The First Christians: From Nazareth to Nicaea

9781846141508LA book recently published in the United Kingdom deals with a subject of interest, namely the history of the early church. It is written by Geza Vermes, whose works we have previously mentioned. The publishers, Allen Lane, a division of Penguin Books, provide the following information on this new title.

Geza Vermes, the author of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls and acknowledged expert on the life and times of Jesus, tells the enthralling story of the first Christians and the origins of a religion.

The creation of the Christian Church is one of the most important stories in the development of the world's history, but also one of the most enigmatic and little understood, shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding. With a forensic, brilliant re-examination of all the key surviving texts of early Christianity, Geza Vermes illuminates the origins of a faith and traces the evolution of the figure of Jesus from the man he was—a prophet fully recognisable as the successor to other Jewish holy men of the Old Testament—to what he came to represent: a mysterious, otherworldly being at the heart of a major new religion. As Jesus' teachings spread across the eastern Mediterranean, hammered into place by Paul, John and their successors, they were transformed in the space of three centuries into a centralised, state-backed creed worlds away from its humble origins. Christian Beginnings tells the captivating story of how a man came to be hailed as the Son consubstantial with God, and of how a revolutionary, anti-conformist Jewish sub-sect became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

Geza Vermes, is an interesting author. Born a Jew, he took orders in the Catholic church before reconverting to Judaism. With this background, he provides a unique view of the genesis of the early church .


Tags: first christians, Jesus Christ, Paul, Trinity, State Religion, church history

Boating on Galilee; a marvel of archaeology

The Sea of Galilee was a principal setting for much of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. At least four of his disciples were fishermen who owned and operated fishing boats. In the recent decades, a first century boat has been recovered from the shoreline of the sea by archaeologists, providing valuable insight into the nature of the boats themselves and the way in which fishing was conducted.

In a recent article published in the Jerusalem Post, Wayne Stiles provides up to date details of the archaeological recovery of the boat and what we have learned from that discovery. Note that Kinneret is a alternative name for Galilee.


H/T to James Davila of PaleoJudaica

Tags: gospels, Archaeology, Jesus Christ, Galilee

The Tomb of Jesus

The burial place of Jesus is in the news again. Leen Ritmeyer, refers to this in a recent blog post. I have previously written about this subject in Vision and have also discussed the Talpiot Tomb at some length on this blog.

Ritmeyer references two current articles on The Bible and Interpretation Web site by Eldad Keynan, a PhD candidate at Bar Ilan University. He contends that the tomb contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchure in Jerusalem was originally  established by the Sanhedrin for the burial of criminals and hence Jesus could have been buried there initially. In other words, the implication is that this is what the Gospels refer to as the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

It is interesting to read the comments to Leen’s blog relating to tomb. Keynan is willing to engage in dialogue on the matter.

Tags: Leen Ritmeyer, Jesus Christ, Talpiot Tomb, Jesus Tomb, Jersualem, burial practice

Did Jesus Christ Actually Exist?

Geza Vermes examines the validity of evidence provided by Josephus

A much-debated point is the lack of nonbiblical evidence from the first century for the actual existence of Jesus Christ. A passage in Josephus has long been a standard response to the question. However skeptics have contended that the actual wording of Josephus was probably an interpolation by a subsequent Christian editor. The works of Josephus have been preserved by the church rather than the synagogue, opening the question of additions to suit the apologetic needs of the church.

Accordingly, in recent years the passage in Josephus, known as The Testimonium Flavianum, has been scrutinized to establish what, in fact, Josephus wrote as opposed to what was added later. One help in this area was the existence of an Arabic version of Josephus that had not been preserved by the church and was thought to be free of any interpolations.

