Geza Vermes is one of the top scholars on the life of Jesus and perhaps the leading scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this book, he turns his attention to the resurrection of Jesus. Unfortunately, the book lacks depth and fails to grapple seriously with alternative scholarly perspectives. References to other works are few. There are no footnotes, though there are a few non-referenced endnotes. That is not to say that Vermes is not an accomplished scholar. He surely is and because of that I was interested in his conclusions. But the conclusions of even a respected scholar cannot be divorced from his reasoning and interaction with other scholarship.
Vermes covers the usual bases, albeit briefly. He discusses the development of resurrection belief in early Judaism, the interim period, and then during Jesus’ time, including the New Testament. Few of his conclusions are beyond the pale, but time and again Vermes reaches them with little discussion and almost no interaction with other scholarship. For example, Vermes seems dismissive of Ezekiel 37:5-6’s vivid description of the valley of dry bones, thinking it mainly as a metaphor for national restoration that inspired later “creators of the new concept of bodily resurrection.” As a result, he does not really examine why it occurred to the author to use bodily resurrection as a metaphor for anything if no Jew had conceived of the idea yet. In other words, the author's use of this particular metaphor is suggestive that the concept of bodily resurrection was not foreign to early Judaism.
Vermes also concludes that few people believed in resurrection during Jesus’ time. This is a departure from the majority position that resurrection belief was more widespread among the general population of the second temple period. Although he spends more time attempting to justify this position, it is an unconvincing effort. Vermes does not come to terms with Josephus’ statement that the Pharisees “have the multitude on their side.” Antiquities 13:10:6. Although Vermes is probably correct that the Pharisees’ influence was less in Galilee, that does not mean that the doctrine of resurrection was so limited. Moreover, a strong presence in the cities and towns of Judea would have meant at least tens of thousands of Jews with a belief in the resurrection.
Furthermore, the rise of resurrection belief is most often linked to Jewish culture’s response to the martyrs of the Maccabean revolt. The theory is that so many who stood for God’s law died and were left apparently unrewarded for their faithfulness. Given God’s justice and faithfulness, something had to give and the theological tension was relieved by development of the belief that they received their reward after a bodily resurrection. The martyrs at issue were not the elite collaborators who held high positions, but the pious rural and town folk. This would seem to suggest a popularity of resurrection belief that is more widespread than Vermes allows.
Next, Vermes sometimes interprets passages in the way most helpful for his conclusions with little or no regard for reasonable, alternative understandings. Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees over marriage and resurrection is a good example. When the Sadducees – who denied resurrection altogether – tried to show its absurdity by using the unlikely hypothetical example of a woman who had many husbands in this life and asking who would be her husband after the resurrection, Jesus turned the tables on them and said that their question betrayed a fundamental ignorance of the Scriptures. Mark 12:18-25; Mt. 22:23-30; Lk. 20:27-36. The question itself was off base because in the next life we will be like angels. Vermes assumes this means that in the afterlife the righteous will be incorporeal. But none of the gospels link the issue to incorporeality (nor is it at all clear that they would; angels could be quite corporeal). Rather, the issue, as Luke makes explicit, is eternal life. The afterlife is radically different because those who participate in it will never die.
Vermes also claims that John 6:54 is inauthentic: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” According to Vermes, no Jew could have said this because they would have been “overcome with nausea.” Although Vermes is correct that the eating of blood was a biblical and cultural taboo, the step from there to absolute prohibition from using it as an allegory is belied by the evidence. Paul, who could still claim to be blameless before the law and a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and as to the law “a Pharisee,” passed on to his churches a very similar tradition and made it a central part of their worship:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Cor. 11:23-27.
Luke too, though likely a Gentile, also uses these phrases. Mark and Matthew, most likely written by Jewish authors, refer to eating Jesus’ body -- also a taboo -- but are not as explicit in the drinking of Jesus’ blood. Thus, the notion that a Jew could not have used such an allegory is unpersuasive.
Vermes also dismisses Synoptic verses speaking of “eternal life” as related to the idea of resurrection. Although Vermes sees the association of “eternal life” with the “Kingdom of God,” he says there is no necessary link to bodily resurrection. (Mk. 10:17-25; Mt. 19:16-24; Lk. 18:18-5; Mk. 10:29-30; Mt. 19:29; Lk. 18:29-30). But it is the connection of eternal life to eschatological concepts like the “Kingdom of God” which makes it almost certain that bodily resurrection is meant. Resurrection and eschatology go hand in hand. Whereas immortality of the soul required only death to “release” the soul, resurrection occurs at the “end of this age” and presages or transitions into the “Kingdom of God.” Of course, Jesus had a broader understanding of Kingdom of God, but when speaking of eternal life and the Kingdom of God, he had bodily resurrection in mind.
Although intended to be the heart of the matter, the actual discussion of the New Testament resurrection accounts is surprisingly brief. There are nine pages recounting the contents of each gospel, then eight pages of discussion with a chart. (As with the rest of the book, these are small pages with rather large print). Additional pages are devoted to the resurrection in Acts, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament. He notes the differences in the sequence of events, identities of participants, and the number and location of appearances. But rather than spend much time inquiring into the reasons for such differences, including the possible use of literary devices such as telescoping, the use of different sources or the influence of different apologetic purposes, Vermes concludes that such evidence does not satisfy the rules of a legal or scientific inquiry. Which may be true, I suppose, but tells us little about what a historical inquiry should yield.
Despite his misgivings, Vermes seems to accept the historicity of the empty tomb and the fact that some sort of appearances occurred. He explores alternative theories, such as the wrong tomb, stolen body, and not-really-dead theories, and finds them all lacking as historical explanations. So just what does Vermes think happened? I still do not know for sure. His epilogue is titled, “Resurrection in the Hearts of Men.” He admits that Jesus’ followers experienced a powerful mystical event that caused them to proclaim the gospel with authority. His theory seems to be that these two factors combined to spur them on to proclaiming the gospel, and that when their newfound missionary activities were successful, their doubts eased and Jesus was resurrected in their hearts. This seems to put the cart before the horse and fails to offer an explanation for the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances in the first instance. It also leaves unexplained Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus. Finally, it fails to explain why Jesus’ followers would have interpreted these events as a resurrection rather than some other event -- such as an assumption into heaven. This last issue is one of the crucial historical questions surrounding Jesus’ reported resurrection and the absence of any serious exploration of it is a substantial omission.
There are many books on the resurrection of comparable length that would, in my opinion, be more beneficial. For a Jewish perspective -- which accepts the historicity of the resurrection but rejects Jesus’ messiahship -- there is Pinchas Lapide’s The Resurrection of Jesus, A Jewish Perspective. For a Christian defense of the historicity of the resurrection, there is William L. Craig’s The Son Rises or George E. Ladd’s I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. Another slightly longer and somewhat dated, but more neutral book is C.F. Evans’ Resurrection and the New Testament. For a highly readable debate between a believer and skeptic, check out Jesus’ Resurrection, Fact of Fiction: A Debate Between William L. Craig & Gerd Ludemann.