Magazine article The Spectator

The People of the Hebrews with Palms before Them Went

Magazine article The Spectator

The People of the Hebrews with Palms before Them Went

Article excerpt


by Geza Vermes

Allen Lane, 18.99, pp. 272

Geza Vermes, mighty scholar, translafor into English of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has at 75 published his fourth book on Christ. The title of the first, Jesus the Jew, was thought to be shocking and that this is not so now is a reflection on Vermes' power of bringing Him to life as a firstcentury Galilean, a subject on which he can speak with authority and not as the Scribes. The other books of the trilogy are Jesus and the World of Judaism and The Religion of Jesus the Jew, and this new book he calls their 'completion'. He deals here with the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), Paul, the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles and 'the rest of the New Testament' - a huge undertaking which only comes off because of his lifetime's absorption and tremendous knowledge. This is perhaps to be his last word on Jesus because he ends with a surprising letting-go of his academic self; describing a dream he had when the book was finished, in which Christ appeared and spoke. Jew meets Jew in this dream. Vermes has 'always seen Jesus as a Jew' and, though he was brought up in Hungary as a Catholic and was ordained a priest, he then reverted to his Jewish roots where he has comfortably remained.

The Changing Faces of Jesus has nothing to do with historical portraiture although on the dust-cover there is a magnificent 14th-century Russian icon showing the centuries'-old format-face of Christ that has blazed out since the very early Veronica paintings to the war-flags of Ivan the Terrible, to the heretical posters of Che Guevara (though not from the 20thcentury statue in Trafalgar Square which caused so much distress since it was white and beardless). The book is not about Christ's appearance but His nature interpreted by the world from the earliest Gospels to the different creature who appears in the Acts of the Apostles and John and Paul; it covers altogether about 100 years. Vermes works backwards, from Paul and John who he says cannot have known Christ to those who met Him, ending with a chapter called 'Beneath the Gospels, the Real Jesus' in which he reiterates that Jesus and the New Testament are all part and parcel of first-century Judaism. He writes as a Jew, not a theologian 'conditioned and influenced by Christian belief'.

The figure that emerges from this Gospel of Vermes is a wonderfully charismatic, fervent, practising, devout Jew, capable of violent behaviour, energetically scornful of followers who are only convinced of His message because of His miracles. He sees His healing powers as either good luck or the good sense that can put a stop to hysteria. This Christ speaks of penitence and mentions mercy but is a bit short on the qualities the Christian believes He stands for: forgiveness and love.

As a handbook on the contradictions and discrepancies of the Gospel story this book, so measured and rational, will be useful, though Vermes doesn't stress that the Gospels, written at such different times and by such different people, would be even odder if they had all said exactly the same. The peculiarities of the Nativity story, the ordinariness of a 'virgin' birth, the wrong date of the Massacre of the Innocents, if they were massacred at all, the conflicting dates of the Last Supper, the insignificance of the scrubby little procession now celebrated on Palm Sunday all over the world 2,000 years on, is none of it new. …

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