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.
‘Jew‘ was a post-Babylonian exile word which meant ‘citizen of Judea’. It applied to the non-Roman citizens of Judea and included many non-Israelites.
‘Hebrew‘ meant ‘descendent of Eber‘. This moniker came to denote the ethnicity of the Israelites and Edomites.
‘Israelite‘ meant ‘descendent of Jacob (Israel)‘.
‘Judean‘ meant ‘descendent of Judah‘.
Though Jesus was a Jew as a citizen of Judea so were the non-Israelite Edomites who had obtained this same citizenship. Jesus placed little stock in this label that denoted Babylonian like citizenship in a Roman province. Jesus neither called His followers nor Himself a Jew. Jesus was Himself precise in His language [John 1:47]. So this raises the question, shouldn’t scholars also be precise in their language? If we profess to value ‘truth’, shouldn’t we?
Jesus was a Judean, an Israelite of the House of Judah. Jesus was also a Hebrew. Rarely do modern scholars describe Jesus using this more accurate, more precisely language, even though it is (in some sense) a truer claim about Jesus given his emphasis on the Kingdom God founded in David.. Instead we see an emphasis on his citizenship in this non-Israelite Roman province. This emphasis is anachronistic.
To indiscriminately apply a label such as ‘Jew’ to mean ‘Israelites’ or ‘Judeans’ is misleading, and imprecise. Connie Chung, a Chinese woman, is a Jew, as was Sammy Davis Jr, a black man. Both were converts, neither were Israelites. So calling Jesus ‘a Jew’ is misleading about His human identity. Clearly, the choice to use one description over another is a political choice which requires some intellectual courage to make. When people choose convention which lacks clarity, over accuracy, loyalties are clear. The struggle is to define Jesus’ human identity in some manner Jesus Himself would not have.
Geza Vermes was an excellent scholar – absolutely! However his choice to emphasis Jesus’ as ‘Jew’ instead of Jesus the ‘Judean’, or Jesus the ‘Israelite of the House of Judah’ says more about Geze Vermes, than it does about Jesus.
I don’t know Andrew, Jesus did say to the Samaritan lady, “Salvation is of the Jews” in John 4 and it looks to me like He includes Himself in that millieu.
I think terms morph into various things myself over time and “Jew” had simply become by Jesus’ day a physical descendant of Abraham’s through the Issac line.
Geza’s point is important. I think we’re trending back toward a hermeneutic of understanding Jesus better as a thoroughly 2cd temple Jewish man whose every recorded thought and remark was drawn from the OT. For centuries, Jews and Christians have sort of forgotten this salient fact, IMO.
That’s a good argument Patrick. My response likely won’t satisfy you as it is based upon a weak premise admittedly.
Nevertheless, I believe Matthew was likely written originally in Aramaic which means the Greek “ἐκ τῶν Ἰουδαίων” would be translation from Aramaic (or less likely Hebrew).
Most Christian’s forget that ‘Israelites’ were not ‘Jews’ (meaning of the House of Judah) and that Israelites and Judeans were at war with one another for all but 4 kings (see [2 Kings 16:6] where King Ahaz asks for help against the King of Israel)!
Given [Gen 49:10] “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom tribute is due (shiloh); and to him shall be the obedience of the nations.” I’m further inclined to interpret Jesus’ words as an exegesis of this verse …
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