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.