Geza Vermes:
Whatever historians say, Jesus was a great man

Christ was an 'extraordinary man' but only human, said a retired bishop last week - here, a leading Jewish thinker backs his view

08 April 2001

The glaring headline "Jesus was not the Son of God" revealed the intellectual metamorphosis of the much respected Richard Holloway, retired bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church, last week. Jesus was neither "literally nor biologically" divine, he claimed, but simply "an extraordinary man". No doubt, this episcopal proclamation will create a paroxysm of rage not only among traditional believers, but even among Christmas churchgoers who cherish rosy ideas learnt at Sunday school.

So who was Jesus? Did he exist? Was he God? Is he still relevant? To start with, the existence of Jesus is no longer debatable. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea between AD26 and 36, and was most probably born shortly before the death of Herod the Great in 4BC. Quasi-certainty stops here. To the questions what sort of man Jesus was, what he stood for, what he thought of God and man, what he aimed at achieving during his short career, there are no definite answers.

The primary culprit is Jesus himself. Everything would be different if he had put on paper (better, on leather or papyrus) his thoughts. But, as he wrote nothing, we have to rely on secondary evidence.

Our principal source for Jesus is the New Testament, a collection of writings dating from 25 to 90 years after Christ's death. None of these works is strictly historical, but we can squeeze more information from approximately contemporaneous Jewish documents.

As bad luck would have it, the earliest documents, the letters of St Paul, are of no assistance for the reconstruction of the life of Jesus. Paul never met him. His knowledge mostly depends on his mystical vision, revealing Christ as the universal Saviour of humanity.

Our second bad luck concerns the Gospel of John, a portrait of Jesus as a "Stranger from heaven", composed in the early second century, and reflecting no historical reality.

So we are left with the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. They are not perfect sources as they have been retouched by a doctrinal brush. Nevertheless they have the form of (popular) biographies of Jesus. The oldest, Mark, concerned only with the public career of Jesus, has no Nativity nor visions of the risen Christ.

The three reveal Jesus as an itinerant Galilean charismatic healer and preacher. He was not the first, nor the last in this line of holy men. Healing in the ancient Jewish world often took the form of exorcism because sickness, the sequel of sin, had the devil as its cause. So healing the sick and forgiving sins were interchangeable notions. Jesus's practice resembled faith-healing performed in all ages.

The evangelists tell us Jesus was loved by simple people, but scandalised the small-minded village lawyers. He was also resented by his jealous neighbours in Nazareth and his relations thought he was crazy.

His admirers venerated him as a prophet and his name was linked, without his prompting, to that of the Messiah. His preaching showed him as the man entrusted by God to lead his Jewish contemporaries through the gate of repentance into the spiritual promised land. The Messiah was known also as a "Son of God", the title of the Jewish king in biblical times, but it was never taken by Jews in the literal sense.

The claim that Jesus was also a political Messiah is unfounded. If he had been condemned as an enemy of the state, his followers, too, would have been attacked by the Romans, but they were not.

Why then was Jesus executed? Because he did the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong thing was the affray he created in the merchants' quarter in the Temple. The wrong place was the Temple itself where enormous crowds assembled, forming a potential hotbed of revolution. The wrong time was the week before Passover, when multitudes of pilgrims turned Jerusalem into chaos at the Feast of Liberation. Arrested by nervous Temple authorities as a threat to peace, Jesus was handed over to Pilate, whose legionaries crucified him. Pilate was notoriously cruel.

So how can the "real" Jesus be summed up? He was not meek and mild. He could be impatient and angry. He displayed the strength, iron character and fearlessness of his prophetic predecessors. He loved children, welcomed women, and felt pity for the sick and miserable. He sought the company of the pariahs of Jewish society.

He was convinced of the instant arrival of God's kingdom. So even if he had intended to start a new religion, which he did not, there was no time for the establishment of a church. He acted as a reformer within Judaism. Christianity resulted from St Paul's triumphant preaching of the Gospel in the Greco-Roman world.

To echo Bishop Holloway, Jesus was an "extraordinary man", wholly God-centred, passionately faith-inspired and under the imperative impulse of the here and now. He taught men how to appreciate the present moment. He made such an impression on his disciples that not even the cross could cancel his continued real presence. This presence compelled them to carry on in his name their mission and they saw in their success the proof that Jesus was alive in and through them. Here, as someone remarked, lies the real Easter miracle.

How does the face of this "real" Jesus affect people today? Convinced Christians may be determined to close their eyes and continue in the footsteps of their fathers. Yet even they can learn some worldly wisdom in religion straight from the mouth of the holy man from Galilee.

But the appeal of this Jesus is perhaps strongest for those who are not, are no longer, or have never been, part of the Christian fold, the "lost sheep" of mankind. They are likely to discover that what Jesus taught about trust in God and compassion for man outweighs all the Christological speculations accumulated over centuries.

Geza Vermes is professor emeritus of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford and author of 'The Changing Faces of Jesus', published last Thursday by Penguin paperbacks.


So here, once again, a renowned scholar expresses the Ebionite understanding of Yahshua ben-Yosef. -SP, ed.

cited from Independent Digital UK