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The Changing Faces of Jesus (Compass) [Paperback]

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Item Specifications...

Pages   336
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 0.75" Width: 5.5" Height: 8.25"
Weight:   0.65 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Feb 28, 2002
Publisher   Penguin (Non-Classics)
Age  18
ISBN  0142196029  
EAN  9780142196021  

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Item Description...
Who was the real Jesus? How was this Palestinian charismatic transformed by later generations into the heavenly savior who is the focus of the Christian Church? Did Jesus's own teachings lead to his divine characterization? Or did the church-centered needs of gentile Christianity hide his true face, obscuring the religion he preached and practiced? With unique authority, sensitivity, and insight, renowned scholar Geza Vermes explores these difficult questions by examining the New Testament writings, placing them in the context of the Jewish civilization of the first century. Starting with the elevated, divine figure of Christ presented in the most recent Gospel, the Gospel of John, Vermes travels back through earlier accounts of Jesus's life to reveal the true historical figure.

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More About Geza Vermes

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Geza Vermes was Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford, UK and was one of the world's greatest experts on the historical Jesus, Christian beginnings, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. With the publication of Jesus the Jew (1973) he introduced the idea of Jesus as a 1st century Jewish holy man to the general public. His book The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (1962) introduced the English reader to the Scrolls, going on to sell over half a million copies.


Geza Vermes was born in 1924 and has an academic affiliation as follows - Oxford University.

Geza Vermes has published or released items in the following series...
  1. Library of Second Temple Studies
  2. Sheffield Academic Press Individual Titles

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
A Formidable Jewish Take on Jesus  Jun 15, 2008
It's interesting to read an erudite analysis of the New Testament by a learned Jew like the Geza Vermes, the first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford. Having done pioneering work with the Dead Sea Scrolls, Professor Vermes is uniquely qualified to bring us Jesus Perhaps True, rather than Jesus Sectarian, representing a particular church's or even creed's brief for what it says who Jesus was.

I've often wondered what exactly makes for the difference between the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the High Greek thought of John, which often bears little resemblance to the other three.

And here Professor Vermes takes us on a rollicking journey. It's one with two thousand years of experience, not all of it good, as the dreadful deicide charge, for example, leveled against the Jews. BTW, this was only retracted by the Roman Catholic Church during Vatican II, and I find the guarded criticisms of the "highly diplomatic language" of this "giant step toward the restoration of the historical truth" to be well founded. (232)

Vermes's rather extraordinary background--a Hungarian-born former Catholic priest now having reverted to Judaism--makes this book a rare treat. His parents Ernest Vermes and Theresia Riesz are remembered in the prologue as having both died in 1944, "innocent victims of the evil and madness called anti-Semitism."(5) And he does it more gently than, for example, the late brilliant scholar from the same school Hyam Maccoby. Considering this background, the gentleness of the book represents the research of not just a learned man, but a gentle, even pious scholar.

Those this site reviewers who accuse Vermes of being overly polemical or intemperate are missing the point; indeed, this is a man whose charitableness is noteworthy.

Taking his starting point the Gospel of John and working backwards to the human Jesus often obscured by the Gospel writers or editors, this book very likely may offend sensibilities of doctrinaire Christians, though Vermes appears again and again not to try for this effect.

I need to re-read this book--it's not as tightly argued and organized as the more polemical books of Maccoby such as The Mythmaker or Jesus the Pharisee--but I particularly enjoyed learning that healing by Jesus on the Jewish Sabbath wasn't forbidden: "In any case, the form of healing by word of mouth or touch which Jesus had adopted did not really count as 'work' prohibited on the sabbath." (210) In the margins I wrote "39 categories," meaning the specific activities prohibited on the seventh day.

Furthermore, I've long thought the early church added editorial stuff in the gospels. It's an art to separate the redactions from the true history, which Vermes is uniquely qualified to do.

