Posts Tagged ‘Geza Vermes’

Geza Vermes: Christian Beginnings

April 3, 2017

Geza Vermes was one of the world experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judaism, and the early history of Christianity; I’d planned to read this book for a long time. I have always been fascinated by how the Church got from the time of Jesus’ death to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Vermes analyses and explains in detail here. I learned an awful lot.

For starters, Judaism wasn’t monotheistic until the sixth century BCE: previously it had been a monolatry, ie only worshipping their god. Judaism is shown as a religion of one race or people, based on deeds and observances, whereas Christianity quite rapidly became a cosmopolitan religion of believing. Vermes shows us that the gospels portray Jesus as a charismatic prophet and healer, conventional in his Jewish beliefs and practices, but preaching that the end was near.

Vermes very carefully unpicks, and evidences, from the gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the various epistles of Paul and others, the nature, development and practices of the early church; differences and distinctions emerged very early on. At first, everyone expected the imminent second coming of Christ, which never occurred; the early church gradually worked out how to respond to this. The first structures were devised by Paul, and again, Vermes is able to show in practical terms the gradual, deliberate and necessary development of church organisation and ritual. He has an enormous grasp of detail, and from his research and evidence we get a clear and careful unpicking of the early years of the church, and we can see how much was gradually added and superimposed, as well as just plain changed by the church as it moved away from its Jewish cradle to the Roman and Greek world outside; most notably in the gradual process of turning Jesus from man to god and then to the Son of God.

Quite rapidly – by the middle of the second century – the church became embroiled in fantastical complications and contradictions, inventing dogma tentatively at first as it began to assert Jesus’ divinity, and working its way towards defining the Trinity. Anti-Jewish aspects gradually begin to emerge, too, as did the idea of heresy, and excluding those who disagreed with you. Vermes ends his exploration with the Council of Nicaea in 325, convened by the Emperor Constantine, who had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and was increasingly frustrated by the doctrinal disagreements that divided it…

What was an eye-opener for me was how so many aspects of Christianity that are nowadays accepted and believed as if they have always been, were in fact gradually devised and invented over several centuries, in other words are nothing to do with the person who was Jesus of Nazareth, but are about politics and power-games as an increasingly large and powerful organisation manoeuvred for its place in the world. And I was angered by the human arrogance, presumption or sheer stupidity – whichever you will – of human beings trying to define God, his nature and intentions. If there is a God, s/he is way beyond such pettiness and silliness. On the other hand, as Ludwig Feuerbach once wrote, human beings have invented God in their own image. Obviously.

The book was fascinating; I learned a lot, as I noted earlier, and it hasn’t changed my beliefs one jot: Jesus remains a preacher, philosopher and prophet who had an important message – just as others did – and who has had a huge impact in so many different ways on our part of the world.

My A-Z of Reading: H is for History

November 15, 2016

With the arrogance of a sixteen year-old, I decided that I wouldn’t study History for A-Level, I’d do English Literature instead, reasoning that I could always just read the history… and if ever there was a life-changing decision, that was one. I have always read history, but I’m not a historian; sometimes I wish I were, but that’s for another existence, someday. With more mature reflection, I still approve of that decision so long ago, since my love of literature has been lifelong, and the basis of three degrees and an entire and very enjoyable career as a teacher.

I can’t count myself a historian because my reading has been haphazard and wilful, because I’m not trained in the evaluation of source material, and I have no way really of knowing if the knowledge and understanding I think I’ve acquired is sound, although it seems to have suited my purposes.

I have read quite widely in the history of Poland and Eastern Europe, and have authors on whom I choose to rely: Norman Davies on Poland I find excellent, and Timothy Snyder on the borderlands and ethnic mishmash that was Eastern Europe before the 1945 ethnic cleansing. I’ve read quite a lot on the Soviet Union, an experiment which has always interested me, perverted though it ultimately was, as well as unsuccessful. This has been as a background to my reading of the literature of those areas and countries: my training as a literature expert taught me the importance of context and background.

I’ve read widely in religious history: I’m particularly interested in the earliest years of Christianity and how it developed before it became an official state religion and more interested in temporal power than spiritual soundness. Again, my reading is rather unsystematic: I have found Geza Vermes very interesting, and Diarmaid MacCulloch most knowledgeable and thought-provoking, but whether that counts as balanced study, I know not. Similarly, the rifts in Christianity that resulted from the Reformation have long gripped me. I studied that period several times in history lessons at school, both from a Catholic and an Anglican perspective. Since then I’ve read more widely; again, MacCulloch has impressed through his thoroughness and contextualisation, but I have also gained much from the work of the relatively little-known Catholic historian Philip Hughes, who wrote serious tomes in the 1950s, particularly on the English Reformation. I have the abiding feeling that an awful lot was lost in the cultural vandalism of those times in England. But is my knowledge and understanding balanced? And then I comfort myself with the realisation that my knowledge and understanding of literature, wide and broad as it is, is hardly balanced or comprehensive, and nor is it capable of so being.

