When did the “Easter Faith” Emerge?

Mark Edwards on Geza Vermes’s Christian Beginnings

Geza Vermes, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea AD 30-325, Allen Lane, 2012. 288 pp. $30.00.

This book may be regarded as a synthesis of positions which have been defended by its distinguished author from the time of his first attempt to correct the vision of Christian scholars in his monograph Jesus the Jew. As these are positions with which I can only partially concur, it will be my duty in the following review to explain at many points why his arguments fail to convince me. I hope to do this in a manner that will be profitable to scholars who share the same interest; it will never be my intention to suggest that I or any other scholar could have written a study of the historical Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity that would not be equally open to debate.

We may begin where Vermes begins, with the thesis that Jesus was untypical only in a way that was already typical of Jews. The term ‘charismatic Judaism’ (p. 1) was coined in 1973 by Vermes himself to characterise a tradition of wonder-working, whose exponents, near-contemporaries and compatriots of Jesus, proved themselves equally capable of raising the dead and healing at a distance. Vermes maintains that only captious scholars would deny that a tradition of thaumaturgy had been established in Palestine by the time of Jesus (p. 22), but he fails to address the objection that not one of these Jewish figures can be shown to have been credited, at any time before the writing of the canonical gospels, with the feats that are attributed to them in much later sources (pp. 19-25). In this respect Vermes is one of many New Testament scholars who reserve the hermeneutic of suspicion for the Gospels while treating every uncanonical text that suits their case as though it were a product of inspiration.

Vermes is more excusable than Bultmann, the redaction critics or the Jesus seminar in that he seldom makes the same pretensions to scientific rigour. His reasoning, for the most part, is elementary: since Jesus was a Jew, we can assume that a saying ascribed to him is authentic when it echoes the tenets of any known Jewish movement of the first century. We therefore have no reason to doubt that he preached the kingdom of God and enjoined strict norms of holiness; there being no clear evidence that he infringed the Mosaic law, we cannot believe that he was consciously ‘declaring all foods clean’ when he taught, in the spirit of the Pharisees and the prophets, that strict observance is of no account without inward holiness. We may accept more readily that he prayed to God as Abba (‘Father’) because the same mode of address is attributed to other rabbis, though once again in documents which are far from contemporaneous (pp. 44-46). On the other hand, the dictum ‘no-one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom the Son reveals him’ makes a claim to peculiar intimacy with God that finds no analogue elsewhere in Luke or Matthew; had it appeared in Q, their putative source where they do not depend on Mark, we should not expect it to stand alone (p. 50). On this principle much that is now regularly assigned to Q would have to be discarded, and it is not clear why an anomaly that both Luke and Matthew were prepared to countenance should not have been equally tolerable in Q. The saying at Mark 13:32, that even the Son does not know the final day which has been appointed by the Father, is found to be more credible since it implies a less exalted view of the status of the Son; the difference in tone, however, is asserted rather than demonstrated, and may not be evident to every reader who approaches the text without the hermeneutic predilections of Vermes.

The author of the Fourth Gospel receives praise as a theologian and a literary artist; Vermes reminds us also that Jewish thought was not unacquainted with the notion of the Word as an intermediary of God’s action in the world (pp. 129-30). Nevertheless, no credence can be given, in his view, to any utterance of the Johannine Christ which asserts his pre-existence or his equality with the Father; against those who maintain that this Evangelist already held a doctrine of the Trinity, he notes, aptly enough, that Christ declares himself inferior to the Father at 14:28 (p. 124), and that at 10:35 he applies the Psalmist’s promise, ‘I have said ye are gods’, to ‘all to whom the word of God has come’ (p. 123; cf. Psalm 82:6). In his chapter on Paul, Vermes surmises that even he cannot be regarded as the architect of the Nicene doctrine, since he regards Christ’s elevation as a reward for his earthly labours, not as a manifestation of his pre-existent dignity. He admits that a natural, rather than adoptive divinity, seems to be accorded to Christ at Philippians 2:6, but opines that this is a hymn which Paul is quoting, not a spontaneous expression of his own creed (p. 109). Such a conclusion surely implies that belief in Christ’s divinity antedates Paul, and is thus more likely to be primitive; Vermes could produce a better case by aligning himself with those who interpret phrases such as ‘in the form of God’ (Philippians 2:6) or ‘firstborn of creation’ (Colossians 1:15) as testimonies to Christ’s status as a second Adam, not so much a superhuman agent as a pristine representative of humanity. The Pauline authorship of both Colossians and Philippians can be contested, as Vermes notes (p. 110); yet he is not afraid elsewhere to speak of such ‘deutero-Pauline’ texts as the letters to Timothy as though they could be ascribed without misgiving by the Apostle (p. 93). He finds it paradoxical that the celibate Paul could not have met the requirement that a bishop ‘should be the husband of one wife’ (p. 98), but this is surely an artificial reading of an injunction which means simply that a bishop, if married, ought to abstain from bigamy, concubinage and fornication. It no more entails that a bishop must have a wife than a notice saying ‘dogs must be carried’ entails that one is forbidden to use the escalator unless one carries a dog.

