New York: Doubleday, 2007), 192 pp.
Reviewed by John Merrill
Another book on the historical Jesus? Hasn’t this subject been exhausted by seemingly endless prior publications? Well, brace yourselves, gentle readers, for you are offered not one but two recent commentaries on Jesus. The latest, just released, is The Nativity, and follows an earlier publication, The Passion. Both are authored by the acclaimed scholar and Oxford don, Geza Vermes. Although Professor Vermes’s qualifications are undisputed, can he offer anything new? The answer is yes. Although plowing old ground, so to speak, he manages to unearth fresh insights.
The Passion considers Jesus’ last days, focusing on discrepancies among the gospel accounts. Vermes finds that, while it is historically likely that a charismatic religious figure named Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem and crucified around 30 A.D.,b the details of this episode are susceptible to a range of interpretations. Exactly when did Jesus’ last meal and his subsequent arrest occur? By whom was he arrested? What were the charges against him and who brought them? Why did his disciples flee? All these uncertainties and more are evaluated in a careful and balanced discussion, not only of the Gospel texts but of relevant legal, religious, political and social practices.
The central question of The Passion, which was published following the release of Mel Gibson’s emotionally charged film on the same subject, is who—between “the Jews” and the Roman authorities—bears the ultimate responsibility for Jesus’ execution. Vermes concludes that although Jesus was arrested by Temple authorities, the charge of blasphemy reported in the Synoptic Gospels was at best extremely weak. Instead, fearing that Jesus might incite an uprising-prone population, the high priestly establishment opted to convince the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, that Jesus was guilty of sedition. Contrary to the Gospels’ portrayal of Pilate as a reluctant participant, Vermes points to extra-Biblical sources that describe Pilate as a merciless ruler who would have needed little persuasion. The chorus of the Jewish “multitude” calling for Jesus’ crucifixion is therefore either a literary invention or, more likely, the result of stage management by the high priestly accusers. Underlying the entire proceeding, Professor Vermes detects the guiding will of High Priest Annas, the Tony Soprano of the high priestly mafia, who secured the office himself from the Roman governor Quirinius, then saw it go to a succession of five sons, a grandson, and at least one son-in-law, the notorious Caiaphas.
The Nativity, while similarly erudite and careful in its approach, is a lighter offering, in keeping with the festive associations of its subject. Again, Vermes dissects differences in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, these being the only two Gospels that deal with Jesus’ birth. He provides a detailed analysis of the many and often mystifying discrepancies between Matthew and Luke’s respective genealogies of Jesus: the number of generations between David and Jesus (28 vs. 42); the inclusion of women by Matthew; the nearly total disparity in the specific listings from David’s son (Solomon vs. Nathan) to Joseph’s father (Jacob vs. Heli). To account for these variations, Vermes postulates the existence of private genealogical lists, now lost, and supposes that separate versions have been used by the two evangelists and edited to suit their doctrinal purposes.
Unfortunately, the need to prove Jesus’ Davidic descent is, as Professor Vermes points out, essentially irreconcilable with the claim of Jesus’ virginal conception and birth, which requires a denial of the paternity of Joseph. The Nativity provides an engaging discussion of the efforts of the gospel writers to deal with this contradiction. From much sifting of the evidence, two points seem to stand out. One is the discovery in 1894 of perhaps the oldest Semitic text of Matthew, which appears to endorse the paternity (in the conventional way) of Joseph. The second is Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 as a proof text—that is, a prophecy that Jesus’ birth was thought to have fulfilled: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” etc. (Matthew 1:23).
Vermes demonstrates that the term “virgin” derives exclusively from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the so-called Old Testament. The original Hebrew, however, employs the term almah, meaning “young woman” and, moreover, likely refers to the already married (and scarcely virginal) wife of the eighth-century B.C. Jewish king, Ahaz. Thus, Matthew would appear to have relied erroneously on Isaiah 7:14 in support of his claim of Mary’s virginity.
Vermes then deals with the considerable array of differences in the date and venue of Jesus’ birth, concluding that the date must have been prior to 4 B.C. (i.e., before Herod’s death), rather than in 6 A.D. when the census of Quirinius (cited by Luke) occurred. He then shows that neither an origin in Bethlehem (Matthew), nor a trip there (Luke), is highly plausible, but was most likely woven into the story to support the authors’ Messianic claims and Jesus’ Davidic lineage (David was born in Bethlehem—1 Samuel 16:1, etc.).
In sum, The Nativity is a thorough and entertaining explication of gospel material that, even when parsed, sorted and qualified by the author’s considerable scholarship, still leaves gaps that can only be filled in by speculation, as Vermes himself recognizes. Sound speculation requires common sense, but common sense is not the exclusive purview of scholars. Thus Vermes’ skilled arranging of the issues provides an excellent starting point for general readers to exercise their own judgment.
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