Customer Reviews: Jesus the Jew
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on March 28, 2001
Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza somewhere tells a cute story about a class she once taught, in which she had the doggonedest time persuading a fine old Catholic gentleman that Jesus was actually Jewish. Finally he admitted that she had convinced him. "But," he added at once, "the Blessed Mother for sure was not!"

Well, yes, she was, and so -- of course -- was Jesus himself. This volume, by Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, is probably the single work that did the most to drive this point home to the modern world.

There are naturally some difficulties with Vermes's work. One of these is that he relies on Talmudic writings that date, in their written form, from about 500 years later than Jesus; this objection he has dealt with in _Jesus and the World of Judaism_. Another is that he has provided no real reason why his charismatic Galilean hasid should ever have gotten himself crucified; this objection he tries to meet in _The Religion of Jesus the Jew_ (rather lamely and unconvincingly, to my mind; he suggests, at bottom, that Jesus just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time).

Then, too, some of his parallels (the main ones being Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle-Drawer) have been questioned for various reasons. Some of these reasons seem cogent to me as well, and I do not think Vermes has provided a _complete_ picture of the historical Jesus.

Nevertheless this groundbreaking work is the one that (re)started the conversation in the first place. If Jesus is now recognized by many Jews and Christians alike as having been, as a matter of history, a faithful Jew who in all likelihood did not intend to found a new religion separate from Judaism, this work played a crucial role in bringing that common recognition about.

Nor is everything herein merely out of date. Vermes's discussions of -- for example -- the "Son of Man" sayings and the nature of Galilean piety are still cited in the literature, and not always for the purpose of refuting them. Whether complete or not, Vermes's account contains a great deal of truth.

At some point anyone trying to cope with the vast array of "Jesus scholarship" of the last three or four decades should get around to reading this absolutely seminal work. _Jesus and the World of Judaism_ is unfortunately out of print as of this writing, but _The Religion of Jesus the Jew_ is also recommended.
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on July 3, 2001
Jesus the Jew is the first book in a trilogy written by Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford. The other 2 books in the trilogy are: "Jesus and the World of Judaism" and "The Religion of Jesus the Jew". No doubt the titles of these books will be a bit off-putting to some readers, however I believe that Vermes has done an excellent job in presenting an objective account of the historical Jesus that should be read by all interested Jews and Christians alike.
Vermes takes the position that Jesus the historical figure may be best understood in terms of his Judaic origins. Vermes portrays him as a charismatic, Chassid, similar to a number of others that existed in Jesus' time. He argues that many of the titles given to Jesus or titles that Jesus ascribed to himself such as "Lord", "Son of Man" and "Son of God" may be best understood in terms of Jewish culture and Jewish writings of the time. In fact a great deal of the book is devoted to explaining these and other titles. An example is given where the title "my Son" (son of God) was at one point bestowed upon a Jewish charismatic named Hanina Ben Dosa who, like Jesus, also broke Pharisaic etiquette at times but nonetheless was a respected teacher and miracle worker. Upon this point, Vermes concludes that the notion of "Son of God" in the Gospels is not an original form of terminology but was already well founded in Palestinian Jewish Belief to denote teachers that were highly respected by their peers.

Many more examples such as the one mentioned above are given with regards to all titles bestowed upon Jesus in the Gospels. It is easy to see how such titles may have been adopted, misunderstood and finally corrupted by the gentile church to serve its own end. Many Christian readers may be shocked by the implications of Vermes' investigation, however it is important to remember after all that Jesus was Jewish and therefore certain elements of the Gospels would no doubt adopt some Jewish precepts.

