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Why is this a classic?
on February 11, 2011
I apologize for the following very lengthy (by Amazon standards) review, but I feel burdened to share some thoughts not quite as positive as the other reviews offer. Frankly put, I am mystified by the unanimous high praise appearing on this book's Amazon page, as well as the adulation that often accompanies Vermes's name in the annals of Jesus research. I simply do not share this admiration. For me, Vermes's "classic" fails on practically every count that it sets out to achieve, most of all on its proclamation of being a "history," which in the modern sense of the term we usually assume to include objectivity and careful methodology.
Vermes is never timid about discarding texts as inauthentic whenever and wherever he feels like it. And no, it is not entirely out of order to say "wherever he feels like it," because the only consistent criteria which he applies is that if a passage undermines his assumptions, it must be inauthentic: e.g., "The third, Mark 9:41, is generally acknowledged to be corrupt and interpolated, and in consequence irrelevant"; and "Moreover, discarding the suspect account of the mockery and beating of the prisoner, if not all, of the members of the Sanhedrin" (which, it should noted, was not stated in the passage--it says "Some began to beat...", and clearly non-Sanhedrin were present). (More examples will be offered in this review below.) It's as if a paleontologist who was dead set on rejecting the existence of predatory dinosaurs simply dismissed every single discovery of Tyrannosaurs, or Allosaurus, etc. bones as plastic frauds placed by mischievous deceivers in the twentieth century. To extend the analogy, this paleontologist's only justification for his policy of rejectionism is that "We know these are frauds because we have no evidence that predatory dinosaurs ever existed"--the quintessence of circular reasoning. This sort of argument, which would never for an instant be accepted in the natural sciences, embarrassingly crops up all too often in theology and so-called theological "history"; and Vermes is one of the worst examples of this habit that I have read from any perspective (including even conservative evangelicals). And to aggravate the logical fallacy, Vermes consistently takes on a "huff-puff" tone of superiority (perhaps best exemplified in the subtitle--"A historian's reading of the Gospels"), which grates on the reader who does not share his self-evaluation of completely objective methodology.
Another unfortunate habit that Vermes frequently gets mired in is when he speaks out of sheer ignorance, making an emphatic declaration when he clearly only can do so oblivious to well-known strands of modern Christian interpretation. For example, his point that the issue of Jesus's Messiahship never came to the fore until his last moments in Jerusalem, as evidence that Jesus, nor his disciples in his lifetime, never conceived of him as the Messiah; this argument makes no reference to a central aspect of Jesus's Messiahship that every student in (Christian!) Sunday School is taught from day one, namely the secretive nature that was enforced from the very beginning of his ministry until nearly the end, for very sensible reasons. At times Vermes says things that I find incredible, that I can only imagine making into his final edit without the benefit of an editor: for example, his argument that with respect to Mark 13--"Take care that no one misleads you. Many will come claiming my name, and saying, `I am the Messiah'; and many will be misled by them"-- Vermes: "If these words are authentic, they imply that in the final days the disciples of Jesus would still be awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Nothing is said to the effect that such an idea was futile, as would be expected of those who believed that the Messiah had already come" (p.142). (One cannot but hear the mild tone of self-congratulation at the cleverness of this observation!) How could he have forgotten the fact that his disciples unanimously expected--can we dare to believe, due to their master's own testimony--that he would come again, that his work was unfinished and that he intended to fulfill the rest of the messianic prophecies and usher in the consummation of his Father's kingdom at some future time? Also it is apparent that the numerous subtleties of high Christology in the synoptic Gospels are largely unbeknownst to this Jewish scholar; the bold claim that Jesus never regarded himself as the Messiah can only be made in the vacuum left by a "historian" that did not care to familiarize himself with the theological history that his opponents embrace. N.T. Wright is a great resource on this question, but no scholarly competence is necessary. Jesus's enactment of Divine judgment on the temple; his parable of the vineyard keepers who slay the owner's son; his use of the term Son of Man with clear allusion to Daniel 7 (of which more will be said below); his implied claim to Divine identity that is made unambiguous by his remarks on the Son of Man coming on the clouds in glory and judgment; the multiply attested Transfiguration narrative; his repeated use of the singular first person possessive, "My father"; and the entire Gospel of John, which Vermes chooses to dismiss in its entirety for unclear reasons, do not so much as say "I am the Messiah, and I am divine," but the undercurrent is obvious and undeniable, for anyone who reads the NT carefully, and it would be bullheaded to insist that because the texts do not directly verbalize what is clearly under the surface, what is under the surface must not exist. Historians need to be more observant that that.
