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Sunday, 23 April 2017


Geza Vermes, who died on 8 May at the age of 88, was a translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls acclaimed for his books exploring the Jewish background of Christ. The scrolls were a cache of documents written between 200 BC and AD 200 discovered in caves at Qumran, near Jericho, between 1947 and 1956. Vermes published the first English translation of the scrolls in 1962. The scrolls gave an insight to Jewish practices and thought at the time Jesus was preaching, and they informed books by Vermes on the historical Jesus beginning with Jesus the Jew (1973); The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (2003) was a commentary on all the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

“Jesus expired on a Roman cross and was buried,” Vermes wrote in the latter volume. “But his disciples saw him in repeated visions, which persuaded them that he had been raised from the dead before ascending to heaven.”

His last book, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325 (2012), was Vermes’ account of the development of Christian doctrine up to the formulation of the Nicene Creed. In a review, Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, praised Vermes as “the unchallenged doyen of scholarship in the English-speaking world on the Jewish literature of the age of Jesus, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls.” However, Williams said the book gave no answers on why Jesus became an object of worship.

Other books included The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective (1977); Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983); The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993); and volumes on key moments in Jesus’s life including his birth, trial and the resurrection.

Born in Mako, Hungary in 1924, Vermes was six when his parents converted to Catholicism, which he described as a pragmatic search for shelter from rising anti-Semitism. In 1939 he entered a seminary and after the war, moved to a Belgian seminary and gained a doctorate from the Catholic University of Louvain, where his dissertation was on the Scrolls.

Vermes left the priesthood and the Catholic Church in 1957, remarking later that his studies of Jesus had reconverted him to Judaism.

“If it is accepted that we can know something about him, one realises very soon that we are dealing with a totally Jewish person with totally Jewish ideas, whose religion was totally Jewish and whose culture, whose aims, whose aspirations could be understood only in the framework of Judaism,” Vermes said in 1999.

Following his stint at Newcastle University (1957-65), he moved to Oxford; after retirement in 1991 he directed the Oxford Forum for Qumran Research at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Though he joined a liberal synagogue, he preferred the garden of his Oxford home to religious ceremonies. “You know, I’m not a great one for synagogues or other places of worship,” he said in 2008. “When I want to listen to that little voice, I go out there for a walk.”

(Article from The Independent of 26 May 2013)

Geza Vermes: Translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Geza Vermes, a Jew, ex-priest and translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, died on May 8th aged 88.

HIS life, he said, had been a series of “providential accidents”. The biggest of these was escaping the Holocaust. The Vermes family, assimilated Hungarian Jews, had become Roman Catholics: initially “for social reasons” he wrote later, “naively or optimistically believing” that baptism would protect them.

But too late. In the anti-semitic 1930s, only baptisms before 1919 counted. Even before the German grip on Hungary tightened, higher education was closed to Jews. Training for the priesthood was a rare exception. Despite being unable to sing, the young Geza passed entry to a Catholic seminary, which taught him, (boringly, he thought), and later hid him, (perilously, he gratefully remembered), from the Nazis.

He found little to keep him in post-war, Soviet-occupied Hungary. Catholic scholarship, though not ministry, appealed to him. He escaped the Russians and moved to Belgium to study with the Fathers of Sion, an order founded by Jewish converts. Arriving, worn and famished, to the friendship and relative plenty of Louvain in 1946, he was so overjoyed that he wanted to sing the Te Deum. “I abstained for fear of hitting the wrong note,” he recalled. It got worse. He never found out where or when his parents were killed. “I thought at least you would be safe” were his mother’s last words to him, after visiting him in his hiding place in 1944. His last memory of her was walking away, in a yellow blouse to conceal the yellow star of David, “bearing the burden of the world”. He hoped her Catholic piety had comforted her in whatever hell awaited her.

His life’s work was a definitive study of the Dead Sea Scrolls: parchments, written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages, sensationally discovered in caves in Palestine in 1947. They were the rules and holy texts of a first-century Jewish sect, which cast an interesting sidelight on messianic Judaism and its parallels in early Christianity. He battled a clique of scholars who hogged the manuscripts for decades—the “academic scandal of the century”, he called it.

Son of Man

But Mr Vermes’s real fame came from his contention that the historical Jesus, whatever his followers came to believe later, was first and foremost a Jewish holy man, one of many such itinerant preachers and wonder-workers. When his book “Jesus the Jew” came out in 1973, that approach seemed revolutionary. In many respects, the two faiths were in a state of mutual ignorance. Jewish scholarship and piety shunned the Christian scriptures: what could be gained by studying a self-proclaimed messiah and his mistaken followers? For their part Christians all but ignored Jesus’s Jewishness. Mr Vermes, somewhat combatively, highlighted the neglected common ground.

Asked on the BBC radio programme “Desert Island Discs” for his first record, he chose “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. That was his watchword. He disliked certainties masquerading as scholarship in organised religion, whether it was the Catholic hierarchy’s disregard for academic study of the Bible, or for its blaming Jews for Christ’s death (those both changed in the 1960s), or Pope Benedict’s book on Jesus: “mountains of pious and largely familiar musings”, he wrote in a scalding review.

He left the priesthood—and soon afterwards the church—after meeting Pam, then a friend’s wife and mother of two. He joined her in Britain in 1957, stateless, jobless, penniless and with shaky English. But—more “providential accidents”—all worked out well. Her divorce was amicable. Academic successes came thick and fast, mostly in a long stint in Oxford: “golden years”, as he termed it. He joined a Liberal synagogue but insisted he had not converted, just “grew out of” Christianity. He continued to listen to a “still small voice”, often with Pam, in their beloved garden.

He seemed a quintessential Oxford insider, clad in tweed with a gold watch-chain, and on occasion a silk tie showing the Dead Sea Scrolls, but he did not deny a rather un-English craving for recognition. He yearned for the title “Professor” (no big deal at Oxford in those days); to be listed in “Who’s Who”; and to be a Fellow of the British Academy, the country’s pre-eminent dons’ club. His invitation to that, with a request for the £25 fee (in today’s money £68 or $100), came in 1985, forestalling his move to a well-paid post in California.

His fans adored his polyglot erudition, charm and brains. His seemingly radical argument about Christ’s Jewishness became mainstream, at least in Christian theological thinking. The “Shorter Oxford Dictionary” adopted his definition of Jesus as “a Jewish preacher (c5BC-cAD30) regarded by his followers as the Son of God”, replacing the earlier “Founder of Christianity”. Others found him thin-skinned, narrow, repetitive, and selective in his approach. He could brilliantly link texts that suited his arguments, but seemed to brush aside evidence that contradicted them: John’s gospel, for example, or the writings of the Apostle Paul. Some wondered if he was spurred by grudge or guilt.

He found such criticism most unfair. He had not reduced Jesus to a “pale Galilean charismatic”. Indeed, he described him as the “unsurpassed master of…laying bare the inmost core of spiritual truth”. But a dead man, not a resurrected deity.

👉 Check out the Scrolls website: