Customer Reviews: The Changing Faces of Jesus
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on May 23, 2001
This is a wonderful book. Although I think Ed Sanders's _The Historical Figure of Jesus_ is probably the best single volume on the "Jesus of history," Geza Vermes is perhaps my favorite writer on the subject.

In the present work he continues his project of reclaiming Jesus as a (solely) human being and a Jew of his own time. Here he tackles a topic he has not treated in his previous three volumes: the Christian New Testament's presentation of Jesus outside of the three synoptic gospels. He also gives the synoptics themselves another look after he has dealt with John and Paul.

His theme here is that Christian understanding(s) of Jesus have been colored heavily by the New Testament's portraits. Vermes wants to recover, as far as possible, the human being behind the theology. The portrait Vermes presents here will hold no surprises for readers of his other works: he regards Jesus as a charismatic Galilean holy man with an emphasis on God as father, a somewhat "individualistic" approach that decentralized the importance (though not the necessity) of the social/communal aspects of Torah observance, and the occasional touch of chauvinism.
There is much to accept in Vermes's portrait, and I am in essential agreement with most of it. My worries are about what he omits; as with his earlier work, I am simply unconvinced by his claim that Jesus was crucified simply for doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I also do not see that he has adequately dealt with the possible historicity of Jesus's resurrection. (I would supplement Vermes's account on these points by, respectively, Hyam Maccoby's _Revolution in Judea_ and Rabbi Pinchas Lapide's _The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish View_.)
But in its positive aspects, Vermes's portrait is compelling on the whole. And at the end of the volume, he shifts out of "historian" mode to provide a short fantasy about what Jesus might say if he returned today. I will not spoil it by giving away its content, but it's very nicely done. (Okay, I'll give away a _little_ bit. Vermes's Jesus is pleasantly surprised by all the attention he's gotten from non-Jews, especially after the mean things he occasionally said about them. But he suggests that some Christians ought to be a little less devotional and a little more self-reliant.)
Beyond strictly historical interest, it has long been one of Vermes's main concerns to present the figure of Jesus as an offer of hope to those outside the fold of organized religion. His previous works have, I think, been successful in this regard; the present volume is, if anything, more so.
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on September 1, 2001
One of Vermes' first books, _Jesus the Jew_, was the seminal work dealing with the historical Jesus through a Jewish perspective. It was an innovative work that took a highly original approach to discovering the true figure of Jesus. Two books later (_Jesus and the World of Judaism_, _The Religion of Jesus the Jew_), Vermes has released another masterpiece. In his previous works, his analysis of the historical Jesus was based solely upon the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). In _The Changing Faces of Jesus_, he goes a step further in attempting to unravel Jesus' true nature. He commences at the most theologically advanced Gospel (i.e. John) and works back through Paul, Acts and finally the Synoptics.
To begin with, Vermes demonstrates to the reader that the Gospel of John is significantly different to the rest of the Gospels as it elevates the figure of Jesus to a divine status that would have been quite foreign to the Jewish way of thinking (even to Jesus!). He shows how influences from Paul and the early gentile church contributed in formulating this divergent account. He illustrates that from a theological point of view, John has been tailored to omit/modify many passages (that were present in the Synoptics) that may have detracted from the portrayal of a divine Jesus. Furthermore John's portrayal of Jesus is that of a self-centred, assertive and transcendent figure which is not present in the Synoptics. In John, Jesus is shown as answering the question "Are you the Messiah?" with a firm positive answer that is unparalleled in the earlier Gospels. Vermes adds that the metaphoric title of "Son of God", that is so prominent in biblical and post-biblical Jewish literature, is taken literally in the fourth Gospel. Vermes argues that this and other details assert that the fourth Gospel is far removed from the historical, Jewish Jesus and instead portrays the gentile vision of a divine God-man whose purpose is to redeem the sins of the world (another foreign concept to Judaism and to Jesus).
When Vermes turns to Paul and his writings, it may be seen that Paul, who never met Jesus in the flesh, influenced the nature of the early Church immensely. In fact it is he who is credited with founding the Christian Religion. Vermes demonstrates that Paul's concept of the Messiah was a significantly modified version of the one commonly portrayed in Jewish literature. Paul's messiah offers himself as a sacrifice for humanity and is later resurrected. This portrayal is totally foreign to the notion of a Davidic messiah that would occupy the throne and redeem Israel. From this it is easy to comprehend why the Jews weren't so quick in accepting Jesus as the messiah. Firstly he was not a king and secondly he did not usher in the age of redemption for Israel as promised. It was therefore possible for Paul to preach his "revised" version of Jesus' messianic role to the gentiles as they had no background in Jewish tradition and would not question his story or his authority. An interesting thing that Vermes shows when dealing with Paul is that although his writings were more theologically advanced than the Synoptics, unlike John, he still saw separation between God the father and Jesus the son. It could be seen through his prayers that although he would pray "through" Jesus, he would still be praying to God.
Vermes continues to go through the changing faces of Jesus in Acts and finally ends up at the Synoptic Gospels. Vermes is by far one of the most qualified men today to discuss Jesus in the earlier Gospels. His experience studying the synoptics as well as many biblical and non-biblical sources (including the Dead Sea Scrolls), is very relevant when analysing the way Jesus was portrayed in Mark, Matthew and Luke. He illustrates that the titles ascribed to Jesus in these early Gospels are all within the parameters of biblical literature. Titles such as "Lord" and "Son of God" are convincingly shown to be similar to those given to other prophetic and charismatic Jews of the time (e.g. Hanina Ben Dosa). This means that it was the later Pauline church that misinterpreted these and many other sayings to suit the gentile church. Through careful analysis, Vermes lends meaning to obscure passages in the Gospels. He investigates them through a Jewish perspective and allows the reader to come a step closer to the original historical Jesus.