An obvious, irrefutable example of such is the spurious comment in Mark 7:19 where Jesus declares all foods clean. Vermes writes, showing his charity when he could have taken out his polemical cudgel as Maccoby was wont to do: "[The comment in Mark 7:19] is a secondary gloss which had nothing to do with Jesus and was meaningful and beneficial only in the Gentile-Christian church for which this Gospel was ultimately destined. Jewish Christianity's difficulty with prospective Gentile converts in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's row with Peter in Antioch (cf. pages 70, 153) demonstrate that in the first Christian generation no one was aware of Jesus having declared foods unclean!" (211)

His corresponding quotations by the important contemporaneous writer Josephus are invaluable. Too, his discussion of the "foolish Hasid" or exquisitely pious Jew of which Jesus may have been a part is very valuable, which can be found in Jesus' attitude in letting tomorrow take care of itself.

Also, his discussion of the dialect of Aramaic used in Galilee is fascinating. Is it true Jesus spoke similarly? Certainly Peter's accent was a giveaway. I simply never knew that Galileans sounded like country bumpkins and were "a permanent topic of sarcasm in Jerusalem circles." (243) It wouldn't be surprising if Jesus used such Aramaic, including an instance of ungrammatical speech in his command found in the "oldest codices of Mark 5:41" to the deceased daughter of Jairus to get up: "Talitha kum." Kum should be kumi for gender agreement. (268)

This perennial topic of debate between Catholics and Reformed Christians on justification raised in the epistle of James--Is it by faith or works that one is saved?--is described as being intractable. (124) I have to agree that efforts to square the circles, so to speak, are indeed "hopeless." Wishful thinking to the contrary, "many Christian biblical scholars cannot stomach the idea of an open doctrinal conflict in Holy Scripture between two apostles of Christ." (124)

I'm curious why Vermes did not include Maccoby in his bibliography. A little disappointed, actually, since both are following in the intellectual footsteps of Paul Winter's On the Trial of Jesus (1974). Recent scholarship in this vein are proving false the famous statement by the German scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) that "[w]e can know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus since the [Gospels] show no interest in either." (158) What rubbish! And it has shackled intellectual inquiry for generations.

The Changing Faces of Jesus is a necessary and long-overdue corrective to this stagnant conventional thought.

Ultimately, the examinations of the New Testament by the Jewish School of thought will prove enormously beneficial in learning more about the authentic Jesus. Professor Geza Vermes is the preeminent embodiment of formidable scholarship directed to the lay reader in prose that may be second only to Sir Martin Gilbert's from England.

Do yourself a favor and purchase The Changing Faces of Jesus for an engaging intellectual romp. It'll do your brain good. My only criticism is the political nature of Jesus, "The King of the Jews," isn't explored to my satisfaction. Wasn't he opposed to the Romans? Coming from that hotbed of Jewish nationalism, Galilee, he may have been more the political agitator than the Gospels represent.

This is implied on pages 167-8 when Vermes describes Jesus as a "hot-blooded Galilean," in one of the few instances when a doctrinaire Christian could take understandable offense. Be that as it may, what is one to think in Jesus' use of slurs against goyim--and here I'm with Vermes and his description of those who willingly ignore the evidence--calling the gravely sick daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman a "dog" and "swine" for non-Jews.

