Christian Beginnings from Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325

Vermes, Geza
Penguin (2012)
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Perhaps not surprisingly, given Vermes' age and longevity in the field, this is a somewhat tired book, even a book too far.

Vermes sketches - I use the word advisedly - the evolution of Christianity from its Galilee origins up until the Council of Nicaea but as he travels further away from his specialist period his remarks are ever more sketchy and lapse into glib generalisation. Naturally, Vermes is deeply interested in Christian anti-Judaism but, even here, he does not properly cover the interaction between the old and emerging religions and does not even mention the Council of Jamnia which put post Jerusalem Judaism on a new footing.

Vermes' case is that Christianity steadily mutated away from following Jesus the teacher of Galilee towards Jesus the divine Son of God in the Blessed Trinity. This case rests upon two propositions: that the synoptic Gospels are simplistic stories about a simple teacher with no divine implications; and that there is a fundamental incompatibility between Pauline and Johannine Christianity. The trouble is, every time Vermes finds a text which does not fit his theory he says that it is inauthentic. Even, however, if we grant the two hypotheses and the textual criticism, all we are left with is a rather grumpy narrative not quite brave enough to make its complaint that Christianity betrayed Jesus who was and should simply have remained a Jewish prophet in the line of Elijah and Elisha.

The problem for Vermes - and, incidentally, for fundamentalist Christian Evangelicals - is that to deny the legitimacy of theological evolution in the power of the Spirit leaves you with the question: if nothing can change, what is your date for defining doctrinal legitimacy?

Vermes observes the close connection between the practices of the early Christians and the Qumran community but, again, does not push the point home sharply enough. I daresay the argument he would offer is that, as an academic, you can't go further than the texts under scrutiny allow; but I would say that he goes so close in implying his theoretical stance that he should at least posit his theses with qualifications.

Sadly, this is neither a book for specialists nor for generalists. On the relationship between Jesus and Judaism Vermes has already shot his bolt; and on Christian theological development he is both too narrow and too generalised. To give just one example, Vermes asserts that Christians were baptised at the Easter Vigil because of the doctrine of Pauline atonement. These are easy mistakes to make because most Christians wold agree with him but Bradshaw and Johnson have shown that the Vigil practice was shallow and short lived in the 4th Century and Douglas A Campbell has at least made a coherent case, if not quite shown, that Saint Paul did not espouse a doctrine of atonement. There are other similar examples where Vermes uncritically accepts theories in the zeitgeist.

I love his earlier books so much, notably his detailed treatment of the Nativity and the Passion and Death of Jesus, that I am just a little sorry that Vermes wrote this book; but it's hard to quit when you're at the top!