All in all, Vermes has shown himself to be a Scholar of impeccable caliber and should be more widely read in Judeo-Christian circles. His book is at times a little dry and hard to read, but it is worth it for the wealth of information that it contains on the subject of Jesus the Jew.
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on January 13, 2000
Modern Christological study and the quest for the historical Jesus owe a debt of gratitude to both Albert Schweitzer and Geza Vermes. Schweitzer showed us that Jesus' thinking was characterized by apocalyptic (eschatology), and Vermes taught us that if we would know Jesus we must understand him within his historical Jewish culture. It is to Vermes' credit, and an indication of the impact of his book, that in current Third Quest Jesus study we take his Jewishness and his Jewish background as basic to any legitimate interpretation of his nature, teaching, or mission.
Vermes sets Jesus within a context of the Judaism we know from early rabbinics, and examines various titles and practices ascribed to Jesus against this background. The result is a picture of Jesus as a Hasidic charismatic teacher/healer, in line with the phenomena and other personalities popular in his own day.
Vermes approaches many of the vexing issues by viewing them in this context. For example, he argues that the phrase "son of man" is a typical Jewish circumlocution (self-reference) meaning "I" or "man." He also points out that other Jewish Hasidic charismatics performed miracles.
As valuable and influential as his book has been, there are some fundamental problems with his work: 1) Vermes tends to rely too much on a historical reconstruction of Jesus based on later Jewish sources. 2) He tends to reduce the portrait of Jesus to what is common to Judaism, discounting the atypical or unique aspects of Jesus. For example, the Danielic use and influence of the "son of man" phrase in 2nd-Temple Judiasm or early Christianity is not given the weight it deserves. 3) Vermes, as the history of religions school before him, tends to credit so-called "higher" Christological forulations to a later Hellenist stage, not properly considering Jesus' own claims, stories, beliefs, and praxis that contribute to them, nor giving due weight to the fact that Paul, the first Christians, and most Christian groups were composed of Jews.
I well remember when I first read this book a few years ago. For the first time I saw Jesus come alive--a real historical person who fully shared in his racial heritage. I also remember how it was precisely because he thus became real that God became real to me as well. I think the major fault of Vermes is that he does not see that, for Jesus, YHWH is judging the nations, returning to Israel, and becoming King, in and through his own work. Rather, for Vermes, Jesus is made to fit the, howbeit peculiar, mold of the Jewish Hasidic charismatic. In spite of what I consider to be his weaknesses, I shall remain endebted to Vermes for making Jesus real to me, and setting the course of current Jesus study.
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on December 27, 2000
The really great thing about this book is that it places Jesus within Judaism. We find both similarities and differences between Jesus and the Pharisees/Rabbinic literature, Jesus and the Essenes/Dead Sea Scrolls, and Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures. This serves to create a Jesus that is believable and makes sense within the history of his people; in this book, Jesus feels authentic. I also find Vermes' Jesus to be one that is highly inspiring, being interested, ultimately, in what Vermes refers to as "the essence of true religion...the existential relationship between man and man and man and God."
Vermes deals with a number of topics in this book - Jesus as Messiah, Jesus as Lord, Jesus the Son of God, and Judaism in Jesus' time. Vermes find similarities between Jesus and the ancient, charismatic Hasidim such as Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa. Jesus should be viewed as a son of God (which is a term that implies intimacy), devout in his observance of the Torah, but also unconcerned with smaller aspects of the law at the expense of the larger aspects (like the other Hasidim).
Vermes also enlightens the reader to the incredibly complexity of the Judaisms of Jesus' time without confusing the reader or bogging him/her down in needless, minute detail.
Ultimately, this is the most rewarding book I have ever read on Jesus. It is enlightening, informative, and paints an authentic, inspiring picture of Jesus the charismatic Hasid.
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Not since Schweitzer, has the world seen such a powerful reconstruction of the historical Jesus of Nazareth! Schweitzer's efforts were tainted by his strong Christian faith, and his tendency to see the apocalyptic in all of Jesus' thoughts and teachings. Vermes, on the other hand, gives us an intellectually more honest, less influenced, vision of the Galilean rabbi, whom many of us continue to worship twenty centuries after his public execution for sedition.
In the first three chapters of this book, Vermes draws upon contemporary documents to clearly draw his picture of Jesus, the Jew, the Galilean, and the Hasid. The result is an image freed from the theological meditations of Saint Paul and the nascent Church, which recast the Jesus of history into the Christ of faith.
In the next five chapters of his book, Vermes brilliantly examines some of the many titles given to Jesus, distinguishing between those that would have been used by Jesus, or others, in his own life time, and those imposed upon him after the crucifixion by the Church that worshipped him.
Vermes' work should be mandatory reading for any serious student of the New Testament. If you are a believer, it will, occasionally, infuriate you. If you are a skeptic, you may find Vermes to be "too soft" on the traditional faith. ...but no matter what your faith, you will learn.
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on February 20, 2005
Geza Vermes (1924- ) was raised Catholic, but of Jewish descent. In 1957 he quit the Catholic priesthood and subsequently converted to Judaism. He has been one of the more influential scholars in urging the study of Jewish cultural and religious milieu in order to understand Jesus.

JESUS THE JEW (1973) is the first of several books that Vermes has written on the historical Jesus. Vermes' argument is that Jesus was a Hasid, a type of charismatic miracle worker common in first century Galilee. Vermes frankly tells us that Jesus has been "distorted by Christian and Jewish myth alike." According to Vermes, Jesus claimed to be only a Jewish teacher, but after his death was proclaimed the Messiah by the early church and then - only as a result of the influence of Greek thought - the pre-existent Son of God. Say what you want about Vermes' ideas, he presents an understanding of the trajectory of the "Jesus tradition" free from conspiracy theories, reliance on dubious Gnostic gospels and the like.

There are a couple of problems with this approach:

First, Vermes' claims that Jesus was a type of Galilean charismatic Jew rests on slim evidence. His two examples are Honi the Circle Drawer (first century B.C.) and Hanina ben Dosa (first century A.D.). While there are some similarities between Jesus and these two, Honi was not Galilean and Hanina's Galilean origin is far from certain. And Vermes relies on very late traditions (some going to the eighth or ninth centuries A.D.). (See Witherington, THE JESUS QUEST, pp. 108-112 for a critique of Vermes.) He also claims that the Hasid used the term "Abba" as "father," like Jesus. Yet this claim has been effectively refuted. (Stein, THE METHOD AND MESSAGE OF JESUS' TEACHINGS, p. 168.)

