Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981). (Amazon.com)
The late Geza Vermes was one of the most respected historians of his time with regard to the study of Jesus, early Judaism, early Christianity, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. His work Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels was a paradigm shifting work in its day and it is a classic now. Vermes’ goal is to remind readers that Jesus was a Jewish man who fits quite comfortably into the first century world of charismatic Galilean Judaism.
Vermes approaches the sources from a historical-critical perspective that is balance and minimal on speculation. The book divides into two part: (1) The Setting and (2) The Titles of Jesus. In Part 1 Vermes discusses Jesus the Jew, Jesus and Galilee, and Jesus and charismatic Judaism. There is a movement from broader affiliation to a more precise identity. In doing this Vermes displays a wealth of knowledge in early and rabbinic Judaism. He is careful with his sources acknowledging where rabbinic writings may be limited as regards speaking about the first century, but nevertheless precise and detailed in explaining why he uses a given source to shed light on Jesus’ person and culture.
In Part 2 Vermes examines Jesus as prophet, lord, Messiah, and son of man. He compares and contrasts how these titles are used of Jesus in the Gospels, Acts, and Paul, with how these titles are used in other early Jewish writings and later rabbinic commentary. For Vermes the idea of Jesus as a charismatic prophet is an easy one to accept. He is less convinced that Jesus considered himself to be a Messiah, at least not in the sense that finds easy parallel with contemporary expectations. He is cautious against the idea that Jesus as “lord” and “son of man” would have been evidence that Jesus was divine, opting instead to suggest that the Aramaic use of these titles is far more common place often designating respect (lord) or function as a way of speaking indirectly about one’s self (son of man).
The second part of the book contained seven excursuses: prophetic celibacy; ‘lord’ and the style of the Gospel of Mark; Jesus, son of David; the metaphorical use of ‘to anoint’; the cloud, a means of heavenly transport; debate on the circumlocutional use of son of man; and son of God and virgin birth. These short trips off the main path will prove very thought provoking for the reader.
The book is easy to read. It contained endnotes rather than footnotes so it doesn’t read like a research work. That said, there are many notes in the back for those who want to dig deeper or check Vermes’ claims. Since Christians have often forgotten that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish man this book serves as a helpful corrective. Also, when one examines modern historical Jesus studies it is quite evident that people like Vermes has helped remind the entire scholarly guild of the importance of Jesus’ Jewishness. This has been a very influential book and it is worth the time it takes to read it.