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Who was the real Jesus? How was this Palestinian charismatic transformed by later generations into the heavenly savior who is the focus of the Christian Church? Did Jesus's own teachings lead to his divine characterization? Or did the church-centered needs of gentile Christianity hide his true face, obscuring the religion he preached and practiced? With unique authority, sensitivity, and insight, renowned scholar Geza Vermes explores these difficult questions by examining the New Testament writings, placing them ...
Who was the real Jesus? How was this Palestinian charismatic transformed by later generations into the heavenly savior who is the focus of the Christian Church? Did Jesus's own teachings lead to his divine characterization? Or did the church-centered needs of gentile Christianity hide his true face, obscuring the religion he preached and practiced? With unique authority, sensitivity, and insight, renowned scholar Geza Vermes explores these difficult questions by examining the New Testament writings, placing them in the context of the Jewish civilization of the first century. Starting with the elevated, divine figure of Christ presented in the most recent Gospel, the Gospel of John, Vermes travels back through earlier accounts of Jesus's life to reveal the true historical figure.
The Odd Man Out Among the Evangelists
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Over the last quarter of a century, in addition to my academic lectures I have had many opportunities to address nonspecialist groups of educated men and women, young and older, on my work on Jesus. My purpose has always been to portray "Jesus the Jew," that is, the historical figure that stands behind the doctrinal elaborations of two millennia of Christian belief, worship, and speculation. My nontheological sketch usually received sympathetic hearing from liberally minded Christians, as wall as from those in the auditorium who did not belong to church or chapel, while Jews listened to it with amazement and curiosity. However, it provoked, simultaneously and regularly, puzzled incomprehension among the conventional, especially evangelical or fundamentalist Christian members of the audience who believed that they were familiar with the Gospels. "Did I hear you saying," I was often asked, "that there is no evidence in Scripture stating that Jesus was the Messiah or that he was God? But didn't he explicitly assert the opposite, namely that he was the Messiah and the Son of God? Did he not proclaim to the Jews in the Temple of Jerusalem that he and the Father were one?" And so on.
Nine times out of ten, the traditionalists' bewildered question derives from some passage in the Fourth Gospel. My customary reply, which echoes the conclusions of most critical scholars, leaves them as a rule somewhat confused, but ultimately unimpressed. Theycannotswallow the view that the so-called Gospel of John is something special and reflects not the authentic message of Jesus or even the thinking about him of his immediate followers but the highly evolved theology of a Christian writer who lived three generations after Jesus and completed his Gospel in the opening years of the second century A.D. For the average believer, the last Gospel is naturally the best and the most reliable of the four. They hold it to be the work of the apostle and eyewitness of the life of Jesus whom he cherished so much that shortly before dying on the cross he named him his heir and the guardian of his mother, Mary.
It is obvious to anyone acquainted with the doctrinal tradition of the church that the theological understanding of Jesus—who he was and what he did—by historic Christianity ultimately depends on the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul. Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, is primarily responsible for the church's teaching on Christ, the Redeemer of mankind; faith in the divinity of the Son of God and the divorce between Christianity and Judaism, on the other hand, derive first and foremost from the influence of the Fourth Gospel. John's picture of the truly divine Jesus Christ constitutes, it may be said, the climax in the evolution of Christian dogma in the New Testament, its most polished and ultimate expression. For this reason John is chosen as the best point of departure in our historical-spiritual journey. To be more explicit, we shall begin with the doctrinally most evolved stage in our search for the historical reality which lies hidden behind and beneath the earliest stages of the church's belief in the celestial Christ.
Anyone well versed in history knows that the Fourth Gospel is a unique phenomenon. It is unlike the first three Gospels, and comparison reveals that it stands out as truly sui generis, of its own peculiar kind. Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels, follow the same story line and generally can be set out in parallel columns in a so-called Gospel synopsis. They only differ at the beginning and the end of the life of Jesus. The story of his birth and the apparition accounts after his death are all missing from Mark, the earliest of the three, whereas both Matthew and Luke record them, though each in his own way. By contrast, John has his own special vision, aim, and structure. The theological canvas painted by this evangelist, his chronology, and the style of teaching and actual message he attributes to Jesus are largely unparalleled in the Synoptics, and sometimes flatly contradict their testimony.
