The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Book Review)

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The Religion of Jesus the Jew  (Book Review)

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Book Reviews

Who Was Jesus? N. T. Wright (SPCK 1992), ix + 107 pp, £4.99 pbk

The last chapter of this book presents in miniature the essence of the profound and provocative interpretation of Jesus now familiar to Dr Wright's readers. Jesus, genuinely a Jew of his own time, announced that God was at last becoming King; which meant, not a state of mind or a sense of inward peace, nor 'the end of the world', but concrete, historical events-the vindication of Israel and her release from her oppressors. Who, then, would not want to celebrate? The trouble was, though, that Jesus celebrated with all the wrong people, and that his priorities offended the devout. Besides, the bright future which was thus celebrated was bright only if Israel repented of her failure to fulfil her vocation: otherwise, tribulation would surely come. Yet, Jesus believed that if he 'went out to meet it, to take it upon himself, then he might bear it on behalf of his people, so that they would not need to bear it' (p. 101). All this would happen through his own life, death and resurrection; and why should it be thought improbable that he predicted just this (p. 102)? And 'Why should such a person, a good first-century Jewish monotheist, not also come to.hold the strange and risky belief that the one true God, the God of Israel, was somehow present and active in him and even as him?' (p. 103). The first chapter racily reviews the successive stages of the quest of the historical Jesus. In the three central chapters Dr Wright painstakingly demolishes Barbara Thiering's, A. N. Wilson's, and J. S. Spong's Jesus-books. Thiering's exotic fantasy would be a rollicking good joke, were it not so sad that the public, ignoring the Gospels, lap up this total rubbish. It is hard to imagine a more lively or well-informed miniature introduction to the quest.

C. F. D. Moule


The Religion of Jesus the Jew, Geza Vermes (SCM Press 1993), 244 pp, £12.50 pbk As Professor Vermes points out, in this third volume of his wellspaced trilogy about Jesus (see also Jesus the Jew (1973), and Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983)), there is a growing convergence between Christian and Jewish scholars with regard to Jesus as a figure in first-century Jewish Palestine. He himself has been a major 409

Book Reviews contributor to this process. The convergence represents substantial adjustments on both sides. For Christians, there is the recognition that Jesus fits very well indeed into the spectrum of '[udaisms' of his day and is unintelligible outside that setting; for Jews, the absolving of Jesus from the anti-semitism that so soon beset his followers and, especially in the Gospel of John, was fathered upon him, and the hailing of him as a Jewish holy man of incomparable clarity of spiritual vision and devotion to God's cause. Vermes' present book, following very much the lines of its predecessors, carries further this good pioneering work, describing vividly the various elements in Jesus' religious outlook and practice, within the Jewish setting. Writing with great energy and attractiveness, he emphasizes especially Jesus' clear-eyed concentration on the imminent realization of God's rule and his stress on the imiiaiio Dei as the key to the conduct of life. It would be nice to think we were at the point where we need no longer worry, with regard to this scholarly subject, whether the writer was Jew or Christian. We are not yet at that point. Christians are not good at dealing with the yawning gulf, in terms of theological idiom and religious style, between the Jesus on whom their faith centres and the classicial, patristic expressions of that faith and their continuing theological legacy, still a thriving industry. Christian theologians are still not good, at this crucial join above all, at a brave and convincing doctrine of development. Jews are not good at dealing with an earlier transition, and Vermes here aligns himself with this position. If we place Jesus on the one side and Christian faith in and about Jesus on the other, the one wholly admirable and the other an illegitimate travesty of the former, on which side should we place the apostle Paul and the Fourth Evangelist? Plainly, says Vermes, on the latter side-they are the first stages in a process that lands up in the Nicene Creed. And their anti-semitism is a prime, hateful ingredient in their teaching: not only do they begin to deify Jesus, they also deracinate him. But Paul and the Fourth Evangelist were both Jews. Both belong on the same side of the divide as Jesus himself. However horrendous its later use by Christians, the anti-semitism, so-called, especially prominent in the Gospel of John, is still, in strong measure, the expression of intra-Jewish conflict. If we are really to go in for a readiness to place ourselves in the first-century world, then Jews still have to learn to 'own' Paul and the Fourth Evangelist, just as Christians must learn to share both them and Jesus himself with Jews. The centring of so many mediatorial symbols on Jesus was something these two early Christian writers achieved from a Jewish base and in a Jewish milieu. They expressed their acclaim of Jesus (which Vermes himself shares, albeit in the moderate terms of a twentieth-


Book Reviews century academic) in ways handed to them (where else?) on a Jewish plate. That subsequent Christian beliefs about Jesus moved well beyond any kind of Jewish framework yet used these writers, viewing them through their own very different eyes, need cause no surprise. On a more technical but still important point: writers who give an account of Jesus, against all the odds, given the paucity of evidence, are inclined to admit that we do not really know how much in the Gospels is authentic and exactly where the evangelist's own contribution colours the material-and then to continue as if the admission counted for nothing! Vermes makes a number of such admissions, especially in the early part of his book, but you would hardly think so from the way the Gospels are used throughout, quoted readily to yield Jesus' words, despite the Christianity of their construction. Those more sensitive to the evangelists' ways of thought and writing will be less confident in using this evidence for painting Jesus' detailed portrait and more ready to utter the blessed words 'We do not know'. They will also, naturally, be in a position to take a different view of early Christian developments, represented by the evangelists' depictions of the more elusive object of their faith. In that perspective, Matthew, for instance, joins Paul and John among those Jews who found high claims for Jesus the natural fulfilment of the faith they already knew. To disagree with them need not be to scorn the merit or intelligiblity of the option they took.

Leslie Houlden

King's College, London

The Spirituality of the Gospels, Stephen Barton (SPCK 1992) 161 pp, £9.99 pbk 'Spirituality' is a slippery term. Barton uses it as meaning 'the sense of the divine presence and living in the light of that presence'. The Gospels are '''faith documents" from start to finish-written expressions of profound encounters with the divine, intended to mediate those expressions to others as the basis for faith, repentance, and new life'. He seeks to unpack what the evangelists have to say on this, to set it within its canonical context, but also to give some evaluation of it since 'placing ourselves "under" scripture is not the same as enslaving ourselves to it'. After an introduction which sets out his aims and approach, a chapter is devoted to each Gospel in its canonical order and a final chapter examines briefly how the stances of the individual Gospels are related both to each other and to the spirituality of Jesus. They