Divine interventions

Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea (AD 30-325), by Geza Vermes, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 272 pages

Over the course of his long, distinguished career, Geza Vermes, the first professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford university, has made a major contribution to our understanding of the historical Jesus. In Christian Beginnings, as in his groundbreaking work Jesus the Jew (1973), he shows that Jesus would have been a recognisable and familiar figure to his contemporaries. A healer, exorcist and compelling preacher, he was the latest in a line of charismatic prophets who existed for centuries alongside the established priestly tradition and offered an alternative form of Judaism, based on vision, ecstasy and miraculous healing, and frequently in conflict with the Israelite ruling class.

In this book, however, Vermes takes the story further, showing how the human figure of Jesus became increasingly other-worldly until, at the Council of Nicaea in 325, he was declared fully divine. Vermes points out quite correctly that in much of the New Testament, Jesus is perceived as “a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs” (Acts 2.22), a typical definition of a charismatic prophet. In Judaism, the title “Son of God” was simply a human being who enjoyed special intimacy with God and had been given a divine task: kings, prophets and priests – and the entire people of Israel – were all called “sons of God” in this sense.

St Paul, who took Christianity into the gentile world, believed that at his resurrection Jesus was raised by God to an exalted status, far above most humans, but still inferior to the Father. Vermes notes that Paul consistently prayed to God – not to Jesus. It was John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, written in about 100AD, who set the pattern for the future. His Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God who had existed with the Father before the creation of the world; the Son was a transcendent figure who came from Heaven and was somehow one with the Father.

But John’s high Christology was by no means the norm. Other important texts of the late first century, such as the Didache and The First Epistle of Clement, either spoke of Jesus as God’s “Servant” or saw him in Pauline terms as man raised to high status but essentially distinct from, and inferior to, God. The tendency to deify Jesus seems first to have appeared during the second century in Syria and Asia Minor (where the Fourth Gospel was probably written). Thus, in letters written in about 110AD, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was the first to speak plainly and consistently of Jesus as God, while at the same time emphasising that Jesus was also entirely human – a paradox that later generations of Christians would struggle to resolve.

The great theologians of the third century – Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea – all refused to put Jesus on the same footing as God. But in the early fourth century, a bitter dispute broke out in Alexandria between the presbyter Arius, who insisted that the Son had been created by God and raised to divine status after the crucifixion, and the bishop and his assistant Athanasius, who were equally adamant that Jesus was God tout court. Neither side could claim to be representative; both were stridently and unhelpfully extreme. Nevertheless, under pressure from the newly converted Emperor Constantine, who hoped that Christianity would become a unifying force in his far-flung empire and was appalled by this unseemly quarrel, at Nicaea the bishops signed a creed that reflected Athanasius’s views – and then went back to their dioceses to teach what they had taught before.

Vermes gives us a helpful historical overview, but his narrative does not do justice to the full implications of this struggling Christology, which, he concludes, should be rejected as fraudulent. However, this is too simple. Theology is an imaginative rather than a factual discipline that, like art, sees a deeper dimension, not readily expressible, in limited earthly objects.

Instead of merely manipulating the evidence, as Vermes suggests, the theologians were grappling with a problem that every faith tradition has to deal with: how can we know the ineffable reality that some call “God”? How was it that when they contemplated this all-too human being, who died a disgraceful death, they had a glimpse of what the utterly transcendent God might be like?

Ultimately, the theologians were arguing about the nature of humanity. Were we simply moribund flesh, or did our intimations of transcendence mean that we had transcendent potential? Vermes failed to record Athanasius’s key statement: “God became human so humans could become divine.”

The debate did not end in 381, as Vermes claims, but continued until the seventh century, when Maximus the Confessor found a formula that finally satisfied the Greek Orthodox – but would be very different from Western Christology. Jesus, he said, had been wholly “deified”, entirely permeated by the divine; and we could all be like him – even in this life.

Karen Armstrong is author of ‘The Case for God: What Religion Really Means’ (Vintage)

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