that are still current. I assume you believe in those as well? Incidentally, “Mohammedans” is offensive to Muslims.

    I see you’re making the loony argument again as well. This, as I have said before, is a false dichotomy. Besides, so what if Paul were a loony? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

    Unquestioned evidence is no evidence at all – this is Karl Popper’s Falsifiability Theorem. If you cannot think of a way in which the evidence or theory can be disproved (and you apparently cannot), then it must be automatically suspect.

    All I can say is that you are making arguments based on your faith. I don’t know what a god would smell like, but I’d hope it/he/she would provide something a bit more concrete than the New Testament. A thunderbolt, possibly.

    My first point remains unanswered. Before you can quote the NT as historical evidence for the historical Jesus, you *must* provide *external* evidence of its veracity. Without that, all your arguments are worthless.

  3. Post Script:

    Josephuus, himself recounts in Antiquities 18, Chapter 3: ” Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher. He drew over to him many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. [….And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.]

    An appellation of Christian is bestowed from outside in a derogatory manner. For example identifiying a faith with its principal mover, i.e. Mohammedans, is an outside assignation. And so it is with Christianity. Disbeliviers believed of his physical reality.

  4. You don’t give up do you?

    Preliminary matters: Little Red Riding Hood is a fairy story, nothing more has ever been claimed for it; Greek mythology, as far as it goes, is exactly that, mythology. Why do you think the Romans were so easy to convert.

    I do not believe that anyone has ever suggested that these tales could possibly be ascribed as historical truths. The paralell that you are drawing is almost mischevious.

    You ask for evidence, the evidence is this: Paul’s epistisles are unquestioned. In the first place I would say this, Paul was evidently a highly talented man, a linguist at the very least. He was a disporia Jew. He became an evangalist because he had heard, from afar, of the man we are discussing. Without personally knowing him he devoted his life and was martyred for testifying to the known teachings of Jesus.

    In his epistles, he records at length his meeting in Jerusalam with James the brother of Jesus and with Peter, the prime apostle. the meeting was rancorous and caused Paul to limit his ministry to the gentiles. These things are a matter of record.

    Given this then there are limited possibilities. First, the historic reality of Jesus’ mission is evident beyond reasonable doubt. Second, Paul was a complete loony and imagined the whole thing.

    In addition, there are the widely accepted sayings of Jesus as attested and recorded in the Gospel of St. Thomas. Their authenticity is beyond question and it is compliled by a first hand witness.

    This Gospel did not make the bible because it sits uneasily with the other accounts which postdate it by some time. For me this further adds to it authenticity.

    Finally, I would say if it sounds like sGod, smells like God, looks like God then the only reasonable conclusion that can be derived is that it has got to have something to do with God.

    Jesus’ influence in the present day cannot be denied, has a fairy tale shaped the world for two millienium?

  5. Your brave defence ignores the primary issue. You have not adequately established that the New Testament is a reliable historical source. All your assertions about the characters therein are meaningless *until* you do this.

    I don’t accept your logic that either Jesus was real or people were suffering from mass hysteria – a common Crispy argument. You are suffering from a mild case of fallacy of the undistributed middle – my original point was that Jesus is a fictional/mythical character.

    You have not responded to my suggestion that by your reasoning, Red Riding Hood was probably also a historical character.

    The Apostles were a motley crew? Indeed – and they are all *also* mythical archetypes. The “rock”, the betrayer, the Virgin, the Mother, the prostitute… The Greeks liked to write about their gods, warts and all – as I said before, these humanising touches are not present in the Epistles, which portray a more elemental, mythical being. As you have said, these were apparently written within living memory. The Gospels, on the other hand, are full of cosy domestic details. I wonder which translation you are reading – certainly the Good News Bible is to my mind almost henious in its friendly normality. When Bible translators start taking liberties like that you have to wonder about their motives.

    As for my assertion that the Epistles were written out of genuine belief: well, I also think the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Hindu Vedas were written out of genuine belief. It doesn’t mean I think there’s anything in it. Do you?

    Claiming that we have no evidence because it was repressed is silly – we have many historical records of covert societies. Take the Cathars, for example. They were all persecuted and exterminated, their homes and places of worship razed. Yet independent historical and archaeological records confirm their existence.

    It seems strange that *all* independent evidence relating to Jesus was destroyed *apart* from the stuff we have before us. Surely Constantine would have known the stories (else why would he have converted) ? Some suppression and alteration did take place, such as the obvious changes in the accounts of Pliny and Josephus, in an age when Christians were not encouraged to read the Bible or think for themselves, but that was aimed at incriminating the Jews, not exonerating the Romans. It proved to be unpleasantly effective.

    You’re arguing from wishful thinking, not actual evidence. Interestingly in most Eastern religions proving that a deity actually existed as a historical character is a pointless exercise.

    I recommend “The Jesus Puzzle” by Earl Doherty for further reading – there are plenty of Christian commentaries and apologies available for a balanced view.

  6. You must conceed that it could equally be read as Mr. Strellis. Your gender was a guess, although clearly not a very good one.

    The substance of the point is that if Jesus was not a historic reality then either a large group of people were deluded or suffering from mass hysteria. In the alternative the evangalists were trying to put one over for very little discernible reason at grave personal risk.