As may be seen from the above examples, Vermes beautifully goes through a succinct, step-wise approach in attempting to find the real Jesus. The reader observes the different "Faces" of Jesus by beginning at John's divine representation, and going back through time to those that were closest to the original man. I found this book a delight to read as well as being extremely informative. Vermes' comprehensive notes and selected readings are indispensable to the reader that craves further insight and direction to search for the real Jesus. Vermes' point of view will no doubt disturb those readers that are true believers and do not wish to see Jesus lowered from his divine perch to that of a charismatic, Jewish prophet from Galilee. However, whether they like it or not, the evidence offered by Vermes is very convincing and it all points to the fact that the Christianity of today is nothing like the religion that was taught and promoted by the original Jesus.
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on December 8, 2002
This is a clear, approachable and instructive work that wears its learning quite lightly, wastes few words and keeps within comfortable bounds of length - very English. Penguin provides a useful description of it by Vermes himself, at [...] . The following assumes you have read this.
First, some dates to keep in mind. Jesus died about 30. The authentic epistles of Paul begin early in the 50s and end in the mid-60s. Outside the Pauline domain, all we know of Christianity at the time was centered in Jerusalem and led first by Peter, then by James, Jesus's brother, who was killed in 62. Peter and Paul were executed in Rome in the mid-60s. In 66 an uprising began in Judea which led to the razing of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in 70. The three synoptic Gospels were written in the 80s and early 90s, Mark first, then Matthew and Luke in debatable order. Around 100 were written the Acts of the Apostles, perhaps by the same hand as Luke. The gospel of John comes later, about 110, and the Revelation later still. All of the NT (New Testament) was written in Greek. Despite the traditional attributions, none of the authors had met Jesus. The author of Luke was not Jewish, and that of John may well not have been. The other writers generally were. All of this is a moderate stretch from, say, the notes in the pre-Vatican-2 Catholic Bible of Jerusalem. Only fundamentalists should be shocked (and they will not read Vermes).
"The changing faces of Jesus", then, are the earlier and earlier pictures of him that emerge when we begin scraping away layers of scriptural overpaint. The Jesus in question is the Galilean charismatic who, according to the synoptics, first acknowledged John the Baptist and probably joined him, then lived for less than a year after John was arrested.
The top layer is the gospel of John, and in the scraping we notice that almost all our christology was in there and in no prior layer. All of the NT prior to John is centered on the Kingdom of God, and none of it treats Jesus as God. John, for whom Jesus is God, only mentions the Kingdom once.
Vermes then jumps to Paul, who is explicit that he did not see Jesus and (not being the most agreeable man on earth) avoids reporting whatever the Christians in Jerusalem may have known. Paul affirms only two beliefs regarding Jesus, first of all redemption (the Cross), second resurrection - the disappearance of Jesus's body and his reappearance in the form of apparitions, the last of which occurred to Paul in Damascus. Paul's doctrine is that the man Jesus became the Redeemer (not God) on the Cross, and will return in Paul's generation as the Messiah at the end of the world, in universal redemption on the basis of faith, not respect for the Jewish Law. This is the Kingdom of God.
Vermes's next layer is the Acts, which he reads as a report on the beliefs of the church of Jerusalem two generations earlier. Those beliefs quite fit with Paul's, except for being explicitly Jewish and respectful of the Law, and for being impelled by Galileans who were with Jesus during his months of public travel. The church of Jerusalem is a group of Law-abiding unlearned Jews who, like Paul, believe in the advent of the Messiah in their generation. What this means for Gentiles is at best obscure. The Acts also show both Paul and the Jerusalem group working many wonders, in continuation with those attributed to Jesus and his disciples by the synoptics. Except for Paul's letters, all of the NT comes well after the end of this miracle-working generation and the fall of the Temple, so its doctrine about eschatology (last things) is much less here-and-now.
This overview of the first half of the book should give you an idea of its flavor. The second half comprises two chapters, one for the synoptics and one for "the real Jesus". Vermes was born in Hungary in 1924. He became a scriptural scholar while a Catholic priest and later returned to the Judaism from which his family had converted during his youth. Nevertheless the entire work is a work of faith. Most readers will value it as a deep and lively review of the foundational texts of Christianity. It matters little whether in the end one is convinced by Vermes's idea of the real Jesus. For my part, I found his analysis conservative to a fault, rather in the Catholic style. There are many passages in the synoptics that Vermes questions or resets, with the best of reasons, but I found it hard to see why he would not apply those reasons to other passages, which instead he follows like a thread to lead back to the real Jesus. His treatment of talmudic legends is even less questioning. Be that as it may, along the way every page feeds reflection. I would enthusiastically recommend the book to all readers who know the NT and are not put off by the survey in my second paragraph.
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on February 10, 2002
For the past two centuries historicans and scholars have been trying to find the real Jesus behind the Gospels. It is a commonplace that they have found their own assumptions and prejudices. Orthodox Christians find, naturally enough, the Christ of Orthodoxy. 19th century moderate liberals find a moderate liberal Christ. Slightly more left-wing twentieth century scholars find a slightly more revolutionary Jesus. This book by Jewish scholar Geza Vermes is a summary of three books he wrote connecting Jesus to the Judaism of his day. This account is an admirable summary; it is well written, clearly and thoughtfully presented. Not only does it provide a convincing account of the real Jesus, but it shows a convincing reason why Christian orthodoxy is wrong. The way that it does so is ingenious; by using orthodoxy's own sources.
