The Nativity: History And Legend

Vermes, Geza
Penguin (2006)
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Born in Hungary in 1924, Geza Vermes, best known for his Complete Dead Sea Scrolls In English, has been at the forefront of Jewish/Christian scholarship since his Doctorate on the Scrolls in 1953.

In parallel with his more formidable work, Vermes has applied his scholarship to books for non specialists and the latest of these, The Nativity, surveys the familiar stories in Matthew and Luke from every angle.

As his style resembles that of detective fiction it would not do to give away his major conclusions but some lines of questioning are obvious from a careful scrutiny of the two accounts: When was Jesus born? How credible is the evidence for a virgin birth? Was Jesus born in Bethlehem or Nazareth? Where did the idea of the stable come from? Who were the Magi? Did Herod kill scores of infants?

The facts and theories are laid out with admirable fairness and although the book is necessarily frequently technical, it is always readable and sometimes gripping. Vermes cites a wide number of Hebrew and Greek, Jewish and Christian sources and never, as far as I can see, overplays his hand.

Given the paucity of material and the 2000 years that have elapsed since the events, no conclusion can be safe. I give as an example Vermes' preference for Nazareth over Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus whereas when we were on our Pilgrimage to the Holy land we discussed this topic at great length and, based on the topography, came to the opposite conclusion. On the other hand, it is now widely accepted that Jesus was born in 4 BC but  even here Vermes has some evidence that throws that date open to doubt. Perhaps the most fascinating discussion, from the detective's point of view, concerns the story of the Magi and Herod which includes the incisive quip of the Emperor Augustus that it would be better to be Herod's pig than his son.

These questions lead, inevitably, to the central question that we all have to face in view of the evidence: How important is the detail in the two Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus? Personally, I can let go of everything except the doctrine but some people like to sing their carols with a straight face. Ironically, of course, liberal Christians can handle this kind of historical criticism much better than non Christians who place a high value on nostalgia.

Incidentally, Vermes' book on The Passion (also in the library) is much more definite in its conclusions. There are four Evangelists rather than two and a wealth of information on Jewish and Roman legal procedures connected with what was a series of public events, as opposed to the private act of birth.