In the Telegraph
, the writer and journalist A. N. Wilson has a real dig at Geza Vermes' work, generally (it seems) his historical Jesus work, more specifically his new book on the resurrection. This was a bit of a surprise as I didn't know Wilson had taken back his earlier Vermes inspired views:
Geza Vermes and his writings on the historical Jesus cast a spell on students of the New Testament a generation ago. I was seduced by his book Jesus the Jew (1973) and by the charm of Vermes himself, but now I am ashamed of the book about Jesus which I wrote when under the influence.
Anyway, Wilson claims that 'More rigorous New Testament scholars [citing Nineham] had all warned us off such territory'. Is Nineham more rigorous than Vermes? In general terms I suppose it is possible to tell the difference between rigorous and non-rigorous but when it comes to detailed works, then how can we measure? One way might be to say that Vermes was far more rigorous in his handling of Jewish sources than most NT scholars, so where does this leave us?
In a lot of Wilson's review I am not sure if he is firing at Vermes' historical Jesus work in general in addition to his book on the resurrection or only Vermes' new book. Take this for instance:
At least 100 years ago, the quest for the historical Jesus was shown to be a wild goose chase. Vermes's beguiling attempt to revive it has not yielded one jot of new information.
I'm not sure if Wilson is referring to Vermes' new book on the resurrection which I haven't read so I couldn't possibly comment. But if he is referring to Vermes' historical Jesus work in general, that statement is a little problematic. Whether Vermes provided new information is not the easiest thing to assess in NT studies and HJ studies with so many working in the area but his view of Jesus' Jewishness undoubtedly played a massive role in shifting interests to Jesus' Jewish context and helped move away from some of the highly dubious views concerning Judaism in NT studies. That is some achievement, is it not? Of course, Wilson may well agree with that.
There is also ambiguity in Wilson's wording in the following:
The "Lives of Jesus" school of reading the material overlooks the central, and historically, the earliest, stuff: namely Paul's "visionary" Christ, who died for our sins and rose again for our justification. That is where a detective would start looking for resurrection.
I assume Wilson is referring to historical Jesus scholarship rather than C19 scholarship (am I reading this correctly?). If so this sounds a little strange to me IF Wilson is thinking beyond the resurrection. IF he is discussing HJ scholarship in general, well why would any HJ scholar be so concerned with Paul in this sense? HJ Jesus scholars are concerned with Jesus, and Pauline scholars Paul. I know there's overlap but the basic point stands. IF Wilson only
means resurrection, then, 'yes' in the sense begin with Paul, but 'no' in the sense that HJ Jesus' apparently don't do this. Sure some conservative scholars may well begin with the gospel accounts but when it comes to the resurrection loads of HJ scholars working on the historical accuracy of the resurrection accounts go straight to Paul, do they not?
Some of the review strikes me as quite misleading about NT scholarship. For, for instance:
Then Acts, which he astoundingly uses as an historical source. (I now realise it is largely fiction, as I was told by the other dons a generation ago!)
This is a really tricky question. I wouldn't even like to estimate how many believe what in terms of the historicity of Acts but, irrespective of the reality of the situation (I am pretty agnostic on the whole) and the complexities of historicity (generally? specifics?), it is, rightly or wrongly, hardly 'astounding' in terms of contemporary scholarship to use Acts as a historical source. Plenty of mainstream scholars would, rightly or wrongly, use Acts as a useful historical source and, convincing or not, can make arguments to back up their case. If someone argued in detail that Acts could not possibly be used as a historical source and then said it was 'astonishing' to use Acts as a historical source then ok, fair enough. But as a general summary it is misleading to say the least.
I don't mean to be wholly negative. There's this:
The real detective would see that, though some sayings in the Gospels might go back to the historical Jesus, and others not, there is no foolproof methodology which could distinguish one from another.
Seems fair enough, but then people say the same things about Acts.
I have to comment on this:
The Gospels are, to use a phrase, Roman Catholic - they are written after the destruction of Jerusalem (and Judaism) and after the establishing of the New Israel in, among other places, Rome.
In light of contemporary NT scholarship (for what it is worth), this is bit confident and a bit sweeping, is it not?
I'm unsure about this but maybe I agree:
But before Catholicism there was the Protestant Paul. In so far as there is a source for the times of the historical Jesus, it is Paul, who wrote only 20 years after the Crucifixion. He claimed that more than 500 witnesses had seen the risen Christ. Make of this what you will, but it must be your starting point.
Well, if we used Paul we'd know little about HJ. Lived, died, said something about divorce and not too much more. But it seems Wilson is talking more about the resurrection (am I right?) and then, yes, the visions are crucial and certainly the starting point.
This was a particularly interesting turn of phrase:
Vermes writes as if Paul merely invented his visions of a risen Christ in order "to insinuate his equality to Peter and James". Could so outright a liar have been the author of the passage in Philippians about "whatsoever things are lovely and of good report"? Maybe - there's nowt so queer as New Testament folks. But a detective should surely have had his ear cocked for these mysteries.
This is where it is particularly unfortunate that I haven't seen Vermes' book. I'm interested in Wilson's wording, 'Vermes writes as if
Paul merely invented his visions'. Presumably, then, Vermes doesn't go this far so is it fair to claim that Vermes' Paul is 'so outright a liar'? I can't speak for Vermes obviously but I personally think Paul witnessed a vision and he used this to support his authority. But I don't think he was lying. I'd be surprised if Vermes goes so far as to suggest Paul was a liar but I guess I'll just have to wait and see.
Not overly keen on this (and I've heard it said by NT scholars from time to time).
That is what you confront all the time if you read the New Testament with an open and inquiring mind - mysteries.
Hmmmm. Sounds a wee bit too pious for my tastes. History provides mysteries all the time so I'm a wee bit suspcious of the motivation here. But then I would, wouldn't I?