Williams on Vermes on Christian Origins

Rowan Williams

Those of you not familiar with Rowan Williams may know only that he is the archbishop of Canterbury, one in a long succession of postholders who began his career not exactly in the Church but in the dank cloisters of Oxford. (Reflect for a moment that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, not always but often, choose scholars for leaders.  Can that be said in any other corporation, outside the university I mean?)

Rowan, who received his DPhil a few years before me (in the area then normally called “patristics”) when he was at Wadham and I was at Keble, have only one thing in common: we wrote poetry.  His is good and mine is bad.  That is not a plea for mercy and feint praise; it is a fact.  Have a look if you don’t believe me.

In the following review of Geza Vermes’s new book, Christian Beginnings, Rowan Williams provides a masterful précis of the way in which Vermes, whom he rightly calls the “doyen” of the literature of  late ancient Judaism (and early Christianity), conceives the development of the Christain movement. It is a refreshing and sane departure from some of obscurity that has had to be discussed on this site recently. And I highly commend the Vermes book as a solid and often insightful look, from the Jewish perspective, onto the origins of Christianity.

The most important thing for any theory of the origins of Christianity is that it be plausible.   This means meeting two conditions: (a) It should conform to the patterns of historical development that can be observed in cognate social and intellectual movements within relevant periods and cultures, and (b) As an explanation, it should not be more complex than the record it is trying to explain.  The second of course is the doctrine of the medieval scholastic William of Ockham, and became known as “ontological parsimony” or “the razor” in later philosophy:  Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate–Causes should not be multiplied beyond necessity.  

Unlike Dr Williams, William of Ockham, who was pronounced an “inceptor” (beginner) in theology after studying it at Oxford from 1309 to 1323, never received his Master’s degree and was pronounced a heretic by the papal court at Avingnon in 1326.

Be careful Rowan: you retire in December.

The review is taken from The Guardian:

Religions that claim universally relevant and abidingly truthful revelations have a clear interest in showing that their history is one of continuity. If you believe that your vision of God and reality in general is in some sense a gift from outside the human psyche, it won’t do to allow unlimited adjustments to that vision. But all human language does adjust to historical change, even when trying to stay the same; as Cardinal Newman observed, to say the same thing as your ancestors said, you may well need to say something apparently very different. So how do you resolve the question of what is genuinely an “unfolding” of the original vision and what is an arbitrary elaboration that distorts that vision?

Geza Vermes is the unchallenged doyen of scholarship in the English-speaking world on the Jewish literature of the age of Jesus, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls. In a series of deeply learned and lucid books, he has opened up the subject to non-specialist readers, offering some provocative and searching questions for Christian readers of their scriptures. In this book, he takes the story a little further forward, to trace the evolution of a distinctively Christian vocabulary up to and including the era when the first Christian creeds were being formulated. His subtitle flags up the climax of the story, at the Council of Nicaea in 325, when what he describes as a “revolutionary new formula” was agreed – thanks largely to pressure from a Roman emperor newly sympathetic to the Christian faith, and as eager as any contemporary politician to make it serve the cause of social cohesion.

The shape of the narrative as he tells it is one that most Christian scholars will recognise. In the beginning, Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic wonder-worker whose profile has some parallels with fairly well-known Jewish saints and sages of his period, proclaims a radically simplified version of the law of Moses and the religion of the Hebrew prophets, with a special stress on the claims of those who think of themselves as having no claims – the destitute, the marginal, the failed. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of all is the way in which Jesus puts at the centre of his world the child, the one who responds without reserve to an unreserved gift of love. “Neither biblical nor post-biblical Judaism,” Vermes notes, “make of the young an object of admiration.” The early community of Jesus’s followers is shaped by charismatic phenomena – healing, prophetic ecstasy – tight corporate discipline, the expectation of the end of the world, and certain social rituals that reinforce the strong family-like bonds of the group. Parts of the family open up to non-Jews, others don’t. The language used about Jesus never goes beyond that appropriate to “a man of high spiritual dignity”.

