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Book reviews >

Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus


Penguin Books £25
(0-140-51565-8)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

GEZA VERMES, a Jewish scholar whose studies of Jesus have had a significant influence on both Christian scholarship and Jewish-Christian relations, has now supplemented his five books on Jesus with one on the background. "The purpose of this book", he writes, "is to make the reader aware of the ideas, inspirations and impulses that penetrate the age of Jesus."

To achieve this, he has chosen the format of a Who’s Who. The book consists of some 150 vignettes, anything between ten lines and ten pages long, with a brief historical introduction and some arresting black-and-white photographs. In some cases the entries are straightforward summaries of the relevant New Testament texts; others are drawn from Josephus and other Jewish sources; others again from Roman and later church historians.

The style is lively (Herod the Great was "a master tightrope-walker", Cleopatra was "sex-mad", and so forth); the information is concise and reliable (as one would expect from an editor of one of the standard histories of the period); the presentation is elegant. Altogether, it’s an attractive book.

The problem is that a Who’s Who suggests a reference book, and this is not the author’s purpose. If it were, he would presumably have taken more care to include all the persons about whom something is known in the New Testament. There is no reference, for instance, to the author of, nor indeed to the existence of, the Book of Revelation; there is an entry for Symeon, who is not in the NT, but not for his father Clopas (or Cleopas), who is; there is no entry for Joanna, even though quite a lot can be inferred about her from the fact of her ability to provide resources for Jesus and his companions, and from the fact she was married to Chusa, who was an official — interestingly — with a foreign name in the service of Herod Antipas.

But if the purpose of the book is not for looking people up, then we must respect the author’s intention and use it simply to catch something of the "amalgam of ideas, inspirations and impulses" which can be discerned in the age of Jesus. Since this means reading through a long series of biographies arranged alphabetically, some may find it, to say the least, indigestible.

But there is another respect in which this is not quite a reference book. Geza Vermes has pronounced and distinctive views on Jesus, Paul, and the beginnings of Christianity, and does not seek to disguise them here.

Those who already know these views will not be surprised to read that Paul was "the real founder of the religion which came to be called Christianity", and that the religion of Jesus, by contrast, was "positive and hopeful; those embracing it were to steam ahead at top speed." But those to whom these judge-ments are unfamiliar should be warned that this book contains more than just historical informa-tion.

It is a handsome vehicle also for some of the conclusions the author has reached in his important, but still controversial, books about Jesus of Nazareth.

Canon Dr Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.

To place an order for this book, contact CT Bookshop

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