Second, Vermes employs what appears to me at least an inconsistent methodology. He looks to Mark's gospel to find evidence for a more primitive Jesus tradition consistent with his Hasid theory. But he then ignores all sorts of Markan evidence that doesn't support it. Even in Mark's gospel we see Jesus forgiving sins, preaching the Kingdom, and predicting his death. His claim that Jesus forgiving sins was not remarkable is hard to accept in light of the reactions reported in the Gospels. All this puts Jesus in a different category than Honi and Hanina ben Dosa. In fact, this evidence is consistent with the widely held belief that Jesus acknowledged to his disciples that he was the Mesiah, but was reticent about disclosing it to the public given a likely misunderstanding.

I haven't read Vermes' other works (which are later & I gather take into account some of the criticisms I've mentioned) so I won't comment on his "project." At the same time, I found this work disappointing. E.P. Sanders' work JESUS AND JUDAISM strikes me as a more thorough investigation of Jesus and his religious milieu.
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on September 10, 2006
I read this book following up some references in G. de St. Croix's book "Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World" (well worth reading itself!); it came up in passing a few times and seemed intriguing.

I was simply blown away by the text itself. It is one of the greatest books I have ever read. I shook the whole time. All the opacity concerning the Gospel and teaching of Jesus, how it could all have come about: it is made so plain. All other treatments I have seen of "the historical Jesus" are dust and ashes by comparison.

I have read some of Vermes' later works - he has taken a few things back and adjusted claims, unsurprisingly. It is worth reading a recent work, then, in conjunction with this one, but the force of the original work is unparalleled in the later ones. For those doubtful of Vermes' greatness, I recommend the discussion of the references of Jesus to himself as "son of man", which have been the source of a sense of mystery in readers of the Gospel, and also of so many vast tomes of theology by writers ignorant of first century Aramaic argot and certain widespread linguistic phenoma. The solution to the Son of Man Problem, as it was called, is sudden, total and of course completely deflationary.

It is amusing that an Amazon reviewer of another of Vermes' books says that Vermes is guilty of comparing Jesus to "someone called Honi the Circle-Drawer", which he says is palpably absurd. There is no absurdity in Vermes' treatment. Honi is one of several characters of the period, in fact, to whom Jesus is compared. It is a question of constituting a type known to Galileans which Jesus was received by them as fitting into. It is as "that kind of guy" that Jesus was in the first instance understood by his hearers. But for Vermes there is also a specific difference from these rustic Galilean holy men and exorcists: the astounding ethical doctrines of Jesus, which anyone who has read the Sermon on the Mount will know.

If only the same work could be done for St Paul and the formation of the early Church, the comprehension of the world we live in would be hugely extended. Vermes tells us what Jesus really was; we must now understand what was made of him. This work would require someone with a total comprehension of the Hellenistic world superadded to Vermes' clearly magisterial comprehension of the Jewish world of this period. And it would require someone devoid of excessive psychological freight connected with the topic. (Vermes is able somehow to triangulate through the shoals here.) I invite an Orthodox Jewish boy of immense brilliance and broad learning - but who has given up the practice - there must be a lot of these guys! - to take on the study of Greek and the hellenistic world - the younger the better - and meanwhile to extend his Jewish learning in the direction of Vermes. A really scientific, dispassionate comprehension of the path from Jesus' wandering preaching to the church circa 150 AD would be an earthquake. It is incredible how hard it is to find truly rational and compelling literature on these matters.
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on April 21, 2006
No-one understands Jesus in his (actual) Jewish context better than Vermes. He is uniquely qualified, both by the depth of his scholarship, and by his own personal history, as a Jew who before he came to understand his Jewish heritage was for a while a Catholic priest! Everything he writes is worth reading. Among other things, he is a foremost authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

William Nicholls

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies,

University of British Columbia.
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on January 1, 2014
I highly recommend. Even though the writer analyzes every issue very deeply, his neutral approach is overwhelming. This book is fundamental for believers in Jesus as the Messiah (like myself) and believers in the prophet Jesus.
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on June 24, 2008
In this ground-breaking 1973 work, an eminent Jewish scholar initiates the third wave of the quest for the historic Jesus. Rejecting all pretensions of Jesus' divinity, Geza Vermes consults Jewish literature for two hundred years prior to the birth of Jesus to two hundred years after, looking for cultural, linguistic and historical complements in the Synoptic Gospels that might put his subject into clearer focus. His discovery is not at all unflattering. Jesus was a Hasidim, one of a line of Galilean miracle-workers. He preached, healed, and exorcized demons, was comfortable with the title of prophet, and as a Jew himself, with "son of God," but not, "Son of God," the Messiah. Vermes' command of his material is overwhelming and novel. His conclusions are conditioned by the available historical evidence without reference to modern theology, but the reader is impressed with his objectivity in establishing only what we can confidently know about the Nazarene, without later accretions. Warning: It is a scholarly work and not casually read.
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