Book Review: Christian Beginnings by Geza Vermes

Christian Beginnings, cover

Christian Beginnings, cover

This book, which I have just finished reading, was a Christmas gift to Rachel from one of her co-workers (a very intelligent young man, who happens to be Jewish).Like most books, I found things to like and dislike in it.  I will review it in three parts, first I will try to summarize the argument that Vermes makes, then I will give the problems I have with his ideas, and finally I will say what I found useful in the book.

The argument:

Vermes is “the greatest Jesus scholar of his generation” according to the Guardian in the cover blurb. One might well question that statement, but then it is cover blurb. However, it is true that he is one of the leading Jesus scholars of the “late high Christology” school. That is to say that his main theme is that the idea that Jesus is God is a very late one, and he seeks to trace the development of that idea from the Old Testament background, through Jesus’ ministry, the early Judean Christian communities, to the Gentile church up to the council of Nicaea in AD 325.

According to Vermes (and he does cite many sources) there is a solid background in the Old Testament and inter-testamental periods for the existence of charismatic prophets, where by charismatic he means something more along the lines of modern Pentecostalism rather than “attractive/persuasive”. Such people drew crowds, worked miracles, and called the people to a renewed devotion to God. Based on this, he then shows how Jesus fits this mould. To Vermes, Jesus was “simply” such a charismatic prophet, and was solely interested in preparing the Judean people for the immanent revelation of the kingdom of God–a mission that was cut short by his untimely death.

What should have been the end, however, becomes instead the beginning when his disciples become convinced that Jesus has been resurrected, and new communities form to continue the mission. These early communities were (according to Vermes) still essentially Jewish and still focussed on the immanent re-appearance of Jesus and the start of the kingdom. Using some of the New Testament writings (excluding those by Paul and John) and also the Didache, he tries to show how this worked out in the earliest days of the church. He lays much emphasis on the use in the Didache of the term “pais” meaning servant as a title of Jesus and the lack of any real use of terms like “Lord”.

Changes come, he claims, with Paul. Working now in a mostly gentile church, Paul begins to turn Jesus into something more, into a saviour and attributing to him some sort of divinity. Not that Vermes thinks Paul say Jesus as equal to God the Father, rather he saw him as an adopted son, a lesser divinity, and this given to him in his resurrection. Paul was the first, says Vermes, to see the Eucharist as a re-living of the Last Supper and having a connection with the Crucifixion/Resurrection.

Further changes come with the writings of John (the gospel and the First Letter). Here we start to see a “high Christology” begin to emerge: That Jesus, as the Word, existed from before time (though begotten and not eternal like the Father), that he shares the divine nature (though still being subordinate), and that he created all things. This is still, in Vermes view, a lot less than the church came to believe.

He then looks at the writings of many of the church fathers: Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, Diognetus, Justin, Melito, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. In these he sees a slowly developing theology that sees Jesus as being begotten by the Father, and hence not eternal, and being divine but subordinate. These ideas, originally stated but not worked out theologically, become more expounded and developed over time, largely in reaction to pagan, Jewish, and heretical thinkers.

Finally he comes to the Council of Nicaea and the great Arian controversy. In Vermes view, Arius was not a heretic (as he was later portrayed) but actually gave a very reasoned, full exposition of what was the current orthodoxy as outlined above. However he ran afoul of his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, who held the unusual but “high” Christological view that Jesus was “eternally begotten of the Father and of one substance with him”. The disagreement spread and came to the attention of the Emperor Constantine, who ordered it resolved and eventually called the council that met at Nicaea. The council, surprisingly, decided in favour of Alexander, and since that time Arianism has been branded a heresy. We now had a very high Christology as the accepted (indeed, required) theology of the church, a Christology very far removed from the simple Galilean charismatic prophet that was Jesus.

Some Problems:

There are several problems, somewhat interlinked, that I had reading the book. Firstly I find it disappointing that in a book like this Vermes gives no real place to those who disagree with his views. He frequently makes statements that would make the unwary reader think there is unanimity amongst serious scholars on many of his key points, something that is totally untrue. Indeed, there are many serious scholars of early Christianity who hold that a much higher Christology existed from the earliest days of the church (for instance, Larry Hurtado, whose excellent blog can be found here). One must always be careful of people, however well-studied and intelligent, who portray their views as the only reasonable alternative, especially when they offer no alternatives!

