Jesus the Hasid: A Review of Geza Vermes’ “Jesus the Jew”

Any figure as important to Western civilization as Jesus of Nazareth deserves careful study.  Scholars since Josephus have written about Jesus, attempting to explain the details of his life, his teachings and his place in history.  In the effort to uncover a more authentic portrait of Jesus, modern historians of Christianity and the Bible have attempted to understand Jesus, not through the eyes of the Church, but in his original Jewish context.  One such scholar, Geza Vermes, Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, published the ground-breaking book Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels, in 1973.  Vermes, a Jewish historian, examines the Gospels of the New Testament together with contemporary Jewish literature to paint a picture of Jesus as a Hasid, a pious, charismatic Jewish teacher, at once common and revolutionary for his time.

Vermes presents his examination of Jesus in two parts.  First, he analyzes the setting of Jesus’ life as portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels—Mark, Matthew and Luke—to depict Jesus as a Jew from the Galilee in 1st Century CE.  In doing so, he first presents an outline of Jesus’ life as a framework for investigating his activities, his teachings, his contemporaries, his opposition and his death.  These are then scrutinized with the help of external sources, such as the Hebrew Bible, “inter-Testament” and Rabbinic literature, the works of Josephus and modern linguistic and historical research.  Second, using the same sources, Vermes analyzes various titles ascribed to Jesus by the New Testament: prophet, Lord, Messiah or Christ, son of man and finally Son of God—well-known roles of Jesus in Christian theology—to ultimately place them back into a Jewish context.

Reading Scripture with the critical eye of a historian invariably presents a challenge.  The faithful and the doubtful alike have deeply personal bias to contend with.  Both the academic and the layman must balance their own reason and experience with new information presented to them.  Therefore, Vermes opens his discussion of Jesus with words of encouragement and some advice for how to approach the relevant sources.  “Most people, whether they admit it or not, approach the Gospels with preconceived ideas…Yet it should not be beyond the capabilities of an educated man to sit down and with a mind empty of prejudice read the accounts of Mark, Matthew and Luke as though for the first time.”
Rather than deconstruct the Gospels to determine the accuracy of the entire story of Jesus, Vermes aims to gather a genuine understanding of “how the writers of the Gospels, echoing primitive tradition, wished him to be known.”

With this aim in mind, Vermes brings to bear those sources which shed light on the Gospels’ original meaning, sources about Jewish life in ancient Palestine and authentic Jewish teachings of the period.  These include the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Midrash, Mishna and the two Talmuds, and Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and other surviving primary documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls.  “These sources will not be treated as mere backcloth,” he says, “but as witnesses.  They will not be employed simply as aids in answering queries arising from the New Testament, but as independent spokesmen capable, from time to time at least, of guiding the enquiry, either by suggesting the right angle of approach, or even the right questions to ask.”  Vermes is confident that in using this approach he will discover an accurate and wholly Jewish portrayal of Jesus by the Gospels.

To illustrate Jesus’ life as a Jew, Vermes follows what he calls “the main Gospel body” formulated by Mark and shared with Matthew and Luke, “a record of the life of Jesus from the time of his public appearance in the company of John the Baptist till the discovery of his empty tomb.”  Included throughout the three-year story of Jesus’ public ministry are various teachings attributed to him, in the form of sayings, public sermons and instructions to the Apostles, and anecdotes of his activities as a faith healer and exorcist.  Very little detail of Jesus’ personal life is recorded, especially in Mark, and more attention is given to the circumstances of his death than to those of his birth and early life.  Indeed, Vermes disregards the birth and resurrection narratives in Matthew and Luke.  In his view, these narratives, being motivated purely by theology, do not reflect the earliest traditions about Jesus, but are almost certainly later interpolations.

Adhering strictly to this main-body Gospel, the reader learns that Jesus died and was buried in Jerusalem during the reign of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who ordered his execution, somewhere between 26 and 36 CE.  Further, Mark tells that Jesus and his mother Mary lived in Nazareth in the Galilee, and Luke mentions his father Joseph and his brothers and sisters, also in Nazareth.  Mark implies that Jesus was born in Nazareth, but in both Matthew and Luke his birthplace becomes Bethlehem, binding his destiny to the Messianic House of David.  Jesus’ date of birth is not given, but clues offered in Luke place it around the year zero.  Though several women appear among Jesus’ followers, no wife is mentioned.  Since celibacy was rare in Jesus’ time, he should be expected to have had one.  Some scholars contend that Jesus simply left a wife at home during his ministry, as was the practice of some Jewish ascetics and Jesus’ own recommendation to his disciples, or even that his wife was removed from the Gospels at a later date.  Vermes, however, does not see evidence of this in the texts.  Instead, he argues that Jesus was unmarried, “a custom unusual but not unheard of among Jews of his time.”