Vermes often resorts to the familiar technique of attempting to make up for insufficient evidence with strong language; but the cautious reader is not fooled. Thus, "There is clearly no doubt that in the mind of the biblical narrator [referring to Daniel 7] this phrase, `one like a son of man', refers collectively to `the saints of the Most High'", and "the hero of the Daniel narrative is...a symbolical representation, according to the interpretative conclusion, of the eschatological triumph of the historical Israel." This is hardly clear from the text. The approach of the one "like a son of man" is described in terms that are much more fitting for an individual than for a nation; and the symbolism of the "four beasts" as "four kings" (7:17) ought not to be automatically considered equivalent to four kingdoms. One is frustrated with the tendency of Judaic interpreters to find in OT prophecies which Christians have seen fulfilled in Jesus, and which are not conducive to a rejection of Jesus as Messiah, references to the nation of Israel personified (most prominent of which are the Servant Songs of Isaiah). In another curious case of double-standard methodology, passages which foretell of a human ruler who ascends to the Davidic throne and rules with an iron fist, who subdues all the enemies of Israel under his/their feet, all refer literally to the Messiah; these predictions, it is pointed out, clearly were not fulfilled in Jesus. These, they assume, are references to an individual. But when a prophecy is uncannily similar to the life and death of Jesus, it is reduced to a prediction concerning the nation of Israel.
The running thesis of his book, which can be summed up as "Jesus never regarded himself as the Messiah," is an extremely difficult position to substantiate (and I suspect because it is not true). Even if one were not equipped with exegetical training, one only has to open to any page of the biblical Gospels to find remarks made by Jesus that are tantamount to a messianic claim. "The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10) sounds too self-elevating for a mere--even the greatest--of prophets. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, Jesus repeatedly issues forgiveness of sins--in general--not to those who have offended him but to those who have offended God--an audacious privilege if he is anything less than divine. I still am inclined to give some credit to the Gospel of John, even if Vermes wants to relegate it to the trash heap in its entirety: "I am the bread of life," "No one knows the Father but the son," "Before Abraham was, I am," "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Then there are those numerous passages which are, admittedly, not unequivocally explicit claims, but gently assume a special status for Jesus, unparalleled by any prophet before him, e.g., "whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:35). Vermes's argument that the following amount to a denial of messiahship:
"[after Peter confesses him as Messiah] Then he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him." then,
"Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." and finally, when Peter rebukes him for his prediction of near-future suffering,
"Away with you, Satan!"
is special pleading. No one now, and no one then, would deny an acclamation of the title Messiah--the one and only, God's agent on earth, the Savior, no less--by giving the acclaimer strict orders not to tell anyone about this. That simply is not how humans speak; and I presume that Vermes would not speak that way either, if he were put in an analogous situation. (If I told my wife in private, "You are the most beautiful woman I have ever known," and she said, "Please don't say that in front of other people," would this amount to a denial of my praise?) The second statement above is about as obvious an acceptance of this title as one can get; and how Vermes sees in the third statement, which hardly supports his argument, a "denial" so emphatic that it completely overturns the second, is beyond me. Jesus was not (counter)rebuking Peter because he incorrectly called him Messiah--it is because Jesus would have no one dissuade him from his path of suffering! (One is reminded of Dr. Seuss's humorous book, "I can read with my eyes shut!") In connection with this, and (for lack of space) without going into too much detail, a similar deficiency of logic can be observed in Vermes's treatment of Jesus's response, just before his crucifixion, to the high priest's question "Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?" Predictably, Vermes finds his answer, "I am" (Mark), and "It is as you say" (Matthew) tantamount to a denial, which is bewildering. We find later that Vermes bases a lot of other arguments on this assumption, and indeed, his central thesis hangs upon this thinnest of threads; and I (perhaps I am not alone) find his point of departure absolutely unconvincing.