That's certainly not the Jesus I hear in the pulpit of my Christian church (Roman Catholic), but it's all the more reason to delve deeply in this great man's great work about perhaps the greatest figure of history.
Vermes fails in methodology, exegesis  Jun 14, 2007
The Changing Faces of Jesus, partly an update of Jesus the Jew, goes into all the New Testament writings, whereas Jesus the Jew concentrated on the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Changing Faces of Jesus is a sad book, and often a bad (because unscholarly) book. Vermes many times abandons scholarship to make belittling comments. For example (1) on p. 215, discussing the twelve-year-old Jesus debating with the Temple teachers `in his Father's house', where Luke is presenting Jesus as the Son of God, His Father, in a quite unique way, Vermes sees no more than a family story such as every Jewish family tells about its precocious son. (2) When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (in the gospel writers' view showing Jesus as fulfilling Zechariah's messianic prophecy), Vermes' understanding is (in Jesus the Jew) - that was the least tiring way. (3) The crucial issue in the split between Christians and Jews was the question of the Messiah. This is reflected in chapter 9 of St John's gospel, where the man who accepts Jesus as Messiah is `put out of the synagogue'. Vermes says (page 30, n.1) that all that that means, as any good `contentious' Jew will understand, is - if you don't like your local synagogue you just go down the road to the next one. (4) Again, speaking of the commandment to love one another, but missing the point of the special Johannine resonances (`as I have loved you'), Vermes says (page 44): "John's Gentile Christians required a course for primary school pupils in which the simplest details had to be spelt out". (5) Vermes tells us that if he were Jesus, things wouldn't have turned out as they did; he would have written his own story, instead of leaving it to his followers, and so on (e.g. pp. 264,269,270). He ends (p. 270) by having Jesus say, "You've been told to expect everything from me. I say, you must save yourselves". This is totally false to the NT, and no less so to the Old Testament. Vermes calls his whole Epilogue (pp 269,270) a Dream. It is simply a triviliazed childish fantasy. The above issues hardly need scholarly refutation. As a serious New Testament scholar, I object to this parody of scholarship.

Even when he attempts serious exegesis, Vermes' interpretation of the New Testament is continually at fault. On page 118, he dismisses the title of `Servant' given to Jesus as being of no significance. Yet throughout the NT the Servant Songs of Isaiah and many other Isaianic themes are key sources from OT times for the Person and role of Jesus. [A strong current of Jewish writing is beginning to recognize this, basing itself on the most recent Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship. Thus Israel Knohl writes in The Messiah Before Jesus, Univ. of California Press, pb, 2002, p 16: "Thus, the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was not ['not' is in italics in the original] discovered in the Christian Church. ... we should consider the possibility that the depiction of Jesus as a combination of the 'son of man' and the 'suffering servant' was not a later invention of the Church. Perhaps the historical Jesus really did see himself in this way ... ". See my review of Knohl's book.] Again, on p. 78 Vermes repeats arguments, against the scholarly consensus, that the hymn in Philippians 2.6-11, explicitly attributing to Jesus the text which Isaiah 45.23 addresses to Yahweh, must be a late insertion into Paul's letter. On every count this is unlikely. In Philippians itself the idea occurs again, and it is also equally strongly suggested in the text of Romans 10.9 (probably another pre-Pauline confession): "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord (kyrios) ... you will be saved". Will we be saved by believing merely that Jesus is greater than Caesar? Must not `kyrios' here, applied to Jesus, mean `Yahweh'? See also, in the same sense, Romans 10.13, 1 Cor 12.3, Col 2.6, etc.

Vermes simply will not accept that to understand the person and the role of Jesus one has to go back to the typology, the prophecies and the history of the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha), as every New Testament author does, and not forward for between two hundred and six hundred years after the life of Christ to the rabbinic teachings which are conditioned by their explicit rejection of the New Testament witness to Jesus as Son of God, Messiah, God. His references back to the Old Testament in Jesus the Jew are less numerous and less significant than his forward references to this much later rabbinic literature. The Changing Faces has no index of biblical references. Vermes' relative neglect of the OT, from which the NT Jesus springs, is indefensible. For some idea of the massive OT sourcing of the Jesus story, see the Index of `Loci Citati vel Allegati' [textual quotations, references, and influences from the Old Testament used in the NT] in Nestle-Aland's Novum Testamentum Graece, which can be expanded indefinitely.

It is false methodology to depend primarily on the thinking of the rabbinic writers (for all that they may contribute occasional useful information) as the source of the authentic portrait of Christ, in preference to the Christian NT authors, Jewish to a man (with the possible exception of Luke), believers in the OT as their only scripture, familiar with the world of ideas found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (see Fr Joseph Fitzmyer's The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins, Eerdmans, 2000), contemporaries or first or second generation successors to the immediate hearers and followers of Jesus.

