It seems obvious to note that Jesus — like Don Juan, Oedipus and Count Dracula — has a cultural life having little to do with his original narrative. Although it is now widely believed that he did exist, Jesus is so buried in centuries of Christian tradition that in 1906 Albert Schweitzer declared the search for a historical Jesus dead. Every scholar, Schweitzer wrote, merely produces a Jesus in his own image. Geza Vermes, a one-time Catholic priest, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, and author of such books as “Jesus the Jew,” pointedly disagrees. As the title of his latest book suggests, he claims to have located the “Real Jesus” beneath the many guises of Christ.
“The Real Jesus: Then and Now” (Augsburg Fortress) collects many short pieces on subjects surrounding early Judeo-Christian history. Though the collection would have been better served by a stricter edit, Vermes’s scholarship remains impressive. His Jesus is a Galilean Jewish mystic, a charismatic healer, exorcist and miracle worker, who preached a Kingdom of Heaven that would arrive in his lifetime. He recruited 12 apostles and 70 disciples, and was crucified as a rebel by the government of Pontius Pilate, with the cooperation the religious authorities, after causing a scene at the Temple of Jerusalem.
Jesus’s teachings, Vermes asserts, were not particularly revolutionary for Jewish culture at that time — Flavius Josephus, one of Vermes’s main sources outside the Gospels, mentions many similar charismatics. But within decades of his death, Jesus’s teachings were translated for the benefit a Greek-speaking, largely pagan audience, and taken out of their Jewish religious framework. This, Vermes tells us, resulted in a message that Jesus himself would not recognize, leading to centuries of misunderstanding between the Jewish culture from which the Christian cult arose and the sometimes anti-Semitic religion it became.
Vermes hopes that understanding the historical Jesus will allow Christians to “discover the Jewish meaning of the authentic message” of Christ, and Jews to “stop being afraid of Jesus.” He seems to suggest that Christianity recognize — as he himself did when returning from the Catholic priesthood to his Jewish roots — that it is in fact Judaism lost in translation. The hope of reconciliation is laudable, but the thought that Christendom would ever admit to having gone astray beginning in the first century C.E. is a bit naïve, especially given the fact that Vermes’s Jesus was not exactly a friend to Gentiles. To some extent, the concept of Judeo-Christianity itself depends on the myth that the Jewish Jesus and the Christian Christ are one.
In such a context, truth isn’t easy, or perhaps hardly exists at all. Reaching for fact, Vermes occasionally finds only metaphor. This is most true in his dismissal of the Resurrection, which astonishingly has nothing to do with its scientific impossibility. Instead, as he does with the Virgin Birth, Vermes relies on scriptural contradictions and historical accounts to demonstrate that Jesus could not have literally risen from the dead. What happened instead, Vermes writes, is “Jesus rose from the dead in the hearts of his disciples and he lives on as long as the Christian Church endures.”
Recourse to metaphor is hardly a new way to approach the story of Jesus. As Adam Gopnik recently wrote in the New Yorker, inconsistency was built into the Christian cult from its inception. As Vermes points out, the historical Jesus’s message was one of urgency — the Kingdom of God was coming within his lifetime. Of course it didn’t, and some see in his cry on the cross (quoted by Matthew and Mark in the original Aramaic, and so thought to be authentic) — “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?”— a recognition of failure. In order not to have failed, The Kingdom of God had to become a metaphor, and Jesus had to be given an afterlife. What Vermes fights against is the fact that this afterlife is no longer within our control.