Aside from his family and followers, the only personal relationship in Jesus’ life is his encounter with John the Baptist, an ascetic revivalist known to historians of the period.  The Gospels portray Jesus and the Baptist as close friends, but Vermes detects rivalry between the two men and their respective groups.  In his view, the Baptist appears dissatisfied with Jesus’ activities, introducing a strong element of doubt—“the Messiah is expected to do better than heal and exorcise [demons]”—and the Gospels appear eager, through Jesus’ words, to stress that “John was very great, but I am greater.”

John the Baptist’s apparent uncertainty regarding Jesus underscores firm admission by the Synoptic Gospels of early opposition to Jesus and his ministry.  “Jesus is portrayed by the Synoptists as a person toward whom his contemporaries rarely, if ever, remained indifferent.  Their reactions were by no means always favorable, but on the other hand, they were not generally hostile either.”  Yet the opposition to Jesus, when studied carefully, only serves to support the Jewish context of Jesus’ professional activities, teachings and reputation.

Jesus was a Galilean, a native of the outlying northern province of Roman Palestine, home to simple peasant-farmers and few large cities.  In the Gospels, as well as in Rabbinic writings, Galileans have a reputation as ignorant, foolish, unscrupulous, even rebellious, and generally lacking the trust and respect of the Roman leadership or of the devout, educated Pharisees centered in Judea.  Unsurprisingly, the Gospels show Jesus as popular throughout the rural Galilee, drawing crowds of Jews from the countryside to his base at Capernaum, but far less welcome in Gentile areas or in Jerusalem and the rest of Judea.  Vermes rejects the idea that Jesus grew up working as a carpenter in Sepphoris, a large, politically and intellectually active city only four miles from Nazareth, on two accounts.  First, the Gospels never once mention his appearance there or in any of the other regional metropolitan centers.  Second, in Vermes’ opinion, the entire notion of Jesus as a carpenter is spurious, arising from a common Aramaic metaphor for “learned man,” lost in translation to the Greek.  If Jesus gained a reputation not only as wise and insightful, but also as learned, he did not earn it working with wood in Sepphoris.

Vermes focuses instead on Jesus’ true professions as “exorcist, healer and itinerant preacher,” explaining their significance and characterizing them as belonging to Jesus’ role of “charismatic,” exemplar of a radical but popular trend within Jewish pietism of the 1st Century Galilee.  Once Jesus entered public life, he “devoted himself exclusively to religious activities.  The Synoptists are unanimous in presenting him as an exorcist, healer and teacher.  They also emphasize that the deepest impression made by Jesus on his contemporaries resulted from his mastery over devils and disease, and the magnetic power of his preaching.”  Jesus travels from place to place, mainly in the Galilee, healing the sick and freeing the afflicted from their demons.  In this way, he treats those suffering from both mental and physical illness; the latter he treats with ritual contact, the former mostly with declarations to the evil spirits, commanding them to leave.  Most other miracles ascribed to Jesus are few in number by comparison and similar to Jewish miracle stories of the period.

As a preacher, Jesus believed himself sent only to instruct Jews, not Gentiles. “I was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, and to them alone,” he says in both Mark and Matthew.  “Even within Israel, he preferred the uneducated, the poor, the sinners and the social outcasts,” true to his humble Galilean upbringing.  He preached to them faith, charity, humility, repentance and the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God.  As opposed to Scripture or tradition, his main tool was the parable, “a form of homiletic teaching commonly used by Rabbinic preachers” similar to the moral sayings and allegories found in the Mishna’s Chapters of the Fathers.  Jesus spoke with authority, not necessarily as a prophet, but as a man confident in his own closeness to God and in the truth of his wisdom, attested to by the messages themselves and confirmed by his power to heal.

Other than instances of non-conformity with extra-Biblical customs, Jesus’ actions and teachings are not generally at odds with traditional Judaism.  Vermes deals with the one damning episode regarding eating “unclean” foods by explaining how the truly difficult version, wherein Jesus declares all foods clean, is found only in Mark, and likely the result of deliberate mis-translation.  In reality, Jesus merely says the same thing as he does in Matthew, that what enters ones mouth is (important, but) not nearly as important as what comes out of his mouth, from within his heart.  This interpretation, Vermes argues, is supported by the Syriac Gospel of Mark, an ancient translation from the Greek back into Aramaic.

In curing the sick, removing evil spirits, and preaching piety to the masses, Jesus resembles the Ancient Pietists or Hasidim HaRishonim of Rabbinic legend.  At the time of Jesus, suffering, illness, sin and the forces of evil were interwoven in Jewish consciousness.  From Biblical times, the idea that God alone held the true power to heal the sick correlated with the notion that illness came only as the result of sin.  By the Classical Period, belief in demons and evil spirits had permeated Jewish belief from Persian influences absorbed during the Exile.  Sinful behavior left one vulnerable to such spirits, which brought illness or harm to the sinner.  Though repentance was considered the only true solution to disease or suffering, physicians could be employed to help.  Some sought professional exorcists, thought capable of removing devils with complex rituals involving magical powers or knowledge of the supernatural.  For the truly pious, instead of resorting to magic, holy men could be consulted in the manner that great prophets like Elijah were consulted in Biblical times.  Here enter the Hasidim.

