Sunday, May 20, 2007

Vermes on Ratzinger and the Quest

Over on Paleojudaica, Jim Davila points out the following article from yesterday's Times:

Jesus of Nazareth
The scholar Ratzinger bravely declares that he and not the Pope is the author of the book and that everyone is free to contradict him
By Pope Benedict XVI, reviewed by Geza Vermes

It's a very interesting review of a book I have not read myself, but what caught my interest in the review was Geza Vermes's characterization of Historical Jesus research, which works first with the common usage of the terminology "no quest" for the 1920s to the 1950s, and then with Tom Wright's term "third quest" for the breakthroughs of the 1970s and 1980s, with himself and E. P. Sanders as the major figures in it:
. . . . However, despite Schweitzer’s funeral oration, the historical Jesus refused to lie down. Around 1950, a new attempt to retrieve him was launched in Germany by Bultmann’s pupils, who reemployed the form-critical method in the pursuit of historical research. The “new” or “second quest” went on for some 20 years without much success. It coincided with the years of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological studies. However, he did not specialise as a Neutesta-mentler, but as a patristic scholar and dogmatic theologian.

The 1970s and 1980s introduced the “third quest”. By then, the dominance of German professors, with Hellenistic expertise to deal with Greek Gospels but without direct familiarity with the Jewish world of the age of Jesus, came to an end. They were replaced by British and American scholars concerned with the discovery, partly associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the “Jewish” Jesus. The literary landmarks of the new era were Jesus the Jew (1973) by your reviewer and Jesus and Judaism (1986) by E. P. Sanders, both professors at Oxford. In no time, the search for the Jewish Jesus became dominant worldwide.
I think that's a great summary, with two qualifications (cf. posts here on the History of the Quest). First, I agree with Dale Allison that the period of "no quest" is a mirage and second, the term "third quest" may now have outlived its usefulness, especially having been co-opted by others who are not on the same trajectory as Vermes and Sanders. But my reason for commenting on it is that it is interesting seeing a pioneer of that quest characterizing it in this way.

9 comments:

Doug Chaplin said...

Mark, you're always so nice and reasonable. I must say I found myself reacticting rather more negatively to the review here yesterday. The crticisms from a scholar from whom I've learnt a lot felt disappointingly out-of-date.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Doug. I missed your blog comment and it looks like I didn't have Metacatholic on my reader, so I've now added it.

Anonymous said...

Dumb question from a non academic. Why were works by scholars like W.D. Davies on the Jesus' Jewishness ignored...wrong time? (i.e. the prevailing quest had not exhausted itself into a dead end so not many were open to ideas from the left field...?) Or?

Or to put it more generally, what contributes to creating a literary landmark/paradigm shift in biblical studies?

js

Geoff Hudson said...

So what is the fourth quest? Is it all this orality nonsense? May be it should not be a search for the illusive Jewish Jesus but for a real Jew, for example, referred to as a prophet in the Gospel of Judas. His name appears in various anachronistic interpolations in writings attributed to Josephus, and he was 'replaced' in his position of leadership after 'falling'.

Nathan said...

Back to the review: I haven’t read Ratzinger’s book but I thought Vermes’s piece lacked charity as a review. He spends more time giving his history of the various Quests than interacting with the book, and when he does his analysis amounts to little more than a complaint that Ratzinger hasn’t wised up and abandoned “the divine Christ of faith – the product of his musings” for the "authentic Jesus". Vermes also throws in a few unfair comments and exaggerations (e.g. Ratzinger’s claim to incorporate historical criticism is paraphrased as a promise to obey the rules of historical criticism, we are warned that canonical criticism will force Catholic Bible scholars to a preCopernican stage of history, Ratzinger’s arguments are denigrated as “papal claims” despite the fact that Ratzinger explicitly declares this book to be the work of a private scholar).
Nathan Eubank

Anonymous said...

Vermes is an outstanding scholar. To appreciate his review of Pope Benedict's book, one has to be aware of his background as a former Catholic priest. Read Vermes's prefaces to his own books and the way he responds to criticism from Frs. Fitzmyer and Meier. It's not just a matter of scholarly debate for Vermes, it's also a splendid example of the psychology of a convert.

Nathan said...

Good points anonymous. Vermes's credentials are obviously unshakable. But I do not think the general public for whom the review was intended will read it in light of Vermes's personal journey.
Nathan

Geoff Hudson said...

qptOne would have to question the Jewish understandings of someone who believes that the DSS were the product of Essenes at Qumran.

Geoff Hudson said...

For example, one might question Vermes's simplistic literalist interpretations of Mk.10:18, Mt.10:5-6, and Mt15:24 in terms of what a Jewish prophet is likely or not likely to have said.