Friday, January 07, 2005

Vermes on the Historical Jesus

Jim Davila and Helenann Hartley link to this interesting piece in The Times from Christmas Eve:

When you strip away all the pious fiction, what is left of the real Jesus?
Geza Vermes

As Jim Davila says, "It's a good summary of one mainstream view of the historical Jesus". Indeed in many respects, it is a much more conservative picture of Jesus than that of, say, the Jesus Seminar. The summary reminds me of E. P. Sanders's Jesus as much as Vermes's own, though Vermes is more inclined towards the historicity of much of the Synoptic material than I would see Sanders as being, e.g. I doubt that Sanders would list the healing of a "servant of a Roman centurion from Jerusalem" among his secure facts. I was also interested to see the characterisation of the those who object to Jesus in the Synoptic sabbath healings as "some petty-minded bigots". There are some great quotations here for those who need to set examination questions. Here's one I may use one day: "He was crucified before Passover probably in AD30 because in the eyes of officialdom, Roman and Jewish, He had done the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time." Bang a "Discuss" on the end of that and what could be better?

It's a regular complaint, I know, but I find the title of the article unfortunate, because it gives the impression that historical Jesus study is all about stripping away fiction and getting down to a kind of untouched core of "real Jesus" material. The difficulty in this context is that it puts the backs up of many of the Christian readers who might otherwise have been sympathetic to an article on what can be said about the historical Jesus with certainty. I suppose I am sensitive to such things because I often talk to evangelical students who instinctively balk at historical Jesus study because it appears to them to be a quest to strip away fact from fiction, and so to discredit Christianity, rather than as an enquiry into what the historian is able to say with confidence in a public arena. In other words, the rhetoric implied by the title is unnecessarily provocative given the useful content.

There are one or two interesting (presumably Times) editorial elements that will strike some readers. I doubt that Vermes desccribed himself as "the world's leading Gospel scholar" or that he used capital H throughout for "He" and "Him" of Jesus. I'd guess that he didn't use BC and AD either, but I may be wrong about that. Either way, what the latter demonstrates is something I have pointed out before, just how little the Bible scholars' use of BCE and CE is making an impact on the wider world of discourse, even here in the very area where such usage was born.

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