Sadly, or perhaps fittingly, one of the greatest Jewish Jesus scholars of all time, Géza Vermes, has passed away today on Yom Yerushalayim, as Israel celebrates the reclaiming of Jerusalem in 1967.
Messianic believers had a kind of scholarly ally in Vermes: he argued, as many Torah-observant Messianics do, that the historical Jesus is so radically different from modern Christianity that Christians may want to rethink the fundamentals of their faith. In particular, Christians should rethink how we approach the Torah (the Law of Moses); today's Christianity largely considers it irrelevant and obsolete, though the historical Jesus upheld it.
I was introduced to Vermes several years ago through an enlightening article he wrote on Josephus, the 1st-century Jewish historian and early witness to the Jesus movement. Vermes’ radical conclusions on Josephus's writings is that virtually all of Josephus' statements on Jesus are authentic, and not the product of later Christian editors as some claim.
(If Vermes was right, and Josephus’ writings on Jesus are indeed authentic, it has profound implications for Judaism and Jesus faith.)
Through his books on Jesus, such as The Gospel of Jesus the Jew, Vermes described Jesus as a 1st-century Jewish holy man who directed his message to the Jewish people alone. And I think this isn't too far from the truth: the New Testament itself records Jesus ministry as directed almost entirely to Israel; we don't see any "go to the gentiles" sort of command until immediately before Messiah's ascension to heaven.
As a Jewish Catholic priest who converted to Liberal Judaism, Vermes believed not in Christianity, but in an authentic, historical Jesus whose gospel could be discovered through studying the New Testament.
"Archaeological finds [such as the Dead Sea Scrolls] have all taught us something new, but the best source for reconstructing the portrait of the historical Jesus has been available all the time. It lies in the New Testament – provided it is interpreted with a view to discovering what the original writes meant to convey to the original readers. [...] Today, theologians and secular historians of religion, working hand in hand using the latest linguistic, archaeological and cultural tools, should be able to retrieve the authentic Gospel of Jesus, his first-hand message to his original followers."
Vermes suggested that, properly understood, the historical Jesus is a figure that Jews should find familiar and attractive. This understanding of Jesus in the Jewish world is one that will ultimately triumph, I believe, with Vermes being an a kind of trailblazer in a growing | choir | of Jewish voices – scholarly, secular, and religious – that find Jesus and his message to be absolutely and utterly Jewish.
Today, on Yom Yerushalayim, Israel celebrates a great Scriptural & historical reclaiming: Jerusalem, after nearly 2000 years, was reclaimed by the Jewish people on this day in 1967.
But Vermes was a trailblazing voice for another great Scriptural reclaiming: the Jewish reclaiming of Jesus, an event that we hold will one day culminate in the physical and spiritual salvation of all Israel and the return of King Messiah to Zion, a time that I believe has drawn nearer because of Vermes’ earnest work towards the historical, Jewish Jesus.
Vermes will be remembered & missed.