28 June 2024

Celebrating 100 years of
Geza Vermes, Jesus scholar
and Dead Sea Scrolls expert
who reclaimed his Jewish identity

Geza Vermes, Dead Sea Scrolls expert, Jesus scholar and Jewish theologian … born 100 years ago on 22 June 1924 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The past week has seen the 100th anniversary of the birth of Professor Geza Vermes (1924-2013), one the leading Jewish scholars in Britain in the 20th century. He was the first Oxford Professor of Jewish Studies, and one of the world’s leading authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the origins of Christianity, and the Jewish culture and identity of Jesus.

He was born into an assimilated Jewish family, but when he was six his parents converted to Catholicism he was baptised. He survived the Holocaust, and his eventful life later included ordination to the priesthood, a return to Judaism, appointment to a university chair at Oxford, and a voluminous output on the Dead Sea Scroll and on the Jewish identity of the historical Jesus.

Geza Vermes was born in Makó, Hungary, 100 years ago last Saturday, on 22 June 1924, and died 11 years ago at the age of 88 on 8 May 2013. The Vermes family was of Jewish background but had given up religious practice by the mid-19th century. His mother Terézia (Riesz) was a schoolteacher; his father Erno was a journalist and poet who was close to the leading Hungarian intellectuals of the day.

When the family moved to Gyula, his parents converted to Catholicism, and he was six when all three were baptised. Referring to his parents’ conversion, Geza Vermes later said it was a way to escape from the rise in antisemitism across Europe, yet his mother took their conversion seriously and became a devout Catholic.

Geza Vermes attended a Catholic primary school, and when he finished his Catholic secondary school he considered becoming a priest. He was turned down by the Jesuits, but was accepted by the Diocese of Nagyvárad. At the age of 18, he entered the seminary at Szatmárnémeti in north-east Hungary (now Satu Mare in Romania) in 1942 to prepare for ordination. The move would save his life.

Nazi Germany invaded Hungary on 19 March 1944, and within just 52 days, between May and July, 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Terézia and Erno Vermes were murdered in the Holocaust but their son never learned when, where or how. He remained hidden by the Church until Russian troops liberated Budapest on Christmas Eve 1944.

He resumed his studies for the priesthood, but an attempt to join the Dominicans was rebuffed. Instead he joined the Order of the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion, and entered their house in Leuven, Belgium, in 1948, and was ordained in 1950. At the Catholic University of Leuven, he specialised in Oriental history, civilisations and languages and received post-graduate degrees in theology and philosophy. He received his doctorate in theology in 1952 with the first dissertation written on the Dead Sea Scrolls and their historical framework.

In 1947, an Arab shepherd had chanced upon the first scrolls – texts written in ancient Hebrew and its sister language Aramaic – in a cave in the cliffs at Qumran by the shore of the Dead Sea. These were published rapidly, but reports kept circulating that more caves containing more manuscripts were being found.

With his careful analysis, Geza Vermes argued that the Jewish sect behind the scrolls originated at the time of the Maccabean crisis in the mid-second century BCE.

After completing his doctorate, Vermes was moved from Leuven to the community’s house in Paris. There he studied under the French Jewish scholar Georges Vajda, a graduate of the Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest, and Renée Bloch introduced him to the field of Midrash or Jewish Biblical commentary. He worked closely with Paul Demann, who also had Hungarian Jewish origins. Together they challenged antisemitism in Catholic education and ritual of the time. The Second Vatican Council would later accept many of the theological arguments by Vermes, Demann and Bloch.

On a visit to Britain in 1955, a mutual friend introduced him to Pamela Hobson Curle, a poet and a scholar of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. They fell in love, but Pam was then married to Adam Curle (1906-2006), a professor of education and psychology at Exeter University and later a Quaker peace activist, and she was the mother of two young daughters, while Geza was still a Catholic priest.

Pam separated from her husband, Geza left the Fathers of Sion and took up a teaching post in 1957 at the University of Newcastle, where he taught Biblical Hebrew, and they married in 1958. They continued to collaborate in academic work and writing until she died in 1993.

He enhanced his scholarly reputation with Scripture and Tradition (1961), a seminal study of early Jewish bible commentary. As one of the first scholars to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls, he completed the standard English translation, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (1962). It became a best-seller and made him a household name. It became his best-known work, and was revised later and much augmented.

He joined the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford in 1965, when he was appointed Reader in Jewish Studies. Some members of the Jewish community opposed his appointment, but he was supported by Oxford luminaries such as David Daube (1909-1999), then Regius Professor of Civil Law and known for his work in Biblical law.

Vermes later embraced his Jewish identity, and in 1970 he reconverted to Judaism as a liberal Jew, and became a member of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in North London.

He told the Jewish Chronicle he considered himself ‘someone who belongs to Judaism without practising it and who has a great respect for certain teachings of Christianity.’ In an interview many years later, he said: ‘In fact, I never was anything but a Jew with a temporary sort of outer vestment. I realised I ought to recognise my genuine identity.’

