on December 8, 2002
This is a clear, approachable and instructive work that wears its learning quite lightly, wastes few words and keeps within comfortable bounds of length - very English. Penguin provides a useful description of it by Vermes himself, at [...] . The following assumes you have read this.
First, some dates to keep in mind. Jesus died about 30. The authentic epistles of Paul begin early in the 50s and end in the mid-60s. Outside the Pauline domain, all we know of Christianity at the time was centered in Jerusalem and led first by Peter, then by James, Jesus's brother, who was killed in 62. Peter and Paul were executed in Rome in the mid-60s. In 66 an uprising began in Judea which led to the razing of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in 70. The three synoptic Gospels were written in the 80s and early 90s, Mark first, then Matthew and Luke in debatable order. Around 100 were written the Acts of the Apostles, perhaps by the same hand as Luke. The gospel of John comes later, about 110, and the Revelation later still. All of the NT (New Testament) was written in Greek. Despite the traditional attributions, none of the authors had met Jesus. The author of Luke was not Jewish, and that of John may well not have been. The other writers generally were. All of this is a moderate stretch from, say, the notes in the pre-Vatican-2 Catholic Bible of Jerusalem. Only fundamentalists should be shocked (and they will not read Vermes).
"The changing faces of Jesus", then, are the earlier and earlier pictures of him that emerge when we begin scraping away layers of scriptural overpaint. The Jesus in question is the Galilean charismatic who, according to the synoptics, first acknowledged John the Baptist and probably joined him, then lived for less than a year after John was arrested.
The top layer is the gospel of John, and in the scraping we notice that almost all our christology was in there and in no prior layer. All of the NT prior to John is centered on the Kingdom of God, and none of it treats Jesus as God. John, for whom Jesus is God, only mentions the Kingdom once.
Vermes then jumps to Paul, who is explicit that he did not see Jesus and (not being the most agreeable man on earth) avoids reporting whatever the Christians in Jerusalem may have known. Paul affirms only two beliefs regarding Jesus, first of all redemption (the Cross), second resurrection - the disappearance of Jesus's body and his reappearance in the form of apparitions, the last of which occurred to Paul in Damascus. Paul's doctrine is that the man Jesus became the Redeemer (not God) on the Cross, and will return in Paul's generation as the Messiah at the end of the world, in universal redemption on the basis of faith, not respect for the Jewish Law. This is the Kingdom of God.
Vermes's next layer is the Acts, which he reads as a report on the beliefs of the church of Jerusalem two generations earlier. Those beliefs quite fit with Paul's, except for being explicitly Jewish and respectful of the Law, and for being impelled by Galileans who were with Jesus during his months of public travel. The church of Jerusalem is a group of Law-abiding unlearned Jews who, like Paul, believe in the advent of the Messiah in their generation. What this means for Gentiles is at best obscure. The Acts also show both Paul and the Jerusalem group working many wonders, in continuation with those attributed to Jesus and his disciples by the synoptics. Except for Paul's letters, all of the NT comes well after the end of this miracle-working generation and the fall of the Temple, so its doctrine about eschatology (last things) is much less here-and-now.
This overview of the first half of the book should give you an idea of its flavor. The second half comprises two chapters, one for the synoptics and one for "the real Jesus". Vermes was born in Hungary in 1924. He became a scriptural scholar while a Catholic priest and later returned to the Judaism from which his family had converted during his youth. Nevertheless the entire work is a work of faith. Most readers will value it as a deep and lively review of the foundational texts of Christianity. It matters little whether in the end one is convinced by Vermes's idea of the real Jesus. For my part, I found his analysis conservative to a fault, rather in the Catholic style. There are many passages in the synoptics that Vermes questions or resets, with the best of reasons, but I found it hard to see why he would not apply those reasons to other passages, which instead he follows like a thread to lead back to the real Jesus. His treatment of talmudic legends is even less questioning. Be that as it may, along the way every page feeds reflection. I would enthusiastically recommend the book to all readers who know the NT and are not put off by the survey in my second paragraph.