The Changing Faces of Jesus

Vermes, Geza
Allen Lane (2000)
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Since his ground breaking Jesus The Jew (1973), Geza Vermes has produced a steady stream of approachable scholarship on the life of Jesus within the context of his own Jewishness and the conditions in which he lived. The Changing Faces of Jesus is by far his most comprehensive and challenging synthesis. He says that the initial "historical Jesus" has been obscured by layers of later interpretation.

The Historic Jesus was a: "Prophet-like holy man, mighty in deed and word, a charismatic healer and exorcist, and a teacher whose eyes were fixed on the present task envisaged from a practical-practical-existential rather than an abstract and philosophical viewpoint". He was followed by the Jesus of The Synoptic Gospels, a teacher, healer and eschatological enthusiast whose emphasis on the immediacy of The Kingdom was obscured by interpolations from the Evangelists, not representing his authentic voice, taking advantage in particular of the opportunities afforded by the destruction of The Temple (70 AD). Next came the Jesus of Acts, a figure of reverence, bearing the title of Lord following the development of a theology of Resurrection; he is imbued with The Spirit and is the source of salvation but never identified as equal with The Father. Then came the Jesus of Paul, acquiring a unique theological character absent in all the other New Testament writings; his death and Resurrection are given peculiarly salvific significance through what became the doctrine of ‘Justification', the primary point of contention in the Western Christian churches. Finally, there is the Jesus of John, a supernatural figure which owes much of its construction to the author's contact with the Hellenic world; he is characterised as divine and equal to The Father, the primary point of contention in the Eastern Christian Churches.

Vermes begins with John and progressively works backwards in a fashion analogous to the restorer of an old master, removing layers of accretion in order to reveal the initial, vivid canvas but the paradox is that the writings under his microscope become decreasingly dense and engaging so that his portrait of Jesus The Jew is much less engaging than the portrait of Jesus in John. In some ways that is his point but he might have been more effective using the conventional, Chronological process.

There are two major problems for the uncommitted critic: first, the chronological approach does not work, as the more highly developed theology of Paul was written before the Synoptics and Acts; secondly, the comparison between the Vermes portrait of Jesus and that in the Synoptics depends on his identifying certain passages as ‘interpolation' when in an important sense the whole of the New Testament is interpolation.

The Christian critic will have two further observations:

Vermes, necessarily, takes no account of the out-working of the Holy Spirit in the early Church; and the often contradictory accounts of teaching and events, not to mention Christology, present 'fundamentalists' with considerable challenges.

Vermes notes, in conclusion, the sad history of anti Semitism in Christianity and how it took Hitler's atrocities to moderate it so that Jesus can be re-considered as Jew after almost two millennia of first Greek and then Latin clouding.