Geza Vermes The Authentic Gospel of Jesus Penguin 2004 Softback 446 pages £8.99 ISBN 0-141-00360-x
Vermes’ book can be split into two. The cover declares the opinion of one reviewer;
Vermes argues his case with skill and clarity. Many will find the Jesus depicted in his pages a compelling figure: original, outspoken, compassionate.
This is, indeed, what the first section of the book achieves. He goes through the Synoptic Gospels and highlights all the words attributed to Jesus. He splits the sayings into sections, rather than attempting a chronology that could be disputed. Thus we have chapters entitled Narratives and Commands, Controversy Stories, Quoting or Interpreting Scriptureand another six. These chapters are the most enriching of the book. In them Vermes attempts to place Jesus’ teaching in its historical and religious context. For example, perhaps through naivety I always imagined ‘Fishers of men’ to be a peculiarly Christian saying. Vermes refers to its Old Testament roots (see Jeremiah 16:16 and Habbakuk 1:14-15) but acknowledges that Jesus reinterpreted it in a positive sense. There will be aspects of Vermes’ arguments and contextualisation that will be debated for they challenge centuries old interpretations by Christians, but they provide the reader with useful background and insights into the personality of Jesus.
It is, however, the second area of Vermes’ treatment of Jesus that will cause most consternation. In effect in his Prologue and Closing Chapter Vermes reopens the debate about the ‘Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith’. At this point I need to admit my faith bias, I am convinced of the complimentary and single nature of these two figures. It is perhaps why I am not as convinced or impressed by the arguments of Vermes. One of the most distressing elements of Vermes’ approach for me is that in his Prologue he explains that sayings from John are not included, in essence, because it was a theological and Christological creation of the Early Church. He does, however, recognise that there will be problems with his interpretation;
The traditionally minded may find some of my conclusions upsetting, but I would like to reassure them in advance that this investigation is not negatively motivated. Those who persevere may find that the tree of knowledge depicted in the forthcoming pages, despite its unusual shape and appearance, promises to bear good fruit. p375
Even if one disagrees with his conclusions about the authenticity of the sayings he is sympathetic to people’s faith and some of the points he makes are enlightening to the Christian mind. He distinguishes between the religion of Jesus and the religion of the 21stCentury Church;
The genuine teaching of Jesus contains nothing abstract, theoretical and speculative… He rather tried to convey to his audience, especially to the inner circle of his apostles, how to draw near to God, and respond to his appeal through concrete religious behaviour and action. p405
This is very useful for Christians, but also for teachers in looking at the person and teaching of Jesus. This will help the reader and pupil to go beyond the ‘other worldly’ nature of theoretical Christianity to the concrete and personal nature of Christianity. This book will provide very useful background and understanding to teachers of the life of Jesus, whilst recognising that there are alternative explanations.
The book closes with its purpose stated,
The Authentic Gospel of Jesus is the tentative answer of a historian to inquiring minds, from all faiths or from none, who are fascinated by the figure of Jesus and seek to discover the real nature of his message. p417
From one perspective this book answers this, but the reader should feel free to disagree with its final conclusions as I do.