Jesus and the World of Judaism

Written by Geza Vermes Reviewed By Dick France

New Testament scholarship owes an increasing debt to Geza Vermes for opening up perspectives on the understanding of the New Testament in its Jewish context. In this collection of lectures and articles dated between 1974 and 1981 (all previously published) we have a useful student’s guide to the essential Vermes. The material is mostly intended for a non-specialist audience, and so while it is sometimes inevitably oversimplified, it is more accessible to those who are not at home in the complexities of Jewish scholarship.

Vermes’ Jesus the Jew, 1973 (which I reviewed in TSF Bulletin 69) was the first of a planned trilogy of major works on Jesus viewed in the context of first-century Judaism. This collection serves as an interim statement of Vermes’ position until the remainder of the trilogy can be written.

Chapter 1 essentially summarizes Jesus the Jew, emphasizing its aim to rescue Jesus from the accretions of both Christian theology and Jewish polemic and to re-present him as the credible Jew he really was, the Galilean Hasid.

Chapters 2–4, previously published under the title The Gospel of Jesus the Jew, present Jesus as itinerant preacher and healer (not a rabbi), whose message focused on (1) the kingdom of God (not a political vision, nor to be understood in messianic or apocalyptic terms, but a matter of inward response to God—so Luke 17:20f. is the key by which other uses of ‘kingdom-of-God’ language should be unlocked!) and (2) God as Father, which is more a theme of existential commitment than of theological statement (for which Jesus ‘probably possessed no talent’, p. 43; ‘it was not Jesus’ habit to theorize about the divine’, p. 49). He was a traditional law-abiding Jew, distinctive only in his unusual emphasis on the ‘interior’ commitment of simple trust in God, which must go along with correct outward observance. He was not interested in socio-political issues, nor did he wish to found a church. His teaching was not based on ‘foresight’, but on a childlike imitation of God here and now. In all this he is in sharp contrast with Paul (who represents ‘Christian religion and religiousness as distinct from the religiousness and religion of Jesus’, pp. 54–57); this ‘real’ Jesus has a potentially universal relevance and appeal which Christianity has not (p. 57).

Chapter 5 is an attack on most New Testament scholars’ attitude to ‘Jewish background’. Strack-Billerbeck and Kittel are given the expected roasting, but also most more recent Christian scholars are criticized precisely because they approach the Jewish material only as ‘background’, rather than coming to the New Testament as one element within the study of Jewish and Hellenistic culture of the late Roman period. I regard this as an important argument. Christian scholars who are experts in first-century Judaism as such are honourable exceptions; most of us are second-hand dabblers. Not that all New Testament scholars need come by this route, but surely we need many more who will accept this demanding but enriching discipline. Readers of Themelios are in a position to consider this calling—and Vermes includes (p. 73) a specific plug for his Oxford MPhil course in ‘Jewish Studies in the Graeco-Roman Period’, which sounds most attractive—what about it?!

Chapter 6 carries the attack further, now including such revered names as Fitzmyer and the Compendia Rerum Iudicarum ad Novum Testamentum (the very title is anathema to Vermes!). Instead Vermes proposes that Christian and Jewish scholars together should aim at a comprehensive study of developments in post-biblical Judaism (on the model of the new Schürer) within which Jesus and his movement would find their proper place and indeed would help to illuminate wider Jewish developments as well as vice versa.

The remaining chapters are of more limited scope. Chapter 7 (1978) covers familiar Vermes ground on the Son of Man debate; chapters 8 and 9 (1975) survey Qumran studies and their relevance to both Jewish and Christian history; chapter 10 (1979) sets out Vermes’ arguments for the Essene character of the Qumran sect and its Maccabaean origin, the Wicked Priest being Jonathan Maccabaeus. All these are unrevised, and therefore a little dated.

No student of the New Testament should be unaware of Vermes’ positive contributions to our understanding of the world Jesus lived in, and of his challenges to traditional Christian approaches. This collection is a suitable lead-in. You will find it sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating, but generally a salutary challenge to re-examine your historical perspective on Jesus the Jew.

Dick France

Llangelynin, Gwynedd