Yet again: Vermes's comparison between Jesus and the Jewish holy men Honi and Hanina ben Dosa simply fails. They may match a St Francis of Assisi, but emphatically not Francis's Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. I quote only one comparison. Vermes (p. 252) sees no difference between the run-of-the-mill `bat qol' to "Hanina `my son'" and the `bat qol's to Jesus at his Baptism and Transfiguration where the heavenly messages are: "You are my Son, the Beloved, the Only-Begotten; with you I am well pleased ... This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him" (Mark 1.11; 9.7, NRSV). These recall Isaiah 42.1, Ps 2.2, Genesis 22.2 (the Aqedah), the Exodus appearances to Moses, Deut 18.15. Is this said to Honi or Hanina? Did they bring in the Kingdom of God? Were they acclaimed as Messiah? Did they rise from the dead? Were they acclaimed as God?

Vermes denies, in the face of the evidence, all of these Christian claims. He is forced to believe this instead: that Jesus, bloodied from the scourging, crowned with thorns, crucified as a deluded messiah/king, dead, "[Jesus] yet rose in the hearts of his disciples who had loved him and felt he was near" (quoting Winter, pp. 174,175). This is incredible and impossible invention on the part of Winter/Vermes by which they seek to explain away the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and the disciples' devotion to preaching unto their deaths the truth of this resurrection. Winter/Vermes are simply lamentable.

The OT foreshadowings are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and not in any other Jewish holy man (see the despairing and nihilistic book by Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Jewish Messiah, T & T Clark, 1997). Judaism has only ever produced one candidate as Messiah, Son of God, God-with-us - Jesus Christ. Both methodologically and exegetically, the Christian position stands.

[This Review has figured on the this site UK website since 4 January 2007]
The Mangled Face of Jesus  May 11, 2006
Publisher's Weekly complains that "The book sometimes engages in speculative reasoning". "Constantly" is more like it. One has to realize when one goes into this book that Vermes has a giant theological ax to grind. Having converted from Catholicism to Judaism Vermes rejects any concept of the divinity of Christ and as a result takes his ax to the corpus of the NT, chopping out the parts that don't agree with his theological view and leaving a meager shred he considers the "true Jesus". The entire book can be summarized as follows: a) Vermes rejects any concept of the divinity of Christ b) Vermes finds many references to it in the NT c) Vermes hacks out all those references as "not fitting the original theology" d) Viola! The "real Jesus".

Doesn't the book of John clearly equate Christ with God? Whack! Off it goes. What about the Pauline epistles? Whack! Off they go but a handful. Doesn't Philipians, one of the few he accepts, equate Christ with God in chapter 2: 6-11? Chop, off goes that part. What justification is there to remove it? "Because it makes more sense" that way. (p. 86)

This wouldn't be so bad if Vermes were at least honest up front about his theological viewpoint and not so dishonest along the way. The book abounds with falsehoods and contradictions and Vermes makes some astoundingly ignorant statements at times.

He questions whether Paul was really the Pharisee he is portrayed to have been since, after all, "His principles as a Pharisee cannot have been held very profoundly, bearing in mind how easily... he could allow his Gentile followers (and himself) dispensation from observance of Jewish dietary rules and other Mosaic ritual precepts." Let's see, didn't Paul have some kind of conversion experience somewhere that radically changed his thinking?

Referring to the phrase "Son of God", Vermes categorically declares "No biblical or postbiblical Jewish writer ever depicted a human being literally as divine." (p 37) This is contradicted by II Samuel 7:14, which Vermes himself quotes earlier, as well as Psalm 2:7, 45:6 and Isaiah 9:6 all of which Vermes fails to mention.

