Was Jesus Another Charismatic Holy Man? The Evidence according to Geza Vermes

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by Neil Godfrey

Geza Vermes
Geza Vermes

Some scholars today say a major work of Geza Vermes first published in 1973, Jesus the Jew: a historian’s reading of the Gospels, has “stood the test of time”. From my own recollection of Vermes’ book I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing.

Here are some of the more recent accolades:

Indeed, some of Vermes’s distinctive contributions have been extremely influential and so far stood the test of time. In addition to the general view of Jesus the Jew, placing Jesus in the same category of charismatic Jewish holy men such as Hanina ben Dosa has proven to be particularly popular and the overall thesis has not been refuted, even if various details have been challenged. (See earlier post on Why Christianity Happened, p. 29. My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

Chris Keith cites Crossley approvingly:

[James Crossley’s] lecture emphasized two other things for me as well.  First, the work of really appreciating and articulating the influence of Vermes’s 1973 Jesus the Jew is perhaps still only starting.  Obviously, most people in historical Jesus studies know that Vermes’s study was important, even a watershed.  But I have heard several lectures here lately where scholars are emphasizing just how revolutionary it was.  This position is not just because of Vermes’s emphasis on seeing Jesus against a Jewish background, which deservedly gets attention, but also for his noted dislike of structured “methodology.”

Let’s see what happens when Vermes discards “structured methodology” in relation to just one of the points, though a key one, in Jesus the Jew.

Placing Jesus in the same category of Jewish holy men 

jesusjewWe see above Crossley singling out Vermes placing Jesus in the category of charismatic Jewish holy men like Hanina ben Dosa. Let’s look at Vermes’s justification for this.

(Note: I cannot in this one post cover all of the details and nuances of Vermes’s argument. I touch only on key points. Anyone who has read Jesus the Jew may well raise some objections to specific points I make here. I believe my points can withstand more extensive discussion but please note that I would not want anyone quoting what follows as my “final word”. Take what follows as my tentative disagreements with Vermes’ interpretation of the evidence.)

The term “charismatic” is used because Jesus is said to have drawn upon “immediate contact with God” for his supernatural abilities. While Vermes tells us that such individuals were found throughout “an age-old prophetic religious line” he does not, from what I can recall, offer evidence for this age-old line. In fact, he seems to me to be forcing the evidence associated with two names to provide proof of the existence of this “line” in the time of Jesus.

Hanina ben Dosa

Vermes tells us that Hanina ben Dosa was

one of the most important figures for the understanding of the charismatic stream [of Judaism] in the first century AD.

In a minor key, he offers remarkable similarities with Jesus, so much so that it is curious, to say the least, that traditions relating to him have been so little utilized in New Testament scholarship. (p. 72)

The sources are from the later rabbinic writings. These tell us that he lived near Sepphoris, a major city otherwise noted as situated close by Nazareth.

I enjoy reading and learning new things. So my first question here was to ask how we know this Hanina ben Dosa lived at this time and place. Continue reading “Was Jesus Another Charismatic Holy Man? The Evidence according to Geza Vermes”