Geza Vermes on the Age of Jesus

I’ve finished reading Geza Vermes’ Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus, which provides a useful overview of the history of ancient Palestine between the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and the defeat of the second Jewish revolt (135 CE). The bulk of the book consists of a set of biographical portraits, presented alphabetically, of significant figures from the New Testament period. Providing some additional orientation is an introductory chapter with a summary history of the period, along with a map, lists of the profiled figures under various classifications, and a chronology. It’s also illustrated with contemporaneous artifacts and images.

The book makes a useful supplement to other introductory texts on the New Testament by providing a broader picture of the age in which Christianity first emerged. It could be used as a reference book, but it does not systematically provide biographies of everyone mentioned in the New Testament, and many of its subjects actually aren’t mentioned in the New Testament at all. It’s a relatively short book, and well-written, so I read it straight through. Read that way, the chronology jumps around, but it provides an interesting cumulative effect. Rather than simply forefronting the usual figures from the New Testament itself, the reader gets a better sense of how they fit into a larger world, where (at the time) they were members of a weak and obscure sect within a very complex historical setting.

One of the major take-aways from the book is the sheer brutality of the Roman Empire and its client states in the eastern Mediterranean world. It’s something you’re already aware of, but the endless scale and commonality of massacres, assassinations, killings of rival relatives, mass crucifixions, beheadings of captives, etc., starts to add up as one dig into the politics and conflicts of the period. “Herod the Great” comes across as a particularly distasteful character, who shows little hesitation to kill of his own family members and friends during various court intrigues and rivalries.

Vermes also usefully makes frequent comparisons of the New Testament documents with other historical sources, and shows that the claims of some apologists that there are no significant conflicts between the New Testament and outside evidence is questionable if one is using standard historical methodology.