I’ve been going through Geza Vermes’ The Changing Faces of Jesus and here I’ll focus on just one more detail: the way the scholar learns how the early “Jewish church tried to prove that Jesus was the Messiah”.
Vermes points us toward the journey he is to lead for his readers:
The best way to grasp the primitive Christians’ picture of Jesus is by reconstructing the content and style of their preaching. How did they present their gospel, and how did they endeavour to convince their first listeners . . . . The approach they adopted seems to have been substantially the same, whether the message was delivered in Jerusalem or in the very different setting of the Gentile mission of Paul . . . . (p. 121)
The one exception Vermes singles out was Paul’s address to the Athenians from the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-32. I will discuss this in a future post but not from Vermes’ viewpoint. Rather, I will look at the possible inspiration for this scene in a classical Greek tragedy by Aeschylus.
But this post is a case-study in how New Testament scholars mistakenly think they are doing genuine history.
Geza Vermes’ approach in his own mind is genuinely “historical”:
This view . . . . is that of a scholar, of a detached historian, in search of information embedded in the surviving sources. (p. 7)
So, according to the surviving sources, how did the early Jewish Christians try to convince others that Jesus was the Messiah?
In a Jewish setting . . . apostolic teaching about Jesus took the form of an argument based on the Bible, interpreting and seeking to demonstrate that in Jesus the scriptural prophecies found their fulfilment. . . . Most of the doctrinal demonstrations are construed on prophetic passages or on the Psalms. (p. 122)
There may once have been a time when I would have innocently accepted this explanation and even, I expect, his justification for it that he found in the sermons in Acts.
But reading it now two things immediately strike me as odd:
- Is not this explanation very similar to the way many modern Christians seek to persuade others that Jesus was the Messiah? We also read of second-century Christians using this technique. But were the conditions we read of in Acts similar enough for the same approach to be workable for the first generation of hearers?
- How likely (plausible) is it that those Jews who had been in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus would have been converted in substantial numbers by this approach?
Can one really imagine the average Jew in Jerusalem who had known something of a disturbance some weeks earlier over someone led off to be crucified being told that that crucified person was really the Messiah because out of the blue some strangers were saying that the prophets and psalms said things like
- his garment would be parted at the foot of the cross
- he would be silent before his judges
- he would make the lame leap like a hart
- he would be resurrected after 3 days (he really was resurrected — just listen to the power of Peter’s voice and remember the psalms!)
And it gets worse the further the preaching went beyond Jerusalem.
In other words, Vermes’ explanation seems to me to hint of anachronistic projection.
And that suspicion is confirmed when I look at his “surviving sources” upon which he draws this conclusion. Vermes takes Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost as typical so I will likewise look at that.
This is Vermes’ take on this sermon:
To start with Peter’s address to the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost, the argument runs as follows. Jesus of Nazareth, whom in conformity with God’s providential plan the Jews had crucified, was raised from the dead as foretold by the prophets, and subsequently was made into Lord and Messiah. The listeners must repent and be baptized in order to receive the gift of the holy Spirit (2:22-38). The message is validated by an “intellectual” biblical argument, followed by an ‘existential and experimental’ confirmation through charismatic manifestations. (p. 123)
None of the above can be validated by the “surviving sources” as a historical reconstruction of how Peter convinced the first Jewish listeners that Jesus was Messiah.
Among the first tasks of any historian is surely to confirm the validity, authenticity and nature of the sources he or she is using. Admittedly if certain sources have been taken for granted as historical sources for generations of scholars then it is understandable that those sources will be taken for granted. But it is also a virtue for each generation of scholars in fields as fluid as the arts and humanities to test and examine anew their foundations. Even more so when one of those areas of study is bound up with a culture’s faith-commitments.