Vermes alleges that all the first disciples lived as Jews (p. 62), although the contrary is plainly said of Peter by Paul at Galatians 2:14. He is also at pains to show that the ‘suffering servant’ of Isaiah 53 is not adduced as a prefiguration of Christ except at Acts 8:34f and 1 Peter 2:24 (p. 78). The omission of Matthew 8:17 and Mark 15:28 may be forgiven on the grounds that neither passage states that Christ was the prophesied servant; it is hard to explain, however, why a book devoted to Christian origins should accord less significance to 1 Clement, where the prophecy is quoted at length in chapter 16, than to works which happen to make up our New Testament. It is true that Vermes, when he comes to this document, dates it to the last years of the first century, in ignorance or defiance of those who regard it as a late fruit of the Neronian persecution (p. 159); even a date of 95 CE, however, would not be later than those assigned to 1 Peter or Acts by many distinguished scholars. A number of questions are also begged when Vermes surmises that the author of this anonymous missive is not the third bishop of Rome but the Clement whom we know from the Shepherd of Hermas as a secretary (p. 160): those scholars who deny that Rome possessed a monarchical bishop at this epoch would reply that it was Clement the secretary to whom the bishop’s throne was posthumously awarded in the later pontifical lists.

More space is devoted to the short treatise known as 2 Clement (pp. 163-5) than to the Gospel of Thomas from which it appears to quote (pp. 164-5). Only another page and a half (pp. 194-5) is devoted to the literature that is now ordinarily described as Gnostic which ought not to be of less interest than canonical or catholic writings to any historian of the infant church. Gnostic texts do not lend themselves to the sharp dichotomy drawn in this chapter between the nascent, not yet cultic Christianity of the Didache and the conscious supersession of Judaism which is exemplified in the Epistle of Barnabas. Vermes is surely right to identify the ‘hypocrites’ of Didache 8, not as Jews in the common sense, but as Christian neophytes whose ‘hypocrisy’ consists in their continuing adherence to outward forms which are belied by their new vocation (pp. 140-1). His observation that there is no veneration of Christ himself in the eucharist of the Didache is also true (p. 142-3), though it might be proposed that Christ’s abrupt declaration ‘I am the vine’ at John 15:1 would be more intelligible as the coda to a meal at which allusion had been made to the ‘vine of David’. At this point it may be useful to add two caveats to Vermes’s representation of the Fourth Gospel as an innovatory text. Matthew 27:25 refutes the statement that it is only the Fourth Evangelist who makes the whole of the Jewish people inimical to Jesus Christ (p. 129); and, while it may be literally true that there are no exorcisms in the Johannine narrative (p. 35), a general exorcism is implied in the proclamation ‘now shall the prince of this world be cast out’ (12:31).

In his brief review of the Christologies of Diognetus, Melito, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen, Vermes is careful not to lay every development at the door of Greek philosophy, not to confuse rejection of Judaism with anti-Semitism and not to assume that all evolution in Christian thought was uniform or linear. He perhaps exaggerates Origen’s fidelity to the Hebrew of the Old Testament (p. 217), which he is apt to cite only when it underwrites a theological observation that is not supported by the Greek renderings. If we must determine whether Origen was or was not a subordinationist, Vermes is right to choose the first alternative (p. 221); for my part, I would hesitate to force this choice on an author who seldom speaks of the nature or status of the Son independently of his incarnation, in which his function is necessarily that of a servant or mediator. Vermes believes that his enterprise requires him to trace the history of the word homoousion (pp. 231-2), in which case justice ought to be done to Origen and his critics, and to the zeal of Alexander of Alexandria as its advocate at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

For all its originality in detail, the narrative that emerges from this study is conventional enough. Jesus was first a prophet of the kingdom, then the self-proclaimed Messiah, then an adoptive god and finally the natural Son of God and second person of the coeternal Trinity. Few critics of this narrative would deny that the last apotheosis would have been as new to Paul as to Jesus himself; few of its advocates, on the other hand, seem to be aware that the transition from man to god in the ancient world was far more precipitous than the ascent from lower to higher tiers of divinity. If it did not occur in the course of life or shortly after, it did not occur at all: Alexander the Great was a deity to his own subjects, every Roman Emperor was worshipped somewhere before his deification by the senate, and the cult of Peregrinus, according to Lucian, was inspired by a mischievous stratagem within hours of his self-immolation. Moses could be said to have undergone a literary deification, centuries after his death, in the works of Ezekiel Tragicus and Philo; but this ennoblement, being a mere conceit of the authors, never gave rise to a cult. No other rabbi gradually came to be revered as a god by his students or later admirers; if we are to be guided by historical analogies, Jesus must have been more than a rabbi, more than a prophet, in the estimation of his earliest followers. If we dare not assume that he claimed divine honours in his lifetime, we may at least surmise that the ‘easter faith’ was an almost instantaneous sequel to his death.