The Authentic Gospel of Jesus

In his new book, acclaimed religious scholar Geza Vermes subjects all the sayings of Jesus to brilliantly informed scrutiny. Profoundly aware of the limits of our knowledge but immersed in what we do have—both the “official” gospels and associated Jewish and early Christian texts—Vermes sieves through every quote ascribed to Jesus to let the reader get as close as possible to the charismatic Jewish healer and moralist who changed the world. The result is a book that creates a revolutionary and unexpected picture of Jesus—scraping aside the accretions of centuries to approach as close as we can hope to his true teaching.

Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “The Authentic Gospel of Jesus

  1. Review

    Geza Vermes, noted for his pioneering work on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the historical Jesus, is Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford University. He is the author of Jesus the Jew (1973) , Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983), The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993) and The Changing Faces of Jesus (2001).

    The Catholic Herald of England states, “Perhaps no one alive since the first century AD can claim to know more about Jesus Christ the man than Geza Vermes.”

    This book is a collection and exposition of all of the sayings attributed to Jesus, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, classified by nine literary categories which form chapters of the book. They are (1) Narratives and Commands, (2) Controversy Stories, (3) Words of Wisdom, (4) Teaching in Parables, (5) Quoting or Interpreting Scripture, (6) Prayers and Related Instructions, (7) ‘Son of Man’ Sayings, (8) Sayings about the Kingdom of God and (9) Eschatological Rules of Behavior. In each of the categories, the author seeks to distinguish between the authentic sayings of Jesus and those attributed to him by the early church, with the intent of rediscovering the authentic message preached and practiced by Jesus. The book is a resource, from a Jewish perspective, for individual or group Bible study and the preparation of sermons.

    On the foundation of the sayings of Jesus he judges to be authentic, Vermes probes and answers three questions: (1) “Did Jesus intend to address only Jews, or did he expect the gospel to benefit the entire non-Jewish world?” He is convinced that on the basis of the sayings of Jesus he deems authentic, the message and ministry of Jesus was only to the Jewish world and that he instructed his disciples to do the same. (2) “Did Jesus believe and proclaim that the arrival of the Kingdom of God would take place in his lifetime, or after the Parousia, following closely his lifetime or in the far distant future?” He takes the position that Jesus expected the Kingdom of God to be realized through his ministry and that the other alternatives are later interpretations of the early church. (3) “Did Jesus clearly announce his suffering and death to his disciples? Or did his arrest, crucifixion and reported resurrection take them completely by surprise?” He believes the evidence of the authentic passages indicates that Jesus did not anticipate his crucifixion and predict his death to his disciples.

    He then turns to seven “essential themes” which he believes reveal the authentic message of Jesus. They are (1) the role of faith or trust in religious life, (2) the efficacy of prayer, (3) the belief in the fatherhood of God, (4) the need to become like children. (5) a new eschatological concept of family, (6) healing and exorcism in the final age, and (7) the need for hyperbolic speech in talking about the Kingdom. The words of Jesus in each of these themes “reflect his true ideas, preoccupations and mentality.”

    Basic to the message of Jesus is his emphasis on faith/trust which is evident in his capacity as a teacher of wisdom and in his activity as a healer. Faith/trust is stressed in his parables and in his sayings regarding the Kingdom of God. The author understands that “effective prayer” is a “sub-category of potent faith” being activated and stimulated by “limitless trust.” Jesus’ use of Father to address God characterizes God’s “concern and care for the world.” The expression of the need to become like children to enter the Kingdom of God describes “total openness and reliance on a caring heavenly Father.” It is also necessary that anyone seeking the Kingdom of God must put blood family “second to attachment to the community of those who whole heartedly follow his teaching in their quest of the Kingdom of God.” Healing and exorcism are essential activities of Jesus. The final theme highlights the “poetic language” of Jesus.

    In an epilogue, the author sketches a portrait of the personality of Jesus and offers a “summary assessment” of his message.” He concludes with some reflections, from his perspective. On the relationship between the historical Jesus and modern Christianity, He writes, “In the light of all that has been said, how can the religion of Jesus be summarized? His religion is a particular response to a specific situation by an extraordinary man. Christianity, on the other hand, is the general development of the religion of Jesus by practical people planning the future in an ordinary time setting. The two are definitely connected, yet they are also radically different.”

    He tells of an occasion several years ago when he was giving a lecture on the historical Jesus at an interdenominational school of theology in Australia. At the conclusion of the presentation and ensuing discussion, he was asked a final question, “How can we improve our understanding of Jesus?” He writes that he tried to avoid answering the question because “it was not his task to ‘preach’, but the audience adamantly insisted.” He offered the following counsel which he believes “touches the heart of the matter.” He said, “Look for what Jesus himself taught instead of being satisfied with what has been taught about him.”

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