Summarizing the whole aspect of the reception of Josephus as well as The Testimonium Flavianum is a useful article by Geza Vermes, published in the latest issue ofStandpoint, titled: Jesus in the Eyes of Josephus. Vermes concludes his article with his reconstruction of the statements of Josephus about Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Vermes reads Josephus as seeing Jesus as a Christ—in Vermes's view to link to the name by which he knew of the followers of Jesus. He posits:

So by portraying Jesus not unsympathetically, yet without fully embracing his cause, he achieved what none of his ancient Jewish successors managed to do: he sketched a non-partisan picture of Jesus. The Testimonium lies half way between the reverential portrait of the early church and the caricatures of the Talmud and of the early medieval Jewish lives of Jesus (Toldot Yeshu). In conclusion, what seems to be Josephus's authentic portrait of Jesus depicts him as a wise teacher and miracle worker, with an enthusiastic following of Jewish disciples who, despite the crucifixion of their master by order of Pontius Pilate in collusion with the Jerusalem high priests, remained faithful to him up to Josephus's days.

Let me offer therefore the text that I believe Josephus wrote. The Christian additions, identified in the paragraph that follows the earlier reproduction of the English translation of Antiquities 18: 63-64, are excised and the deletions are indicated by [ . . . ]. The dubious authenticity of the phrase "[and many Greeks?]" (see the same paragraph above) is signalled by the question mark. Finally, the word [called] is inserted into the sentence "He was [called] the Christ" on the basis of Josephus's description of James as "the brother of Jesus called the Christ".

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man . . . For he was one who performed paradoxical deeds and was the teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews [and many Greeks?]. He was [called] the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him . . . And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Read the entire article as it provides useful background on the first century.

H/T to James Davila of PaleoJudaica


Tags: Jesus Christ, Geza Vermes, Josephus, Testimonium Flavianum

The Origins of Chanukkah

The Gospel of John is important to understanding the event
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Tonight, the Jewish world welcomes not only the Sabbath, but the start of the celebration of Chanukkah, an eight-day festival to celebrate the purging and restoration of the temple after the desecration of Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd century BCE. 

Many legends surround the festival, leading some to question the whole detail of the event. Clearly the eight days of the celebration mirror the original dedication of the temple under Solomon as recorded in 1 Kings 8.  But the timing is different. That dedication took place during the autumnal seventh month at the Festival of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot. Chanukkah takes place in the winter during the ninth month. 

This point is made in the Gospel. John records Jesus and the disciples being in the temple during the Feast of Dedication and mentioning that it was winter (John 10:22).  John is not confusing the two festivals, because in preceding chapters he records Jesus’s presence in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles in detail (John 7:1ff). So John establishes and links the re-dedication of the temple to this event.

John is very careful about the festivals in his Gospel account, providing a portrayal of Jesus as an observant Jew of His day, keeping the festivals outlined within Scripture, as well as those national events that had been added subsequently such as Chanukkah.

With the loss of the temple in 70 CE, the festival of Chanukkah changed focus so that the focus is now upon the individuals who acted, rather than the result of rededicating of the temple to enable the true worship of the God of Israel.

That provides a salutary lesson for us today. How easy is it for humanity to focus upon the wrong aspect of life!


Tags: Jesus Christ, Temple, Festivals, Chanukkah, Gospel of John

What did the Readers of the Gospel of Mark understand?

Can an examination of an Implied Reader help us understand Mark's view of Jesus' teaching?

This year, a consultation entitled: “Sabbath in Text, Tradition, and Theology” was held at the Society of Biblical Literature.  I was able to attend one of the sessions which was styled, The Sabbath in the New Testament

Tom Shepherd, of Andrews University presented a paper on the Gospel of Mark which asked the question, how the implied reader of Mark’s Gospel was to understand the references to the Sabbath day included in the Gospel.  As we read Mark today, we notice that when the Sabbath is mentioned, Jesus or Mark does not seek to educate the reader about the Sabbath Day.  That detail was expected to be known.  It is a surprise to many people today to realize that the first followers of Jesus all observed the Sabbath.  Mark’s Gospel is clearly written with that in view.

What Mark seeks to convey is the teaching of Jesus about the Sabbath day and how it should be properly kept as opposed to the accretion of traditions that people had imposed.  In Mark 2 and 3, two incidents relating to the Sabbath are provided.  Because of the way that the book has been divided into chapters and verses, long after the Gospel had been written, we can easily lose sight of the message being conveyed.  Mark presents Jesus as providing proper understanding for the listeners.  In the two cases, the instruction is given in response to a question.  Firstly the religious leaders asked one of Jesus (2:23-28), in the second, the roles are reversed.  Jesus asks the question of the leaders (3:1-5). The results of the two questions are not the abrogation of the Sabbath commands, but an understanding of the standards that Jesus and by extension, the Father expect in the Sabbath observance.

