Editor’s Notes: Geza and the Gospels

By David Horovitz April 29, 2005

An anti-Jewish malaise in the UK? ‘Good gracious, no,’ says Oxford Prof. Geza Vermes. Just look at the warm reception accorded his new book excoriating the New Testament

Watching from afar, the mother of all democracies has been looking a little shaky these days for its Jewish minority.

Prince Harry’s Nazi armband ‘gaffe’ is still fresh. So, too, London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s cheerful disinclination to apologize for insulting a Jewish reporter via concentration camp references.

Now we have London’s Royal Court Theatre selling out with a play eulogizing Rachel Corrie, the young American woman who died in such bitter circumstances under an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza two years ago while campaigning for the International Solidarity Movement, a group proudly committed to the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel.

We have the Association of University Teachers, a union representing British academics – the presumed intellectual elite – voting to approve boycott action against two Israeli universities.

And we have the faint whiff of anti-Semitism blowing through the general election campaign. Tony Blair’s governing Labor party produced, then withdrew, one poster depicting the opposition Conservative Party’s leader Michael Howard and his would-be finance minister Oliver Letwin as pigs, and another showing Howard as a Fagin-esque figure. Both Howard and Letwin are Jewish.

Some of my friends in London tell me they are increasingly uncomfortable wearing a kippa in public around town.

Others highlight something that columnist Melanie Phillips mentioned in her article in The Jerusalem Post on April 21, the gradual emergence of perverted ‘good’ Jew and ‘bad’ Jew categories as some in the community try to adjust to the anti-Israel swell by disconnecting from, then castigating, the Jewish state. In this upside-down world, wrote Phillips, ‘the ‘good’ Jew dumps on Israel while the ‘bad’ Jew defends it.’

Three months ago, a motion asserting that ‘Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews,’ though soundly defeated in an on-line vote, was narrowly carried in a debate held at the Royal Geographical Society in London. All the speakers – the three who opposed the motion and the three who supported it – were Jewish.

As an ex-Brit, I’ve been increasingly discomfited by all this – and all too aware of the French precedent, whereby the simple fact of rising Muslim numbers and dwindling Jewish ones has changed national political imperatives and left the Jewish community concerned for its very future. There are 1.6 million Muslims in the UK now, while the 350,000 Jews of just a couple of decades ago has dwindled to 300,000 or less.

Still, I found some comfort this week in a conversation with the savvy Geza Vermes, professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford. Vermes has a very different take on the overall British climate as regards Jews – and especially on the academic climate, as evidenced by the reception accorded a book he has just published.

VERMES’S NEW volume, The Passion, is an effort to ascertain precisely what happened to Jesus between the Last Supper and his crucifixion. Relying, Vermes told me, on the writings of ‘Josephus, Latin and Greek sources, the Dead Sea Scrolls’ and more, it essentially lays bare the Gospels as anything but the ‘gospel truth.’

Instead, as noted in a hugely complimentary review of the book by Peter Stothard in The Times, Vermes essentially establishes that the writers of the Gospels distorted their account in order ‘to blame the Jews rather than the Roman colonizers for the death of Jesus’ and thus ‘gave rise to 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism.’

Though Vermes points out that mention of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ is limited to the very first pages of his volume, and is plainly anxious that his decades of scholarship not be perceived to have been marshalled merely as a riposte to what he calls that ‘disgusting’ film, the reviewers have hailed his painstaking, plausible detective work in admiring comparison to Gibson’s brutal superficiality. Vermes’s writings ‘make Mel Gibson’s film seem especially grotesque,’ noted The Daily Telegraph’s reviewer, A. N. Wilson.

Centrally, Vermes reasons that the notion of the entire Jewish people demanding that Jesus be put to death, as asserted in the Gospel of Matthew and graphically emphasized by Gibson, does not stand up to logical scrutiny. After all, much of the New Testament underlines Jesus’s immense popularity among the Jews, who had hailed his arrival in Jerusalem just a few days earlier.

Vermes, furthermore, flatly rejects as halachically unthinkable the New Testament notion of Jesus being tried by the Sanhedrin on Pessah eve. Rather, Vermes argues, he was arrested as a troublemaker and delivered after cursory questioning to the Romans by the ‘quisling’ Jewish high priest, whose duties were effectively to maintain law and order, and who, in this case, ‘did his job as expected by the Romans.’

And Vermes notes that far from the depiction in the New Testament, and in Gibson’s film, of a weak and hapless Pontius Pilate reluctantly sanctioning Jesus’s death, the Roman governor was a ruthless killer who, as Vermes put it in another interview recently, would not have ‘batted an eyelid before sending him to the cross.’

Vermes says he is ‘very encouraged’ by the positive response to a book that so gallingly undermines the historicity of the Gospels and runs counter to two millennia of Christian thinking; he has gone so far as to brand the New Testament account ‘a deplorable caricature.’ It is a book, moreover, written by a Jew – albeit one who, born to Jewish parents, was also a priest before returning to his native faith. And it is a book, finally, published at a time of concern for the overall status of Anglo-Jewry.

‘If this had been published 70 or 80 years ago,’ Vermes believes, ‘it would have garnered a much more hostile reaction on the Christian side. It would have been seen as an effort to exonerate the Jews, who were thought to be the guilty party.’

And what, beyond that perceived new tolerance for a very different Christian narrative regarding events 2,000 years ago, does Vermes make of Christian England’s attitudes to today’s Jews? ‘The overall climate? It’s very positive,’ he says. ‘A general malaise? Good gracious, no.’

How, then, does he interpret the AUT’s move to boycott Bar-Ilan and Haifa Universities? ‘Well, very disappointing, of course, but it’s a totally insignificant body. The vote was a result of one or two very determined anti-Israeli women.’

The ‘sensible’ academic community, Vermes goes on, ‘is absolutely well-disposed toward Jews.’ And the sensible academic attitude to Israel, he adds, is one that appreciates the academic freedoms there, notably for Israeli Arabs.

‘I used to be a member of that union, but I’m now retired,’ he muses down the phone. ‘If I were active, I’d resign. I don’t want anything to do with idiots of that sort, and that’s how most serious academics feel.’

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