    You are quite correct in passing the comment that there is a paucity in the Roman records which are extant. However, that is not to say that no record was ever made of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion.

    The reason that I would suggest that there must have been some record of events is the conversion of Emperor Constantine. It is difficult to accept that he would have accepted Christianity if there was no record of the events as alleged. A very probable reason for a subsequent suppression of such records would be to assist the exculpation of the Romans for Jesus’ death. This is something, as you will be aware, that has been done very succesfully, even to the point that Pilate is viewed as something of a hero. Indeed in extremis, there is even a cult of Pilate worship in some obscure Christian circles.

    A sanitization of the contemporary record would be a matter of political expediency given that the fall of political influence of Rome was countered only by a rise in its spiritual influence through the adoption of Christianity.

    It would be difficult to assert any religous authority coupled with an admission that you were guilty of the murder of the ‘Son of God’.

    The lack of record then becomes not only a simple act of expediency but a glaringly obvious one.

    I think that the most difficult thing to counter is that Paul’s epistles certainly were written within living memory of the crucifixion and they focus entirely upon Jesus’s divinity, whereas the later Gospels are pretty non-commital on the point.

    The most telling feature of the Gospel accounts is that the Apostles are painted as a pretty faithless and motley crew. It is very difficult to ancticipate any reason for this except that it records things as they were, warts and all.

    You accept that the evangalists were motivated by genuine belief. This surety must have flown from somewhere.

    I do think that a comparison with classical mythology is a little contrived. If you cannot accept Jesus’s historical reality you must have some hypothesis that explains the advent of Christian thought. Someone must have authored it.

    The content of the Gospels sits very uneasily with any evangelic thrust. From the outset of the ministry the only commentary regarding Mary and Jesus’s other family members is wholly negative. They are recorded as having considered him as “being out of his mind”. The only reference Jesus himself makes of his family is disparaging: ” who is my mother, who is my brother …”.

    The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn, in respect of the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, is that on the whole these are reasonably accurate accounts of actual events. I conceed that nothing can be said of the circumstances of Jesus’ early life, the nativity and so forth, but otherwise there is no reasonable way to account for the substantive content of the Gospels or the evangelical fervour that many were in the grip of.

    I do not suggest at all that the Gospels are veracious, indeed portions evidently are not. But I think they certainly attest to the reality of Jesus’ existence as that is where the balance of the evidence lies. I don’t say that this is incontrivertible, but certainly, by far, the most probable scenario.

  7. Your inferences are suspect from the start. Take a clue from the “Mrs” in “Mrs Trellis”. It might suggest that Mrs Trellis is a lady, not a gentleman.

    It is nonsensical to claim you can infer the existence of a historical character because the evidence is so poor! Maybe the evangelists’ work *is* woefully done. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a bad idea to treat it like a pony.

    I don’t think that it was, as you say a “put-up-job”. I do think the evangelists were motivated by a genuine belief in this Jesus character – I am not claiming they invented the whole thing with malicious intent.

    There are lots of differing versions of mythologies – it is not unusual to have several different Greek myths, all contradicting one another. Does this mean that Greek gods exist?

    Fairy tales like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood have different versions. In some, Cinderella’s sisters cut their toes off to fit in the glass slipper. Little Red Riding Hood is sometimes eaten by the wolf, sometimes saved by the woodcutter. Sometimes the glass slipper is made of fur. I would not infer from these conflicting tales that Cinders and Red really existed as historical beings. They are both mythological archetypes that have appeared in many differing cultures. Just like Jesus, the god-man character that came to earth, died and was brought back to life.

    You say I should not expect everything served up on a plate. Quite so, I expect no such thing. I work at this, contrary to appearances. I have sought out independent historical sources (certainly for me, the only way I could be convinced of a historical Jesus), and found none. I interrogated the Gospels historically, as I would any other source, and found them lacking. Without any religious belief to assist me, I see the Gospels as I would any other account of a mythical character.

    You don’t need to back up your Christian faith (I am inferring that you are one from what you say) with hard evidence: indeed this would miss the point entirely.

    However, if you want to play the game and prove the existence of Jesus through historical evidence, you must obey the rules.

    1. Natalie — awesome! yeah there are a couple of things I want new, but evytirheng else can totally be used. I'm not picky and totally willing to repaint, refinish, recover … whatever!! I will look for your nursery blogs!

  8. The simple dissonance and disparity of the gospels demonstrates the historical being of Jesus.

    A put up job could not be so flawed. Especially given that the evangalists wrote post the Pauline era how could they fail to encapsulate fully the divinity of Jesus. If anything there are many passages in the synoptic Gospels that militate and cause question to the divine status of Jesus.

    In short, if the evangalists writing was a put up job, it was woefully done. Jesus’ lack of foreknoweldge is brought to relief in many passages.

    I think that the writer is correct in saying that always being right has gone to his head. Not everything is available served up on a plate. Much is inferential and the inference to Jesus’ historicity is inescapable.


    An apologist?

  9. Less than one post at the time of this comment? As for reheated, I don’t believe I’ve read my point anywhere else.

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