Of the seven occurrences of the term Sabbath in the Gospel of  Mark, two record Jesus teaching in the Synagogue on the Sabbath Day (Mark 1:21, 6:1).  The consequence of both occasions was recorded as public amazement at the quality of teaching of Jesus.  Between these two Synagogue events, we have the teaching provided about the Sabbath in chapter 2 & 3, as though they are sandwiched between the two events to give the reader an insight into the reasons for the reaction to the teaching.  So easily overlooked is the fact that in both cases, they seek to undo the tradition associated with the Sabbath and not the Sabbath itself.  This would have been ideal place for Jesus to describe the Sabbath as being redundant, or for Mark writing years after the death of Jesus to editorialize that this was now all changed because the church now kept Sunday in memorial of His resurrection.  Such is not the case.

Actually, we find the followers of Jesus, including the Apostle Paul, keeping the Sabbath and Festivals along with the rest of the Jewish community.  The Scriptures such as Acts 20:7-11 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 which have long been used to justify Sunday observance have nothing to do with worship or Sabbath or Sunday keeping.  The use of Sunday rather than the Sabbath as a time of meeting probably did not  get traction among people until the second century, and certainly was not fully established in congregations until the end of the 4th Century.

Jesus together with his disciples and those who followed him kept the Sabbath faithfully as they had been instructed. The concepts about the Sabbath and its non application to Christians is a latter idea that has no apostolic or Biblicala basis.

Tags: Apostle Paul, Jesus Christ, Gospel of Mark, Sabbath

Feast of the Assumption

Ancient views of Mary, the mother of Jesus, reveal the growth of the story
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Feast of the Assumption

August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption, relating to the Roman Catholic dogma of Mary’s assumption into heaven. This was the last dogma established relating to Mary, the mother of Jesus, decreed by Pope Pius XII in 1950 a mere 59 years ago. It was the latest in a succession of dogmas relating to Mary. Recently I was doing some research on how she was viewed by the early, non-Biblical writers. Clement of Rome is considered the earliest of these and he makes no comment about Mary at all. In light of the subject he is addressing that is not surprising.

Ignatius of Antioch wrote a number of epistles to various church groups in Asia Minor, and the time of his writing is placed around C.E. 125. Mary is simply mentioned as the mother of Jesus in his epistles. No other significant detail of her is given. But the Latin version of Ignatius’s epistles is interesting as it contains what are considered—rightly so—to be spurious letters to the Virgin Mary and the Apostle John. I question the title of the first epistle especially considering the contents of the Second Epistle to John. The title of “Virgin Mary” may well have been supplied by the translators rather than being in the original. The subtitle, "Her friend Ignatius to the Christ-bearing Mary," probably was all that was attached to the original document. As I can only work from a translation, I’m not able to establish the title provided by the writer.

In the second of the Epistles to the Apostle John, the writer makes reference to James the Just, also known as the brother of Jesus. Catholic doctrine presents James as being a child of Joseph by a former marriageto preserve the concept of Mary's virginity. Yet the writer talks of James in this way:

And in like manner [I desire to see] the venerable James, who is surnamed Just, whom they relate to be very like Christ Jesus in appearance, in life, and in method of conduct, as if he were a twin-brother of the same womb. They say that, if I see him, I see also Jesus Himself, as to all the features and aspect of His body.(1)

To make a statement that James was like a twin brother of Jesus and hence of Mary indicates that the idea of perpetual virginity was not an understanding of this writer. In that this was preserved only in Latin is a fair indication that this doctrine was probably a late second or third century addition to the Catholic Church. We know that it was a factor by the time Jerome translated the Vulgate, finishing in the early fifth century. A footnote to Matthew 1:25 in the Douay Rheims translation provides this detail attributed to Jerome: 

