From Jesus Sect to Imperial Faith

Two new works by Geza Vermes and Peter Brown eloquently and enthusiastically chart the progress of Christianity from Jesus Christ to the height of the Byzantine empire

Books Faith The Catholic Church
Multum in parvo: The Hoxne pepper-pot in the form of a smiling empress embodies the long-lost world of early Christianity (credit: the British Museum)

When Jesus says to his disciples, as reported in Matthew 19:24, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” his words appear to exclude any possibility of salvation for the affluent. His disciples were shocked by the statement. “Then, who can be saved? they asked.” The disciples were right to be “amazed”. It is a hard saying, simultaneously absolute and fantastical; the grotesque image of a dromedary being squeezed through a needle’s eye, which comes irresistibly to mind, lends it a certain surrealistic humour. Jesus’s words, burnished by millennia of preachers to a pulpit shine, no longer have the power to shock; they have become proverbial, the saddest fate an utterance can suffer. It’s difficult, indeed, it’s almost impossible, to forget proverbs — they stick like burrs to the memory — but it’s equally difficult, if not impossible, to take them seriously.

Peter Brown takes Jesus’s statement as the title of his magnificent new work; in fact, his study might even be seen as a massive gloss on the various, increasingly ingenious ways in which the Christians of late antiquity managed to force that bulky quadruped through the slimmest of apertures. But the same words of Jesus have a bearing as well on Geza Vermes’s brilliant new study of Christian origins, at once a summation and a culmination of his several earlier works on the Jewish milieu in which Jesus lived and moved. For the reviewer the appearance of these two books seems to be one of those “providential accidents” which Vermes has described in his engaging 1998 memoir of that title; though quite different in style and method, the two form an uneasy continuum.  Vermes takes his very concise and often brisk account from the time of Jesus to the Council of Nicaea in the year 325; Brown begins his own considerably more detailed study in 350, two decades later. Taken in tandem they cover the first six centuries of Christian history, often from unexpected vantage points. Refreshingly too, their findings don’t always coincide. When Vermes states, for example, that Judaism was “a religion of deeds” whereas Christianity became “a religion of believing”, we may agree that the distinction appears to be apt at the broadest level of generalisation; and yet, in following Brown’s meticulous reconstruction of the culture of wealth and charitable giving in late Roman society, we find that deeds — from lavish expenditures on public spectacles to alms given in hope of “treasure in heaven” — often appear to have surpassed and even overwhelmed words.

Vermes states that his book, his twelfth on the subject (beginning with Jesus the Jew of 1973), is “an attempt to sketch the historical continuity between Jesus portrayed in his Galilean charismatic setting and the first ecumenical council held at Nicaea in AD 325, which solemnly proclaimed his divinity as a dogma of Christianity.” It is thus an account of the slow but steady transformation of “Jesus the Jew” to “the Christ deified at the Council of Nicaea”; that is, from an “itinerant spiritual healer, exorcist and preacher”, a type well known and well documented in the Palestine of his day, to a divine figure, the second person of the Trinity, and in the Greek formulation of the Council — amid uproarious controversy — as homoousios or “of one substance with the Father.”

Vermes places Jesus and his mission within the context of “charismatic” Judaism; that is, not the solemn rituals of the Temple or the fine legalistic distinctions of the priestly classes, Levites succeeded by Pharisees, but the more tumultuous, if not downright rowdy, practices of humbler folk. This was a prophetic strain of popular Judaism, as hospitable to the laying on of hands and rain-making as it was to outright miracles and visionary ecstasies, and it tended to be inimical to established orthodoxy, sometimes vehemently so. When the prophet Amos excoriates the high priests and temple functionaries and declares “I hate, I despise your festivals,” he is speaking as a forerunner of this populist tradition. As Vermes notes, Jesus’s sayings and deeds — especially his “miraculous and paradoxical acts”, to use the phrase Josephus applied to the prophet Elisha — take on nuance and shading, appear less as isolated instances, indeed gain both in power as well as in provocative ambiguity, when they are viewed in this charismatic context. Vermes believes that “without a proper grasp of charismatic Judaism it is impossible to understand the rise of Christianity,” and here he sets out to prove it.  

