Once Upon a Time

Christian Beginnings

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 prepares the reader for a sociological analysis of the early Christian movement.

But that’s the last we hear of Weber. Vermes leaves out Weber’s key concept of the “routinization of charisma.” Charismatic authority, according to Weber, cannot be passed on. It dissolves, either becoming traditionalized in a cultural system or rationalized in a legal system. The routinization of charisma was not a problem peculiar to Christianity—these are inevitable processes for most religious traditions (including Judaism). Vermes laments the loss of “nascent charismatic Christianity” but seems not to grasp that charismatic movements can only be nascent. If the group is to survive, its founder’s charisma must be channeled into other types of authority.

Vermes’s opinions about the historical accuracy of the New Testament show further confusion. On the one hand, he’s skeptical of the historical value of many parts of the Gospels. “We know that Jesus did not greatly care about being called the Messiah,” Vermes writes. But he skips over Jesus’ response to the high priest’s question, “Are you the Messiah?”—“I am.” On the other, he shows iconoclastic, if haphazard, credulity toward much of Acts. Calling “the picture it hands down...closer to the religion of Jesus than the Christianity of Paul and John,” Vermes bases more of his account of Paul on the speeches and actions reported in Acts than would most contemporary scholars.

Paul’s speeches in Acts are among the most stylized elements of the New Testament, yet Vermes thinks they contain conclusive evidence. “We are now turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46) proves to Vermes that Paul had decisively changed his mission. Never mind that it’s a narrative device—or that he probably never said it. According to Paul’s own letters, at the end of his life he was still wrestling with the mystery of Jewish and Gentile harmony under one God. Paul’s letters capture his communities’ challenges, paradoxes, and longings, whereas Acts presents a tidy narrative ex post facto.

As Christian Beginnings goes on, Paul and John become for Vermes the bêtes noires of Christian intellectual history. The predominant Christian interpretation of the Paschal mystery is “an elaborate doctrinal construct developed by Paul’s fertile mind.” Vermes continues, “Paul finds his match in John’s superb mystical portrait of the superhuman Christ.” He shows no interest in major questions of New Testament studies: How did Paul remain a Jew even while proclaiming God’s covenant open to Gentiles? And what was the character of John’s relationship to the Judaism of his day? The pioneering work of Daniel Boyarin on the Jewishness of Paul and John, along with Krister Stendahl’s recovery of the Jewish Paul, appear in the bibliography, but have no effect on Vermes’s argument. Instead, he prefers simplicity: “Fully fledged Christianity”—whatever that means—was “created by Paul and John.” Not quite.

This preference governs Vermes’s narrative at the expense of historical complexity. Vermes clearly favors the charismatic Jesus. He thinks Paul and John broke from that tradition, and that eventually Gentiles took over the movement, and he’s willing to overlook evidence that complicates that picture. But many scholars of the period emphasize the fuzzy borders between Jewishness and emergent Christian identity. In some places, Jews and Christians were difficult to distinguish, even as late as the fourth century. Yet Vermes claims the parting of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus was accomplished by the “all-pervading influence” of Paul and John. In order to finalize the split, Christian belief just needed to incorporate a bit of Greek philosophy (Justin uses “Plato to envelop Christianity with a favorable aura”) and disavow Gnosticism (Vermes relies on Irenaeus’s polemical descriptions of the movement, paying little attention to its texts). The Christological road from Paul to the Council of Nicaea, as charted by Vermes, has a few bends, but more or less it’s a straight line. A more fruitful approach to Christianity’s early centuries would offer richer descriptions of its regional and theological varieties. Christian Beginnings pays sporadic lip service to the “dogmatic nebulosity of the pre-Nicene era,” but the book as a whole conveys the opposite impression.

Take, for example, his claim that “the Christological debate witnessed no significant innovation in the second half of the third century, so one may directly advance from Origen to...the Council of Nicaea.” What about evidence of Christian practice from the mid-to-late third century? The most substantial ante-Nicene ritual texts—the Didascalia Apostolorum and (perhaps) the Apostolic Tradition—are usually dated to this period. And the most popular apocryphal acts— Acts of Paul and Thecla and Acts of Thomas—were circulating widely and influencing how people thought about and followed Christ. This was the era of the two general persecutions under emperors Decius and Diocletian, which produced martyr narratives exhorting an ultimate imitatio Christi. Vermes leaves all that out.

Writing a history of Christology without attending to ritual practices and salvation theory is like writing a history of science without mentioning technology and therapeutic medicine. Theological developments rarely come ex nihilo. Christians were not just sitting at home debating the divine personhood of Jesus for kicks. Their beliefs about Christ were lived out in practice. How, for example, did baptismal practices relate to Christological developments about Christ’s uniqueness over time? How did traditions related to martyrdom influence the idea of noble death as imitation of Christ? How should we understand the super-exaltation of Christ in the Nicene era, which emphasized his divinity, as a response to material, cultural, and ritual practices that stressed Christ as exemplar here on earth? Vermes avoids such messy questions, preferring to write straight with the past’s crooked lines.

Published in the December 20, 2013 issue: 

Michael Peppard, associate professor of theology at Fordham University, is the author of The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria (Yale University Press, January 2016).

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