My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The late Geza Vermes was a hugely respected New Testament scholar and this is his short take on the key to the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus.
Vermes surveys the evolving views on post-mortem existence in the Old Testament from a peaceful burial, to the shadows of Sheol and the developing idea of resurrection, final judgement and heaven. He clearly has a deep respect for the ‘healthy realism of the ancient Hebrews’ that the supreme goal was ‘to enjoy a God-fearing, long and happy life amid their families and expect at the end, having reached the fullness of years, to join peacefully their predecessors in the ancestral tomb’ (p16). My guess is, this was close to his own belief and advocates a deeply religious view of life that doesn’t seem to be too weighed down by notions of the afterlife (p26).
He examines the various views on eternal life around the time of Jesus and his view that the resurrection did not play a central role in the teaching of Jesus. He considers the reported miracles of the dead being raised and the significance, if any, of those events as reported in the Gospels. He considers the general reporting of the Gospel writers to be contradictory and not offering a consistent narrative or view on the resurrection. Yet Christianity appears to have offered something quite distinct from the prevailing views. It preached the sure hope of a bodily resurrection where a person’s spirit would be united with a new and imperishable body that could, through faith in God, receive eternal life.
The survey as a whole is wide-ranging, brief and worth-considering. Some of the questions Vermes raises are not easily dismissed, particularly around how the disciples could both understand and yet misunderstand Jesus’ apparently clear predictions of his resurrection and Matthew’s more spectacular reporting, with the dead wandering around Jerusalem but without any word as to what happened next.
He considers the appearances to be of no historical value and unable to withstand scrutiny but he does consider the empty tomb to be a genuine fact. Therefore, for me, as a Christian, the most fascinating part of his review was the final chapter. What did he think happened?
Vermes considers 8 possibilities. Well, when I say considers he actually dismisses two out of hand. He rejects both the idea that the resurrection was a pure invention and that it actually happened. Then he considers six alternatives (that the body of Jesus was moved by someone, stolen by the disciples, the empty tomb was a different tomb, Jesus didn’t actually die, Jesus went to Kashmir or Rome, and that the resurrection was a spiritual, not physical thing) and rejects all of them. Interesting!
His solution is ‘resurrection in the hearts of men’. “The conviction in the spiritual presence of the living Jesus accounts for the resurgence of the Jesus movement after the crucifixion” (p152). Essentially, because the disciples found they could still perform miracles, that was evidence they needed that Jesus had risen from the dead. But he doesn’t seem to account for the empty tomb at all.
I think Vermes prefers the idea of a spiritual resurrection but that fails to account for why the early church insisted on an empty tomb. They could just as easily have preached that the spirit of Christ appeared to them and been ok with the idea of the body still being in the tomb. That would have been novel but acceptable and certainly not nearly as novel as the idea that Jesus was physically resurrected and ascended to heaven.
They didn’t do that and although their accounts seem contradictory to Vermes they all agree on three basic facts: Jesus was crucified, there was an empty tomb, his followers claimed to have seen him. Vermes agrees with all three claims but doesn’t satisfactorily account for claim 2 & 3.
If you want a scholarly overview of the New Testament material from a non-Christian but non-cynical view then this is probably as good as you’ll get. Vermes knows his stuff, takes it seriously, deals with faith respectfully and rejects the more polemical approaches even if he himself was never convinced by the churches own interpretation.
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