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Did early Christianity betray Jesus?

Did early Christianity betray Jesus?

Archbishop Rowan Williams reviews Geza Vermes new book Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325 which asks the how much the early church changed the teachings of Jesus.


Religion and Ethics blog at abc.au:

The early community of Jesus’s followers is shaped by charismatic phenomena – healing, prophetic ecstasy – tight corporate discipline, the expectation of the end of the world, and certain social rituals that reinforce the strong family-like bonds of the group. Parts of the family open up to non-Jews, others don’t. The language used about Jesus never goes beyond that appropriate to “a man of high spiritual dignity.”

What follows is a steady drift away not only from the religion of Jesus and of the first generation but, more seriously, a loss of interest in the essence of “charismatic Judaism” with its suspicion of formalism and its intimacy with God – and an increasingly negative attitude to Judaism as such. The greater the dignity ascribed to Jesus, it seems, the stronger the urge to denigrate and disown his Jewish identity and the Jewish faith itself.

With the help of imported mythical, literary and philosophical categories, the Christian community develops a complex system of cosmology in which Jesus has become a co-creator, a pre-existent divine being manifested on earth. It is, in Vermes’s words, often a “poetic” achievement, a “majestic synthesis” – but it is undeniably something different from the religion of Jesus and the religion of Jesus’s first followers.

I said a moment ago that this is not an unfamiliar account for scholars of Christian origins. It has much in common with the picture elaborated in the great theological schools of the European universities, especially in Germany, from the late nineteenth century onwards.

What makes Vermes’s version new is his refusal to follow these earlier scholars in their negativity towards Judaism and in the fact of his unparalleled familiarity with the entire spread of Jewish thinking in the age of Jesus and Paul. His Jesus is very much the representative of an intensified version of Mosaic and prophetic faith, set against a Jewish world that is dramatically diverse and bubbling with new and radical bids for defining Jewish identity.

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Bill Moorhead

Do read the whole of +Rowan's review. He concludes: "Vermes's account, for all its lucidity, does not quite allow us to see the energy behind such a movement of ideas. Nor, as other commentators have said, are we helped to see why this particular charismatic wonder-worker rather than others attracted the extraordinary claim that he was the vehicle of unconditional creative power and the enabler of a new kind of worship - the paradox that the creed of 325 enshrined, in words Christians still use. Vermes has written a beautiful and magisterial book; but it leaves unsolved some of the puzzles that still make readers of the New Testament pause to ask what really is the right, the truthful, way to talk about a figure like the Jesus we meet in these texts."

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