Christian Origins: A Response to Geza Verme’s Latest…

In the most recent BAR (Nov/Dec 2012) Geza Vermes attempts to address “How the Jesus Movement Became Christianity”. It is an article that is described by BAR’s Managing Editor, Dorothy Resig, as answering the question, “When were non-Jews first accepted as Jesus’ followers, and how were they distinguished from the original Jewish Christians?” (See page here). Some of what I have put here are just questions and thoughts. Basically, places where Vermes made me stop and think.

This is me thinking. My wife is a sculptor—she is really good. 🙂

Spoiler Alert: I of course think the parting between Judaism and Christianity is quite complex. As to the Great Separation, it likely occurs a lot later than most traditional scholars will allow. Whether we place a stark separating point at 70 CE (which I think is mistaken) or 135 CE (which might have a horse in this race), the Jewish roots from which early Christianity grows is one that is long lasting, something that is not easily parted but is dealt an encouraging blow by Emperor Constantine, church building in the Holy Land by his mother, Theodotious I, and the De Fide Catholica edict. It should be noted that the separation is not simply a separation of people but one that involves ideas and concepts.

Ok, now on to Vermes’ article. Just some brief points….(and they are limited here to his thoughts on the earliest strands of nascent Christian thinking)

1. The “Way” as the “Way of God”

Vermes mentions that the name for early Jesus community, “the Way,” as it appears three times in Acts (9:2, 19:9, 24:14 [perhaps 24:22]) is short for the “Way of God” (p. 54). But what does that mean? Why not the simply “the Way”? The reason I prefer “the Way” is that it reflects far more the centrality of Jesus’ ministry as embodied by the Second Temple Jewish summation of the Law “Love your brother as yourself” (Lev 19:18). That is to say that the name “The Way” seems more closely related to the Hebrew Derek (the way) and the concept Derek Eretz (i.e., proper behavior; lit. the Way of the Land). This deals with interrelational ethics. In fact, there are two minor Babylonian Talmudic tractates with the names Derek Eretz Zutta and Rabbah. Both tractates are thought to contain some of the earliest strands of Rabbinic teaching and a quick read of either reveal the connections these teachings have with Jesus ministry.

2. Religious Communism

It is now common to refer to the early community as communists, or as Vermes describes, “religious communists”. It appears that some of the early Jesus community actually consisted of former members of the sectarian/Essene community. Even though as L. Schiffman has noted we should be careful with tagging the sectarian community as communists since it appears in the Scrolls that members retained some modicum of property rights. The central text that is often used is Acts 4:32-35, especially because of the term koina (common). Does one, however, need to read this as “religious communism” [and Vermes makes no qualification between “communism” and “religious communism”[1]]? I think the ideal of the community was as Acts states, so that “there was not a needy person among them” (v. 34) and that distribution was made according to “any who had need” (v. 35). I think we need to balance our view of religious communism with the fact that the nascent community sought to not have a financial hierarchy, especially for those who were in need. In terms of Jesus’ ministry, providing for the poor was central (cf., Matt 6, Lk. 10). I think that we should additionally read Acts 2:44-45 in terms of giving to those in need and not religious communism, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” Notice they have all things in common (koina) but there are not selling their property to be in common, they are selling to raise up those who are in need.

3. Noahide Laws

In his brief note on Acts 15 Vermes suggests that those who wanted the new Gentile members to follow the Mosaic law were “the extremist members” (p. 56) of the Jerusalem Council. Why such strong language? I think Flusser had a point when he noted that the Pharisaic desire to have the Gentiles follow Mosaic law was to have a unity within the community which would allow for normal fellowship. Perhaps, they could see the future result of what Vermes is discussing. Vermes views the Council’s decision as an initial point of separation between Jewish and Gentile Christianity (p. 57). And he may be right. But the three things determined by the Council which Gentiles are to abstain from, idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder[2] were probably expected for God-fearers who were part of the synagogue life both in and out of the land. The implementation of what is later known as the Noahide commandments seems logical as the community begins to deal with the influence of the Gentiles. But I am not sure I would state that this is the creation of Gentile-Christianity in as much as I wouldn’t say that the God-fearer who is expected to abstain from the same things is the beginning of Gentile-Judaism! I will say, however, that a century later this might be the small drop in the water that later becomes the tidal wave. So, maybe my question and disagreement with Vermes here is small ;).

4. The Anti-christ as the “Son of God” in the Didache.

This reminds me of Flusser’s article, “The Hubris of the Anti-Christ” where Flusser used the Didache text, among many others, to suggest that the “Son of God” text from Qumran is actually one about the Anti-Christ and not the Messiah. Vermes disagreed with Flusser’s reading in the last (the one before the newest edition) English edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in English. I this might be a place where Flusser has noted something unique in the developing literary history of the Antichrist.

5. Spiritualizing Sacrifice

Vermes seems to indicate that the spiritualizing of Temple sacrifice is a Christian-specific exegesis that appears in the Epistle of Barnabus. But this spiritualization is actually not initially Christian but Jewish, especially to those in the diaspora who were separated from the Jerusalem and the Temple. See, the Prayer of Azariah, “And at this time there is no prince, or prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, no place to make an offering before thee or to find mercy. Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted, as though it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls, and with tens of thousands of fat lambs; such may our sacrifice be in thy sight this day, and may we wholly follow thee, for there will be no shame for those who trust in thee. And now with all our heart we follow thee, we fear thee and seek thy face.

This same tendency in early Christianity, to spiritualize the Temple, is not unlike what we see in the early Rabbinic teachings. It is an attempt to address the absence of the Temple and ritual sacrifice. In the end, the Epistle of Barnabus, at cited by Vermes, may simply reflect a heightened anti-Jewish tendency with the general Jewish community. But it is important to note that the tendency to spiritualize sacrifice and literal rituals of Judaism with acts of mercy and prayer is an ancient Jewish one and not only a tendency that develops as part of so-called Gentile-Christianity.

I will add that this is not a full critique of Vermes’ article. Many of his points, especially to the growing tensions between the believers in Jesus and the Jewish believers who do not follow Jesus as time passes and that early on one can sense the growing anti-Jewish sentiment in the predominantly Gentile-Jesus-believing communities of the second century BCE are correct. For example, Vermes quotes Melito of Sardis’ statement in his Peri Pascha (mid 2nd century CE), “God has been murdered…by the right hand of Israel” (p. 78).

I thank Prof. Vermes for his thoughts and for being a catalyst to my own! It is always easy for another person to come along and question a noted scholar after he has committed his thoughts to print.

[1] I am assuming it has to do with control over a polity vs. a small religious community.

[2] I think Vermes interprets “blood” as some ancient mss do, meaning the consumption of blood (p. 57). Yet, “blood” has been shown by Flusser and Safrai to mean murder, i.e., bloodshed (See: “The Apostolic Decree and the Noahide Commandments,” Codex Bezae attests to a different, more-likely, reading where “blood” is understood as murder. Furthermore, the prohibition of “consuming of blood,” a Levitical law, is strange since implementing only portions of post-Sinai law to Gentiles and not the entirety of Mosaic law does not seem to be how the law is generally treated at this time, which is why the laws attributed to Noah (pre-Sinai) seem to fit.


6 thoughts on “Christian Origins: A Response to Geza Verme’s Latest…

  1. Pingback: The Bible and Economic and Social Justice: Following Ruth into Leviticus

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