Review: Geza Vermes, “The Nativity: History and Legend”

For my sins, which are clearly far more substantial than I had realised, I agreed last week to read through and comment on Geza Vermes’ book The Nativity: History and Legend, which I should otherwise never have read.  Since it is directed to the educated layman, this educated layman feels free to offer his opinion of it.

Anyway I’ve written the desired review, so I may as well make it available here:

I wasn’t very impressed.  The sort of book that consists of debunking the bible never seems like more than a piece of spite to me, whatever it professes.  Why write it otherwise?

Indeed Vermes even goes so far as to sneer at the popular celebrations of Christmas.  That piece of cheek towards those who paid his salary would have brought down upon him the wrath of the tabloids, had any of them bothered to read it.  I’ve never forgotten  seeing one of them yell on the front page “This child taught Christmas joy is evil!”, attacking some poor humble little sect that didn’t celebrate Christmas.

It’s always best to write about your enthusiasms.  I am deeply glad that I am not a book critic!  It must be a profession that tends to make you sneery.

But writing all this did give me a chance to think about how to deal objectively with evidently legendary or miraculous passages in historical texts in general.  I will try to write a post about this.


7 thoughts on “Review: Geza Vermes, “The Nativity: History and Legend”

  1. Sheesh, hit the post button by mistake…

    Actually, some ancient societies did have birth registries of a sort. Tribes and clans would maintain a listing of who was born to whom, among their members. Others had professional rememberers, who would recite genealogies when needed. (Fraud did sometimes happen.)

    I think Josephus talks a little about Jewish genealogical records, but it may have been something else I am thinking of.

    Anyway, there are some bad uses of this (Japanese clan records used to reveal if your daughter’s date is descended from Eta untouchables) and some nicer ones (the ancient and/or medieval clan records in India at Haridwar and Bihar).

    The PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots is a bit too interested in celebrities. But the usually annoying Deepak Chopra’ s roots were used as an excuse to visit the genealogists of his clan, and so that episode was very cool. (And Chopra was much less annoying than usual, as he is proud of his family.)

  2. Thanks for the review, Roger.

    “But writing all this did give me a chance to think about how to deal objectively with evidently legendary or miraculous passages in historical texts in general. I will try to write a post about this.”

    I merely would like to encourage you to post about this. I definitely want to see what you have to say!

  3. When our paths crossed from time to time over the years in Oxford, I had no idea he was a Catholic priest who apostatized after embarking on a marriage-breaking adulterous affair. It would be interesting to read his sarkily-titled autobiography, Providential Accidents (1998), to see what picture of what departure from what sort of Christian faith it gives.

  4. There were an awful lot of insults to Catholics in the volume, quite visible to a protestant like myself. In particular he was really keen on insulting the virginity of Mary, which I knew is really important to Catholics. I rather wondered whether this was a case of a man who became a Catholic priest to escape the Nazis and then abandoned it when he was in Britain, when being a Catholic stood between him and the lectureship in Jewish studies that he wanted. That was also a period of widespread adultery and fornication; perhaps being a celibate priest was also newly inconvenient.

    It is one of the devil’s tricks to convince men that the sin that attracts them is trivial, and that they will be just the same afterwards. Then, afterwards, their conscience damns them and the devil makes out that the sin is unforgiveably great and weighs it on them to crush them, and get them to despair.

    Then of course men with a bad conscience who won’t repent try to deal with their conscience by saying “actually it isn’t true”. Was the whole “Third quest for the historical Jesus” just an attempt to stifle a bad conscience, one wonders? What creatures are men!

    I suppose it could happen to any of us…

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