Just in time for Christmas, I finished Geza Vermes’ book “The Nativity: history & legend”. I received the book several years ago from my agnostic mother for Christmas with her well-intended best wishes and knowing my interest in Scripture Biblical studies.
I was very excited to read it and gave it a start during Advent of 2014, but something in its’ approach stopped me short, and being a full-time working mom, exec, and teacher, I put it aside for another time.
I picked it up again this Advent when my son asked if we can read it each evening to prepare for Christmas. It is a beautiful book, with a very festive cover and promise with much of its flap text extolling its virtues and states that it “penetrates the deeper meaning of the New Testament… [with] a new and more powerful understanding of the events celebrated every Christmas season.”
The back of the book jacket contains a review from The Guardian: “Vermes sets about painstaking literary and historical analysis with refreshing humor and enthusiasm…”
After just a few pages in, I decided this was not a bedtime story book to share with my tween-spiritually-focused son. But I was able to recognize quality scholarship, so I placed it next to my own bedside to read and reflect on during Advent.
What a mistake.
Now I do not want to discredit the author’s scholarship and knowledge of historical context. His writing is correct and useful. As one who teaches students about the literature of the Bible, his information is helpful and there are several passages I will indeed share with my students to help them understand the society and time of Jesus (and earlier Jewish history in and around Israel). It is critical to help serious students understand the historical context of the time periods we study including the ‘real’ history, so we can delve deep into the meaning and intentions of the texts. And Vermes delivers that knowledge.
What I do want to do, is draw the attention of future readers to really know what they are picking up to read. Without going deep into the book (for I highlighted and underlined too much), the reader should be aware that what is described as humor and enthusiasm is more often sarcasm and condescending accusations of the evangelists that wrote the Gospels that include Infancy Narratives. (Matthew & Luke). Vermes approach is too historical.
Missing is a real understanding of the how and why the evangelists wrote in the manner they did. They did not write biographies of Jesus, they wrote theological tracts for specific communities in a period two millennia ago that understood prophecy, natural occurrences, history and memory in a very different way than we do today. Analyzing any written work from that time period requires one to utilize the lens of the time, not our post-modern lens. We actually lose perspective, the deeper meanings and understanding by trying to force the writing to meet our contemporary standards and styles.
The writer(s) of the Gospel of Matthew is writing for a predominantly Jewish-Christian community struggling to persevere in a community that has been torn apart by the Roman’s occupation, destruction of the temple, loss of formalized worship, just as the Jews of the Babylonian exile had to rely on their priestly writers to shape and redact the Torah to serve their needs, so did this new generation of theologians writing some 50 years after Jesus’ death based on oral stories passed down from a few different sources. They are facing excommunication from their own synagogues and families and are alone in trying to make sense of the miracles and teaching of Jesus. Being a true Christian has never been easy, try following Jesus’ teaching and you will understand.
Luke’s writer has the same purpose, but from a different perspective; most likely writing for a more Gentile (pagan) audience to understand who Jesus is and what he means to the greater world in offering salvation and a single God. Luke had to reach farther back than Jewish/Israelite history to a more universal ‘father’ in Abraham and Adam.
What I find interesting is that we, today, can read and study philosophy, but not necessarily judge it only with an historical eye, but we look for what it means and how it applies to us today. How did it shape the community it was written in, and in every level of societal development since.
Back to Vermes. His use of exclamation points, derision of esteemed Christian scholars, and criticism of ‘Matthew’s’ use of sources, as if we really knew exactly what ‘Matthew’ had at his disposal at the time of his writing, bears a certain egotism and irreverence for a powerful work that has shaped history, people and societies for close to 2,000 years (not without its own evils, most assuredly – but I would remind readers to return back to the teachings of Christ and know that it is in man’s weakness that ‘the church’ has abused its opportunities throughout the history of Christianity. Look to most large organizations and not find corruption, I challenge anyone.)
Vermes gives much new historical perceptive (for me and surely other readers) but several of the arguments are ‘old news’ – such as the word for virgin or young maiden in describing Mary and the speculation of the authors trying to manipulate their audience. His reproach of the Gospel writers’ criticizes their handling of ‘biblical evidence’ in a way that borders on the absurd, why can the writers of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Testament, also known as the TaNaKh, write of new prophecies or offer new teachings, but the authors of the Gospels, just few hundred years later have to meet a different standard?
In all, I would recommend the book for those seeking serious study, but able to take in Vermes work with the ‘grain of salt’. There is much value in his work, but his approach leaves much to be desired, and in today’s society, with our desperate need for ecumenicalism and religious understanding, I hope he will rethink his writing approach in the future.
(p.s. Goodreads description of the book is much more appropriate.)