Biblical scholar Vermes sets off in search of the historical Jesus.
In an attempt to interpret the New Testament within the context of contemporary Jewish civilization, the author systematically analyzes the Gospel of St. John, the Epistles of St. Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, the Synoptic Gospels, and religious trends in ancient Palestine. St. John and St. Paul, the main masterminds of early Christian doctrine, considered Christ the ultimate mouthpiece of God, and their accounts focus on his death and resurrection. Christ is likewise depicted as more divine than human in the Acts of the Apostles, and he does not really appear in human guise until we meet him in the three Synoptic Gospels. Written between a.d. 70 and 100, the Gospels of St. Mark, St. Matthew, and St. Luke are the earliest canonical writings of the Christian tradition. Composed in the form of a biographical sketch, these Gospels address the historical character of Jesus, an itinerant Galilean preacher deeply linked to his Jewish surroundings. It is noteworthy that the earliest of the three—the Gospel of St. Mark—recounts almost no miracles at all, suggesting that the miraculous accounts of Christ’s superhuman power were introduced later to substantiate the claim of his godlike authority. Vermes painstakingly points out the numerous contradictions within the corpus of texts under consideration, while also indicating that many of the described events were highly unlikely in a country still governed by Jewish law. (For example, an interrogation by the high priest on the eve of Passover would have been most implausible, in view of the prohibition against court hearings on festival days.) The author sees the New Testament as a kind of exercise in translation, rendering an Aramaic-speaking, Jewish-thinking Jesus into the language and mentality of Greco-Roman culture.
Although revisionist studies of the life of Christ are as old as Renan (and not much changed since then), this is a credible portrait all the same.