What follows is a steady drift away not only from the religion of Jesus and of the first generation but, more seriously, a loss of interest in the essence of “charismatic Judaism” with its suspicion of formalism and its intimacy with God – and an increasingly negative attitude to Judaism as such. The greater the dignity ascribed to Jesus, it seems, the stronger the urge to denigrate and disown his Jewish identity and the Jewish faith itself. With the help of imported mythical, literary and philosophical categories, the Christian community develops a complex system of cosmology in which Jesus has become a co-creator, a pre-existent divine being manifested on earth. It is, in Vermes’s words, often a “poetic” achievement, a “majestic synthesis”; but it is undeniably something different from the religion of Jesus and the religion of Jesus’s first followers.

I said a moment ago that this is not an unfamiliar account for scholars of Christian origins. It has much in common with the picture elaborated in the great theological schools of the European universities, especially in Germany, from the late 19th century onwards. What makes Vermes’s version new is his refusal to follow these earlier scholars in their negativity towards Judaism and in the fact of his unparalleled familiarity with the entire spread of Jewish thinking in the age of Jesus and Paul. His Jesus is very much the representative of an intensified version of Mosaic and prophetic faith, set against a Jewish world that is dramatically diverse and bubbling with new and radical bids for defining Jewish identity.

But some of the themes of an earlier scholarly generation recur. John’s gospel has to be treated as a bit of an aberration – though Vermes rightly grants that we cannot write off John’s language as simply the result of borrowing from non-Jewish sources. Many, if not most, scholars would be very cautious now about too simple a polarity between “Hebrew” and “Greek” styles of thinking. Again Vermes is inclined to see “Platonic” themes as one of the elements that work the alchemical change in Christianity that will make it unrecognisable to its founder. There is an assumption that the basic alteration is a matter of turning the faith that Jesus himself held into a faith about him.

If Vermes is wholly right, any claims about the “revealed” authority of traditional Christian faith are pretty dubious. The creeds are the product of a very secular chain of political and intellectual influences, serving to obscure the historical core of what was new in Jesus’s life and work. But the story is not so simple. Vermes shows how the sort of thing that was being claimed in the creed of 325 had very clear antecedents within a century of Jesus’s crucifixion – so that it is odd to speak of a “revolutionary” position advanced in 325. Everyone at the Council of Nicaea believed they were defending immemorial tradition; and they were right to the extent that extravagant language about who Jesus “really” was goes back a long way. Despite Vermes’s skilful argument, it is hard simply to deny that Christian scripture does show people praying to the exalted Jesus from very early indeed. Someone reading the convoluted texts of early Christian argument might well see them less as a series of baroque elaborations on a theoretical theme than as a series of attempts to capture an elusive but inescapable insight. Each effort generates more unfinished business; and the impetus is not to clarify ideas for their own sakes but to do justice to the sense that whatever Jesus introduces into the world is new and awkward enough to need a new vocabulary.

This connects with an aspect of the Jewish world of Jesus’s day that Vermes skirts a little. The authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls thought of their community in its remote desert setting as the “real” temple. The great structure built by King Herod in Jerusalem was an empty shell: God did not live there but among his faithful servants in the desert. Something of this carries over into the New Testament. Where does God “live”? Among his people; his name, his full, identifiable presence, is to be found among those who associate themselves with Jesus. And if the community around Jesus is now a temple, the high priest who offers sacrifice there is Jesus himself. Put that together with the idea that the earthly temple is a kind of sacrament of the eternal worship in heaven, led by a godlike archangel, and you can see how speculation about who Jesus really is begins to get some purchase. And as this develops into the idea that the angelic high priest really carries in himself the divine name and power, the full-blown doctrine of incarnation, the divine life being clothed in human flesh and blood, steadily takes form.

Vermes’s account, for all its lucidity, does not quite allow us to see the energy behind such a movement of ideas. Nor, as other commentators have said, are we helped to see why this particular charismatic wonder-worker rather than others attracted the extraordinary claim that he was the vehicle of unconditional creative power and the enabler of a new kind of worship – the paradox that the creed of 325 enshrined, in words Christians still use. This is a beautiful and magisterial book; but it leaves unsolved some of the puzzles that still make readers of the New Testament pause to ask what really is the right, the truthful, way to talk about a figure like the Jesus we meet in these texts.

11 thoughts on “Williams on Vermes on Christian Origins

  1. At only 288 pages, he must be packing a lot weight, not to mention be a master of prose. Nevertheless, it looks to be one to add to the buy list as well as be a good future reference source for those of us with undergraduate degrees.

