Geza Vermes’ approach to the story of Jesus Christ in his The Passion: The True Story of an Event that Changed Human History primarily incorporates a historical method to uncover the details of the last day of Christ’s life. Vermes is not interested in merely relying on faith to develop his account of this final week, but rather employs a disciplined reading of available historical sources in order to reconstruct the time period in question. Vermes can thus be said to attempt to provide a historically accurate Christ. As Vermes describes his method, he is a “historian-exegete, or if you like, [a] detective of the past.” With the term exegesis, Vermes thus dedicates himself to a close reading of relevant texts, in order to discover the relevant information; Vermes is at the same time a detective, attempting to put together the pieces of this narrative. Accordingly, Vermes makes the bold claim that this historical approach to “The Passion” differs from the version transmitted through the faith, the latter denounced by Vermes as follows: “this representation of the Passion, which will be shown to be biased and twisted, has influenced the Christian world over most of its history.” Accordingly, Vermes’ historical method can also be viewed as a critique of this particular tradition, through an appeal to what he believes to be irrevocable facts concerning the Passion: this critique intends to show the underlying political motivation in the Passion narrative. The following essay shall examine Vermes’ historical approach to the last day of Christ, and how this approach functions as an instrument of critique.
Vermes’ main point of contention that leads him to reject the faith-based interpretations of the last week of Christ relates to inconsistencies in the source material. Different versions of The Passion are present in this material, and as such, the unified narrative of faith must come under scrutiny. Vermes identifies these key sources for the construction of this narrative: “like everything else we know about Jesus, the account of his last day derives from the discrete narratives of the four Gospels. Unlike the traditional story produced by the Church, they are neither simple nor coherent.” Accordingly, the sources for information about Christ contain contradictions – the Church, through their own interpretation, has essentially, according to Vermes, eliminated such contradiction in order to present their own consistent account. Vermes therefore returns back to the original source texts in an attempt to subvert the traditional reading according to an emphasis on such inconsistencies.
The key texts Vermes identifies are as follows: “to penetrate this mystery, the reader must come to grip with the literary sources that are closest to the reality of the Passion and subject Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, our four principle witnesses, to a stringent critical scrutiny.” Vermes, thus makes again clear his detective-like method: he is to inquire the witnesses in order to develop a consistent narrative. Vermes notes that these witnesses present radically different accounts. Accordingly, Vermes crucial question is as follows: “what compelled the evangelists to present such an extraordinary contrast of pictures?” For Vermes, these differences cannot be traced back to an error, but rather possess a clear motivation. What is crucial in this regard is that Vermes does not hold to a notion that these gospels are merely subjective interpretations of Christ’s last day: these gospels, in Vermes’ view, differ in too radical a manner to be merely reduced to questions of individual perception. Rather, there is an underlying truth that is concealed in these very divergent interpretations, one that can be uncovered. In this regard, it can be said that Vermes presupposes that a consistent narrative lies underneath the surface and merely needs to be recovered through diligent historical work: arguably this is the crucial presupposition of his project of historical critique.
One of the crucial focal points of Vermes’ account is who is responsible for Christ’s death. This responsibility for death corresponds to Vermes’ overall motif of the historian as detective. Vermes hypothesizes that one of the key motives behind these narratives is an attempt to promote anti-Semitism, insofar as the Jews are made responsible for Christ’s death. This is because of political reasons, as Vermes makes clear – the guilt placed on the Jews takes the blame away from the Roman Pontius Pilate: “It was therefore politically doubly correct to blame the Jews for the murder of Christ and to absolve the Roman Pontius Pilate.” This interpretation essentially allows the composers of the Gospel to earn the favor of the mroe powerful Romans, while making a regional claim to power against the Jews. Thus, for Vermes, “the Roman governor of the Gospels is pictured as a man who believed Jesus to be innocent but allowed himself to be manipulated by the Jews and ended by sending their king to the cross.” Vermes opposes this interpretation by using other historical sources to create a character sketch of Pilate; he describes his conclusions as follows: “the Pilate of the New Testament has little in common with the Pilate of history.” Using the works of Philo and Flavius Josephus, Pilate is characterized as “notorious for venality and many acts of grievous cruelty as well as for numerous executions without trial.” By absolving Pilate, the composers of the Gospel essentially make an appeal to Roman authority: in Vermes’ view The Passion as it stands is a fundamentally political work, insofar as it possesses clear political objectives. By demonstrating these objectives, Vermes advances a politically centered critique.