Saturday, September 15, 2007

Geza Vermes: The Jesus Dream Epilogue

Geza Vermes is a very interesting guy. He's the emeritus professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, and is almost universally recognized and acknowledged as the world’s foremost authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He often weighs in on many of the controversies swirling around the topic of the historical Jesus.

His life-story is kind of unique, as can be seen in this interview.
Geza Vermes was born into a Jewish family, but in 1931, when he was seven, he and his parents were baptised in the Roman Catholic Church. Things were going well. His father was a successful journalist, and as a young man, Geza began theological studies in the town of Szatmar.

Then everything would change. The Nazis arose in Germany and then swept over Europe. Hungary's collaboration resulted in the rounding up of about a half a million Jews from the Spring of 1944. His parents' 13 years as Christians did not exempt them, and they were killed in extermination camps in Poland. At the age of 20, Geza Vermes had lost his parents, and was trying to lie low in Hungary and elude the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian collaborators with the Nazis...

"And with the help of the priest who actually baptised the family in 1931, who by that time became a Bishop, with his help I got to Budapest and tried to get myself lost among 200 or 300 students in the central theological college attached to the university. This Bishop was extremely kind and helpful. A few months later, he lost his life; again as a loving and courageous man, he was trying to protect a group of women from Russian soldiers, and they simply shot him dead. In fact, exactly a year ago he was beatified by the Pope, the blessed William Apor."

"...although I tried to enter the Dominican order, I was simply not accepted, and the untold reason was that they didn't want anybody with a Jewish background. And then in a kind of accidental way, I heard about the Fathers of Sion and I imagined, wrongly, that all the members were Jewish converts. And when I was still in my provincial college, I screwed up enough courage to write a letter in French asking for admission."

Vermes had joined an order whose mission was to convert Jews. After studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and other Rabbinic writings, he reverted back to Judaism. He is very much interested, however, in academic collaboration between Christians and Jews, and he says...
"If one accepts the idea that we can know something about the historical Jesus, which for about 50 years in the first half of this century was considered as academically unsound, if not impossible. But if it is accepted that we can know something about him, one realises very soon that we are dealing with a totally Jewish person with totally Jewish ideas, whose religion was totally Jewish and whose culture, whose aims, whose aspirations could be understood only in the framework of Judaism. So when finally after many years of study of Jewish history, I took as it were, a sabbatical to enjoy myself, and decided to write a book on Jesus, and titled Jesus the Jew. To my great surprise it was greeted both by Jews and Christians as something that would put the research on the history called 'Jesus' on an entirely new basis, and whereas for years before, there were no books on the historical Jesus for the last 25 years; Jesus the Jew was published in 1973."

In his 2000 book entitled The Changing Faces of Jesus, he investigates what he sees as various portayals of Jesus in the Pauline letters and in the Synoptic Gospels. He intentionally leaves out the Gospel of John, considering that a later work whose high Christology and Hellenistic style is entirely inconsonant with the Synoptics and the writings of St. Paul (I will post up some thoughts by Fr. Raymond Brown on the Gospel of John sometime in the near future).

In any case, it was an interesting read, but he ended the book in a way that I considered unnecessarily polemical, but fascinating nonetheless, in which he relays an account of a "dream" he had in which Jesus speaks to a modern audience.

I don't know if he himself caught the note of irony he threw in at the end.

Epilogue: A Dream

I have reached the point where my role as historian comes to an end. Preaching is not my job. If I have set out truths which some readers find meaningful and applicable to their lives, it is up to them to choose how to implement them. What follows here is in a sense the consequence of the insights gained throughout the many pages of our inquiry, yet it should not affect its results as it belongs to a totally distinct genre. Let us say that after many years of labor, one afternoon I fell asleep and I, too, had a dream.

In this dream the real Jesus staged a return shortly after the onset of the third millennium. He appeared as a middle-sized, middle-aged, dark-haired Jewish man, with strong arms, and the deep suntan of a Galilean from Ginossar or Kfar Nahum. His visage radiated an admixture of wisdom, sympathy, and steely determination. He had a resounding voice and his piercing eyes were shining. After two thousand years he came to explain himself and successively addressed Jews, Christians, religious dropouts from synagogue and church, and men and women belonging to other faiths or to none.

"Shalom," he saluted the Jews.

"Forget the lies about me. I'm one of yours. Look, my religion is that of Moses and the prophets. I only lay extra emphasis on seeking the Lord our God who is one in and through all that we do to our fellow men in every single humble and love-filled deed of all our todays."

