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Scrolling back through the centuries

by
23 March 2010

Anthony Harvey on research into texts from scriptural times, and their significance

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Ancient text: this is part of the scroll of Isaiah which was found in the caves at Qumran, and which dates from the era of the Second Temple. It is one of the illustrations in John Dickson’s Investigating Jesus: An historian’s quest (Lion, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-0-7459-5350-2). This book, the publishers say, bridges the gap between popular perception and scholarly judgement on the historical figure of Jesus, using ancient pagan and Jewish writings and other sources. It is illustrated with maps and with colour photographs

The Story of the Scrolls: The miraculous discovery and true significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Geza Vermes
Penguin £9.99
(978-0-141-04615-0)
Church Times Bookshop £9

GEZA VERMES’s scholarly career has never been uncontroversial; indeed, it has involved skirmishes on two fronts.

The first was a consequence of his youthful introduction to the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls (a “providential accident”, as he was later to call it), when he made a vow to devote his life to the solution of the problems they presented.

Establishing himself as a leading expert, he was an antagonist in what became a notorious dispute. He made no secret of his frustration with the long delays in publication which were caused by the dilatory and secretive progress of the team of scholars first entrusted with the Scrolls, as well as by competing political pressures exerted by Israeli and Jordanian authorities.

The climax came when a 40-year-old embargo was successfully defied by two university institutions, one in America and one in England, which almost simultaneously made the entire collection of texts finally accessible to the world of scholarship.

Vermes has told this story more than once. He has now published a definitive — and highly readable — version in the first part of The Story of the Scrolls. The second, and longer, part addresses the claim in the book’s subtitle: revealing the “true significance” of the Scrolls.

This is done by way of a compre-hensive (and, inevitably, less easily digestible) survey of their contents, and by placing them in the context of current historical and biblical scholarship, with brief con-sideration also of their importance for the study of the New Testament and early Christianity (more a matter of intriguing parallels than of demonstrable influence). There is also a sketch of “unfinished business” for archaeology and further research.

The second front was opened when, in 1973, he published Jesus the Jew. It proved to be a turning-point in New Testament studies. Jesus, he argued, could be shown from the Synoptic Gospels to have been a prophet-teacher belonging to a known class of Palestinian charismatics, though one endowed with quite exceptional magnetism.

This is done by way of a compre-hensive (and, inevitably, less easily digestible) survey of their contents, and by placing them in the context of current historical and biblical scholarship, with brief con-sideration also of their importance for the study of the New Testament and early Christianity (more a matter of intriguing parallels than of demonstrable influence). There is also a sketch of “unfinished business” for archaeology and further research.

The second front was opened when, in 1973, he published Jesus the Jew. It proved to be a turning-point in New Testament studies. Jesus, he argued, could be shown from the Synoptic Gospels to have been a prophet-teacher belonging to a known class of Palestinian charismatics, though one endowed with quite exceptional magnetism.

But this simple and attractive profile, Vermes said, was overlaid by subsequent theological elaboration, owing especially to Paul and the author of John’s Gospel. This turned Jesus into a divine figure, down-playing his human characteristics (including his Jewishness), and resulting in church dogmas that have distorted the interpretation of the historical evidence ever since.

This conclusion, based on solid research and mastery of Jesus’s Jewish environment, could not be ignored by New Testament scholars, and was greeted with respect as well as controversy. But Vermes has always had a further ambition: to make the challenging results of his scholarly research accessible to a wider public. His father, he tells us, was a journalist, and he too has delighted in writing occasional articles for newspapers and magazines.

Twenty-nine of those published in the past ten years are now gathered into a book. Slightly more than half of these are on themes that (at least partly) justify the title Searching for the Real Jesus; the remainder range more widely.

Inevitably there is some repetition, and much going over old ground. Vermes claims — has always claimed — to be free from dogmatic presuppositions or religious bias, and to bring to bear on the evidence nothing but “pragmatic common sense”.

This collection of thoroughly readable short pieces, containing implicit (and occasionally startlingly explicit) criticism of the alleged critical myopia of Christian inter­preters, will challenge readers to make up their minds whether this admirable scholar is justified in claiming for himself a standpoint that is free from bias of any kind.

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

Order these books through CT Bookshop

Order these books through CT Bookshop

Desert land: ruins of the Essene settlement of Qumran. The picture comes from the same book as is described in the caption above

Desert land: ruins of the Essene settlement of Qumran. The picture comes from the same book as is described in the caption above

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