The "Jesus as son of man" chapter is probably his most persuasively argued one, where the main premise is that "son of man" is not a title, still less a single, messianic individual, but is rather used for mankind in general, or a circumlocutory reference to oneself. However, I find a fatal flaw in the logic as pieced together. Along with this claim that "Son of Man" was never a title in pre-Christian era Judaism, Vermes makes the equally important claim that Jesus never called himself "Son of Man" in a titular sense, still less in a messianic sense--and those instances where it would appear that he does so are inauthentic. But then I ask, Who was it who first put it on his lips? If you say his disciples--or the early Christian community--then I wonder, why would those who came after him have put it there where it never was, if their compatriots wouldn't have even picked up on what they were trying to declare? In other words, the Gospel writers could not have taken advantage of an environment if that environment did not exist. His second argument therefore contradicts his first. I can agree with Vermes's first point, if it is limited to the assertion that prior to Christ, Jews did not consider "son of man" to be a formal title. But the only recourse I have is to think that Jesus did indeed call himself Son of Man repeatedly, and that he used it in an original way, albeit based on Daniel 7. He was the first to use it--if I may be so bold--as a personal title, and the reason why no one objected--as Vermes aptly points out--is because no one heard it as a title until long after the fact. Perhaps, one might even speculate that the reason for why "Son of Man" is seldom applied to Jesus by anyone in the early Christian community was that the climate was still not receptive to its use as a divine/messianic title. This to me is its strongest evidence for authenticity. Despite my opinion as to the relative strength of the son of man chapter, Vermes engages more than once in the sort of arbitrary reductionism and circular reasoning that seem to be a defining characteristic of this book:
"On the other hand, the necessary prerequisite of a full Messianic consciousness on the part of the speaker - so contrary to all that has been established in chapter 6 - and the general tenor, content and climax of the [Olivet] discourse itself, militate against the possibility of its genuineness. Indeed, these speak against the historicity of the composition as a whole. It was after his death, when Jesus had been proclaimed the exalted Messiah, that the portrayal of his glorious manifestation could be successfully effected with the help of Daniel 7:13. It is difficult therefore not to conclude that Mark 13:26 and its parallels are the product of Christianity rather than of Jesus." (in other words, there are no predatory dinosaur remains because I told you there were never any predatory dinosaurs)
"The formal association of `the son of man' in the Synoptics with Daniel 7:13 appears to be derivative and can scarcely be ascribed to Jesus himself. Nevertheless, it is most remarkable that even at this stage its use as a form of self-designation still survives." (in other words, I will gladly accept the authenticity of herbivorous dinosaur fossils, but categorically reject any predatory dinosaur fossils, because I am convinced that the latter never existed)
"To sum up, there is no evidence whatever, either inside or outside the Gospels, to imply, let alone demonstrate, that `the son of man' was used as a title. There is, in addition, no valid argument to prove that any of the Gospel passages directly or indirectly referring to Daniel 7:13 may be traced back to Jesus. The only possible, indeed probable, genuine utterances are sayings independent of Daniel 7 in which, in accordance with Aramaic usage, the speaker refers to himself as the son of man out of awe, reserve, or humility. It is this neutral speech-form that the apocalyptically-minded Galilean disciples of Jesus appear to have `eschatologized' by means of a midrash based on Daniel 7:13."
