- Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea by Geza Vermes
Geza Vermes, who passed away in May 2013, focused most of his scholarly attention on the Dead Sea Scrolls and on the historical Jesus. Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea was his final book, and in it Vermes endeavors to build upon his work on the historical Jesus through an assessment of how Jesus went from Galilean holy man to the second person of the Trinity at Nicaea in 325. Vermes argues that this metamorphosis developed over two unequal phases. The first phase was the short Jewish phase that lasted from AD 30 to 100, with the Synoptic Gospels, the first twelve chapters of Acts, and the Didache being the texts that correspond to this phase. These texts demonstrate that early Jewish-Christian followers did not view him as divine, but understood Jesus simply to teach total surrender to God in expectation of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. Ss. Paul and John, however, definitively alter perceptions of Jesus. Paul, whose writings were addressed to Gentile rather than Jewish audiences, draws attention to Jesus himself rather than to his message, elevating Jesus to the triumphant Son of God who is the source of universal salvation. John’s Jesus bears no resemblance to the charismatic holy man from Galilee, but is turned into a celestial savior through John’s appropriation of terminology derived from Plato and Philo. One finds in both Paul and John a harbinger of things to come, for it is during the second phase (the Gentile phase from the early-second century to the Council of Nicaea in 325) that we find Jesus and his religion fundamentally transformed to become that which would have been unrecognizable by Jesus and his first followers. With reference [End Page 102] to an array of Christian texts from the second through the fourth centuries, Vermes traces the progressive elevation of the figure of Jesus by Gentile Christians, an elevation that corresponded to the influx of Graeco-Roman ideas and modes of thinking foreign to Judaism. Thus one finds Justin Martyr, for example, initiate and explicate a Christology deeply imbued with Greek philosophical thought, and later thinkers develop an understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ along these lines. Vermes notes in particular the contributions of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, and Origen, the latter representing the summit of pre-Nicene Christian thought. What develops from these thinkers, however, is the transformation of “the charismatic religion of Jesus into the majestic philosophical theology of the Greek church” (p. 199). In short, Jesus comes to look less and less like himself, the charismatic Jewish teacher.
This leads Vermes to a discussion of Nicaea. Throughout his account of second- and third-century Christian thought, Vermes consistently emphasizes that, although thinkers elevated the figure of Jesus prior to Nicaea, all of them were thoroughly subordinationist in their Christologies. But Christian thought definitively changed with the Council of Nicaea, at which, according to Vermes, Constantine effectively forced the bishops to accept that the Son is homoousios with the Father, despite the fact that the majority of bishops did not support the change and despite the fact that Arius’s Christology more thoroughly approximated pre-Nicene thought. The most detrimental consequence of Nicaea was that adherence to dogma thereafter gained precedence over spiritual transformation, thus further distancing Christian religion away from the charismatic religion of Jesus by elevating the person rather than his message.
Vermes is at his strongest in this book when dealing with the first century and particularly when recounting the charismatic religion of Jesus; his work on the historical Jesus throughout his scholarly career continues to be important and influential even if it is not wholly convincing. Vermes is less helpful when he expands the scope of his exploration to include Christian theological development in the second through fourth centuries—what he terms the “Gentile phase” (p. 237). For at the heart of Vermes’s thesis is the idea that Nicaea was an...