"Till she brought forth her firstborn son". . . From these words Helvidius and other heretics most impiously inferred that the blessed Virgin Mary had other children besides Christ; but St. Jerome shews, by divers examples, that this expression of the Evangelist was a manner of speaking usual among the Hebrews, to denote by the word until, only what is done, without any regard to the future. Thus it is said, Genesis 8. 6 and 7, that Noe sent forth a raven, which went forth, and did not return till the waters were dried up on the earth. That is, did not return any more. Also Isaias 46. 4, God says: I am till you grow old. Who dare infer that God should then cease to be: Also in the first book of Machabees 5. 54, And they went up to mount Sion with joy and gladness, and offered holocausts, because not one of them was slain till they had returned in peace. That is, not one was slain before or after they had returned. God saith to his divine Son: Sit on my right hand till I make thy enemies thy footstool. Shall he sit no longer after his enemies are subdued? Yea and for all eternity. St. Jerome also proves by Scripture examples, that an only begotten son, was also called firstborn, or first begotten: because according to the law, the firstborn males were to be consecrated to God; Sanctify unto me, saith the Lord, every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel, etc. Ex. 13. 2.

I make the point about the late second century based on the comments by Irenaeus about Mary. By the time of his writing, ideas about a special role for Mary were starting to develop in the West. If that is correct, then the spurious letters attributed to Ignatius must have been written before that time.


1). Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol.I: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 125.


Tags: Jesus Christ, Feast of the Assumption, James the Just, Mary

Israel Knohl discusses the impact of Gabriel's Revelation

Video interview made available on line

Israel Knohl, a professor at Hebrew University and Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, discusses the importance, to both Judaism and the followers of Christ, of the recent discovery of a stone since known asGabriel's Revelation.

The idea of a suffering Messiah has long been held by Christian scholarship to be an after-the-event concept added by the apostles to justify the death of Jesus Christ.  Knohl shows how this concept predated the birth of Jesus and explores the way this is shown in Gabriel's Revelation.


Tags: Dead Sea Scrolls, Herod, Jesus Christ, Israel Knohl, Roman Empire, Suffering Messiahs, Gabriel's Revelation

Shroud of Turin Back in the News

Counter claims made against the dating of the shroud
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Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin, on which it is claimed an image of the body of Jesus is marked, is back in the spotlight again. Having been dated to the Middle Ages in 1988 by the use of radiocarbon at several independent laboratories, it appeared that the lack of authenticity of the shroud was settled. Even the Vatican accepted the outcome.

Now John Jackson, a physicist at University of Colorado, and his wife Rebecca are claiming that contamination of the cloth led to an aberrant dating, as the cloth and image appear much older than the date established by radiocarbon.  As they challenge the radiocarbon dating in the hope of being allowed to reexamine the cloth, the Jacksons will be aided in their quest by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. 

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, another challenger, has suggested that the mediaeval date reading came about from new material sewn into the shroud as a repair.

Tags: Jesus Christ, Image, radiocarbon dating, Shroud of Turin

What Religion Was Jesus Christ?

Ancient stone creates opportunity for reflection
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Gabriel Revelation

The discovery and publication of an unprovenanced Hebrew document, purportedly from the 1st century BCE and written on stone, has generated some interesting comments about the origins of Christianity and its relationship to Judaism. I'll write more on this in future but in the interim, I'd like to draw attention to one writer in particular. 

James Carroll, writing in the Boston Globe, concludes his article on the 'Gabriel Revelation' with the following comment:

That Christianity defined itself as the polar opposite of Judaism was an accident of history, with lethal consequences. The two religions are and will remain distinct, but it is urgently important that Christians, especially, correct the mistake that saw Jesus in radical opposition to his own people. He remained a devoted Jew to the end, and his first followers understood him, after his death, in fully Jewish terms. If Christians had continued to do so, the tradition of anti-Judaism, which spawned anti-Semitism, would not have developed.

James has summed up the situation appropriately, although we should always appreciate that anti-Semitism predates the time of Jesus Christ.

HT to Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica.

Tags: Judaism, Jesus Christ, early christianity, Gabriel, James Carroll, resurrection, three days

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