If I read Vermes correctly, he is arguing:
1)Jesus never used "son of man" as a title
2)He never used it in an eschatological manner
3)He only used it as a self-designation, circumlocutory, in statements where he needed to speak of himself but wanted to
do so in an oblique way
4)Any eschatologizing of the term that has come down to us was put on his lips by his disciples.
As you can see, the argument (specifically, #1 and #2) depends on #4. But what is his substantiation of #4? There is none; we are supposed to take his word for it. At times, he implies that #1 and #2 are the proof for #4.
The chapter entitled "Jesus the son of God" displays some of the most egregious circular reasoning in a book already filled with it; a simple set of connected quotations, without much added comment, will demonstrate this:
"...there is not a sign in the Synoptic Gospels of his having arrogated to himself this exalted relationship [that of `son of God']."
He quotes other scholars whose positions echo his own:
"...van Iersel admits that Jesus never alluded to himself as son of God, and C.K. Barrett declares without hestitation that the doctrine of sonship played no part in the public proclamation of Jesus. H. Conzelmann...concludes...that `according to the texts we have, Jesus did not use the title'."
Substantiation of this thesis?
"Discounting [déjà vu?] the Trinitarian formula appended to the Gospel of Matthew 28:19 - `in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit' - as representative of the latest stage of the doctrinal evolution and consequently out of place in a historical investigation of Jesus and his age, only two texts have been transmitted in which Jesus expresses his position vis-à-vis God in terms of a father-son relationship."
(His analysis of the first is confusing, but not convincing.) The second:
"Matthew 11:27 (Luke 10:22)`All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the son and any one to whom the son chooses to reveal him' (RSV).
"In removing this hymn from the lips of Jesus and accrediting it instead to the primitive Church, contemporary exegetical skepticism joins forces for once with common sense; for no unbiased interpreter can fail to notice how discrepant these words are in both tone and content from the normal sayings of Jesus." (in other words, we simply do not have the capacity to accept as authentic any predatory dinosaur bones, because they are just too much unlike all the other dinosaur bones we know of; or put another way, I will reject any and every claim the first time you make it, because you never made it before, and I will reject it the second and third time you make it as well because, having rejected the first time, there is now no foundation for it)
I am simply overwhelmed.
Finally, his excursus on the virginity of Mary is not compelling. He insists on his alternative explanation, which is that Mary conceived prior to menstruation, not sexual intercourse, her conception issuing from her first ovulation; but he himself quotes the most damning passage to this theory:
"Mary asks: `How can this be, for I know no man?' " Luke 1:34
It is an intolerable stretch--if I am not being unreasonable--to take "knowing" a man to be equivalent to "menstruating." Another aspect of Mary's saying also undermines Vermes's theory, which is that Mary takes her pregnancy to be impossible. If it were merely prior to menstruation, she and/or Joseph would have known it was possible--and even, for the sake of argument, assuming the couple to have never learned the truth (of the relationship of menstruation to ovulation), even after experiencing firsthand the serious implications of this biological possibility--one would have thought that some, in the early Christian community, would have grasped this non-miraculous, alternative explanation. It also behooves Vermes to argue, as a corollary, that the first Christians heard the word parthenos, and while the speakers intended "prior to menstruation," the listeners mistakenly heard "prior to sexual intercourse," and following that an elaborately contrived narrative involving a visit from an angel, an impregnation by the Holy Spirit, and the Magnificat of Mary developed. But when one communicates the idea of a virgin birth, does he only utter the word "parthenos" with no accompanying speech, no suggestion of what he means by the word? And would not this have had to have been the case for every single communication of this tradition in the first Christian generation, for a myth to arise out of a misunderstanding?
In summary, Jesus the Jew can be described, in my mind, as characterized through and throughout by a quality which C.E.B. Cranfield, in another context, once succinctly identified: "an air of desperation." And, I should add, desperation with a forceful thrust.