Geza VERMES. Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. xvi + 272 pages. $30.00 hc. ISBN 978-0-300-19160-8. Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 4356
Geza Vermes, the first professor of Jewish studies at Oxford University, has published numerous volumes concerning the historical Jesus and Christian origins, and is perhaps best known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Vermes’ latest publication, a culmination of over forty years of scholarship, is “an attempt to sketch the historical continuity between Jesus portrayed in his Galilean charismatic setting and the first ecumenical council held at Nicaea in AD 325, which solemnly proclaimed his divinity as a dogma of Christianity” (xiii). Although the reader may be inclined to think that Vermes is absorbing too much subject matter for one volume, his work flows through the first centuries in a smooth narrative, aimed at showing the rise of Christological thought through the extant writings of the Apostles John and Paul, the Church Fathers, the Apologists, and the Ante-Nicene authors.
Vermes centers the historical figure of Jesus as a leader of the charismatic movement, wherein “[t]he audiences found his preaching striking and distinctive. On the very first recorded occasion of Jesus preaching and exorcizing in the synagogue of Capernaum [e.g. Mk. 1:22, 27; Lk. 4:32, 36] the listeners expressed their amazement because of the peculiar character of his sermon, which exuded power” (38). Vermes effectively shows that the members of the nascent church did not equate Jesus as equal to God, a notion which was the impetus for the later Council. In fact, Vermes’ use of terminology from the Didache (c. AD 50-100), whereby Jesus “is essentially the Servant of God, the great eschatological teacher who is expected to reappear soon to gather together and transfer the dispersed members of his church to the Kingdom of God,” (147) shows that more concern was placed upon the end of times and not Christological titles per se.
Vermes hits his stride when examining the documents of the Apostolic Fathers. He claims that a “close reading of the sources reveals progressive steps in the domain of Christology. The most significant of these are connected with the upgrading of Jesus from ‘charismatic Prophet,’ ‘Messiah’ and undefined ‘Son of God’ to the full status of divinity, chiefly under the impact of Ignatius of Antioch, but echoed also by 2 Clement” (176). Herein lies Vermes’ main contribution with this volume, that of analyzing the different Christological titles used in the various documents, and their import for the cultures they sought to influence. For example, Vermes points out that in The Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (c. AD 95/96), Jesus is viewed as subordinate to God. He advocates that “Jesus is definitely distinguished from God and is inferior to him. God as ‘Master’ speaks about his ‘Son’ of not quite the same status” (162). However, by the time of The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 110), the divinity of Jesus is affirmed, although it would take two more centuries for the church to establish Jesus’ consubstantiality as hard and fast doctrine.
Although advanced students and scholars may not find anything new in this volume regarding Church History or the historical Jesus, Vermes’ latest publication is still highly recommended for beginning students of Christology or Cultural Anthropology. One gets the sense that Vermes intended this work to be a basic volume that would possibly motivate students in the aforementioned disciplines to research his more scholarly works, including Jesus the Jew, and Jesus in the Jewish World. Sadly, Vermes’ recent death marks the end of a brilliant career. He left behind a fine body of research; one which should be celebrated for generations to come.