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Liberal Introduction With Many Errors And Little Supporting Argument
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 , 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.