Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus - Synoptics

The Jesus of the core (excluding narrative exclusive to one of them, such as Nativity stories) of the Synoptic Gospels is a "Charismatic healer, teacher and eschatological enthusiast".

The Bultmann (1884-1976) tradition sees the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as theology not history but if this is true the authors would have been better off using another form than the "fake biography".

According to the core Synoptic narrative, Jesus lived in Nazareth of Galilee, working as a carpenter until he was 30 (Luke 3:23); he had at least four brothers (James, Judas, Joseph, Simon) and two sisters and was unmarried (Matthew 13:55-56; Mark 6:3).

Jesus was an informal, open teacher who spoke primarily to Jews; passages about Gentiles appear to be later interpolations. Although he occasionally expounded Scripture, his forte was the colourful parable and the pithy aphorism. His main theme was The Kingdom of God, or The Kingdom of Heaven, and its moral requirements, underpinned by an eschatological urgency. His authority derived from his mighty acts (Mark 1:27; Luke 4:36), primarily healing and exorcism for which faith in the operator was required or assumed. Raising from the dead is an extension of this. There are also weather miracles, stories with a Scriptural origin and legends.

He was also a renowned physician of the spiritually sick (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31). Apart from his followers, Jesus was received warmly in Galilee but nowhere else other than at the 'Triumphal entry' into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:8; Mark 11:8) although Luke (19:37) demurs. From the outset he met with opposition, first from his family (Mark 3:21; 3:31-35; Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21), then from his own community and finally from the religious authorities but this is likely to have been limited to the Temple authorities as  his pronouncement are almost all pro Pharisee (Matthew 21 is an interpolation). Accounts of his death are highly confusing.

Neither the death nor Resurrection of the Jewish Messiah was part of Judaism which is why his followers were not preconditioned. In spite of his predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:9; ; ; ), his followers did not believe him (these look like interpolations). Accounts of the Resurrection are equally muddled.

In the Synoptics Jesus is focused on God not himself except for the use of "Son of Man" which, by contrast with John, is non titular. With the exception of Mark 14:72, Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah (probably an interpolation because it goes against the tenor of the Synoptics). On the two occasions when Jesus refers to his relationship to The Father, the first (Mark 14:36) is almost certainly a post 70 CE interpolation and the second (Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:22) is part of an early Christian hymn. No specific conclusion can be drawn from the use of "Son of God" by people addressing Jesus. In the Synoptics the term "Lord" is used frequently but this does not connote divinity but simply a wonder worker or a teacher.

The Jews thought that prophesy ceased with Malachi during the 6th Century bce; but inter Testamental literature is alive to the prophetic tradition of Elijah - a doer rather than a talker - and this is the tradition in which Jesus is placed by those who heard him and the Synoptics; and this is the way Jesus saw himself (Matthew 13:5; Mark 7:4; Luke 4:24).

Jesus was a conventional, Torah-observing Jew. The two areas where he was supposed to be heterodox - healing on the Sabbath and dietary laws - do not bear close scrutiny. This faithfulness is shown in his relationship with God, "The Father" (Matthew 5:48; Luke 6:36). Jesus was the imitator of the forgiving and caring Father (respectively Matthew 6:14; Mark 11:25 and Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 12:22-31). Not surprisingly, then, Jesus addressed all his prayers to The Father.

Jesus' most important teaching is about The Kingdom which appears more than 100 times in the Synoptics. The Kaddish (written shortly after Jesus' death) calls for the Kingdom of God to be established immediately. The kingdom exists and is hidden but is revealed in Jesus' own acts, e.g. exorcism. It is there to be entered but only if we behave like children (Matthew 18:3; Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17) and the work had to begin immediately (Matthew 8:22; Luke 9:20). Jesus was completely bound up in the present.

Jesus was recognised from the beginning as a spokesman of God and a prophet but soon was associated with the idea of Messiah (though not by himself); but his main concern was deeply eschatological. Not until the 2nd Century would anyone think of him as being divine, of sharing the same nature as The Father.

Partly taken from

Vermes, Geza: The Changing Faces of Jesus, Allen Lane, 2000, ISBN 0 713 99193 3

KC iv/08

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