The Authentic Gospel of Jesus


I recently came across the work of Professor Geza Vermes. He comes from a Jewish Hungarian family that converted to Roman Catholicism. He trained as a Roman Catholic priest, but left the church in the 1950s.  Later he became the first professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford.  Some see him as the greatest Jesus scholar alive today.  His works included The Religion of Jesus The JewThe Changing Faces of Jesus, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus

It sounds incredible today, but a hundred years ago few regarded Jesus as a Jew at all.  It is a credit to the work of Vermes and other scholars that we can start to see and appreciate Jesus for whom he really was.  Some say it was down to Vermes the Oxford English Dictionary changed its definition of Christianity to the current one which is as follows:

The religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, or its beliefs and practices

Previous editions of the dictionary had stated that Jesus was the founder of Christianity.

As a distraction from wall papering I started the The Authentic Gospel of Jesus.  Vermes looks at the various sayings of Jesus in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke.  The Gospel of John is rejected as being totally unhistorical.  That’s interesting as when we are confronted with religious tracts or posters outside churches threatening us with eternal damnation the quotation is generally taken from The Gospel of John.  Oh dear.  Anyway, it would appear that most scholars date The Gospel of Mark to about 70 CE.  Matthew and Luke come later between 80 and 100 CE.  So we are not really dealing with eye witness accounts.  The authors of Matthew and Luke, according to the view of most scholars, had read Mark.  They also relied on something called Q which comes from the German for Quelle or source.  This is a bit more controversial as no one has ever produced a copy of Q.  Most conservative biblical scholars , not surprisingly, reject it totally.   As well as Mark and Q, the authors of Matthew and Luke also added their own material.

Vermes divides the sayings of Jesus in to three categories:  Narrative and Commands; Controversy stories; Words of Wisdom; Teaching in Parables; Quoting or interpreting Scriptures; Prayers and Related Instructions; Son of Man sayings; Sayings about the Kingdom of God; and eschatological rule of behaviour.  He analyses what Jesus says and compares it with what we know about Jewish religious thought and practice from the same period.  Doing that, and using his knowledge of Aramaic, he tries to decide whether or not the saying is authentic.  I would really recommend the book which is very easy to dip in to and out of, particularly as you will probably be familiar with many gospel sayings.  In fact through Vermes,  Jeshua bar-Joseph, the Man of Nazareth, becomes a much easier figure to understand than the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of history.

Let me share one of the passages with you taken from the chapter on “Quoting or Interpreting Scripture”.  It discusses Jesus’ cry

Eloi, Eloi lama sbachthani?   /  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  (Mark 15:34, Matt. 27:46)

This is one of the first instances in the Gospels where we see a quotation in Aramaic, which was after all Jesus’ first language.  The New Testament was, of course, written entirely in Greek.   It is often claimed that in uttering this cry that Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22.  The psalm begins:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  [Psalm 22, v.1  The Revised English Bible]

but nonetheless has a happy ending:

The coming generation will be told of the Lord; they will make known his righteous deeds, declaring to people yet unborn: The Lord has acted.  [Psalm 22, vs. 30-31  The Revised English Bible]

Unfortunately, Jesus and every Jew of his time would have been used to hearing the Psalms recited in Hebrew.  The Hebrew text is actually:

‘eli, ‘eli lamah ‘azabtani

So why did Jesus speak in Aramaic rather than Hebrew?  The only conclusion that a dispassionate 21st century observer can come to is that it was not actually a quotation from scripture, but rather a genuine cry of despair. (The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, pp.193-194)

Vermes argues

Jesus was an existentialist preacher who endeavoured to persuade his disciples to change their lives and to collaborate with him in the great enterprise of preparing the way towards the Kingdom of God (The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, p.398)

He goes on to argue

Compared with the dynamic religion of Jesus, fully evolved Christianity seems to belong to another world.  With its mixture of high philosophical speculation on the triune God, its Johannine logos mysticism and Pauline Redeemer myth of a dying and risen Son of God  (The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, p.415)

It is all very sad when you think how it all turned out on the cross.  According to Vermes as quoted above Jesus wanted to bring together a community of people to help bring about the Messianic Age.  Did he regard himself as the promised Messiah?  It is difficult to say and Vermes does not seem to discuss the issue in the passages I have read.  The Jesus that emerges when you understand a bit of his Jewish background is not some soft figure who urges people to wait around, put up with a bad life in return for heavenly bliss.  See for example this passage from Paul who many regard as the true founder of Christianity:

Every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him.  It follows that anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive  (Revised English Bible Romans 13 vs 1-2)

Jesus certainly resisted and if there is any relevance to his message today I think it is that resistance is always the key to bringing about change, regardless of whether or not we succeed.




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