ReViews: The Beginning and End of Jesus’ Earthly Life
(New York: Doubleday, 2007), 192 pp., $17.95 (paperback)
Well, brace yourselves, gentle readers, for you are offered not one but two recent commentaries on Jesus. The latest,
just released, is The Nativity, and follows an earlier publication, The Passion. Both are authored by the
acclaimed scholar and Oxford don, Geza Vermes. Although Professor Vermes’s qualifications are undisputed, can he offer
anything new? The answer is yes. Although plowing old ground, so to speak, he manages to unearth fresh insights.
that, while it is historically likely that a charismatic religious figure named Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem and
crucified around 30 A.D.,b the details of this
episode are susceptible to a range of interpretations. Exactly when did Jesus’ last meal and his subsequent arrest
occur? By whom was he arrested? What were the charges against him and who brought them? Why did his disciples flee? All
these uncertainties and more are evaluated in a careful and balanced discussion, not only of the Gospel texts but of
relevant legal, religious, political and social practices.
charged film on the same subject, is who—between “the Jews” and the Roman authorities—bears the
ultimate responsibility for Jesus’ execution. Vermes concludes that although Jesus was arrested by Temple authorities,
the charge of blasphemy reported in the Synoptic Gospels was at best extremely weak. Instead, fearing that Jesus might
incite an uprising-prone population, the high priestly establishment opted to convince the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate,
that Jesus was guilty of sedition. Contrary to the Gospels’ portrayal of Pilate as a reluctant participant, Vermes
points to extra-Biblical sources that describe Pilate as a merciless ruler who would have needed little persuasion. The
chorus of the Jewish “multitude” calling for Jesus’ crucifixion is therefore either a literary invention
or, more likely, the result of stage management by the high priestly accusers. Underlying the entire proceeding, Professor
Vermes detects the guiding will of High Priest Annas, the Tony Soprano of the high priestly mafia, who secured the office
himself from the Roman governor Quirinius, then saw it go to a succession of five sons, a grandson, and at least one
son-in-law, the notorious Caiaphas.
festive associations of its subject. Again, Vermes dissects differences in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, these
being the only two Gospels that deal with Jesus’ birth. He provides a detailed analysis of the many and often
mystifying discrepancies between Matthew and Luke’s respective genealogies of Jesus: the number of generations between
David and Jesus (28 vs. 42); the inclusion of women by Matthew; the nearly total disparity in the specific listings from
David’s son (Solomon vs. Nathan) to Joseph’s father (Jacob vs. Heli). To account for these variations, Vermes
postulates the existence of private genealogical lists, now lost, and supposes that separate versions have been used by the
two evangelists and edited to suit their doctrinal purposes.
irreconcilable with the claim of Jesus’ virginal conception and birth, which requires a denial of the paternity of
Joseph. The Nativity provides an engaging discussion of the efforts of the gospel writers to deal with this
contradiction. From much sifting of the evidence, two points seem to stand out. One is the discovery in 1894 of perhaps the
oldest Semitic text of Matthew, which appears to endorse the paternity (in the conventional way) of Joseph. The second is
Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 as a proof text—that is, a prophecy that Jesus’ birth
was thought to have fulfilled: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” etc. (Matthew
the so-called Old Testament. The original Hebrew, however, employs the term almah, meaning “young woman”
and, moreover, likely refers to the already married (and scarcely virginal) wife of the eighth-century B.C. Jewish king,
Ahaz. Thus, Matthew would appear to have relied erroneously on Isaiah 7:14 in support of his claim of
that the date must have been prior to 4 B.C. (i.e., before Herod’s death), rather than in 6 A.D. when the census of
Quirinius (cited by Luke) occurred. He then shows that neither an origin in Bethlehem (Matthew), nor a trip there (Luke), is
highly plausible, but was most likely woven into the story to support the authors’ Messianic claims and Jesus’
Davidic lineage (David was born in Bethlehem—1 Samuel 16:1, etc.).
sorted and qualified by the author’s considerable scholarship, still leaves gaps that can onlybe filled in by
speculation, as Vermes himself recognizes. Sound speculation requires common sense, but common sense is not the exclusive
purview of scholars. Thus Vermes’ skilled arranging of the issues provides an excellent starting point for general
readers to exercise their own judgment.