When you strip away all the pious fiction, what is left of the real Jesus?
By Géza Vermes
The Times of London
December 24, 2004
WHAT DOES Christmas signify today if we discard the festive eating, drinking and merrymaking, inherited from the pagan Yule? Is it a reawakening of childhood imagery, dreaming of, but rarely experiencing, a white snowy morning, with Jesus lying in the manger, greeted by bearded shepherds and three colourful oriental stargazing kings, while in the background angelic choirs sing glory to God? Alas, all this is largely pious fiction.
No one knows the exact date of the birth of Jesus Christ. December 25 was selected by the Western Church only in the 4th century to rival the pre-Christian Roman feast of the Victorious Sun. Nor was Christ born in Year 1 as the era bearing his name continues to pretend. The New Testament locates the event shortly before the death of King Herod which occurred in 4BC. A 6th-century Roman monk, Dionysius the Small, is guilty of the miscalculation: he wrongly placed the birth of Jesus in the year 753 ab urbe condita — after the foundation of the city of Rome — instead of 747 or 748.
So who was this Jewish boy, whose wrongly dated birthday is still commemorated the world over on December 25 (the Orthodox Church celebrations are in early January)? The four evangelists, our chief informants, convey two pictures of Jesus. For John, writing probably shortly after AD100, He was the eternal Word of God who became flesh for a brief period before ascending to heaven. The other three Gospels, which predate John by one to three decades, depict Jesus in less elevated terms. Their hero was born circa 6 to 5BC, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judaea between AD26 and 36. They report that Jesus lived with His parents, Joseph and Mary, His four brothers and several sisters in Nazareth in the Galilee ruled by Antipas, Herod’s son, and was a carpenter or builder.
The essence of the Jesus story is recorded in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels. It immediately starts with his public career with no reference to his birth, childhood or education. Nor are we told whether Jesus was married. Celibate life was unusual among Jews of his age except among the monkish Essenes, described by 1st-century AD Jewish writers and the Dead Sea Scrolls. But the Gospels ascribe no Essene connection to Jesus; indeed they represent his religious outlook as flatly contradicting Essenism. His choice of the unmarried state must have sprung from his awareness of a prophetic vocation, which imposed on Him renunciation of worldly pleasures in order to keep Him constantly alert to divine revelations.
Jesus emerged from obscurity in AD29, when He answered John the Baptist’s appeal to repentance. When John was arrested by Herod Antipas a little later, Jesus set out to announce the imminent coming of the kingdom of heaven. He preached in Galilean village synagogues, practised charismatic healing and exorcism and became famous as “the prophet Jesus from Nazareth”. He attracted to himself 12 apostles, mostly local fishermen, and spent his itinerant ministry in the Galilean countryside. He visited villages, vineyards, and fields where lilies grew, but shunned the cities. The Synoptic Gospels record only a single fateful visit to Jerusalem.
He addressed his message to “the house of Israel” alone and expressly forbade His disciples to approach non-Jews, although occasionally he showed compassion to Gentiles and healed the servant of a Roman centurion from Capernaum and the daughter of a Greek woman from southern Lebanon.
As a teacher, He laid special emphasis on the inner significance and permanent validity of the Law of Moses and revealed His spiritual authority, not by interpreting the Bible, but by curing the sick and delivering the possessed. Like his contemporaries, Jesus attributed illness and sin to the influence of evil spirits and considered healing, exorcism and forgiveness of sins as synonyms. People brought the sick to Him after the synagogue service on the Sabbath. Some petty-minded bigots muttered that Jesus was breaching the law of sabbatical rest, but His healing by word or touch did not constitute “work”.
The non-Christian Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, writing shortly before AD100, calls Jesus a “performer of astonishing deeds”. In Christian terminology, the author of the Acts of the Apostles says the same when talking of “a man attested by God with mighty works and wonders”.
Jesus distinguished himself from other Jewish charismatics of his time by the added beauty and power of His teaching. He preferred poetic imagery to philosophical ideas. He compared the Kingdom of God to a rich harvest, to a tiny mustard seed mysteriously growing into a tall shrub, and to the leaven that mysteriously turns flour into bread. His parables depict the theocentric world to which Jesus’s charismatic activity showed the way. Echoing the prophet Isaiah, He declared that His restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and life to the dead proved that the reign of God had already begun.
For his repentant followers Jesus prescribed complete trust in God, childlike simplicity and a willingness to surrender themselves and their possessions for the sake of heaven. For Him the present exceeded the future in importance. Forward planning was meaningless as the time of this world was fast running out.
The ingredients of Jesus’s religion were enthusiasm, urgency, compassion and love. He cherished children, the sick and the despised. In his eyes, the return of a stray lamb to the sheepfold, the repentance of a tax collector or a harlot, caused more joy in heaven than the prosaic virtue of 99 just men.
Because of His healings, many saw in Jesus the Messiah, triumphant over Rome and establisher of everlasting peace. Yet he had no political ambition. Rumours that He might be the Christ were nevertheless spreading and contributed to His downfall. His tragic end was precipitated by an unpremeditated act in the Temple. The noisy business transacted by the merchants of sacrificial animals and the moneychangers so outraged the rural holy man that He overturned their tables and violently expelled them. He thus created a fracas in the sanctuary of the overcrowded city before Passover and alerted the priests.
So the Temple authorities, the official guardians of peace, saw in Jesus a potential threat to order. They had to intervene promptly. Nevertheless even in those circumstances, the Jewish leadership preferred to pass the ultimate responsibility to the cruel Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus to death. He was crucified before Passover probably in AD30 because in the eyes of officialdom, Roman and Jewish, He had done the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Just as the New Testament had prefaced the biography of Jesus by the joyful prologue of the Nativity, it also appended an epilogue to the tragedy of the Cross, the glorious hymn of the Resurrection. Indeed, Jesus had made such a profound impact on His apostles that they attributed to the power of His name the continued success of their charismatic activity. So Jesus rose from the dead in the hearts of His disciples and He lives on as long as the Christian Church endures.