15 APRIL 2000, Page 40

The people of the Hebrews with palms before them went

Jane Gardam

THE CHANGING FACES OF JESUS by Geza Vermes Allen Lane, £18.99, pp. 272 Geza Vermes, mighty scholar, transla- tor into English of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has at 75 published his fourth book on Christ. The title of the first, Jesus the Jew, was thought to be shocking and that this is not so now is a reflection on Vermes' power of bringing Him to life as a first- century Galilean, a subject on which he can speak with authority and not as the Scribes. The other books of the trilogy are Jesus and the World of Judaism and The Religion of Jesus the Jew, and this new book he calls their 'completion'. He deals here with the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), Paul, the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles and 'the rest of the New Testament' — a huge undertaking which only comes off because of his life- time's absorption and tremendous knowl- edge. This is perhaps to be his last word on Jesus because he ends with a surprising letting-go of his academic self, describing a dream he had when the book was finished, in which Christ appeared and spoke. Jew meets Jew in this dream. Vermes has 'always seen Jesus as a Jew' and, though he was brought up in Hungary as a Catholic and was ordained a priest, he then reverted to his Jewish roots where he has comfort- ably remained.

The Changing Faces of Jesus has nothing to do with historical portraiture although on the dust-cover there is a magnificent 14th-century Russian icon showing the centuries'-old format-face of Christ that has blazed out since the very early Veroni- ca paintings to the war-flags of Ivan the Terrible, to the heretical posters of Che Guevara (though not from the 20th- century statue in Trafalgar Square which caused so much distress since it was white and beardless). The book is not about Christ's appearance but His nature inter- preted by the world from the earliest Gospels to the different creature who appears in the Acts of the Apostles and John and Paul; it covers altogether about 100 years. Vermes works backwards, from Paul and John who he says cannot have known Christ to those who met Him, end- ing with a chapter called 'Beneath the Gospels, the Real Jesus' in which he reiter- ates that Jesus and the New Testament are all part and parcel of first-century Judaism. He writes as a Jew, not a theologian 'con- ditioned and influenced by Christian belief'.

The figure that emerges from this Gospel of Vermes is a wonderfully charis- matic, fervent, practising, devout Jew, capable of violent behaviour, energetically scornful of followers who are only con- vinced of His message because of His mir- acles. He sees His healing powers as either good luck or the good sense that can put a stop to hysteria. This Christ speaks of peni- tence and mentions mercy but is a bit short on the qualities the Christian believes He stands for: forgiveness and love.

As a handbook on the contradictions and discrepancies of the Gospel story this book, so measured and rational, will be useful, though Vermes doesn't stress that the Gospels, written at such different times and by such different people, would be even odder if they had all said exactly the same. The peculiarities of the Nativity story, the ordinariness of a 'virgin' birth, the wrong date of the Massacre of the Innocents, if they were massacred at all, the conflicting dates of the Last Supper, the insignificance of the scrubby little pro- cession now celebrated on Palm Sunday all over the world 2,000 years on, is none of it new. There is a hilarious — though I can't for the life of me see where he got it from — explanation of the miracle at Cana sug- gesting that the wine ran out because Jesus brought all his disciples along uninvited and Mary, His mother, said to the servants, in effect: 'Just do what he tells you. He'll do as I say. He's a good Jewish boy.' (You come barging in with all your crazy friends, drinking' — according to a sermon I heard last week — 'the equivalent of about 500 bottles of wine). Well, who knows if Ver- mes doesn't?

On the Resurrection he is unemotional, giving a synopsis of all myths and possibili- ties, including the suggestion that the women had gone to the wrong tomb, and the now no longer quite so blasphemous one that Christ survived the crucifixion. He believes in the fact that the Resurrection took place because it became rooted so surely in the disciples' hearts.

No non-scholar can evaluate this book but non-scholars can learn from it. It's intriguing to hear that Jesus may not have been a carpenter but a building contractor (Joseph and Son) working on the recently discovered ruins of a Greek town near Nazareth where there was a theatre. Did Jesus ever see a Greek play? But Jews did not then hold with the drama.

But, says Vermes, the myth that Jesus could speak Greek is ludicrous ('Does not this man come from Nazareth?'), as ludi- crous as Peter the fisherman writing the sophisticated Greek of the works attributed to him. Vermes is unenthusiastic about the 'speaking with tongues'. Dismal.

But one is grateful to him for the picture of the lovely landscape of Galilee in the time of Christ, where fig trees fruited for ten months of the year and explain why He lost His temper with the barren one in His desert wanderings. And it's good to know that not only Christ but all Jewish children were sometimes called lambs (cf. English `kids'?) and that Jesus must have had a rough northern accent. And I'm glad he tells the joke about the Jew on the desert island who built two synagogues so he could have one he never went to. He has great affection for his race.

Which brings us to the dream, which I thought at first must be some sort of metaphor, but no. 'One afternoon, after many years of labour', he says, 'I fell asleep.' In the dream that follows Christ stages a return. We are told exactly what he looked like, which is not unlike the dust- cover icon. He addresses a crowd he finds enormous, though it's smaller than the one that turned out for the Pope at Cracow. He is surprised that there are so many Chris- tians, but insists that He Himself is a Jew. He is delighted with them, for 'without you my name wouldn't be all over the place'. He asks, though, why they depend on ritual and symbols so much (!) and why they are always calling on Him. 'Get on with it your- selves.' He turns to a group of sinners and says that on the whole He still likes them best. At which point Vermes' telephone rang; it was a man trying to sell new win- dows, and the dream was gone.

These persons from Porlock! They do tend to arrive just when we are dizzy and can take no more. However, this one brought a good message to the great schol- ar. More light — you can always do with more light,