This view of the Gospels is that of a scholar, of a detached historian, in search of information embedded in the surviving sources. Religious authorities do not like to be faced with contradictory evidence; they strive for reconciliation and harmony. Modern Old Testament research has distinguished four layers or sources in the "Law of Moses," but ancient Jewish tradition managed to amalgamate these into a single unified account, the books of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as we have them. Perturbed by the differences and dissonance in the four records of the life of Jesus, the Christian church also made two kinds of attempt at ironing out discrepancies. The first instinctively imitated ancient Judaism, which had converted the four preexisting "sources" into the single Mosaic Law. Likewise the early church sought to replace the four separate Gospels with one narrative incorporating all the details of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, thus eliminating all the differences. This effort ultimately failed, but for a while a brilliantly conceived Gospel harmony, known as the Diatessaron, or the Four-in-One, attributed to the mid-second-century Christian apologist Tatian, had considerable success in the churches of Syria, where it almost managed to eclipse the individual Gospels. However, from the fifth century onward it was consigned to near oblivion. The second line of defense has succeeded and survives to this day. It represents John as the supreme biographer of Jesus, the author of the spiritual Gospel. Familiar with the works of his predecessors, he is said to have deliberately avoided repeating most of their story, apart from the Passion account, to have restricted himself to supplementing and enriching their records with entire speeches attributed to Jesus, and in general doctrinally developing and improving their narratives.
No critical reading of the four Gospels justifies such an understanding of John. For it is obvious to any religiously unbiased reader that if the Fourth Evangelist is right, his forerunners must be mistaken or vice versa. The Synoptics and John cannot be simultaneously correct when the former assign to Jesus a public career lasting a year, while John stretches it to two or three years by mentioning two or possibly three consecutive Passover festivals during Jesus' ministry in Galilee and Judaea. Likewise, if John's dating of the crucifixion to the day before the Passover, i.e., 14 Nisan, is accurate, the Synoptics who depict the last supper as a Passover dinner and place the events leading to the execution of Jesus on 15 Nisan must be in error. Or to Hebraize and suitably adapt the English proverb to the Passover situation, you can't have your unleavened bread and eat it!
When and by whom was the Fourth Gospel written? The oldest known manuscript fragments of John belong to sometime between A.D. 125 and 150, and equally the oldest references to John's Gospel in early Christian literature come from the mid-second century. So the work was completed before those dates. On the other hand, the highly evolved doctrine of John points to a period posterior to the redaction of the Synoptic Gospels, which is estimated to have taken place in the course of the last quarter of the first century A.D. Likewise the split reflected in John between Judaism and Christianity, with followers of Jesus being expelled from the synagogue, is hardly conceivable before the turn of the first century A.D. I subscribe therefore to the opinion held by mainstream New Testament scholarship that the work was published in the early second century, probably between the years 100 and 110. This chronological hypothesis best fits the evidence available to us and is preferable to the dating of the Fourth Gospel, advanced by some serious experts, to A.D. 150 or beyond.
The same majority opinion considers the identity of the author unascertainable. Apart from the title "according to John," which is ambiguous—which John?—and was only later attached to the composition, the Gospel itself from chapter 1 to chapter 20 mentions no author. In chapter 21, appended by someone distinct from the evangelist (cf. verse 24), an attempt is made to identify him with "the beloved disciple of Jesus," who is tacitly assumed to be the Galilean fisherman John, the son of Zebedee.
Now, according to a garbled version of traditions current among Christians in the second century A.D., the famous church father Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, reported ca. A.D. 180 that the apostle John lived to a great age in Ephesus (western Asiatic Turkey) and produced there the Fourth Gospel. However, no early evidence connects John with Ephesus. He is last mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (8:14) as leading the evangelization of Samaria in the company of Peter. Paul also characterizes him in the company of James, the brother of the Lord, and Peter as one of the three pillars of the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:9). No one testifies in the first century A.D. to John's move to the farther edge of Asia Minor. The martyr bishop Ignatius of Antioch had a splendid opportunity but failed to do so. In his letter to the members of the church of Ephesus, written in ca. A.D. 110, he referred to the Ephesians as the people of Paul, without mentioning that just a few years earlier the great apostle and evangelist John had been residing among them!
To complicate matters further, there seems to have been a number of men named John active in that region. One of these was "John the Elder," a disciple of the Lord according to Papias, bishop of Hierapolis (in Asia Minor), who died around A.D. 130. Incidentally, the author of the second and third letters of John also identifies himself simply as "the Elder." The first letter is not attributed to any named person in the text itself.
