Tag Archives: Géza Vermes

Good Bias, Hidden Bias and the Phantom of Jesus in Christian Origin Studies

whychristianityhappenedThis post continues on from The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias) and addresses the next stage of Professor James Crossley’s discussion on what he believes is necessary to move Christian origins studies out from the domination of religious bias and into the light of secular approaches.

In the previous post we covered Crossley’s dismay that scholarly conferences in this day and age would open with prayer, look for ecumenical harmonizations through all the differences of opinions and tolerate warnings against straying from the basic calling to feed Christ’s flock with spiritual nourishment. Theologians can even seriously publish arguments that would never be found in other fields of history as we see with N.T. Wright’s arguments for the historicity of the bodily resurrection and the widespread acclaim that his scholarship has attracted among his peers.

Crossley argues that the solution to Faith’s domination of Christian origin studies is for more practitioners to take up a solid secular approach. There should be more scholars in Theology or Religion departments doing history the way other historians do. Or more specifically, they should take up social-scientific methods of history.

In fact, however, the social scientific approach to historical inquiry is only one of many types of historical studies open to other historians but Crossley does not address these alternatives in this book. Crossley is concerned with applying only models of economic and social explanations for the rise of Christianity. He wants to avoid the common current approaches that explain Christian origins as the accomplishments of a unique man or the inevitable victory of a superior belief system.

Having addressed the way Christian bias (or more politely, partisanship) has produced “unnatural” historical explanations for Christianity Crossley turns to two examples of how “partisanship” has actually worked to produce positive results and taken historical studies a step closer towards a more “human” or “natural” account.

A Tale of Two Scholars

Two biographies are his primary exhibits.

What I will do here is show how details and biases of a given scholar’s life can affect the discipline — in other words, how partisanship can work in practice. . . . I think the [biographical] details are important because they provide crucial insights into the ways in which the discipline has been shaped and can be shaped. I also feel a bit naked without them. (p. 27)

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How did early Christians [not] convince others Jesus was the Messiah?

Icon of the Pentecost
Image via Wikipedia

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 surving sources, how did the early Jewish Christians try to convince others that Jesus was the Messiah? read more »

How easily do historical Jesus scholars drop in that “interpolation card” when it suits

Cover of "The Changing Faces of Jesus"
Cover of The Changing Faces of Jesus

Catching up with Géza Vermes’ The Changing Faces of Jesus I was surprised to find Vermes suggesting that the entire Philippian Hymn (2:6-11) is an interpolation inserted probably around the early second century!

I guess anti-mythicist crusaders have been on my back so much that I had begun to lose sight of what is acceptable and respectable fare in the works of mainstream biblical scholars.

For those not in the know Géza Vermes, according to the Wikipedia article (and I don’t apologize for using Wikipedia since, for all its many faults, it has been recognized by a study published in Nature as no less authoritative than the Encyclopedia Britannica in science articles, so we may reasonably feel entitled to some confidence in the rest) is described as:

a noted authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient works in Aramaic, and on the life and religion of Jesus. He is one of the most important voices in contemporary Jesus research,[1] and he has been described as the greatest Jesus scholar of his time.[2] (I retain the linked footnotes)

In the prologue Vermes reinforces his well-groundedness within the scholarly mainstream:

I have read a great deal over the years and learned much, positively and negatively, from other scholars. I have assimilated their learning and understanding and stored everything up in my heart. (p. 4) read more »