  2. “Everyone at the Council of Nicaea believed they were defending immemorial tradition;” How can we know this? Especially when they nearly worshiped the emperor Constantine as God while at the same time writing a creed confessing Jesus as God. Were they all really convinced they were defending “immemorial tradition” or did some of these realize they were the emperor’s lackeys?

    • I can’t agree with the Bish on this, and I can’t imagine what was on the mind of “every” member, especially since the west was virtually not there at all. What we do know (and I know the Bish knows) is that Arius was probably on everybody’s mind and that Athanasius was on everybody’s nerves. Even Constantine’s.

      • Athanasius still seems to get on people’s nerves even to this day.

        They may also have had Eusebius of Nicomedia on their minds as well as he was no intellectual slouch when it came to defining what he, Arius and others thought to be proper Christian Doctrine.

  3. There’s no doubt that early to Nicean-era Christianity especially, was obsessed by what in effect was an early version of the Historicist/Mythicist argument: is Jesus 1) material and historical, or 2) spiritual (or even, ultimately, mythic). As recast by Vermer and others, this was sometimes paralleled as Jesus 1) a being rather concrete, Old Testament Jewish heir or would-be earthly king. Vs. 2) Platonic, Pauline, Greco-Roman, and a spiritual vision only.

    My own perspective here would be that even the Bible itself debates this; that the Old and New Testaments essentially battle this out. Largely by way of their own continuous midrashic debate on the importance of physical, material realities, vs. spiritual futurism.

    So the Bible itself debates this issue; in part the debate between materialism and spiritualism, is a debate between the Old vs. the New Testament. Yet while the NT is largely spiritual, the debate between spirituality and materiality is to some extent carried, out even within the New Testament itself, internally.

    So what, if anything, is the final outcome of this important debate? What is the Bible’s final position on the debate on the status of 1) physical reality, vs. 2) spiritual intellectual Ideas? (Or as some see it, Judaism vs. Christianity?). Ultimately I and others see both views as important. Though I see problems with a too-extreme spirituality; one that neglects physical necessities and so forth. And I see that ultimately, the final work of the Bible – Revelation – seems concerned that the spiritual, sometimes too-complete rejection of physicality in the NT, needs some counterbalance. So that the end of the Bible requires that God returns, out of the spiritual heaven, to a material existence here, on this physical earth (Rev. 21; from Isa. 65-6 etc.).

    So where does the Bible stand on this physical relaity/vs. spiritual reality issue? Following what I believe I have found in the text, finally I stress the importance of a Return; a Return to empirical, even scientific physicality in our religion. Which I suggest is the meaning of the “appearance”/ “parousia”/ Second Coming (Rev. 21, etc.).

    [Though? For various reasons I might now add, this position does not necessarily perfectly correlate to an insistence that there was a real, physical, historical Jesus. In “Jesus” to be sure, we could simply have a fictional, imaginary construct of words, of airs. One however, guiltily acknowledging its own incomplete status. Acknowledging that to become fully real, a spirit, an idea, must be able to descend to, compromise with, this material reality. To get real, even empirically-verifiable results, here on this physical earth.

    Much of religion debates the issue of 1) Physicality vs. 2) spirituality. My own finding is that the Bible itself debates this at length, but ultimately stresses physical, material proofs. But at the same time my own emphasis on a return to physicality, does not necessarily extend to the seemingly- complimentary thesis that Jesus Christ was already a fully real, physical, historical person. Or rather, it insists that Jesus is not “fully” real, until we see his persona realized as a real, physical, material being, in our own time and thereafter.

    Or to make it simple: “Jesus Christ” is today mostly an ideal, a sensation of spirit, and is not fully, historically real; not until the Second Coming.]

    The religious world – and in consequence of that the Bible itself – for a long time seemed undetermined on this issue; it actively debated the virtues of physical vs. spiritual lives. Though in the end it insists, I find, that empirical reality be given more weight. And if our “Jesus Christ” specifically has been merely a too-mental, imaginary ideal or myth? Then it is to be given not so much importance; unless or until it can return to physical reality, and demonstrate real physical, material results, “fruits,” “works,” “signs,” “deeds,” and “proofs”; as verified in a timely way (“soon”), here on this material “earth.” In a form verifiable even by “science” (Dan. 1.4-15 KJE; 1 Kings 18.21-39; 1 Thess. 5.21; Mat. 7.15-22; Deut. 7.13).

