Christ of faith questioned

14 September 2012

This scholar-Jew does Christians a service, says Peter Forster

Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325
Geza Vermes
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT252 )

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 centuries.

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 God.

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 new religion.

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 Church.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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