Here Geza Vermes has collected, thematically classified and succinctly commented on every word attributed to Jesus in the Gospels of Luke, Mark & Matthew. To a lesser extent he refers to the Gospel of John and rarely also to the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. To understand the evidence within the historical framework and for purposes of comparison, he draws on the intertestamental records of Judaism: the Apocrypha, Pseudo-Epigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, the work of Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus plus the legal and interpretative rabbinic literature.
The aim is to rediscover the core message preached and practiced by Jesus, whose statements are grouped into nine chapters by literary category: narratives & commands, controversy stories, words of wisdom, parables, scripture quotes, prayers, Son of Man sayings, Statements about the Kingdom of God, and Eschatological Rules of Behaviour. The commentary following these quotations endeavors to separate the different levels of superimposed meaning with the goal of establishing their primary settings and significance.
In the final chapter Vermes attempts to formulate the principles that establish parameters for the authenticity of these words. He probes beneath the layers produced by evangelists, the early church and 2000 years of Christianity in order to discover the true meaning of the original teachings. The work culminates in the Epilogue in which the author attempts to outline the essence of the message and personality of the real Jesus based on the words judged most likely to be genuine.
The section titled The Religion of Jesus reveals that there was nothing abstract, theoretical or speculative about it. Jesus tried to teach his listeners how to draw close to God through concrete action and behaviour. There are five major themes: the Kingdom of God, observation of Torah in the final age, eschatological piety, prayers, and view of God. Jesus saw God as a loving father who cares, comparing him to a good shepherd, a generous employer and all-knowing head of a family aware of all his creatures' needs.
In essence, there is absolutely no harshness or severity in the God of Jesus Christ. In my opinion, based upon much reading and study of religion and spirituality, this portrayal corresponds most closely to that of Jewish mysticism and what is variously called New Thought, Divine Science or Mental Science. For proof, please compare The Hidden Power of the Bible by Ernest Holmes, The Sermon On The Mount by Emmet Fox and above all, Bible Mystery and Bible Meaning by Thomas Troward. Jesus considered anxiety, worry and fear of the future as denial of God according to Matt 6:25 - 34 & Luke 12:22 - 31, judged to be examples of his genuine teaching.
The modern varieties of Christianity with their blend of philosophical speculation on a triune deity, logos mysticism, Pauline theology, sacramental symbolism, ecclesiastical discipline and widespread anti-Judaism appear remote, even alien, from their claimed source. Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman is a valuable primer that shows how the aforementioned notions and practices developed and eventually triumphed in Constantine Christianity whilst Larry Hurtado's brilliant book How on Earth did Jesus become a God? sheds a fascinating light on the early origin of devotion to Jesus. Vermes remarks that his reconstruction of the genuine religion of Jesus is nowadays espoused only by single individuals or is distorted by sects and cults.
The author proceeds to discuss the conduct and eschatological motivation of the followers of Jesus after the crucifixion. They continued his charismatic activity of healing and exorcism while still awaiting the imminent arrival of the Kingdom. When the feverish expectation of his return began to subside, the church became a maternal and this-worldly substitute for the Kingdom. In this regard, see also Lord Jesus Christ by Hurtado. Vermes concludes with the counsel that earnest seekers in the Christian tradition ought to heed what Jesus himself taught instead of blindly accepting what has been taught about him.
The appendix contains a register of the sayings discussed in chapters 1 to 9. An asterisk marks those that Vermes considers authentic or probably authentic. The rest is "editorial," ranging from the probably genuine but substantially reworked to the almost certainly inauthentic that represents the view of the early church from approximately 70 to 100 AD.
The book includes a map of the Holy Land in the time of Jesus, a chronological table of important events from 197 BC to 135 AD and concludes with an index of Gospel citations from the Synoptics. For other interesting perspectives, I have found Understanding The Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church by Ron Moseley and Yeshua by Yacov Rambsel very instructive and thought-provoking.