Then there is the problem of all those New Testament texts that talk about the divinity of Jesus. How does Vermes deal with these? In two ways: First he states (quite properly) that we sometimes read more into the text than is actually there. Terms like “son of god” do need to be read and examined carefully and the phrase often means little more than “a holy person”. I have no problem with this assertion and wish more people applied this kind of care with the texts. However, secondly, he labels some of the most troubling (from his viewpoint) texts as “glosses”, which is to say they are later additions to the documents. There are two problems, as I see it, with this: One, there is absolutely zero textual evidence for such a hypothesis. That is, there does not exist a single early text that is missing any of these so-called glosses. What that means is that the reason he is labelling them glosses is because they disagree with the thesis he is trying to defend. Surprise, surprise, when you remove all of the texts that disagree with his hypothesis, you find the remaining text fully supports it! This is circular reasoning at its worst. To be fair, this is only his latest book–he has been writing for many years and has a large back catalogue–and he may have produced better, less circular, arguments there, but he makes no reference to them here. Indeed, at one point he admits that his critics have complained of such circularity, but his only defence is that “they are wrong”. The second problem is that since there are no texts that lack the so-called glosses, these glosses must have been very early ones, but that does not work for Vermes. How could an early gloss include a late theology? In fact, he needs these texts not only to be glosses, but late glosses, and there the unanimity of the textual evidence is very much against him.

I find it much easier to take the texts as  they stand and to try to understand them, than to start with an understanding and try to make the texts fit that, especially if doing so involves such a butchery of the texts. That seems to be the position of people like Hurtado, who find ample evidence for an early high Christology.

What worked:

So, what did I find good? Well, I always find it good to read books that challenge me, and this one certainly did. Reading books you agree with can be rewarding, but it is in reading people who have different ideas that I find my own ideas being clarified. Here are some thoughts I would probably not have been able to articulate as well, if at all, before I read this book:

1) Is there a development in Christology through the first 3 centuries? Yes, there is, but that doesn’t mean that the basic ideas were not there from the start. Jesus, if nothing else, challenged a lot of our pre-suppositions and ideas and it would be unbelievable if the church had understood and worked through all of that immediately. Thus the idea that Jesus was God is in the earliest texts, but had not been thought through and worked out in detail. That happened slowly over several centuries until we arrived at the current (orthodox) view.

2) Does the fact that certain writers prefer certain terms, especially forms of address for Jesus, mean that they did not hold other terms to be valid or correct? No, certainly not. That the Didache (a book I admire, see my translation of it) prefers the term servant does not mean that the whole church preferred it, nor that the members of the community that produced it would have found terms like Lord unacceptable. I find that when I pray I tend to use “Father” whereas other people I know tend to use “Jesus” as the focus of their prayers, does that mean we disagree, or that one of us is wrong? Of course not. It is wrong to read too much into such things (something Vermes does, for instance, when he points out that Paul always addresses his prayers to God, not Jesus).

3) I learned a lot about the writings of the early church fathers and the context in which they wrote, for that I am very grateful to Vermes. These people and their writings are too little known by most Christians, to the detriment of the church.


I would recommend this book, but only to people who I knew had the background to use it carefully. It is not for the average Christian, for whom it would tend to cause distress, I think. But for those with a n interest in, and some background on, the early church and theology, I think it sums up well one of the more modern views. But bear in mind that there are other schools of thought out there and be sure to read their take on these issues!


Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325, by Geza Vermes, was published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books) in 2012.



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2 Responses to “Book Review: Christian Beginnings by Geza Vermes”

  1. treegestalt Says:

    Quite possible that Jesus had a sense of himself (and everyone else) as ‘one with God’, a Hinduesque sense of the atman/Bhraman link, and managed to convey this as a secret teaching to some disciples — and talked sometimes “as” God, saying stuff about that Self that wouldn’t have applied directly to Jesus son of Joseph.

    But generally, the prophetic role he was playing would fit what you say about Vermes’ description. & I believe he wrote this particular book some time ago (?) when what he said about other scholars would have been true.

    ‘Early’ vs ‘late’ seems a less important concern about a doctrine than ‘true’ vs ‘mistaken.’ & there’s also that other dimension: ‘heuristic’ vs ‘misleading.’

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      This is, as far as I can tell, a recent book. The copyright and publication dates are both 2012, with no mention of an earlier version. He has, though, as I said, written much else.

      I wouldn’t disagree that Vermes’ description applies to Jesus, I just wonder if that is all there was to him, as Vermes states, or if that was just one facet of him. I tend towards the latter.

      You are right, of course, that “true vs mistaken” is more important than “early vs late”, but I do think the latter question has merit. If the divinity of Christ is, as many think, a very early one, then I would feel more comfortable with it being true than if it were a later one that did not reflect anytrhing of Jesus’ self understanding.

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