The main problem for the historical analysis of Jesus is the limited number of sources. We are basically confined to the Testament; independent evidence (Josephus) tells us littlle more that he existed and was a religious leader killed by the Romans. Christian apologetics naturally emphasize the fact that several hundred people were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead. They do not consider the 99% of people in Palestine who did not share this high opinion and who did not feel the need to write anything down to refute it. But aren't we apparently stuck with the New Testament?
As it happens, we are not. Vermes' procedure is to look through the Bible and unpeel the various accretions of Christian dogma like an onion's layers. First we look at the gospel of John, the gospel which most clearly states that the individual Jesus was in fact God. We then go through the letters of Paul, then the Acts of the Apostles and the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Then we get Vermes' own description of the real Jesus. Vermes' previous books emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus. This point should be clarified. Obviously Jesus grew up in the context of first century Judaism. For nineteen centuries Christianity has claimed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism. Vermes means something quite different. Nietzsche once said that the only real Christian died on the cross. What Vermes says is that when Jesus died, he died as a Jew. He was similar to other exorcists and healers of the time, the main distinction being that he was unusually eloquent. He lived in the rural world of Galillee, which was not as literate or sophisticated as Jerusalem, and the gospels do not even mention the cities of Galilee. He believed in the imminent end of the world, but he was not a political revolutionary. His execution was an accident, the consequence of paranoid officials overreacting to Jesus' scourging of the temple.
Vermes is excellent at supplementing the New Testametnt with information about first century Judaism. He is useful in explaining the practices of first century Jewish holy men. He helpfully distinguishes Christian from Essenes. Most helpfully he reminds us that the uses of "Lord" , "The Messiah", "Son of Man," and "Son of God," had very clear and distinct meanings in their first century context. To be precise, the four terms are not synonomous, and they are not synonomous with the Christian concept of God. Most important, the term "son of God," as it is used in first century Judaism and in the synpotic gospels does not mean the Christian concept of sonship.
With that in mind it becomes increasingly clear that the synoptic gospels, those sources that are closest to the actual Jesus, subtly undermine the Christian doctrine of Jesus. The gospels do invoke the idea that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Indeed, Vermes is very good on the development of the virign birth. Early editions of Matthew emphasize Jesus's Davidic descent, and indeed state or strongly imply that Joseph was his father. By the time we get to Luke we have the idea that Jesus was miraculously conceived, based on the famous mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 where "a young women shall conceive" was wrongly read to say "a young virgin shall conceive." The early gospels are strongly contradictory on whether Jesus was to save all humanity: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," (Matt 15:24) "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel." (Matt 10:6). Other passages clearly counter the doctrine of the Trinity, shared by all of the most important Christian denominations. "But of that day and that hour [of the coming of the Kingdom] no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the son, but only the Father." (Mark 13:32; Matt 24:36) "The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God." (1 Corinthians 11:3). Paul and thecharacters of the Acts of the Apostles pray through Christ to God, and not yet to Christ. Jesus clearly shows his Jewish Orthodoxy: "Till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law' (Matt 5:18; cf Luke 16:17) This passage, Vermes notes, must be from the real Jesus, since it is so clearly contradictory to the Christianity of the Gentile Church. The Accounts of the Resurrection are contradictory, with the account in the earliest versions of Mark, the earliest gospel, abruptly ending without anyone actually seeing the ressurrected Jesus. Although Vermes praises Jesus' own eloquence and generosity, it is hard to believe Jesus as one's personal saviour. From the best evidence of this book, he did not believe it himself.
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on May 8, 2014
I had already read Mr. Vermes later book "The Authentic Gospel of Jesus", so I was somewhat disappointed in that there is a lot of repetition between these two books. I have, by the way, also read Mr. Vermes books on the nativity and the resurrection. In this book the author shows how the apostles' wrote about Jesus in reverse order; he begins with John, then Paul and ends with the Synoptic Gospels, clearly showing that the oldest gospels had been edited to changing circumstances. My only qualm is that, on occasion, Mr. Vermes assumes knowledge on the part of the reader that I don't have. For example, he refers to John (8:8), the "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" episode as clearly inauthentic, but did not elaborate as to why.
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on April 23, 2001
This well written work is the capstone book of the author's earlier trilogy on Jesus. Starting with the Gospel of John and then moving to Paul's letters and then to the Synoptic Gospels, Vermes peals away the layers of gospel theological commentary in his attempt to discover the historical Jesus. Vermes is a Dead Sea Scrolls expert, as well as a well-published scholar on First Century Judaica. This is a thought provoking work for believers and nonbelievers. However, excellent scholarship about Jesus still can present only conjecture. Despite his erudite scholarship, Vermes does understand this point.
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on December 16, 2005
I confess I am baffled by some of the reviews here. The one thing this book is, is polemical. It is intensely polemical. Just two examples. He characterizes part of the introduction to the book of John as a "the forces of light defeat the (Jewish) forces of darkness." Read John 1 yourself; there is no mention of Jews, nor any suggestion that the "forces of darkness" are Jewish. And read his final short "dream" chapter if you are in any doubt. It is a Jewish apologetic through and through.

