‘Christian Beginnings’ by Geza Vermes


A friend at work forwarded me this link yesterday:


I was quite surprised that an academic book on theology got a review in the Guardian, and by Rowan Williams no less. Perhaps I wouldn’t be, if I read the Guardian more! I’m always one to read the headlines on BBC News, rather than dig my teeth into the more comprehensive broadsheets/mini-broadsheets (as I call them). Although, if I had time, the Guardian would be a paper I’d pick up.

The article reviewed a book called ‘Christian Beginnings’ by Geza Vermes. This article was the first I’ve heard of the book. But after reading the article I thought I may purchase it because of the questions it raised (not new question, in a theological sense, but question from a fresh perspective)
As I read the article, these were the question that I asked myself, and perhaps the book will answer for me if I bought it:

(it must be noted that I am not a church historian, so my knowledge is a little rusty)

Vermes argues that Christianity brought such new concepts to the world that a new vocabulary needed to be created to understand them. I assume he must be talking about ancient equivalents of ‘trinity’ and ‘incarnation’. My question is this: is this a new question? Or, to put it another way, is this revelation about Christian vocabulary meant to be controversial? It seems obvious to me that Christianity must have created a new ‘language’. Perhaps the book is highlighting this point to develop a theme rather than bring something new to the table. Perhaps?

‘I said a moment ago that this is not an unfamiliar account for scholars of Christian origins. It has much in common with the picture elaborated in the great theological schools of the European universities, especially in Germany, from the late 19th century onwards. What makes Vermes’s version new is his refusal to follow these earlier scholars in their negativity towards Judaism and in the fact of his unparalleled familiarity with the entire spread of Jewish thinking in the age of Jesus and Paul. His Jesus is very much the representative of an intensified version of Mosaic and prophetic faith, set against a Jewish world that is dramatically diverse and bubbling with new and radical bids for defining Jewish identity.’

My limited understanding of current theology is that the Jewishness of the New Testament is being taken very seriously, especially by scholars in the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ camp. To see my comments on NNP, see here:


So my question would be what new work does Vermes bring to the table? It would be interesting to find out.

‘The creeds are the product of a very secular chain of political and intellectual influences, serving to obscure the historical core of what was new in Jesus’ life and work. But the story is not so simple. Vermes shows how the sort of thing that was being claimed in the creed of 325 had very clear antecedents within a century of Jesus’ crucifixion – so that it is odd to speak of a “revolutionary” position advanced in 325. Everyone at the Council of Nicaea believed they were defending immemorial tradition; and they were right to the extent that extravagant language about who Jesus “really” was goes back a long way.’

I’m pleased that Vermes has highlighted that the Council of Nicaea did not insert revolutionary ideas into the Christian faith. It was, rather, a formalising of what was generally understood, and a measure to those who went against the consensus.

‘it is hard simply to deny that Christian scripture does show people praying to the exalted Jesus from very early indeed. Someone reading the convoluted texts of early Christian argument might well see them less as a series of baroque elaborations on a theoretical theme than as a series of attempts to capture an elusive but inescapable insight.’

This is a very descriptive way of saying that Christian thought, and the discussions of early Christianity, might not so much represent dialogue between church leaders on theology, but rather a struggle of semantics where the new vocabulary of Christianity was being nit together.

‘This is a beautiful and magisterial book; but it leaves unsolved some of the puzzles that still make readers of the New Testament pause to ask what really is the right, the truthful, way to talk about a figure like the Jesus we meet in these texts.’

This seems to be true of many books about Jesus. I often wonder why more faith is not placed in the New Testament itself. Even the most sceptical of scholars recognise that there are remnants of truths of the ‘real’ Jesus in the New Testament. But I have yet to be convinced that the New Testament obscures him as much as some suggest. I know I am merely a layperson spouting my opinion, but why is it that we search and search for the ‘real deal’, when it seems rather plain to me that it is plastered over the best selling book in the western world: the Bible.

  1. #1 by Gareth on July 12, 2012 - 10:20 pm

    So which papers would you be more likely to read? There’s not much better than The Guardian out there these days, well, except for the FT but you’d need to be a banker to afford that every day! The Times might as well be a tabloid..

    • #2 by Emmaus At Twilight on July 13, 2012 - 5:49 am

      I’d ideally like to get the Guardian AND the Times 🙂 the perfect Balance I feel 🙂

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