  4. Ah it is nice to have something sane and interesting here. Iv’e enjoyed Vermes; work and hope to get ahold of this eventualy. The realization that The Jesus of the earliest New Testament text fits in with Judaism of the time has been one of the more interesting realizations of recent Christian studies. I have been interested if some of the notions of Jesus as an exaulted heavenly being may not go to Jesus himself and be comprehensible in Jewish tradtions of the first century. This would be contrary to the notion i think is common today that Jesus just thought of himself as a prophet and it was his followers who imagined he was messiah and that he was somehow intercoinected with God. I wonder if they were in a way primed to beleive Jesus was glorified and risen to his father by Jesus himself.

  5. “What follows is a steady drift away not only from the religion of Jesus and of the first generation but, more seriously, a loss of interest in the essence of “charismatic Judaism” with its suspicion of formalism and its intimacy with God – and an increasingly negative attitude to Judaism as such.”

    If the Pauline epistles are accepted to be from the 50s, and Mark from the 60s or 70s, then the “steady drift” was actually an almost instant stampede.
    No scholar has yet successfully explained this complete reversal in such a breathtakingly rapid amount of time, and it beggars belief that the first generation of Jewish Christians who engineered the extraordinary metamorphosis of Jesus into God would then exit out of history with barely a potsherd left of their existence.

    • I couldn’t disagree more. “Breathtakingly rapid amount of time.” Was it? What are the coordinates for whatever transformation you are turning this drift into? If a generation is defined as twenty five years, one could not reach the end of the first century without drift. But that isn’t the point: we know more about the transmission of the Jesus-story than about any controls that may have existed to keep it in check, and written gospels (and letters) could not have done that in an illiterate population, even if the gospels and letters date from the mid- to late first century. In fact, isn’t one of Paul’s complaints in Gal 1 & 2 that it isn’t being kept in check, so he must know something about the stories he’s hearing, and they aren’t only his or necessarily comparable to his? Where is the breathtaking reversal? Vermes ranges from Galilee to Nicaea; that approximates the extent of a network by the fourth century. Myths on the other hand are much more tightly controlled–something mythtics consistently fail to acknowledge. You don’t really see a lot of the NT in the Nicene settlement do you? Nor Judaism? That is Vermes’s point, and it is hard to find fault with it, it seems to me. To use a homespun analogy: I don’t really know much about my great granparents, and nothing about theirs. I might believe almost anything any “qualified teller” told me about them, subject to a few “core” stories (and probably plenty of embellished ones). This is perfectly explicable even though we live in an age of information-preservation, and have for several centuries They did not die as martyrs, and were not people of any great “spiritual significance.” I do not doubt their existence, that they spoke German, the name of their hometown, and when, that, and how they died. Without reminding me (as you may be tempted) that they were advantaged with descendants and Kodak (I know that much) and Jesus wasn’t, are you not impressed rather that so much that seems plausible was preserved in written sources, rather than that over time drift occurred, given the fact that the belief that Jesus was extraordinary (to use your word) was almost “instant”? I know you were being facetious about potsherds; but can I interest you in a few thousand papyrus scraps and a few rocks? Probably not, since you give the game away with this: “Jewish Christians who engineered the extraordinary metamorphosis of Jesus into God would then exit [out of] history with barely a potsherd left of their existence.” Is this the case, or is there an elephant you are forgetting? Start with Paul’s letters, Paul being a Jewish Christian; move to the Gospel of Matthew (at a minimum) by a Jewish Christian, and play it forward–many of us would argue that Marcion was a Jewish Christian, or perhaps just a renegade Jew who found Christianity compatible, as well. When did do they exit history without a trace? They certainly became a minority in Jerusalem, and we know why. Anyway, if you think you can’t profit from the infinitely good sense of Geza Vermes, that’s fine: but many have.

    • In addition to Joe’s comment, many scholars have attempted to provide an explanation for the origins of Christianity and many recent advances have been made. For example probably the most important recent contributions to an explanation are James Crossley’s “Why Christianity Happened: a Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26CE-50CE). (WJK 2006), Maurice Casey, “From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God”, (WJK, 1991) etc. The question of the origins of Christianity is a major concern in the work of the Jesus Process. (and have just ordered Vermes’ book)

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