One of the features of this charismatic Judaism which links it directly to Jesus lies in its emphasis on healing, especially when linked with forgiveness of sins. Such healing, of course, occurs frequently in the Gospels; and when Jesus heals the paralytic who has been lowered through the roof because of the press of the crowd, Jesus says to him, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Another aspect involves miracles and here too there are parallels, such as the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Charismatic prophets from Elijah and Elisha onward have been credited too with raising of the dead, as Jesus did with Lazarus; indeed, the mere touch of Elisha’s bones was enough to bring a dead man back to life. Again like the prophets of old, Jesus exhibited what Vermes terms “ecstatic demeanour”, as the account of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17:2 shows — “in their presence he was transfigured; his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as the light”.  

Vermes is especially persuasive on the subject of healing. From the prophet Elisha to the Essenes, whose name derives from the Aramaic word for “healers”, to the Therapeutai of Egypt, Vermes demonstrates how Jesus stands as a healer in an ancient line; nor was he alone among his own contemporaries. There was, for example, Honi-Onias, “the circle-drawer”, so-called because he prayed to God for rain within a circle he sketched in the dirt (and by the way, so stubbornly long-lived is Honi-Onias that he crops up a millennium later under a different name in Sufi texts written in Arabic). There was also Hanina ben Dosa, as adept at healing as he was at warding off demons: when he was bitten by a poisonous snake while praying, it was the snake that dropped dead. Through his incisive portraits of such charismatic figures, often enlivened by pithy anecdotes, Vermes brings a half-hidden, quite unruly and somewhat disreputable milieu swarming back to life; and yet, this is, of course, the milieu Jesus himself inhabited, the world not of the high priests and the scholars of the law but that of fishermen, publicans and harlots, the downtrodden and the disregarded. 

Given this scruffy background, how did Jesus, Jewish preacher and miracle-worker, come to be transformed into the Christ, a figure equally human and divine?  Steadily, from about AD 100 to 325 — or what Vermes calls “the Gentile period” — Jesus the Jew turned into Jesus the Greek. By tracing this evolution, beginning with the Gospel of John and the Pauline epistles and then proceeding at a brisk pace over some two centuries of theological wrangling and controversy, Vermes comes to the Council of Nicaea and the notion of “consubstantiality,” embedded in the Nicene Creed. One of the ironies of the Council is that the very concept of homoousios was proposed by Arios — he of the Arian heresy — who quickly withdrew it, however, when he decided that it smacked of Manichean tendencies. 

Vermes’s rapid survey is impressive but a bit too neat. It isn’t really possible to do justice to theologians as varied as the great Tertullian — perhaps Augustine’s only rival in both eloquence and vehemence — or the astonishing Origen, with his vision of “universal restoration”, in so compressed a compass. That his account is both highly readable and very persuasive will be no surprise to his admirers. His accomplishments, as one of the leading interpreters and translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as a major historian of early Christianity, have been abetted by privileged insight: though born a Jew, in 1924, in the small Hungarian town of Makó, he later converted to Catholicism and became a priest, serving for over ten years before rediscovering his Jewish faith and leaving the priesthood in 1957. He thus has an insider’s vantage point on both faiths and their traditions.

In the disciples’ response to Jesus’s saying on the rich man and the camel — “then, who can be saved?” — there is a tacit assumption; the disciples don’t ask whether, say, a poor man can be saved but whether anyone at all can be saved. Why should the exclusion of the rich man imply the exclusion of “anyone”? The disciples’ amazement may reflect certain attitudes prevalent in Roman society which Peter Brown explores in compelling detail in his new book. For, as he shows, “the poor”, as a social category, simply did not occupy the attention of Romans in late antiquity; for them the crucial distinction was between Roman citizens, rich or poor, and non-citizens. Only citizens were entitled to receive the annona civica, the seasonal distribution of grain. The emphasis Jesus puts on the poor as an identifiable group of people regardless of citizenship appears to be something new and radical. But it would take some two centuries and the pressure as well as the machinations of Christian bishops and theologians, chief among whom was Ambrose of Milan, to establish this permanently within the society of Late Antiquity.  The change came slowly but it was momentous and much of what makes Brown’s account of this process so enthralling is that he follows it in vivid and meticulous detail without ever once losing sight of the larger vista, the delicate interconnections that bound Romans together, whether Christian or not.