His examples of Hasids have also been sharply criticized by other scholars, and he relies on very late (ie medieval)sources for some of them. Some of his logic is tortured. Still there is lots of interesting stuff here. 4 stars for the content, 2 stars for the tendentiousness and prose.
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on July 12, 2005
Most books about the historical Jesus fall into one of four categories. First, pious works of small persuasiveness which merely rehash dogma heard interminably since childhood. Second, romantic and preposterous tales of Jesus running off to the Cote d'Azur with Mary Magdalene, or alternatively, to the Mysterious East to study at the feet of various yogis, swamis, sadhus, pandits, fakirs, bonzes, and lamas. Third, anachronistic depictions of Jesus as a first century version of Ernesto "Che" Guevara leading a Judean liberation movement and murdered by the Fascist Roman power structure for his pains. Fourth and last, judicious and careful works of scrupulous scholarship by historians acknowledged as leading lights in their field by peers (e.g., E. P. Sanders, Paula Fredrikson), even those peers who may have scholarly disagreements with the author. This book belongs to the forth category.

Professor Vermes has devoted over half a century to the study of first-century Palestine and shares some of the results of his investigations in this book. It is entirely devoid of pedantry and alive with bracing insights into the world Jesus lived and died in. Some reviewers here have made much of what they take to be insufficient documentation, but citations are easily found in Professor Vermes' earlier works that this book draws upon. A history written for non-specialists need not be excessively freighted with notes and other scholarly apparatus.

