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4.2 out of 5 stars
The Nativity: History and Legend
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on June 10, 2017
The author is a world-class archaeologist who has devoted his life to studying the ancient Middle East. Although it is chocked-full of interesting, well documented information, it is easy to read. I highly recommend it.
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on December 31, 2013
This was a great read. Vermes puts together these short scholarly pieces that are easy to understand for lay person and adds dimension and clarity to traditional tales of the holiday season and religious history. A great read for anyone looking to separate myth from history.
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on May 8, 2014
At the conclusion of this book the reader is clearly left with the impression that the chronicles of the nativity are myth. Mr. Vermes does a good job of showing how Matthew and Luke were making up stories to solve the problems of the prophets predictions. (Neither Mark, the first gospel, or John, the last gospel, mentions anything about the nativity.)
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on December 22, 2013
I've read the 2006 hard cover edition of Geza Vermes' book. I don't know if any significant changes were made in later editions.

Vermes refers to his book as thorough (16), one that takes into account "all the relevant information" from a large variety of fields (16-17), and "painstaking" (145). But the book is only 172 pages long, has only two pages of endnotes (159-160), has a two-page bibliography characterized by liberal and moderate sources (161-162), makes many highly dubious assertions without supporting argumentation, makes little effort to interact with conservative scholarship, and doesn't break any significant new ground.

He refers to the elements of the infancy narratives that have "a high degree of probability" as "the names and the place of residence of the child and the parents, but the date of birth could only be approximate, under Herod, and the locale controverted, Bethlehem according to tradition, but more likely Nazareth." (155-156) He ignores the best evidence for a Bethlehem birthplace. And his inclusion of so few items in the highly probable category is absurd. What about the premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy, something highly unlikely to have been made up by the early Christians? What about the earliness of the move to Nazareth, even though Matthew and/or Luke could so easily have placed the move later in Jesus' life? And so on.

Despite Vermes' ridiculous claim that the infancy accounts "agree only on a few basic points" (10), they actually agree on dozens. I recently wrote an article for my blog giving thirty examples of agreements between Matthew and Luke regarding Jesus' childhood, and more examples could have been included. I went beyond the first two chapters of the two gospels in compiling my list, but even if we were to limit ourselves to the first two chapters of the two gospels, the number of agreements would still be well into the double digits. Scholars other than Vermes have cited numbers like twelve, nineteen, or twenty-three. Those numbers are significant given that Matthew and Luke are largely addressing different timeframes (implied by Matthew 2:16) and have different focuses (e.g., Matthew's focus on Joseph and Luke's focus on Mary).

Vermes incorrectly claims that Matthew and Luke contradict each other about whether Jesus was born in a house (11). Supposedly, only Matthew has the family in a house in Bethlehem. Aside from Vermes' error in acting as if Matthew and Luke are addressing the same timeframe (they aren't), see Stephen Carlson's argument that Luke 2 probably does refer to a house (New Testament Studies 56 [2010], 326-342).

Vermes' second chapter is especially unreasonable. In that chapter, we're told that "religious authority dislikes contradictions in its authoritative texts" (11-12). Thus, "efforts have been deployed from the early centuries of the Christian era by the official revisers and commentators of the Gospels to eliminate the manifest discrepancies between the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke" (12). While that sort of language might suggest widespread textual changes or scenarios from a Dan Brown novel, the example Vermes goes on to cite in the next sentence is Tatian's Diatessaron. But a gospel harmony like the Diatessaron (and many others have been produced and continue to be produced) doesn't "revise" the gospels or "eliminate" the differences among them. Gospel harmonies have circulated along with the gospels themselves. They coexist. And Tatian wasn't much of a "religious authority". The reason why Vermes can criticize the differences between Matthew and Luke is because those differences were preserved by copyists and other "religious authorities" who were mostly honest in the transmission process.

Later in the second chapter, Vermes criticizes "exegetes [who] have been happy to settle the problem of the virginal conception by simply calling it a miracle" (12-13). We're not told in what manner the virginal conception is a "problem" or why viewing it as a miracle is supposed to be unacceptable. The suggestion seems to be that belief in a virginal conception would be acceptable only if the event could be explained naturalistically. Why should we expect a naturalistic explanation? Vermes makes similar comments elsewhere. We're told that the "fabulous" elements of the infancy narratives "force" us to conclude that the accounts aren't historical (155). Such assertions are repeated over and over by Vermes, but without any justification.