Rabbinic writings relate stories of several holy men, renowned for their piety, charity, fear of sin, and ability to heal the sick and bring miracles.  With a unique combination of purity, holiness, personal closeness to God, and a confident brazenness bordering on importunity, these holy men were almost guaranteed to survive encounters with demons, receive unnatural protection from harm, and have their prayers accepted and their words fulfilled by God.  The Jewish sages showed great respect for such men, despite distaste for their ignorance of ritual law and their impudent directness with God, the implication being not only that their methods yielded results, but that they had the ear of God, and must therefore be beyond serious reproach.  Furthermore, the charismatic Hasidim managed to inspire faith in God among the people and thereby—or simply through extraordinary personal merit—elicit God’s forgiveness for their sins.  Otherwise, why would God allow the afflicted to be healed?  In the Qumran texts, similar pietists even exorcise demons by expressly and directly removing the sins of the afflicted. Two of the most famous Hasidim, Honi the Circle-Maker (c. 60 BCE) and Hanina ben Dosa (c. 70 CE), greatly resemble Jesus in style, method and morals, and both came from Galilee.

Reaction to the Hasidim from their Pharisaic contemporaries was understandably mixed.  Though indisputably righteous and close to God, as well as scrupulously ethical and generous, the Hasidim were largely ignorant or uninterested when it came to ritual law.  They openly violated Rabbinic “rules of etiquette,” matters of ritual purity, and specific decrees of the Pharisees.  Charismatic miracles, impressive though they may have been, often offended the dignity of the Rabbis and devalued their emphasis on scholarship.  The “informal familiarity with God” and “unrestrained authority” of the Hasidim greatly disturbed the “established religious order.”  “Traditionalists in charge of the well-being of society imagined that they threatened to undermine and pervert the correct order of values and priorities.”

Similarly, Jesus disregarded customs which the Rabbis “invested with a quasi-absolute value, but which to him were secondary to Biblical commandments…Jesus ate with sinners and did not condemn those who sat down to table with unwashed hands or pulled corn on the Sabbath…He surrounded himself with publicans and whores…and took no steps to avoid defilement through a corpse,” since “no one can be a healer and preserve himself from sickness and death” anymore than he can be “an exorcist and be afraid of the devil.”  Thus, “a head-on collision” with the Pharisees over his non-conformity was “unavoidable…not because they were obsessed with trivialities, but because for them the trivial was an essential part of a life of holiness, every small detail of which was meant to be invested with religious significance.”  The Pharisees definitely could never have accepted Jesus as their Messiah, for like John the Baptist, they awaited a national political liberator in addition to a righteous, prophetic miracle-worker.  Nevertheless, Vermes is careful to point out that “there is no evidence…of an active and organized participation on the part of the Pharisees in the planning and achievement of Jesus’ downfall.”

Jesus expectedly ran into trouble with the Sadducees, the wealthy upper-class of Judean Jews which largely controlled the priesthood, and with the Romans.  The Sadducees, with whom Jesus debates more than once in the Gospels and whom he insults with his public disturbances outside the Temple, accused him of rebellion and blasphemy.  Jesus refused to allow Romans to join his followers and referred to Gentiles as “dogs” and “swine.”  Moreover, he and his disciples were from Galilee, a hot-bed of revolutionary activity, giving credence to potential suspicion that his movement had nationalist ambitions.  Like John the Baptist before him, simply by amassing followers and motivating large crowds, Jesus put himself in danger.  The Gospels indicate that many of Jesus’ followers did in fact expect him to reveal himself as an earthly Messiah and move to free the Jews from Roman domination.  No wonder Pontius Pilate suspected the same and took “preventative measures.”

With an impressive analysis and a firm command of the sources, Vermes convincingly demonstrates that Jesus, as known to history through the Synoptic Gospels, fits comfortably in the mold of a Jewish charismatic of the 1st Century.  In the remainder of his book, encompassing the second of his two-part examination of Jesus the Jew, Vermes plies through the titles given to Jesus in the New Testament, looking at each one in the context of Jewish beliefs and language of the period to understand its true meaning.  He traces the development of each title from its earliest usage, as reflected in the Synoptic Gospels, through the doctrinal evolution of Christianity and the final redaction of Christian Scripture.  Sure enough, Vermes manages to reasonably connect every title—with the exception of Messiah, which Vermes dismisses as out of place in the Synoptists and likely a later addition—to Jesus’ early depiction as a Hasid, a pious, charismatic miracle-worker.

The real Jesus of Nazareth remains, to the critical historian, Jesus the Galilean Hasid.  He is at once faith-healer, spiritualist, folk preacher and moral revivalist—an alternative brand of rabbi who views himself confidently in league with a loving, forgiving but demanding God, and charged with giving hope to the downtrodden and with healing the physically and spiritually ill.  This image, though at odds with Christian creed, satisfies the honest intellect and, perhaps more importantly, “with feeling for the tragedy of Jesus of Nazareth” comforts the spirit by restoring him to his authentic Jewish setting and to his original human significance.