He seemed surprised when he saw the many assembled Christians, though the size of the crowd was not quite as big as the one which recently greeted the pope in Cracow.

"I am amazed to see so many of you calling yourselves my followers despite some of the unkind words I let out about non-Jews. I'm all the same delighted and grateful. Without you my name would not be remembered all over the place. But I feel I must exhort you to rely more on yourselves, on your own insights-you may call it the voice of the Holy Spirit-on your strength and goodness. You've been told to expect everything from me. I say, you must save yourselves. Don't forget that the Kingdom of God is always at hand. Get on with it at once. You can do it, on your own, as you are children of our heavenly Father who alone is God, blessed forever. You may carry on with your rites, customs, and prayers, but be careful not to take the symbol for reality. You used to blame my Jewish brethren for turning the spirit into the letter. Aren't you doing the same? By the way, you can learn more about the real me from Luke, Matthew, and Mark than from all the rest of what you call the New Testament. I now wish I'd taken the trouble to write myself! In any case, you too need to be truly humble and show love and respect to all, especially to those with whom you disagree."

He then turned to the company of those who no longer practiced their religion, but who were seekers filled with remorse.

"I know you well and love you. You remind me of the publicans who were longing for a kind word from me. How I enjoyed the party one of them gave in my honor in Jericho, or was it in Galilee? I recognize you, too, ostracized sinners. Others like you, male and female, scorned by the genteel pious, used to come to me, listen to my words, and they changed their lives. Recognize your weakness and do the right thing. Repent and be confident. You are close to the Kingdom of God. Now as in my lifetime the father welcomes with greater joy the returning prodigal son than the son who has been conventionally (and boringly) good all the time."

At this moment I was suddenly woken by the telephone bell. Someone calling himself Jim was trying to interest me in new doors and windows for our kitchen, offered at a specially favorable price. Because of him I lost the end of my dream.

Geza! You were snapped out of your reveries by a carpenter?!

Think about it...


Paula said...

Interesting article, Jeff.

The truth about Jesus is not to be found in whatever manuscripts or in the quest for the historical Jesus...the truth about Jesus is to be found in the prayers of St John of the Cross, among the lepers of St.Francis, in the slums of Calcutta where the sisters of Mother Teresa dwell, in the cell where St Maximilian Kolbe has died.

Paula said...

Jeff, on a more general note...there is a great saying of Zorba (from Zorba the Greek the novel):
" if one looks with a magnifying glass in a drop of water, he will see the little creatures which live in water and he will not drink water anymore out of fear for his life...and he will in the end die of thirst...just throw the magnifying glass and drink the water".

Jeff said...

Hi Paula,

Albert Schweitzer said something similar to Zorba, specifically in respect to the search for the historical Jesus. He said something to the effect of the search being something like "someone looking down a well... ultimately, what one sees is his own reflection."

What you say is true. We worship the Jesus of faith, not the one of history. Still, I think there is a lot that one can gain from reading current biblical scholarship, and from reading about the historical Jesus, as long as one isn't doing it for the sake of deconstruction. I find that it deepens my faith rather than to harm it. I realize that there is nothing really new under the sun. Our forebears went through a lot of this and wrestled with the same issues. I stick to a couple of non-negotiable principles, one being adherence to the Creed and the outcomes of the various Councils (true God and true man). The other is to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours." (2 Thessalonians 2:15). I don't read about the historical Jesus for the sake of deconstruction, but for the sake of new insights, which the best of the authors are capable of offering. I think there is great value in learning about Judaism of that time, and the Greco-Roman world in which it operated. I also think that if we lose sight of the fundamental Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples, we do so to our own detriment, and possibly to the peril of others.

crystal said...

When I first became a Christian I was afraid to read about the historical Jesus in case I saw something that would make me not believe. I can remember seeing a story about the Jesus Seminar guys and their color-coding of the NT and I felt kind of sick.

But the longer I was a Chrisitna and the more I learned about NT scholarship the better I felt because it seemed to support rather than detract from my faith. Now I'm a fan of historical Jesus material, and like to visit blogs like Mark Goodacre's.

Paula said...

yes, you are right. Thanks for the comment.

Jeff said...

Hi Paula,

I don't know what it is, but sometimes I have trouble posting on Wordpress blogs. :-)

Hi Crystal,

Yes, Mark Goodacre runs a good website.

cowboyangel said...

Interesting article, Jeff. I had never heard of Vermes.