Jesus the Jew according to Vermes

The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, notwithstanding all their subsequent theological coloring, still allow a genuine glimpse of a first century C.E. Jewish holy man, preacher, healer, exorcist, delivering ad hoc moral exhortations of the impending arrival of the "kingdom of God." By contrast the letters of Paul and the Fourth Gospel sketch an increasingly other-worldly, superterrestrial redeemer figure, the paramount center of all the religious preoccupations of the primitive Church. When one sketch is superimposed on the other, it becomes clear that they have hardly anything in common. The early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles reveal, however, the initial stages of the metamorphosis.

The figure of the historical Jesus is preserved in the Synoptic Gospels, against the backcloth of the political and social history of inter-testamental Galilee, and especially against first-century charismatic Judaism of prophetic derivation which left a lasting mark on the religion of the northern provincials. Men of God, believed to be capable of working miracles and mastering the forces of darkness, were heroes of this popular Judaism, in Galilee and elsewhere. Honi, the first century B.C.E. rainmaker, was one of them and so was also Hanina ben Dosa, who in the first century C.E. cured the sick and helped the needy, and earned the reputation of being a benefactor of humankind. The Jesus of the first three Gospels is perfectly at home in their company, and, in turn, they provide his picture with genuine credibility. What is more, when several of the titles given to Jesus in the Gospels, such as Prophet, Lord and even Son of God, are examined historically, they are all applicable to a holy man of this type. Hence, it would seem, Jesus can best be defined as an outstanding Galilean charismatic hasid, the Hebrew word for "devout."

Does it mean that Jesus was just one of the Hasidim and nothing more?

Nothing more? Isn’t that enough?

No reductionism here. The incomparable superiority of Jesus is demonstarted when his teaching is taken into account. The reconstruction of the genuine preaching of Jesus constitutes a grave challenge to historians because of the nature of the extant sources, the Synoptic Gospels. They incorporate many successive layers of tradition, and contemporary New Testament specialists often shy away from what they see as a frightening conundrum. Yet if a comprehensive recreation of the message is beyond our means, it is not unreasonable to expect that by approaching it dynamically and critically within the evolution of the religious thinking of Judaism from the Hebrew Bible, through the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, rabbinic literature, synagogal liturgy and early Jewish mysticism, and focusing also on internal consistency, something reliable and significant can be determined as far as the main lines of Jesus' teaching were concerned.

The salient points are as follows:

  • Jesus did not reject Jewish law. He sometimes disagreed with its interpretation or application by some of his contemporaries, but they also disagreed among themselves. As an heir of the prophetic tradition, he concerned himself above all with the Torah, inasmuch as it revealed a divinely ordained behavior towards human beings and towards God. He did not break the Sabbath or oppose the food laws as such. He clashed with others in cases of conflicting religious duties: they opted for one alternative and he for the other. But surely no Gentile Christian would ever have made Jesus proclaim that "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one title of the law to drop"! Yet it is in Luke (16:17) that this saying is found. Where Jesus truly excelled was in his emphasis on the inner moral and religious significance of the Mosaic commandments, thus disclosing their ultimate purpose, an uninterrupted life of holiness before the Face.
  • The symbolical framework of Jesus' message was the kingdom of God, a mysterious reality which he never bothered to define. Neither did he assert, or even suggest, when his kingdom would materialize. For him, the only task of real significance was what he and his companions were to do in the present, convinced as he was that it was already part of the eschatological age. How figurative this "kingdom" imagery is may be seen from Jesus' lack of interest in a "royal" God, or a heavenly war lord. His God, the one depicted in many parables, is a forgiving and caring Father. For Jesus, "the eternal, distant, dominating and tremendous Creator is also and primarily a near and approachable God".
  • For Christianity, as creeds, dogma and councils show, Jesus is the object of religion, but in the earliest Gospel account he is first and foremost a religious man. The dominating feature of his religion was an undiluted eschatological enthusiasm in which future had no place, and everything had to be centered on the lived moment. His religion begins with teshuvah, or turning (repentance), feeds on emunah, or faith-trust, and expresses itself in the imitation of God: "Be merciful as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). This is an individualistic religion in which the penitent outcasts, the publicans and prostitutes, gain precedence over those professing bourgeois respectability.
  • In the judgment of an uncommitted historian oceans seem to separate the God-centered (theocentric) and existential religion, preached and practiced by Jesus, from christocentric Christianity. The death of Jesus on the cross demanded an increasing exaltation of a Galilean holy man. The itinerant preacher, this familiar figure in Capernaum, Chorazin and the lakeside, would have been mystified by the Church's creeds. He would have been equally nonplussed if told that he was the founder of Christianity, for "If he meant and believed what he preached... namely that the eternal Kingdom of God was truly at hand, he simply would not have entertained the idea ... setting in motion an organized society intended to endure for ages to come".
The greatest challenge which informed and thinking Christians have to confront does not come from materialism, agnosticism or atheism, but from within: from Mark, Matthew and Luke through whom speaks the chief challenger, Jesus the Jew. Whether this challenge will be accepted, only time will tell. But meanwhile…

The magnetic appeal of the teaching and example of Jesus holds out hope and guidance to those outside the fold of organized religion, the stray sheep of mankind, who yearn for a world of mercy, justice and peace lived in as Children of God.

So now, tell me: Who Am I?

Who speaks through Me?

Who IS in Me?


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