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."