Geza Vermes: The Nativity

December 2, 2015

51i8By0A9XL._AA160_Should I find it ironic that one of the greatest authorities on early Christian history is Jewish? In this fascinating book, Geza Vermes sets out to sort out the historically verifiable and accurate from the legends and manipulations in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity. He attempts to unravel a complicated chronology, and also notes what’s been left out (for instance, 1 January used to be the Feast of the Circumcision, but not any more…)

So, nowhere are we told that Joseph was an old man, that there were animals at the crib, that there were three kings (magi, actually – wise men) or that there were three of them (they brought three gifts, true). Vermez lists clearly the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives (which he demonstrates to be later additions to the Gospels), their inconsistencies and outright disagreements, and illustrates it with examples of theologians through the ages writing nonsense or tying themselves in knots.

He shows how the idea of a virgin birth was introduced, through the genealogies, and through contemporary ideas; he examines how Jewish marriage law and custom may have contributed to the idea, and demonstrates how a flawed translation from Hebrew to Greek allowed Matthew to establish the claim

It’s impossible to locate the famous ‘census of all the world’; it’s unclear when and where Jesus was actually born. It’s also clear that the Gospel writers play fast and loose with their original Hebrew sources whenever this suits them: they both had specific agendas to peddle when writing their accounts. They were enabling the development of the idea of Jesus as a redeemer, of Jesus as the Son of God, and trying to reach out to non-Jews with their stories.

Vermes’ book is a fascinating read, detailed and enlightening; his knowledge and understanding of the arcana of Jewish history and Jewish law enables him to explain things clearly and succinctly. And to what purpose? Has he spoiled the story for me? for us? I think it depends on what you (want to) believe…

For me, over a lifetime, I have come to realise that the miraculous or magical stuff has no meaning or importance. Jesus was one in a line of wise and thoughtful teachers who offered uncomfortable truths to those who would listen, and suggested different ways of being and relating to the world and other people, encouraging us to look beyond the merely material world to something deeper, and he paid the price, as so many others like him have done and will continue to do, for standing up to authority and challenging it.

And I am also culturally a Christian at least, in that our (Western) world’s religious past and ongoing heritage has inevitably contributed to shaping me and those around me, through beautiful music and architecture among other things. There is some contradiction in my stance, I am sure, but at the moment, that’s the best I can do.


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