We're told that the authors of the two gospels probably had access to genealogical records related to Jesus, and that they probably consulted such records, but that they didn't intend to convey a historical account in their genealogies (35-37). We're not told why they would be seeking genealogical records to "prove" Davidic descent (36) if "the aim pursued by Matthew and Luke in compiling their genealogies was doctrinal, and not historical" (35-36). Apparently, the gospel authors were writing in a fictional genre, yet they wanted to consult genealogical records in the process of writing that fiction in order to prove that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy that was expected to have a historical fulfillment. Vermes' mixture of fictional and nonfictional elements doesn't seem to make sense, and he makes little effort to clarify his train of thought.

Vermes argues that the gospel authors were writing in a non-historical genre, yet he fails to demonstrate that the infancy narratives were initially read in that manner. To the contrary, he repeatedly acknowledges that the early sources took the narratives as historical accounts (91-92, 94-95). He'll often refer to how something in the infancy narratives "obviously" isn't historical (92), but will make no effort to explain why the ancient sources, both Christian and non-Christian, interpreted the narratives differently than he does. He claimed that he would address "all the relevant information assembled from the parallel Jewish documents, biblical and postbiblical, and from the sources of classical literature and history" (16-17). But he has little to say about the large majority of the external evidence that runs contrary to his conclusions.

What Vermes' book amounts to is an introductory treatment of the infancy narratives from a liberal perspective, without much supporting argumentation.
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on January 28, 2014
Outstanding in every sense, deep,thorough knowledge of topic and truly excellent style of writing. Easy to read. I wish there were more of the same.
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HALL OF FAMEon November 17, 2007
Here the respected scholar investigates the main events surrounding the nativity in an attempt to establish what really happened. He compares Christmas in Christian imagery with the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, which are contradictory and confusing in many aspects. They agree on only a few basic points but there are many complications and discrepancies. Vermes looks at how various Christian scholars deal with this, for example John P Meier in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus and Raymond Brown in Birth of the Messiah.

The author performs a textual interpretation and analyses the evidence. Then the findings are compared to all relevant information from parallel Jewish documents and sources of literature and history, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. First the genealogies of Jesus in the aforementioned gospels are compared (including a side by side comparison) and Vermes succeeds in making even this subject absorbing in light of the strange discrepancies.

Next he looks at the concept of miraculous births in Judaism and Paganism: virginal conception, extraordinary birth stories in the Old Testament and the weird account in Genesis 6 that talks of celestial beings interbreeding with mankind that gave rise to a race of giants. The Hellenistic Jewish birth stories of the writer Philo are also considered.

Chapter Five: Virgin and Holy Spirit, explores the gospel accounts with the prophecy of Isaiah concerning a young woman who would give birth to a son. The earliest extant text of Matthew is in Greek so it is perhaps not surprising that the quote of Isaiah 7:14 comes from the Greek Septuagint not from the Hebrew Bible. This gospel was influenced by the Septuagint's rendering of "Almah" (young woman) as "Parthenos" (Virgin). There are many unexpected, surprising and confusing aspects to the version of Matthew.

The date and place of birth are discussed next. Needless to say, there are problems with the date between the gospel accounts and when measured against what we know about the history. The nearest safe conclusion is that Jesus was born before the spring of 4BC. And alas, even the town seems to in dispute, but here I don't fully follow Vermes when he questions the Bethlehem connection for lack of enough proof.

The Premonitory signs of the nativity are the announcement to the shepherds, the Magi from the East and the star. These are discussed in the light of history and the Old Testament. Next is the murder plot. Geza confirms that Herod had a murderous character. He compares the murder of the children with the murder of the Israelite boys in Egypt, looks at the infancy of Moses and the parallels between the two occurrences.

Chapter 9: The Settlement of Jesus in Galilee, deals with among other issues the meaning of the word "Nazarene." The words Netser (Branch) and Nazoraios (from Nazareth) do not come from the same root and Samson who was called a Nazirite is not a suitable type for Jesus. The last chapter deals with the two supplements to the infancy gospel in Luke: the birth of John The Baptist, including the Magnificat and the Benedictus which are cleverly combined anthologies of poetic abstracts from various parts of the Hebrew Bible, and the account of the young Jesus in the temple.

The Epilogue looks at the infancy gospels in retrospect. There is a summary of differences and a discussion of the relation of the birth narratives to the main gospels. Vermes believes that these were a later addition for the benefit of a gentile audience. It is the prologue just as the resurrection narrative is the epilogue. The Greek narrative was placed over a Semitic original and represents the final stage of the Greek development, manifesting in the virgin conception, the idea of the Son of God as God with us (Emanuel) and the full development of the Messiah Redeemer.

There is a map of the Holy Land and 10 woodcuts by Albrecht Durer. The book concludes with notes, a bibliography and index. This book raises many questions for the believer. My further research has revealed that according to church fathers like Irenaeus and Jerome there existed a Hebrew (or Aramaic written in Hebrew alphabet) version of Matthew that was used by at least two early groups of believers, the Ebionites and the Nazarenes. Called The Gospel of the Hebrews, it lacked the two chapters on the nativity.

