Once Upon a Time

Christian Beginnings

From Nazareth to Nicaea, A.D. 30–325
Geza Vermes
Yale University Press, $30, 288 pp.

From the opening of Christian Beginnings, the late Géza Vermes’s approach to the history of early Christianity perplexed me. In this, his last book, the eminent scholar of early Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Gospels turned his attention to later centuries to show that “by the early fourth century, the practical, charismatic Judaism preached by Jesus was transformed into an intellectual religion defined and regulated by dogma.” Yes, early Christianity had a few world-class intellectuals, and important dogmas were developing over time. But Christianity, then as now, can be described primarily as intellectual and dogmatic only if one sets aside lots of evidence. That’s precisely what Vermes does in this book.

He begins with examples of the “charismatic Judaism” that he first covered in Jesus the Jew (1973). This is the world of Jesus and other rabbinic wonder-workers, such as Honi “The Circle-Drawer” and Hanina ben Dosa. These figures acted in the tradition of Israelite prophets: they had a “mystical” connection to God, performed miracles, and received “whole-hearted admiration by simple people.” Alluding to Max Weber’s distinction between prophets (charismatic authorities) and priests (traditional authorities), Vermes...

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About the Author

Michael Peppard, author of The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context (Oxford) is assistant professor of theology at Fordham University.