Finally, to envisage as the author of the Fourth Gospel an "uneducated and common" Galilean fisherman (Acts 4:13), who was a centenarian give or take a few years yet not only still creative but fully at home in Hellenistic philosophical and mystical speculation, requires a leap of imagination which seems to be beyond the reasonable.
In sum, one can just as well pull a name out of a hat. Candidates in addition to John the apostle could be a presbyter or elder called John; John Mark, Paul's companion (Acts 15:37), referred to by the church father Clement of Alexandria; Lazarus, the friend whom Jesus loved ("the beloved disciple"?); or whomsoever you fancy. The total irreconcilability of the Fourth Gospel with the Synoptics, combined with the late date of its composition, would strongly militate against an author who was an eyewitness of the historical Jesus.
Recent attempts to advance the redaction of the Fourth Gospel nearer to the mid-first century A.D. strike me as historically unsound and theologically quasi-impossible; they are inconsistent with the totality of the evidence. Judging from his work, John was either an educated Jew of mystical leanings who also had some acquaintance with Hellenistic mysticism, or, considering the evangelist's violent detestation of the Jews, a cultured Greek who first toyed with Judaism and subsequently embraced Christianity. The fact that some of the most common Hebrew words (for example, rabbi or rabbouni) are regularly translated into Greek in this Gospel shows that it was primarily intended for a non-Jewish readership. Matthew and Mark, unlike John, assume that their public would understand.
The portrait of Jesus and the message ascribed to him in the Fourth Gospel will be treated in the next chapter. They will be shown to be substantially in advance of the Synoptic Gospels. My main purpose here is to indicate that this discrepancy is not surprising; it is indeed to be expected, bearing in mind that we are dealing with the odd man out among the evangelists.
As I have noted, everything in this Gospel—its story, chronology, and structure—is sui generis. Although John and the Synoptics purport to recount the life and teaching of the same individual, they have precious little in common. So little, in fact, that the straight correspondences are limited to a single chapter, precisely to the first twenty-five verses of John, chapter 6. They represent three consecutive episodes: the miraculous feeding of five thousand people; Jesus walking on the Lake of Galilee; and his entry into a boat heading toward the opposite shore. These accounts are roughly paralleled in Mark and Matthew, the main difference consisting in John's silence on the healing activity of Jesus in the land of Gennesaret (cf. Mark 6:32-56; Matt. 14:13-36).
Some of the prominent features of Jesus' portrait in the Synoptics are either completely absent from the Fourth Gospel, or their significance is greatly diminished. Thus one of the chief aspects of Jesus' function as a healer in the Synoptics, namely, the casting out of demons who were blamed for every kind of illness, is completely missing from John. Such a practice smacked of popular religion, if not of magic, and as such was considered unworthy of the Johannine Jesus. Even the performance of cures, perhaps the dominant feature of the portrait of Jesus in the earlier Gospels, lost its centrality in John. From among the many healing miracles listed in the Synoptics, only a single one survives in this Gospel, and that in a somewhat remanipulated form. The Synoptic story of the Roman centurion's servant healed by Jesus in absentia is turned by John, as I will show presently, into the curing of a Herodian official's son.
The Fourth Evangelist describes only two additional therapeutic episodes: the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda (5:2-9) and the restoration of sight to a man who was blind from birth (9:1-7). The former was made to recover simply by a verbal command, "Rise, take up your pallet and walk!" (5:8), but for the latter Jesus had recourse to a medicinal substance, mud prepared from clay mixed with his saliva. The method is reminiscent of the healing of a deaf and dumb person (Mark 7:33), and of a blind man (Mark 8:23) by the spittle of Jesus. These are the only explicit stories, but John also alludes more generally to "doing signs on those who were diseased" (John 6:2; cf. Mark 6:53-56 and Matt. 14:34-36).
Faint echoes of the Synoptics can be detected in a number of Johannine passages, although in a different context, or with a changed story line. The alterations always seem to be motivated by the more elevated doctrinal concepts of the Fourth Gospel. In other words, even literary considerations alone inescapably lead to the conclusion that, compared with Mark, Matthew, and Luke who stand between the historical Jesus and the earliest formulations of Christianity, John reflects the fully developed form of the primitive belief, the end product of the early church's thinking about Jesus.