Apparently the Ebionites rejected the pre-existence, virgin birth, divinity and resurrection. They emphasized the oneness of God and considered Jesus to be the biological son of Joseph and Mary. According to Jerome and Epiphanius, the Jewish believers called Nazarenes also used the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and adhered to Torah but they did accept the virgin birth, the resurrection and the divinity of Yeshua. I highly recommend the work of David Bivin in this regard, especially the book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus.

Kabbalah of Yeshua by Zusha Kalet

The Passion: The True Story of an Event That Changed Human History by Geza Vermes

Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians by David H Stern

Ruth & Esther: Shadows of Our Future by Frank Morgan

Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church by Ron Moseley
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on August 1, 2008
It's well known that there is a contradiction between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John regarding the events leading up to the Passion and the dating of the crucifixion of Jesus.

However, this erudite little book in which Geza Vermes's eminent scholarship in nonetheless lightly worn shows further difficulties in the Christian testimonies. Namely, the Infancy narratives between Luke and Matthew are so divergent as to be difficult if not impossible to harmonize.

This of course is not what ecclesiastical authorities want to hear. But Professor Vermes shows conclusively why this must be so.

I confess the book astounded and agitated me. Surely, there couldn't be such confusion? I knew that Jesus was likely born in the spring and the acquisition of Christmas occurred by the co-opting of pagan solstice ceremonies. But to find almost all aspects of the Christmas story--no exact number of Magi, no old status to Joseph, as examples--to which I have spent a lifetime ascribing to is disconcerting to say the least. Vermes, however, makes his scholarship stand out for its effectiveness, simplicity, and brilliance.

The Nativity: History & Legend has much to commend it, if nothing else but to challenge the thinking of the doctrinaire Christian. One hopes all are made the better for it. As John Stuart Mill said, "He who knows only his side of the argument knows little of that."
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on February 5, 2008
Noted scholar Geza Vermes focuses his attention on the nativity stories about Jesus, in a fashion similar to his 2006 book The Passion. He covers such topics as where and when Jesus was born, where he lived, who his father and brothers were, etc. Along the way he makes several excursions into such related topics as Jewish marriage practices in the 1st century, the two meanings of the word "virgin", etc.

The text is well written, although at times I thought it rambled, and there is no coherent organization, although at the end of the day, he covers just about every topic one can imagine. The notes are sparce and the bibliography ever sparcer, but one nonetheless gets the feeling that Vermes speaks with authority.

While this is certainly a very interesting book, people familiar with the literature will not find much new here. But for a beginning student this will be very informative.
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on May 17, 2010
Short summary:

The book is essentially a commentary on the Infancy Gospels found in Matthew and Luke. Vermes carefully looks at these passages from all different angles and can be said to deconstruct the passages as we have them by employing the historical-critical method. He compares elements and themes to Jewish & Greek literature of the time and draws some suprising and less suprising results. In his view the Infancy Gospels have been added later to the Gospels as they stand and conflict greatly among each other. To be sure he finds some similarities but on the whole they are different and contain in some places contradictory ideas.

He spends most of his time highlighting these differences and probes to what the reasons behind these are. He sees Matthew's Infancy Gospel as being mainly driven by the idea that Jesus is the new Moses and offers various extra-Biblical readings that show some suprising parallels to the Gospel. Luke, in his opinion, concerns a miraculous birth along the lines we find in the Hebrew Bible (Sarah, Rebecca, etc.), he argues that Mary conceived Jesus, with the help of Joseph, before this was physically possible (before her first period).

My thoughts:

In general I like Historical Jesus studies in the tradition of Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders, Paula Fredriksen, etc. They tend to be very critical and leave little trace of feeling bound to dogma. Sometimes though they can be overly critical and especially with Vermes I get this idea. Reading him at times makes me feel he is frustrated with more conservative readings. But given that this works both ways and that it does not distract the reader from his main message, its fine with me.

In short I think he does a very good job in dealing with the Infancy Gospels, it is obvious that he is among the best of scholars in Historical Jesus studies and his arguments are in many cases quite persuasive. I liked how he compresses a lot of scholarship without losing its quality and depth and think he manages in this way to make it a book that is both readable for laymen but surely interesting enough for those who are familiar with the more scholarly works of the quest.


8 out of 10

Brief and to the point. A good read by a scholar who knows what he is talking about.
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on January 12, 2008
It is refreshing and revitalizing to get legend separated from history. At the same time I love what one of my teachers, Fr. Vincent Vasey at the University of Dayton once said, not necessarily of the Infancy Narrative, "If it isn't true it ought to be true because it makes such a good story."
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