Jesus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls by Vermes
A Jewish scholar looks at Jesus. Although not in total agreement with Christianity, the view is more favorable than traditionally held by Jews.
Article recommended by Elle.
Searching for the Real Jesus: Jesus, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Religious Themes by Geza Vermes/The Story of the Scrolls: The Miraculous Discovery and True Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Geza Vermes
From The Sunday Times
April 18, 2010
The Sunday Times review by Christopher Hart
Geza Vermes, arguably the greatest “Jesus” scholar of the 20th century, was born into an assimilated Hungarian Jewish family in 1924.
At the age of seven he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. He lost both his parents in the Holocaust, joined the order of Notre Dame de Sion, and for six years was a Catholic priest.
But in middle age, “without a spiritual storm”, he left the Church and found himself “back at my Jewish roots”, though not a practicing Jew.
The author’s biography is relevant, in this case, since it has been Vermes’s bifocal vision, Christian and Jewish, which has given us such a startlingly vivid image of the historical Jesus.
Searching for the Real Jesus is a welcome collection of 29 essays, lectures and newspaper articles, in which he offers portraits of Jesus the Jew from a number of angles, although all are derived from a method of extraordinary simplicity: reading the New Testament closely and without prejudice.
As well as bringing Jesus powerfully to life, this also throws up some rather overlooked details, such as that Simon Peter (the first Pope, traditionally) was married.
His View of Jesus
There is little doubt that Jesus lived in 1st-century Palestine and was crucified by the Romans, as recorded by even non-Christian writers such as Tacitus.
But our best sources are the three “synoptic gospels”, Matthew, Mark and Luke.
The gospel of John is a book of theology, not a record of Jesus’s life. For John, as Vermes puts it, Jesus was “a heavenly being who in time became incarnate and briefly took up residence among men before returning to heaven”.
** It is amazing Vermes would not refute this, which indicates a divine nature for Jesus.
The synoptic gospels describe instead a carpenter or possibly builder from Nazareth, called Yeshua, son of Joseph and Mary (really Miriam).
He wasn’t born in Bethlehem, and our picture of the nativity, with its “angels, dreams, virginal conception, miraculous star, etc”, is, Vermes says, a “colourful prologue”. It has no factual basis, but as Vermes humanely understands, colourful prologues and stories are just what human beings enjoy, often live their lives by — and sometimes die for.
*** his opinion above about Bethlehem is contrary to scripture. He said he was reading the New Testament closely and without prejudice. So this is his belief.
We are told that Jesus had four brothers, James, Joseph, Judas and Simon, and several sisters. (The Catholic Church teaches that they were all children of Joseph from a previous marriage.)
At about 30 he became a wandering rural rabbi, and remained always a countryman. He left the green hills of Galilee only once in his life to go to Jerusalem — and it killed him. (Geographically, Galilee is to Jerusalem something like Yorkshire is to London.)
Jesus’s main concern was healing the sick, comforting the poor and preaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God.
He had no interest in politics, revolution or theology, or in preaching to non-Jews, “although occasionally he showed compassion to Gentiles and healed the daughter of a Greek woman from southern Lebanon”.
Vermes might have emphasized how radical these healings were: some Orthodox Jews would barely speak to Gentiles.
We know only three words that he actually spoke in his native Aramaic: Abba (“father”, meaning God); and Talitha cumi (“little girl, arise”), calling the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue back to life.
This miracle is followed by a moment of sublime pragmatism, when Jesus points out to the child’s parents that, having just come back from the dead, she might want something to eat.
The gospel portraits of Jesus continually remind us that his teaching was about empathy and practicality, rather than abstract intellectual principles.
As to whether such startling miracles are supposed to be taken literally, Vermes leaves that up to the individual believer. He prefers to emphasize that “the religion of Jesus was one of urgency, enthusiasm, compassion and love”.
This Jesus would have been pleased, presumably, that two billion humans now follow his core teachings — or try to, at least.
But he would have been astonished, indeed horrified, that he is now worshipped as God. He said pretty plainly: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10.18)
Although this challenges traditional Christian belief, it’s also true that Christianity has an amazing capacity to reinvent itself.
Today’s Christians, preoccupied with gay relationships and the environment rather more than with the true nature of the Trinity, would be virtually unrecognizable to many of the 4th century AD, for instance.
Then again, their theological worries would have been a mystery to Jesus the Jew, says Vermes: “I doubt that he would have understood a word of the debates about his nature and person.”
Vermes’s other passion is the study of the Dead Sea scrolls.
Popular rumour often claims they are full of earth-shattering revelations about Jesus and early Christianity.
The story of their discovery by a Bedouin boy in 1947 remains one of the greatest in archeology.
The scrolls are the writings of a Jewish sect who lived near the Dead Sea around the time of Jesus, owned all things in common and were so holy that they didn’t believe in defecating on the Sabbath.
Their world and that of early Christianity do share a “spiritual atmosphere”, allows Vermes, and shed some light on certain passages of the Old Testament.
But they have nothing to say about the carpenter from Nazareth and his teachings.
If you want to know the historical truth about Jesus, then Matthew, Mark and Luke remain your best bet.
Searching for the Real Jesus by Geza Vermes
I think it is encouraging to see that a Jewish scholar found value in the life of Jesus.
I hope he continues to distinguish fact from personal belief.
As a scholar, for example, he should be able to verify that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
That would be a wonderful discovery, if the birth records could be found.
Christianity has, for centuries, made itself a threat to Jews, through threats, persecution, and misrepresenting Jesus to them.
I hope that Christians can equally show an interest in the Judaism that brought forth Jesus as well.
The more the 2 faiths can see that they share the same scriptures, promises of God, and Messianic hope, the more healing can occur between them.
Someday, God will unite these two branches under one Messiah.