So what is the book of Acts? It is a narrative with many Hellenistic novelistic features that is, according to its anonymous prologue, a continuation of a narrative of what readers should believe to be true. Unlike most other historiographies that make an effort to persuade readers of its truthfulness Acts identifies no sources at any point in either this or the preceding narrative (the Gospel of Luke) and their respective prologues. The apparently inconclusive ending is consistent with many other types of endings in classical literature, whether dramatic, poetic or historiographic. As such it is by no means an indication that the book was written while Paul was awaiting trial in Rome. The earliest evidence we have that Acts was known to anyone does not reach us before the middle (some would say later) second century when it is found to be just the document necessary for that time in “orthodoxy’s” struggle against Marcionism.
Acts begins with Jesus rising to heaven in clouds and angels appearing to address onlookers. This is not the work of a historian who is seeking to identify with sceptics as we often find with Greek and Roman historians who acknowledge that readers might have some difficulty in believing what is narrated and accordingly offer reassurance by explaining the basis of their knowledge of the events (what others said, etc). The narrative is written in the narrative voice of a believer who seeks to persuade in the same way a novelist seeks to wrap readers into his or her narrative world. One miracle follows another and numbers and names are symbolic: 12, 120, tables of nations.
Peter’s multinational audience is brought running to him as surely as the right numbers and types of animals bee-lined their way to Noah’s ark. The miraculous is central to the story. The miraculous makes the story. With no miracles Peter would have no audience.
And Peter is said to have waited for the sound of the violent wind to abate and for that distracting flame above his head to extinguish itself before engaging the crowd’s attention with his pronouncement that all of these miracles were clearly from God because there was a passage in Joel to say they were.
Once his audience was piously hooked on thinking of the words of prophets as being of more import than the miracles themselves that they had heard and seen they were ready for more preaching.
They were reminded of Jesus who performed miracles among them. But in Jerusalem Jesus is not reported as having done many miracles among them at all — especially not in Luke’s gospel. He did a lot of preaching in Jerusalem but his miracles were the feature of his Galilean ministry. Only a handful in that audience may have heard of these — if they came from some of the smaller villages. Had they come from major centres that Jesus is said to have avoided — like Sepphoris and Tiberias — they would have heard nothing most likely.
No, the author is writing for his readers. He is addressing what his readers know from their reading of the Gospel. He is NOT attempting to reconstruct what he thinks even a historical Peter would have said on this occasion. He is addressing his readers with his own sermon.
The only way the author can introduce his sermon with narrative plausibility is to create a miraculous opening to establish the narrative setting and narrative audience.
Without the miraculous the sermon simply would not work. Jesus’ miracles are not in the past tense so the author must regularly set up scenarios with apostolic miracles in their place. These are reminders of the works of Jesus. And the message delivered is that we should believe because — not because of the miracles — but because the psalms and prophets spoke of this Jesus doing all these things, and especially being resurrected.
Now no-one saw that resurrection happen. But the narrative audiences are persuaded by their thousands because of the prophecy about it!
This just does not make any plausible sense at all.
“Luke” is not recreating a past history. He is creating a narrative context for sermons he is delivering to his readers.
He uses the modern trick of adding formulaic applause to persuade readers that what he says is plausible. Comedy shows have long used ‘canned laughter’ to tell listeners/viewers what the funny bits are so they know when to laugh. “Luke” tells people what bits are so astonishing that they inspire faith by narrating miraculous conversions in response to his sermons. A fantasy of the preacher-author wishing “if only!”
Vermes interestingly says that the “intellectual” component of the sermon was “confirmed” by following signs. But no. That’s not how it is narrated. At least it’s not the whole story. Signs as like as not precede sermons, too. That’s how they really are made to work in the narrative.
The method of preaching Vermes describes sounds to me much more likely to work in small groups, symposia, “bible-study” or philosophical-discourse environments.
There is much more that could be said, and that has been said, that undermines any plausibility in the scenarios the author of Acts sets up as “the way the first preaching about Jesus was”.
But I’m working like hell lately in my day job and no longer have the stamina to write as much or consistently as I used to. This will have to do for now.
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