Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code
AFTER numerous books examining the Jewish context of Jesus and
the New Testament, Geza Vermes - now 88 - sets out the way in which
he views the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth, the New
Testament, and fourth-century Nicene theology. This is a great
book, summing up a lifetime of scholarship.
Forty years ago, Vermes's Jesus the Jew emphasised the
essentially Jewish character of Jesus. His case for regarding Jesus
as fundamentally Jewish is now largely accepted; but, Vermes
believes, too many people still view Jesus through the distorting
Gentile spectacles that the Church developed in the early
The key background to Jesus is the charismatic dimension of
Judaism, from Moses to Elijah, Elisha, and the later prophets. John
the Baptist continues this prophetic tradition, and introduces
Jesus as the charismatic healer who proclaims the Kingdom of
Jesus's followers initially translated Jesus's expectation of
the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God into the prospect of his
Second Coming. As this hope waned, so the intellectual development
of Christian theology offered an understanding of the Church
which replaced both Judaism and Jesus himself with an essentially
This book covers a huge canvas of history, with few footnotes.
It would have been helpful to have some indication of how Vermes
relates his account to the 19th-century church historians who drew
a sharp distinction between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ
of faith", not least because of the subsequent widespread
discrediting of this tradition.
The book is more at home in the Jewish background to Jesus than
in later patristic theology, where different theologians are
unhelpfully lumped together. Thus, to claim that St Irenaeus
"merely reaffirmed the Christology of the second-century Church" is
far from correct.
Nevertheless, the book lays down a renewed challenge for the
Church to justify the interpretation of Christianity offered by the
classic Christian creeds.
For this reviewer, the key is the central affirmation of Nicene
theology, that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is God the Father,
God as he truly is in himself. That is what the creed seeks to
safeguard when it declares Jesus Christ to be "of one substance
with the Father". Can Jesus Christ be infinitely loving if he does
not embody, in his own person, infinite love?
That was the conclusion of the reflection on Christian
experience, and the apostolic testimony, in the early formative
centuries. Yet Professor Vermes has rendered the Church a valuable
service with his reminder that the eternal Son of God is the
marginal Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic prophet and teacher,
for whom love and the knowledge of God's closeness was more
important than any dogma or intellectual formula. The contemporary
growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches around the world
points to the importance of this reminder.
Vermes might well reply: if the later credal theology is a true
reflection on who Jesus is, why didn't Jesus say so more clearly?
The answer that suggests itself is that Jesus did not primarily
wish to bring dogma or intellectual formulae, but God himself, in a
down-to-earth Jewish life. His invitation to the Church to discern
his underlying truth is a continuation of Jesus's own challenge to
his disciples: "But who do you say that I am?" The answer could
only evolve, somewhat unevenly, at the coal face of the life of the
Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.