For example, in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus expels the money changers and traders in sacrificial animals from the courtyard of the Jerusalem sanctuary a few days before his crucifixion. The episode is presented as the ultimate cause triggering his downfall, and as such possesses great historical probability. John, by contrast, sets the so-called cleansing of the Temple to the beginning of Jesus' activity (2:14-16) and invests it with a prophetic and theological significance. It is an act symbolically alluding to the destruction and subsequent rebuilding of the holy place, itself the prefiguration of Jesus' death and resurrection as is manifest in the words "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19).
Similarly, in the scenario followed by the Synoptics, the only healing act performed by Jesus from a distance benefited the servant of a Gentile army officer retired to Capernaum. The aim of the story was to bring into relief the faith of a non-Jew (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). In the Fourth Gospel the father of the sick person is not a veteran Roman soldier, but a Jewish royal official, no doubt from Tiberias, where the court of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, resided. In short, Jesus was facing a Jewish, not a Gentile, suppliant, and true to the spirit of the Johannine Gospel he immediately rebuked the man, reproaching him with the Jewish sin of greed for miracles. Nevertheless, hearing the moving plea of the distressed father Jesus relented and complied with his prayer (John 4:46-53).
Take again the various Gospel narratives depicting the anointing of Jesus' feet by a woman in Bethany. According to John (12:1-8), six days before Passover Jesus spent the evening in the house of his friend the risen Lazarus whose sister, Mary, then proceeded with the ceremony of anointing. She was criticized by Judas, not for the immodesty of using her hair as a towel, but for wasting the precious aromatic balsam the cost of which might have helped the poor! This story is made up of elements derived from at least two original traditions. The anointing of Jesus' hair (not his feet) by an anonymous woman in Bethany two (not six) days before Passover is reported by Mark (14:3-9) and Matthew (26:6-13). However, the episode is said to have happened in the house of the otherwise unknown Simon the Leper, and not in Lazarus' home. The woman's generous and loving gesture is qualified as a waste by some of those present (Mark), or by the "disciples" (Matthew). A parallel account is missing from Luke, who nevertheless records in a different context (Luke 7:36-50)—in the house of Simon surnamed the Pharisee (not the Leper) and much earlier in the Gospel story—that a prostitute ("a woman of the city who was a sinner") entered the room uninvited and washed Jesus' feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured ointment on them from an alabaster flask. Reading disapproval on Simon's face, Jesus turned the story into a lesson of repentance and forgiveness. The same Luke mentions Jesus' visit in an unnamed (Galilean) village to two sisters, Martha and Mary, but with no mention of a brother called Lazarus or of any anointing of Jesus. The Fourth Evangelist produces here a garbled and conflated tradition with the significant twist that the anointing is criticized, not by the disciples who are thus put in favorable light, but by Judas, a traitor and a thief.
Again, to put into relief the difference between the Synoptics and John, consider the two episodes where in the Fourth Gospel the Baptist and Jesus are brought together. The description of the first encounter between the two at the Jordan is quite similar in John (1:29-37) and the corresponding Synoptic passages. John's phrase, "Behold, the Lamb of God," recalls in the Synoptics the heavenly voice introducing Jesus as God's "beloved Son." (Note that not unlike "kid" in English, the Aramaic "lamb" [talya] is used metaphorically for a child.) But there are also crucial differences. Matthew, Mark, and Luke firmly assert that Jesus humbly sought to be baptized by John. The Fourth Gospel cannot tolerate such self-abasement, and accordingly this evangelist prefers to keep silent on the baptism of Jesus. He thus avoids any possible insinuation that the baptizer John might be superior to the baptized Jesus. The appropriateness of the latter's wish to undergo such a baptism of penitence had already been indirectly queried by the tradition recorded in Matt. 3:14-15. There John is supposed to have remarked in a surprised and apologetic tone: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" A little further on (3:22-30; 4:1-2), and contrary to the respect and harmony implied to have existed between Jesus and the Baptist, the evangelist alludes to strained relations revealed by a rivalry and quarrel between their disciples. Also, to underplay the significance of kinship between the two masters, which if clearly stated might imply that they were at least of similar standing, John makes no reference to the fact, testified to by Luke (1:25-56), that their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, were related.