Professor Vermes' method is to carefully dig away the layers of theological encrustation that formed over the narrative of Jesus' words and actions in the New Testament by a sort of painstaking literary archaeological dig. This is aided by careful study of other remaining records of the period including those by classical historians such as Flavius Josephus and Tacitus. Where Professor Vermes really shines is in his careful attention to and interpretation of writings by Jewish contemporaries of Jesus, some of which (e.g., the Dead Sea scrolls) have only come to light in modern times. Until relatively recently, these sources have been mostly ignored. Even when they have been studied, it has often been more for the purpose of extracting facile glosses then of providing illumination. The author draws a convincing portrait of first-century Palestine as a land febrile with apocalyptic and eschatological expectation. Prophets and wonder-workers of every description were active, and Jesus was fully a part of the matrix of first-century Judaism. Despite longstanding belief that it was envy and malice, first from the Pharisees and Temple priests, then from the Jewish crowds that caused the execution of Jesus; Professor Vermes concludes that apprehension for the safety of the crowds in Jerusalem during Passover caused the priests and officials to arrest Jesus and hand him over to the Romans. He was then put to death in the barbarous manner prescribed by Roman law and custom for seditionists and revolutionaries. His followers were left untouched however-a puzzling omission the Romans would scarcely have made had they thought Jesus a genuine revolutionary and his followers a real threat (or even potential threat) to their rule. When the Romans put down the slave rebellion led by Sparticus, the roads leading out of Rome were lined on either side with thousands of crucified rebels for miles around. All sources (including Roman ones) agree that Pontius Pilate was a brutal man, even by Roman standards. (He eventually would be removed from office because of his cruelty by the Emperor Tiberius, whose own harshness was legend.) He would not have hesitated the slightest in condemning a wholly innocent man to die out-of-hand. The idea that he meekly acceding to the wishes of a Jewish mob baying for Jesus' blood as attributed by the gospels is utterly fantastic by all evidence, including the rest of the gospels themselves. The disturbance provoked in the Temple precincts by Jesus among the moneychangers and merchants in the days prior to the Passover was sufficient to seal his tragic fate. He might have only been whipped and released with a warning--as was done to others who had disturbed the peace--had things happened at a less tense moment.