He threw himself into college life as a Fellow of the newly founded Iffley College, which metamorphosed within a year into Wolfson College under the presidency of Isaiah Berlin. His achievements in what he described as ‘the wonderland of Oxford’ were extensive: he taught modules on the Mishnah, he was the editor of the Journal of Jewish Studies from 1971 until his death, turning it into one of the foremost in its field.

Vermes published Jesus the Jew: A historian’s reading of the Gospels in 1973, a controversial book that secured his enduring status as a public intellectual. It was one of the earliest of his many studies of Jesus and the origins of Christianity, and he helped launch the new quest for the historical Jesus.

He became one of the most important voices in contemporary Jesus research, and was described as the greatest Jesus scholar of his time. In Jesus the Jew, he describes Jesus as a thoroughly Jewish Galilean charismatic. In The Gospel of Jesus the Jew (1981), he examines Jewish parallels to Jesus’s teaching.

These were followed by Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983) and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993), The Changing Faces of Jesus (2000), which I reviewed for The Irish Times in 2000, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (2003), and Jesus: Nativity, Passion, Resurrection (2010). In Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea (ad 30–325) (2012), he traces the evolution of the figure of Jesus from Jewish charismatic in the synoptic Gospels to equality with God in the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.

His work on Jesus focused principally on the Jewishness of the historical Jesus, within the broader context of the narrative scope of Jewish history and theology, while questioning and challenging the basis of the Christian doctrine on Jesus.

Previously, New Testament scholars had struggled to deal adequately with the Jewishness of Jesus. For Vermes, Jesus the Jew was inescapably Jesus the Galilean Jew. He argued that Galilee had a distinctive ethos that made Judaism there different from Judaism in Judaea or in the Diaspora.

He argued that the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels overlapped with portraits of Galilean contemporaries preserved in rabbinic tradition, resembling them in character and behaviour, but outstripping them in eloquence.

He wrote that the Gospel image of Jesus must be inserted into the historical canvas of Palestine in the first century CE, with the help of the works of Flavius Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls and early rabbinic literature. He believed the historical Jesus can be retrieved only within the context of first-century Galilean Judaism. For example, he pointed to the way the word ‘carpenter’ can be used in the Talmud for a very learned man, and suggested the New Testament description of Joseph as a carpenter could indicate he was wise and literate in the Torah.

With Fergus Millar and Martin Goodman, Vermes substantially revised Emil Schurer’s three-volume work, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ over a period of 27 years.

The Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies … Geza Vermes directed the Oxford Forum for Qumran Research (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Geza Vermes became the first Oxford Professor of Jewish Studies in 1989 before he retired in 1991. He was one of the founding Iffley Fellows at Wolfson College, and directed the Oxford Forum for Qumran Research at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was also a member of the academic council of Leo Baeck College.

He helped build up Jewish studies as an academic discipline in Oxford. He inspired the creation of the British Association for Jewish Studies in 1975 and the European Association for Jewish Studies in 1981 and was the founding president of both. He attracted a group of talented students to work with him, many of whom became scholars of distinction.

He continued to work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and thanks to his persistence access to the unpublished scrolls was granted to interested scholars in 1991. He edited and with Philip Alexander of Manchester, his first doctoral student at Oxford, published the Cave 4 fragments of the Dead Sea Sect’s rule-book, the so-called Community Rule. It was published as Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XXVI in 1998.

His An Introduction to the Complete Dead Sea Scrolls, revised edition (2000), is a study of the collection at Qumran.

He was interviewed on Desert Island Discs in June 2000, and the one disc he chose to take to his desert island was Bach’s St Matthew Passion. His deeply felt comments on the recitative ‘Now from the sixth hour’ led to a cameo appearance some months later on Songs of Praise.

In 2004, when journalists from The Guardian invited him to a press preview of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to judge its authenticity, he chortled derisively, ‘It’s quite obvious that none of the actors could speak Aramaic.’ As one Guardian journalist put it, Vermes ‘knew hokum when he saw it.’

Penguin Books celebrated the golden jubilee of The Dead Sea Scrolls in English at Wolfson College, Oxford, on 23 January 2012. The book has sold half-a-million copies worldwide, and a 50th anniversary edition was published in the Penguin Classics series.

He was a Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and he continued to teach at the Oriental Institute in Oxford until he died.

He had a doctorate from Oxford (DLitt 1988) and honorary doctorates from many universities. He was a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities.

Pamela died in 1993, and in 1996 he married Margaret Unarska, a Polish scientist whom he and Pam had known for years. Geza Vermes died 11 years ago on 8 May 2013 at the age of 88.

May his memory be a blessing, זיכרונו לברכה

Shabbat Shalom, שבת שלום

Penguin Books celebrated the golden jubilee of ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls in English’ at Wolfson College in 2012 … Geza Vermes was a Fellow of Wolfson College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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