This mention of the mother of Jesus helps to recall another striking difference between the Synoptics and John. In the Synoptics Jesus is portrayed as showing reserve, verging on hostility, toward his family, including Mary. Mark (3:21) bluntly reports that his relatives held him to be crazy; they wanted to seize him and remove him from the public arena. Elsewhere we are told that his mother and brothers expected, but failed to receive, preferential treatment from Jesus. They reckoned that he would interrupt his teaching when informed that they had arrived. But Jesus rebuffed them: "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. Then, pointing toward his disciples, he declared them to be metaphorically his "mother" and his "brothers" (Mark 3:31-35; Matt. 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21). Apart from the Nazareth episode where Jesus, the son of Mary, is described as "the carpenter" or "the carpenter's son," the Synoptic story loses sight of the family of Jesus. One has to turn to the Acts of the Apostles (1:14) for the next appearance of "Mary, the mother of Jesus and ... his brothers" in the company of "the women," and of the apostles, eleven in number after the defection of Judas Iscariot. Later on we learn also from the Acts of the Apostles that James, "the brother of the Lord," became the leader of the Jerusalem church. Moreover Jude, another of Jesus' four brothers, is presumed to be the author of one of the minor letters of the New Testament. So in time at least part of the family joined the Jesus party.
To return to Mary: the passage in Acts just quoted marks a turning point, the beginning of a favorable attitude toward her, which culminates in the Fourth Gospel. Whereas John is still negative toward the "brothers" of Jesus who "did not believe in him" (John 7:5), he has a positive message about the mother of Jesus.
John, in common with the Synoptics, knows the father of Jesus as Joseph (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:55); both he and Jesus' mother are depicted as well-known citizens of Nazareth (1:45, 6:42). John, however, never uses the name Mary. The "mother of Jesus," as the Fourth Evangelist calls her, first appears in this Gospel as a guest, together with Jesus and his disciples, at a wedding in the village of Cana, close to Nazareth. Noticing that the wine is running out, she urges Jesus, seated next to her, to do something about the embarrassing situation (2:1-3). Mary ignores his evasive answer, and secure in the knowledge that Jesus will not resist her wishes, instructs the servants to follow his orders (2:4-5). After the miracle, the family group—mother, son, and brothers—and the disciples leave together and go to Capernaum (2:12). John's sketch presupposes closeness and warmth between mother and son, so different from the cold and unfriendly attitude toward the interfering family discernible in the Synoptic account. The same loving atmosphere surrounds the scene of the crucifixion, too. In contrast to the accounts of Mark and Matthew where some named women, but not the mother of Jesus, were witnessing the events from a distance (Mark 15:40; Matt. 27:56), Mary according to the Fourth Evangelist stood beside the cross where the dying Jesus entrusted to each other's care his mother and his beloved disciple (19:26-27).
Another major feature distinguishing the Fourth Gospel from the Synoptics resides in their respective understanding of the miracles of Jesus. The first three evangelists consider these as "mighty works," that is to say, acts such as curing the sick, performed for their own sake, which struck the onlookers as miraculous. Jesus is said to have generally and explicitly disapproved of "signs" intended to demonstrate the supernatural power of the person who executed them. He refused to comply with the demand for a "sign" or a "sign from heaven" addressed to him by Jewish notables, Pharisees, scribes, or Sadducees (Mark 8:11; Matt. 12:38; 16:1). He rebuffed them by the comment that only those who belong to an "evil and adulterous generation" (Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Luke 11:29) needed "signs." In the Synoptics, the conclusion drawn from the performance of wonders is that Jesus was a prophet, a traditional element twice echoed in John (6:14; 9:17). Or else the presence of the miraculous indicates, as does the expulsion of demons "by virtue of the finger of God" (Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20), that the Kingdom of God or the messianic age was approaching or indeed that it had already arrived.
Go and tell John [the Baptist] what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. (Matt. 11:4-5)
The context of such happenings recalls the Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521) from Qumran, possibly an Essene composition, where Messiah, healing, resurrection of the dead, and Kingdom of God are mentioned in a single breath.
[the hea]vens and the earth will listen to His Messiah ... He [the Lord] will glorify the pious on the throne of the eternal Kingdom, He who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind, straightens the b[ent] ... For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor.
Prologue: From Christ to Jesus
1. John: The Odd Man Out Among the Evangelists
2. The Jesus of John: Messiah Figure or Stranger from Heaven
3. Paul: The Odd Man Out Among the Apostles
4. The Christ of Paul: Son of God and Universal Redeemer of Mankind
5. The Jesus of the Acts of the Apostles: Prophet, Lord, and Christ
6. The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels: Charismatic Healer and Teacher and Eschatological Enthusiast
7. Beneath the Gospels: The Real Jesus
8. The Real Jesus at the Dawn of the Third Millennium
Epilogue: A Dream