To call Through the Eye of a Needle Peter Brown’s magnum opus seems something of an understatement; all his works, from his classic 1967 biography Augustine of Hippo through a dozen other books along with scores of articles and reviews, have partaken of the quality of magna opera. He has been foremost among the scholars who have over the past 50 years laid bare the contours of the period now universally acknowledged as that of Late Antiquity. (The success of this endeavour was confirmed by the publication in 1999 of Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World which Brown co-edited with Glen Bowersock and Oleg Grabar.) Nevertheless, to pay tribute to Brown’s scholarly achievement alone — hardly possible anyway in a brief review — is to risk missing something obvious but unusual about his new work. First of all, this is a very big book: 530 pages of text are followed by 107 pages of notes and a further 76 pages of works cited in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, as well as Greek and Latin — though Brown notes, with a deft bibliographic twinkle, that “this is not a comprehensive bibliography of all the sources cited in this book”. This should be daunting but it is not; for while the book is heavy to lift, it is even harder to put down. It makes utterly compelling reading.

This is in large part because of Brown’s considerable artistry both as historian and as writer. He has long been admired for the eloquent precision of his prose but here it is the construction of his book that most prompts admiration. By taking wealth and the related areas of expenditure and charitable giving as his theme he has found a way to portray not only entire classes of hitherto neglected people, such as the mediocres of the fourth century, “the lower and middle classes of the towns”, but specific long-forgotten individuals, such as “the Harvester of Mactar”, a poor labourer from the hinterlands of Tunisia, who worked his way up “under the rabid sun”, to become a small land-owner; we know of him only from an inscription which he left behind where he boasts that “I sat in the Temple of the City Council and from a little farmer I have become a civic elder — a censor.” Brown excels at portraiture, such as the obscenely ostentatious Petronius Probus, one of “the super-rich whose estates spanned southern Italy, north Africa, and other regions of the Mediterranean like the branches of a modern ‘multinational’ company”, and of whom the late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus — one of Brown’s favourite sources — wrote that he “languished like a fish out of water if he was not in office.” Probus is given as a representative figure: he embodies the lavish spending on public spectacle as well as the greasy pole-climbing of late Roman society but at the same time, in Brown’s hands, he stands before us as a specific living individual; we feel with a shudder that we have met Probus. Other figures, such as those of the poet Ausonius of Bordeaux or the splendidly named Sidonius Apollinaris, the fifth-century poet who has left us enduring images of what Brown aptly calls a “landscape of the heart”, emerge too in all their complexities of refinement from these pages. And often, as with Probus or Symmachus (another of Brown’s wonderful depictions), these figures recur like characters in a Balzac novel.

Brown punctuates his grand narrative with sharp aperçus. He notes, for example, that “other-worldly religions — whether this be late — antique Christianity or its exact contemporary at the other end of Eurasia, the Buddhism of central Asia and western China — often manage to become very rich very soon.” And he follows this up by remarking, “as Chinese observers noted, with characteristic economy of words, there was a lot of wealth to be gotten from fo-shih — from ‘Buddha business’.” Or he will allude, quite unexpectedly, to Jorge Luis Borges who wrote that “any coin is a repository of possible futures” and then use this to “follow the track of gold at the very top of Roman society”. Brown’s skill in introducing such allusions lightens his narrative by providing little nuggets of surprise that both delight and illumine. Finally, by arranging his account in brief, rather dramatic chapters — few longer than five or so pages — Brown manages both to create momentum and to keep his reader pleasantly unprepared for what comes next; a disquisition on architecture and a small family estate will be followed by a chapter on “the happy body” of the affluent — an ideal as much connected with notions of the microcosm as with a celebration of personal good fortune.

To do justice to either of these books in a short review is itself a bit like attempting to thread a camel. Perhaps the best I can do in the end is to evoke one of the fascinating plates in Brown’s book. Captioned “the touch of empire”, it shows a metal pepper pot in the form of an empress. Part of a treasure discovered at Hoxne in East Anglia, it displays its empress with wide eyes and a soft but commanding smile. The figure is at once regal and gently amusing. An exquisite example of multum in parvo, it embodies a long-lost world, as distant as the early days of nascent Christianity or the vast and intricate realm of Late Antiquity and yet, in its genial humanity a world that is still just recognisably our own.