Book review: Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth ro Nicaea AD30-325 by Geza Vermes

Resurrection theology: Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas, from 1602-3
Resurrection theology: Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas, from 1602-3
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AT the end of the Cyclops chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom eventually snaps against the eye-patched Citizen’s anti-Semitic slurs: “Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.”

Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth To Nicaea, AD30–325

By Geza Vermes

Allen Lane, 272 pp, £25

The career of Geza Vermes has been a scholarly extrapolation of Joyce’s insight. He is best known for his ground-breaking work on the texts found at Qumran, better known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This book represents the summation of his thinking about the early history of Christianity. It is a challenging and engaging book that sets out to retrace the route by which a Jewish preacher in 1st-century Israel came to be declared as consubstantial and co-equal with the omnipotent, omniscient only God. Vermes’s argument is summed up in the title he takes for the conclusion: “from charisma to dogma”. How did the flesh and blood Jesus become the metaphysical Christ Pantocrator?

Vermes opens with a brisk discussion of the tradition of charismatic or mystical religious practice from Moses to the time of Jesus. Throughout Judaism, in both the texts included in the Bible, the other religious writings of the period and the rediscovered works of the Essene Community at Qumran, there are a number of figures whose message and behaviour is similar to that of Jesus of Nazareth: there are healers, such as Elisha; exorcists, such as Hanina ben Dosa; and those proclaiming a message of repentance and forgiveness; such as is found in the “Prayer of Nabonidus” among the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are even miraculous resurrections, such as Elijah’s bringing back to life of the son of the widow of Zarephath.

Jesus clearly fits within this charismatic tradition. Vermes is acute on the differences in the depiction of Jesus between the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and the more expansive Luke) and John’s Gospel: in the synoptic Jesus is cryptic and answers questions with questions (“Who is it that you say I am?”), in the more poetic Gospel of John he is self-announcing, especially in the seven “I am” statements.

Vermes presents Jesus as another mystical preacher, opposing the Temple requirements with purity of spirit in the light of the coming, apocalyptic Kingdom of God and wholly within a Jewish tradition. This continues among the first apostles, and, although with more theological subtlety, in Paul’s epistles. Nowhere, according to Vermes, does Jesus claim to be God, and even Paul envisages him as a subordinate to God.

Certainly with St Paul there is a dramatic shift of focus within followers of “the Way”. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles stands in stark contrast to the church in Jerusalem; “Christianity” there was a refinement of Judaism. Worshippers were expected to follow the Mosaic law, including dietary prohibitions and circumcision, with some leniency for Gentile converts, as well as following the new distinct practices, such as a communal meal on Sunday and baptism.

That a “Jewish” Christianity co-existed with a “Gentile” Christianity is developed in Vermes’s chapters on the earliest, non-Biblical Christian sources. Formerly known only really to specialist historians and theologians, the web has made many of these texts readily available. As such, it is incredibly important that books such as this offer precise and academically rigorous readings of them. In contrasting works such as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas, and later on in the epistles of Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, we can see the gradual normalisation of Gentile Christianity, alongside the rise of its dark counterpart, Christian anti-Semitism.

To a degree, Vermes does not deal with the “Ship of Theseus” paradox as it applies to early Christianity: the Greek philosophical parable involves a ship, where each plank and timber is gradually replaced, until no part of the original boat remains – is it the same boat, or a different one? Both believers and atheists would agree that by the time of the Council of Nicaea, there was a “new” phenomenon, Christianity, with a properly articulated set of beliefs. At what point did this diverge from charismatic Judaism? By stressing the continuity of belief – such as Paul’s reluctance to equate God and Jesus – Vermes provides a valuable corrective to literalist readings (which, usually, are not literal in the slightest, but merely traditional). Nevertheless, it is appropriate to ask when the decisive shift did occur. By the time of the so-called Alexamenos Graffito – a scrawl on a wall in Rome, depicting a soldier kneeling before a crucified figure with a donkey’s head, and the sarcastic inscription, “Alexamenos worshipping his god”, which has been dated at various points between the 1st and early 3rd century – it is evident that even non-Christians knew the religion involved worshipping, as a god, a crucified figure.

From Paul onwards, early Christian texts involves a new manner of reading scripture: reading it allegorically, finding parallels and foreshadowings. To the earliest Christians, the similarity of Jesus stories to stories about Moses, Elijah or Elisha did not dilute but confirmed belief.

Reading was central to the spread of Christianity, and with it, a sense that the full impact had not been immediately understood: the phrases in the Gospels with which Jesus ends parables, such as “many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it”, created a new urgency to interpretation.

It all converges on the Resurrection, which Vermes mentions only in passing here (admittedly, he has written Jesus: Nativity, Passion, Resurrection, which deals with it more thoroughly). Arguments can rage until the skies roll up about inconsistencies in Gospel accounts, or the fact that the risen Jesus seems only to have appeared to believers and not, say, the Roman Emperor (for Vermes “this objection remains unanswered”, although one might counter that it is possible that not all the hundreds mentioned in Acts of the Apostles who claimed to see Jesus after the crucifixion were already believers). The radical dissimilarity of the Resurrection story is underplayed: yes, there are accounts of resurrections, from the Witch of Endor raising Samuel as a ghost through to the physical revivification of Lazarus by Jesus: but these were always someone else effecting the resurrection.

In the Gospel stories, Jesus resurrects himself. A fine, fictional account of these issues can be found in Richard Beard’s excellent Lazarus Is Dead. Whatever happened, a certain stumbling block persists. As the words of the hymn put it “the world in sheer amazement / the truth must now declare / that men who once were cowards / are brave beyond compare”. Any description of the early Church which does not account for this transformation may be convincing in many ways, but not in terms of the human.