Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff
Vermes, professor of Jewish studies in Oxford University, sketches Jesus’ thought and action based on the synoptic gospels. The book is based on the recognition of Jesus within the earliest Gospel tradition, prior to Christian theological speculation, as a charismatic prophetic teacher and miracle worker, the Galilean whose ethical teaching stood him head and shoulders above the known representatives of the reality of spiritual personality (p 5).
Methodologically, Vermes treats the New Testament as one particular vector on the general map of Jewish cultural history. Vermes has a threefold investigation: Jesus’ relationship to the living Judaism of his age, the idea of G-d as King and Father, and the difference between the Jewish religious and historic ecclesiastical Christianity.
The most outstanding feature in Jesus’ attitude, Vermes claims, is an all abounding concern with the ‘ultimate purpose of the law not as a juridical entity but as a religious ethical reality, revealing what he thought to be the right and divinely ordained behaviour towards men and towards G-d’ (p 41,45). ‘The core of Jesus’ religion is not Torah observance, not a search for purity, but the divine king’s single criterion will be whether or not a person imitated him in his deeds of love’ (p 204), ‘extended a loving hand to the distressed’, and recognizing that loving one’s neighbour includes also one’s enemies.’
‘The magnetic appeal of the teaching and example of Jesus holds out hope and guidance to those outside the fold of organized religion, for all who yearn for a world of mercy, justice and peace’ (p 215).
Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.