On p 20 Vermes asserts " the most dismaying feature of the Fourth Gospel is its determined claim that the Jews were profoundly and universally inimical to Jesus." Anyone familiar with John knows that is patently untrue. Only 21 pages later Vermes himself writes "...John paints a Jesus who openly admits that he is the Messiah and is recognized as such by practically the whole of Palestinian Jewry."

I could go on and on and I still haven't finished the book.

Arrogance too is no small vice here. Vermes sneeringly castigates the supposed ignorance of the fourth gospel's target audience; "John's Gentile Christians required a course for primary school pupils in which the simplest details had to be spelled out." (p 49) Despite it being 2000 years later, Vermes is convinced he knows the gospel better than the apostle Paul, who he finds guilty of "twisting and sometimes undoing the genuine messsage of Jesus." (Meanwhile Vermes accuses Paul of "recurrent illogicality" p 76)

Of course, Vermes didn't invent this kind of arrogance -it's an unfortunate part of the European intellectual tradition, which is convinced it sees what happened thousands of years ago so much more clearly than did those poor benighted souls who, like Paul and the author of John, actually lived at the time in question. If that's your tradition, you may like this book. If not, and if you have any real familiarity with the NT, prepare to be appalled.
Who Was The Real Jesus?  Feb 13, 2006
Geza Vermes is a noted authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient works in Aramaic, and a controversial but respected authority on the life and religion of Jesus. In this short but insightful essay, he summarizes years of his own scholarship and attempts to pierce through the successive layers of translation, gloss and commentary in order to portray the true face of Jesus.

The Scriptures superimpose several portraits of Jesus on one another. The Fourth Gospel of John, written three generations after the facts, differs significantly from the Synoptic Gospels, while Luke and Matthew base their narrative on an early version of Mark (the existence of another common source, or Q as in Quelle, the German word for "source", is still a hotly debated topic). Starting with John's mystical vision of the divine Christ, and with Paul's mystery drama of salvation (the word "myth" is used several times in reference to Pauline Christology), the author introduces the figure of Jesus as he was perceived by the early heirs of his creed, by his contemporaries, and ultimately by himself.

As an entry point in each book of the New Testament, Vermes starts by surveying the titles ascribed to Jesus while replacing these titles in Jewish history and theology. In the Gospels, Jesus has many titles besides "Christ" or "Messiah": Prophet, Lord, Son of Man, Son of God, Son of David, King of the Jews and Emmanuel. Together Christians understand these titles as attesting to Jesus' divinity. Vermes argues that when used in other Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the time, these titles have other meanings, and therefore that they must have other meanings when used in the Gospels as well.

For instance he shows that the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical literature apply the title "son of God" first to every Jew, and later to pious Jews in general and to specially chosen individuals such as kings, prophets, holy men, and the Messiah. He then suggests that the identification of "son of God" with divinity is pagan in origin and was added after Christianity broke with Judaism:

"These concepts, coupled with the picture of children born of the union of Olympian gods and earthly women, known from classical mythology but divested of their pagan connotations, may have subconsciously played a part in the later Christian formulation of the divine sonship of Jesus within the thought world of Greek civilization."

At this point, some Christians will remember 2 John 7: "Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist." Others, while not necessarily convinced by the argument, will appreciate the vast scholarship that Vermes brings to the subject and will use his perspective to further their knowledge of Jesus.
Intensely polemical  Dec 17, 2005
I confess I am baffled by some of the reviews here. The one thing this book is, is polemical. It is intensely polemical. Just two examples. He characterizes part of the introduction to the book of John as a "the forces of light defeat the (Jewish) forces of darkness." Read John 1 yourself; there is no mention of Jews, nor any suggestion that the "forces of darkness" are Jewish. And read his final short "dream" chapter if you are in any doubt. It is a Jewish apologetic through and through.

His examples of Hasids have also been sharply criticized by other scholars, and he relies on very late (ie medieval)sources for some of them. Some of his logic is tortured. Still there is lots of interesting stuff here. 4 stars for the content, 2 stars for the tendentiousness and prose.

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