Probably no area of human endeavour since alchemy has attracted more frauds, pseudo-scholars and fantasists than the Jesus industry. In recent years, attempts to uncover the reality about the founder of Christianity have thrown up theories about magic mushrooms, sacred shrouds, freemasonry, and pieces of the true cross, all devoured by a credulous public.
This insatiable desire to learn more about the charismatic figure who inspired the most powerful religion the world has ever known is fuelled by his very elusiveness. There is no contemporary evidence whatsoever about Jesus. He did not leave any record of his own words.
Paul, the PR genius responsible for turning a Jewish cult into a distinctive religion, never met him. The three Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke were written between 40 and 70 years after his crucifixion, as were the Acts of the Apostles. The last Gospel, of John, is even later, less an account of the ministry of Jesus than an explicit theology for the nascent church.
This paucity of evidence is both a challenge and a licence. It attracts serious researchers or crackpots, but almost everyone, Jewish or Christian, comes to the subject with their own agenda. Imaginative reconstruction runs riot, and the academic bitchery between rival tillers of the same furrow makes the average Oxbridge High Table seem as decorous as a vicarage tea party.
A job description for the ideal Jesus scholar would include the following requirements: fluent knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, with competence in Latin and Syriac; total command of the Old Testament, especially its prophetic books; mastery of the vast corpus of rabbinic and patristic literature, with the ability to compare, analyse and redact their sources; familiarity with Roman and Jewish history between 200 BC and 500 AD; proficiency in interpreting primary texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and sifting secondary material from Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. Beyond that, other incalculable qualities - writing clearly, scrupulously balancing the evidence, judging objectively and being alert to the sensibilities of believers - would be a bonus.
Step forward Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford, and the scholar who most nearly combines all the above desiderata. He is the world's foremost authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, a formidable historian of the period, and the author of a trilogy of pioneering works about Jesus. His latest book is a distillation of 50 years of research on the life and times of Christianity's Jewish founder.
It is a magnificent achievement, written with a crispness, clarity and vigour that belie the author's 75 years. Vermes has the rare gift of wearing his immense scholarship lightly. His technique in this book is brilliantly simple; to begin at the end. He starts with the realised eschatology of the divine Christ in the last gospel of John, and works backwards, in a theological diminuendo, through Paul, Acts, and the Synoptic Gospels, to unearth a portrait of the real Jesus in his first century Judaean background. It is an unusual approach that works effectively.
Vermes marshals his material and presents it in a direct, easy-going style, almost conversational in tone. The aperÃ§us he casually drops into footnotes are a constant delight. To give one example: Jesus cries out on the cross "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?", the opening words of Psalm 22, but he does so in the Aramaic lingua franca, not in the original Hebrew, as one would expect. Why? Vermes surmises that the Aramaic was a popular proverbial exclamation of a person in despair - a convincing explanation about a perennial puzzle for New Testament scholars.
Occasional snippets of humour lighten the narrative. Vermes says of efforts to identify the site of the Gadarene swine story with Gadara or Gerasa: "But if the swine had taken off from either of those places they would have been required to fly rather than jump, if they were to land in the Sea of Galilee."
This is a comprehensive, definitive and sympathetic portrait of the Jew who would have been Messiah, but over the centuries was elevated by his followers to the rank of second person of the triune Godhead. It is essential reading for all who want to understand the complex relationship between ancient Judaism and early Christianity.
David Goldberg is Senior Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in North London