Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels by Geza Vermes. Fortress Press. 286 pp. ***1/2
“Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.” –Leopold Bloom to a group of hecklers, in Ulysses.
This book is another suggestion from my friend Laurie, the mysterious woman from New Zealand who wrote a number of fascinating reviews on Amazon in 2008 then disappeared from view. About Jesus the Jew she says, “Nobody who hasn’t read it should utter even a single sentence containing the word ‘Jesus’.” I wouldn’t go quite that far (the woman tends to go over the top). But it’s a compelling book.
About Jesus, Martin Buber said, “We Jews know him in a way—in the impulses and emotions of his essential Jewishness—that remains inaccessible to the Gentiles subject to him.” (That’s an interesting phrase, “subject to him.”) Before Jesus became the focus of a huge world religion, he was a wandering teacher and healer. Vermes thinks he fit firmly into a tradition, that of a Galilean Hasid, or holy man.
Vermes doesn’t hazard a guess at his appearance, but the great Guy Davenport, in his book The Logia of Yeshua (a translation of the sayings of this wandering teacher) did. “The falsest myth about him may be the Romantic and Sunday school pictures of him as a pious matinee idol with a woman’s hair, neat beard, and flowing robes. History can tell us that he wore trousers of the kind we call Turkish, that he most certainly had oiled sidelocks and a full beard. A man so out-of-doors would have worn a wide-brimmed traveler’s hat, a caftan, or coat. His sandals are mentioned by Yohannan.”
Vermes devotes much of the early book to the fact that Jesus was a Galilean. Galilee was surrounded on all sides by other peoples and separated from Judea. It was a kind of isolated outpost. Political radicalism was common there, so that when Jesus later came up for trial among the Romans, the fact that he was a Galilean was a strike against him (although one person said, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?”). Galilee was a rural area of small towns, so Jesus’ imagery tends to be pastoral (“Consider the lilies of the field”), and when he went to Jerusalem later he was like a rube going to the big city. Similarly, Galileans tended to be less learned and less “people of the book,” so devoted to the Torah that they ignored human feeling. They were more likely to be intuitive teachers rather than great scholars. It was characteristic of a Galilean Hasid that he would heal people on the Sabbath rather than being strict about the law. Taking care of human beings was more important than rigidly following some code.
One thing that struck me when I recently reread the Gospel of Mark was how much of the early part of it was devoted to healing, not teaching. According to Vermes, most diseases, if not all, were considered the work of demons—what we might call psychosomatic illness today—so a great deal of Jesus’ healing involved speaking directly to demons, ordering them out of a person’s body or telling them to quit tormenting this person. Jesus reserved hands-on healing for illnesses that were strictly physical, like blindness or deafness, and he used saliva as a healing aid. It was believed to have medicinal properties. But the wandering healer, casting out demons and healing in other ways, was not unheard of in Jesus’ day. And there are instances of other healers doing all the things that he did, including—in the Old Testament—Elisha and Elijah raising people from the dead.
Vermes devotes over half of his book to the various designations that people applied to Jesus: prophet, lord, messiah, son of man, son of God. He places all of these terms within the Jewish tradition, and mentions places where other men were called the same things. This is not the most exciting part of the book, but Vermes does the work of a historian, methodically making his case. The word messiah, for instance, meant many things to many different people; Vermes names a number of possibilities, several of which involved the messiah being a military or political figure. People weren’t expecting a person like Jesus, with his kind of message (“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”).
Vermes feels—as most scholars do—that Mark is the most historically reliable Gospel, and that some of the stories in Matthew and Luke, especially the birth narratives, were invented by the writers. It was common in ancient times to attribute virgin birth to a remarkable individual, and of course Matthew tries to have it both ways, saying that Jesus was born of a Virgin but is descended from David through Joseph. The birth stories seem to Vermes tacked on and obviously legendary.
That leads, of course, to the ultimate designation for Jesus, Son of God. If we dismiss the Virgin birth—as Vermes does—the question is, what does that expression mean? That was a koan for me when I was trying to practice Christianity; I couldn’t get my head around it.
That Jesus had a special relationship with God I have no doubt. It seems to me to be the same relationship that all the great saints and mystics had, not just in Christianity but in all faiths. Jesus was at one with God. We are all, it seems to me, at one with God in reality, but we turn away from that fact, deny it, are afraid of it, do anything to get away from it. We can’t really get away. In Him we live and move and have our being, as Paul said. If we realized that—by which I mean made it real—our lives would be much different.
Jesus did realize it, perhaps as no one else ever has. His wish was for us to realize it too.
 My father was a dermatologist in the Pittsburgh of my youth. We patronized a couple of Italian barbers named DeMaria, and they let my father know that, back in Italy, barbers were also doctors. My father was very concerned with ringworm of the scalp, and would not let those barbers use clippers on my brother and me. One time the elder barber—big Jerry—told him that back in Italy barbers treated ringworm with spit.
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