Geza Vermes is not, however, just any ex-priest, but a notable Jewish historian who has written many influential books on Jesus, stressing the Jewish context and nature of Jesus' life and ministry. In his review for The Times (London) of Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth, Vermes provides a brief overview of the quests for the "historical Jesus" and then writes:
Turning to the Pope’s book, its ten chapters cover the career of Jesus from his baptism to Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration, with full chapters assigned to the gospel of the Kingdom, the sermon on the mount, the Lord’s prayer, the parables, images in John’s Gospel and a few titles of Jesus. It is a haphazard mixture of life and doctrine.
In his preface, the scholar Ratzinger bravely declares that he and not the Pope is the author of the book and that everyone is free to contradict him. I was first tempted to say, “Yes, I will”, but quickly realised that a frontal assault on Jesus of Nazareth from the standpoint of present-day Gospel criticism would be inappropriate. The Pope was engaged not in academic research but in a series of meditations on the Gospels for his own and his readers’ edification. The efficacy of these meditations cannot be judged by academic criteria.
Nevertheless, we are told that the Pope obeyed the rules of historical criticism. However, he was prepared to abide by those rules only if they confirmed his traditional convictions. Otherwise, he discarded them without further consideration. As he refuses to examine various possibilities of meaning, he must take it for granted that he has the correct understanding. But how can this be if no critical questions are asked about the original significance of words?
For a scholarly critic, one of the most disturbing aspects of the book is the absence of reference to texts that in some way contradict Benedict’s cherished beliefs. For instance, he finds in the Gospels scores of allusions to the divinity of Christ. They are all made explicit by the Pope and considered as proven. Yet, try as you may, nowhere will you read in this “Gospel according to Benedict” that Jesus refused to accept the title, “Good Master” on the grounds that it would implicitly suggest that he possessed a divine quality. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark x, 18). Another recurrent theme in Ratzinger’s perception of Christ is that Jesus intended the Gospel to be preached to all the nations. If so, did he just forget Jesus’ sayings that contradict the universality of the apostolic mission, namely, that both Jesus and his disciples were sent only to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew x, 5-6; xv, 24).
Be all this as it may, in fairness, one must concede that the Pope is free to find his spiritual solace wherever he chances upon it, and to communicate his insights to all those willing to share them.
Tis very kind of Vermes to grant, even grudgingly, that Benedict has a right to pen a book about Jesus (and, yes, I'm being very sarcastic. Can you imagine if, say, a Catholic historian were to write something similar about the Dali Lama writing a book about Buddha?). Now, I've just started reading Benedict's book, so I can't speak directly to Vermes' criticisms, although it sounds as though Vermes is a tad annoyed that Benedict hasn't realized that he (Vermas) has discovered the real Jesus. The criticism that Benedict "must take it for granted that he has the correct understanding" is rather curious; after all, Vermes believes that he has the correct understanding, but apparently doesn't think that's a strike against him. I've not read anything by Vermes, but according to Evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III, he believes Jesus was a hasid, a Jewish holy man, who is something of an ancient existentialist, a view that Witherington strongly disputes (The Jesus Quest [IVP, 1997], 108ff).
Whatever the case, some of Vermes's criticisms ring hollow. For instance:
Another recurrent theme in Ratzinger’s perception of Christ is that Jesus intended the Gospel to be preached to all the nations. If so, did he just forget Jesus’ sayings that contradict the universality of the apostolic mission, namely, that both Jesus and his disciples were sent only to the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew x, 5-6; xv, 24).
Did Vermes forget that Jesus tells His disciples at the conclusion of Matthew's Gospel: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...." (28:19; cf. 24:14)? This makes complete sense in the overall trajectory of Jesus' ministry, which began with an exclusive focus on the people of Israel, and then later moved out to the Gentiles, a theme also emphasized by Luke (Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:8). This isn't a contradition at all, as though saying, "I've come to visit my mother" means I cannot also, later, visit my father. As for Matthew 15:24 and the story of the Canaanite woman, it must be noted that Jesus didn't reject her plea, but instead praises her faith and says, "Let it be done for you as you desire" (v. 28). In other words, Jesus didn't reject or ignore the plight of the Gentiles—far from it. But, for some reason, Vermes either forgot or missed the larger context.
• MetaCatholic takes issue with some aspects of the Vermes review.
• Michael Barber has some helpful info about Vermes's scholarly work.