As and when the whim has taken me, I’ve branched out: I needed background on Arabic literature I was reading and so took in Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples; I’ve found E P Thompson’s history of revolutions very thought-provoking; I have had an enormous tome on the history of the United States on my to-read list for over a decade.

Why history: the triteness of ‘those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it’ is nevertheless true; I want to understand why we, as a species, have made such a hash of our world and ourselves, and to discover some hope, perhaps, that we aren’t permanently doomed to be in a mess, even though we will surely not draw nigh to utopia in my lifetime. At the moment, my feeling is that the tension between the individual and the group or collective is not being given sufficient attention, that competition rather than co-operation is not good for us, and that meddling in the affairs of others rather than just getting to know and live peaceably with them, isn’t helping either. And those are probably not the conclusions of an historian…

People of the Book (2)

August 21, 2016

I’ve read the Bible several times; basically, the Old Testament is the Jewish scriptures, the ‘old dispensation’ that was superseded by the advent of Christ. It’s a curious hotch-potch of very different things, and is also pretty violent in places. I have always liked the stories I first came across when very young, the stories that, sadly, children do not seem to meet any more at school, from the five books of Moses: Adam and Eve and all the subsequent tales, Noah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and lots more. And if you wonder why children should meet these stories, it’s because they are part of our cultural heritage and historical past: though we may no longer be a Christian country, those beliefs and stories have inescapably shaped our world, and we need to know them.

But then, there’s the strangeness of Leviticus, with all the minutiae of Jewish ritual observances, and all the marauding and battles and infighting in the books of Samuel and Kings and elsewhere, which I find very tedious and tiresome and not very edifying at all.

The prophets I find weird, basically, full of gloom, warnings and threats, admonishing wayward people in a very similar manner to some of the rather hectoring passages in the Qur’an; basically telling people that if you don’t do what you are told, you will meet a sticky end. Thus have people been oppressed by religion through the ages…

For me, the best parts of the Old Testament are the various Wisdom books, which are confusingly known by a variety of different names, and some of which are also excluded from the Old Testament by Protestants and Anglicans, and labelled apocryphal, whatever that bizarre judgement and appellation might actually mean. But certain of the books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are philosophical, reflective and capable of speaking to us across many centuries; the Psalms are often beautiful, poetic although somewhat repetitive: when I studied the poetry of Walt Whitman at university, I learned that his poetry is modelled on the Hebrew poetic style, which involves repetition which isn’t quite repetition: something is changed, modified and perhaps extended as part of the repeating, so that there is a gradual, accretive effect. It can be tiresome, but when it works it is quite beautiful, in a way totally unlike our Western styles of versification.

In some ways I find it curious the way that the New Testament is tagged onto the end of the Old. I know it’s meant to be the fulfilment of many of the earlier prophecies, an extension or replacement for what went before, and so we need to know what there was before. There is such a difference in tone and also in structure. There are five narrative books – the Gospels and Acts, then all the epistles to the new churches, then the weirdness of the Revelation, and that’s it. And by and large it’s free from violence and warfare, apart from the Revelation.

Raised a Catholic, I know the gospels pretty well, at least in terms of the stories. Coming back to them many years later, I notice how they have different foci: one presents Jesus as a worker of wonders and miracles, another emphasises his teachings and preachings, another reminds us as often as he can how Jesus is fulfilling all those Old Testament prophecies. So we get several different portraits of the man. There is overlap and difference, and, if one digs into detail in the way Geza Vermes does, for instance, then there are also plenty of contradictions and inconsistencies. And yet, there is clearly a very powerful story, of a thinker who offered a different way of living, and of looking at the world and life, a teacher with something revolutionary to say to people, who offered hope then and for many continues to do so now… and then there is the story of what happened after his death. I have to say that I cannot believe in a virgin birth or a resurrection from the dead, but that lack of belief does not diminish for me the power of the ideas and the message.

Unravelling the truth about what really happened is very difficult because so little was written, and a long time after the events; we have no way of knowing what was suppressed or destroyed. Clearly his followers thought his message was worth keeping alive; when we get onto St Paul and his epistles, I do begin to wonder: here’s an interloper almost, someone who wasn’t there and who never knew Jesus and yet who issues all sorts of edicts and instructions, who interprets and glosses, for his own purposes; I’ve always been uneasy with almost all he wrote, and that’s without looking at the misogyny. And the Revelation is just seriously bonkers; for my money it makes most of Hunter S Thompson’s wilder ravings seem positively normal and balanced… All in all the Bible is a curious book to place at the centre of a religion; I find the Catholic balance between scripture and tradition, or the Quaker one between scripture and the workings of the Spirit rather more convincing and comforting…

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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