As everyone knows, in the decades after the execution of Jesus, the early Christian movement spread throughout the Roman world to Gentiles as well as Jews. Tragically as things would turn out, it began to change form as it became ever more removed in time and space from Jesus' lifetime in Galilee and Judea. With repeated warfare and destruction in Palestine during the reigns of the Emperors Vespasian and Hadrian, the organized Jewish community was decimated and scattered, and could not serve as a check on the process of transformation. The virile Jesus, concrete in word and deed, became the pallid, spectral Christ of Faith; enthroned in heaven and silent in his eternal, sacred calm while his earthly viceroys spoke and ruled for him. A non-hierarchical movement that began in the Galilean countryside among independent tradesmen, small farmers, and fisherman, all of them Jews, became centered upon the abject and deracinated Gentile masses of Roman cities, most descended from slaves with the mark of servility still upon them. They were lorded over by a celestial bureaucracy that emulated the Empire at a time when it had become an absolute despotism, and the rights of Roman citizens had virtually disappeared. Most tragic of all, the fissure that opened between Gentile Christians and Jews (including Jewish followers of Jesus) would grow into a chasm of mutual enmity and suspicion, manifestations of which would range from slurs in the writings of Church fathers such as Saint John Chrysostom and reformers such as Martin Luther, to murder at the hands of medieval European peasants and their twentieth century descendants who served as camp guards, trusties, auxiliary police, German and foreign SS troops, and indifferent bystanders.

This book is rendered in clear, graceful, and gracious prose that displays the author's goodwill on nearly every page. His comments are touched with a gentle irony here and there that is certain to discomfit a certain type of Christian all the more for being so marvelously devoid of rancor or bitterness. This in spite of the profoundly tragic loss of Professor Vermes' family during the Holocaust. By way of comparison, the comments on display in negative reviews here tell all that we need to know about the writers' intellect, and rather more than cared to know about their character. (Accusations of poisoning wells and of draining the blood of Christian children to make matzos are the only things missing from these reviews.)

Ultimately, the Jesus we meet in these pages is the Jesus we always knew; the Galilean who preferred the rough company of the poor and "sinners" to anyone else, and who gave them the encouragement and strength they needed to endure and reform their hard lives. The man who was not concerned with mere perfectionism, but who simply sought to do the will of "our Father in Heaven", and who would have been astonished at any person or group claiming in his name to have surpassed or perfected the Law. The idea of founding a church appears to have been the furthest thing from his mind. When we glimpse him through the mists of time and the smoke of myth, we do not see the awe-inspiring figure crowned with golden riza and riding on the clouds of glory; still less do we see the scowling, terrifying Christ Pantocrator, i.e., Judge of the Universe. Thanks to decades of careful, patient work by Professor Vermes and other scholars, we see the man of gentle visage and steel-eyed determination who feared no one but God, and of whom none should be afraid. Those who claim to follow him today for the most part divide between the many who inwardly cringe with fear while claiming to love him, and the few who use this fear as a stick to beat the recalcitrant into line.

This work should be read by all who do not rest content with received notions from self-interested authority, but who wish to discover the truths of history and life.
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on October 24, 2004
The first comment I would like to make on this book is that if you are looking for a book which approaches the figure of Jesus Christ from a Christian Apologist perspective, this book is not for you.

Geza Vermes' approach to Jesus Christ is made very plain in the introduction: he is attempting to find the "historical" Jesus through interpretation of the New Testament, the works of contemporary writers of the time period such as Flavius Julius, and through an analysis of the culture and historical events of the time period and how that shaped the Jewish culture of the time.

He does this through an examination of Jesus in a very nontraditional manner: his focus begins with the Jesus of John and works toward the gospel of Matthew. Liturgical scholars and even the casual reader of the Bible can see a different focus given by each of the different writers of the Gospels, this difference is explained in depth by Dr. Vermes. He thoroughly explains Jewish religious traditions of the time period and ties these in to specific dialogue in scripture in order for a reader of the Bible to attempt to see this religious document through the eyes of a Jew or Greek reader of the time period.

Again, this is not a Christian apologetic work and it does not profess to be. Geza Vermes attempts, through this book, to explain Jesus Christ through the culture and events of the people he was spreading the Good News too: the Jews of Judea and Palastine.
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on October 21, 2013
Geza goes into detail how the Jesus of each book of the New Testament is a little different. I greatly enjoyed the amount of detail that is presented in the text. The only area that lost me was towards the end, when the author goes rather deeply into Jewish history. I had a hard time following and ended up skipping that entire chapter. He does mention some things that will no doubt ruffle the feathers of the more devout, but that is expected when you read a book about Jesus written by a historian, not a theologian.
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