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38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vermes ruffles some theological feathers, September 1, 2001
This review is from: The Changing Faces of Jesus (Hardcover)
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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