I was browsing my local public library and picked up a few interesting books. The first one was The Nativity: History and Legend
I found this book…oddly disappointing. The main problem is a problem that is my pet peeve about many biblical scholars. This is the practice of using a statement made in one part of the Bible to prove that a statement in another part of the Bible is false. It’s kind of like using inches to prove that centimeters are wrong. I mean, sometimes I can see the point of this method, but other times it just seems nonsensical, especially when there is a completely reasonable explanation for a seeming contradiction. Vermes makes much of the fact that it seems that the location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is an invention made to make the event line up with an obscure prophecy and as proof he points to the verses where Jesus’ contemporaries in Galilee wonder how he could be the Messiah if he was born in Nazareth.
The exact placement of Jesus’ birth does have issues, but all canonical or non-canonical accounts place it somewhere around Bethlehem. The hoops Matthew and Luke jump through to get Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem are complicated and even historically questionable, but it seems unlikely that their audience would have accepted such a complicated account if it lacked some kind of historical precedent. As for the statements of others asking about Jesus’ birth in Nazareth, hasn’t Vermes ever heard of the idea that the Gospels have as a major theme the Messianic Secret? Or that the Gospels often use irony or rhetorical questions to advance that theme?
The other major problem I had was Vermes approach to Matthew’s use of proof texts. Matthew’s appeal to prophecies are sometimes odd (and maybe even made up) but Matthew does not do anything which his contemporaries among the Mishnah, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the whole stream of Second Temple Jewish Literature were not also doing, or doing even more imaginatively. Vermes knows this, I know he knows this. So why does he characterize Matthew as a purveyor of falsehoods, half-truths, and outright deception? Unless, of course, that is also his opinion of nearly every other Second Temple Jewish author, but then he should have mentioned that.
Overall, I found the book interesting insofar as it let me get an understanding of Vermes own musings and opinions of the genre of Infancy Gospels. Some of his ideas I find unlikely (such that Mary’s virgin birth referred to her simply becoming pregnant by Joseph before the onset of menarche), but they are interesting ideas to grapple with. Whether it was responsible for him to express such unproven ideas as fact in a book geared to a general audience is quite another matter.