Geza Vermes, Scholar of ‘Historical Jesus,’ Dies at 88
Published: May 16, 2013
Geza Vermes, a religious scholar who argued that Jesus as a historical figure could be understood only through the Jewish tradition from which he emerged, and who helped expand that understanding through his widely read English translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, died on May 8 in Oxford, England. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by David Ariel, the president of the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, where Dr. Vermes was most recently an honorary fellow.
Dr. Vermes, born in Hungary to Jewish parents who converted to Christianity when he was 6, was among many scholars after World War II who sought to reveal a “historical Jesus” by painting an objective portrait of the man who grew up in Nazareth about 2,000 years ago and emerged as a religious leader when he was in his 30s.
Drawing on new archaeological evidence — particularly the scrolls, which were discovered by an Arab shepherd in a cave northwest of the Dead Sea in 1947 — historians of many stripes agreed on a basic sketch of Jesus, but their religious biases sometimes colored details.
“You can cut out the Jewish part — that is the traditional Christian path,” Dr. Vermes said in a 1994 interview with Herschel Shanks, the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. “But if you are more demanding and want to go back to the sources, you will realize that Jesus stood before Christianity.”
The scrolls, written over several hundred years before, during and after Jesus lived, offered new insight into religious, cultural and political life at the time. Dr. Vermes became one of the scrolls’ essential translators and a vocal advocate for their broad dissemination. His 1962 book, “The Dead Sea Scrolls in English,” has been updated and reissued multiple times and is regarded as the most widely read version of the scrolls. It is often used as a course text.
Dr. Vermes had long been frustrated that only a handful of scholars had direct access to the scrolls, and he eventually made his frustrations public. In 1977, he said that their handling was “likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.” More than a decade passed, but the scrolls eventually became more easily accessible in their original form and through photographs.
The scrolls helped deepen Dr. Vermes’s interest in Judaism and in how perceptions of Jesus changed as Christianity spread. He argued that the messianic Jesus worshiped by modern Christians was largely created in the first three centuries after he died. In 1973 he wrote “Jesus the Jew,” the first of several books in which he placed Jesus in the tradition of Jewish teachers.
“When it came out, it sounded like a very provocative title,” Dr. Vermes recalled in 1994 of “Jesus the Jew.” “Today it is commonplace. Everybody knows now that Jesus was a Jew. But in 1973, although people knew that Jesus had something to do with Judaism, they thought that he was really something totally different.”
Dr. Vermes’s interest in cultural context echoed his personal history. His family was of Jewish ancestry but had not been practicing Jews since at least the first half of the 19th century. In 1931, with anti-Semitism rising in Europe, his parents converted to Roman Catholicism.
He enrolled in a Catholic seminary in Budapest in 1942, when he was 18, seeking to become a priest but also to protect himself. Two years later, his parents disappeared after being taken to a Nazi concentration camp.
He did become a priest — in the late 1940s he joined the Order of the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion, in Louvain, Belgium — but he left the priesthood the following decade after falling in love with his future wife, Pamela Hobson Curle, a poet and scholar who was married to another man when they met. Dr. Vermes later returned to Judaism.
Dr. Vermes was born on June 22, 1924, in Mako, Hungary. His father was a liberal journalist, his mother a teacher. He received his doctorate in theology from the Catholic University in Louvain in 1953; his dissertation was the first written about the scrolls.
He did research on the scrolls for several years in Paris before moving to England, where he initially spent eight years teaching at what is now Newcastle University. He published the first edition of his English translation of the scrolls while there. In 1965 he moved to Oxford, where he eventually became professor of Jewish studies and a governor of the Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was named professor emeritus in 1991.
Dr. Vermes’s survivors include his wife, Margaret, and a stepson, Ian. Pamela Vermes died in 1993.
Even as Dr. Vermes’s work challenged some Christian beliefs, he often talked of improving dialogue between Christians and Jews, and he was widely respected among scholars of various beliefs. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion, praised Dr. Vermes last year in a review of his final book, “Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea,” which traces the first 300 years of Christianity.
Writing in The Guardian, the archbishop called the book “beautiful and magisterial” but said it “leaves unsolved some of the puzzles that still make readers of the New Testament pause to ask what really is the right, the truthful, way to talk about a figure like the Jesus we meet in these texts.”
Lawrence H. Schiffman, a leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholar and the vice provost of Yeshiva University, said in an interview that Dr. Vermes had worked in an academic and religious environment in which “everybody knew Jesus was a Jew, of course.”
“But,” he added, “the refusal to acknowledge it — that he truly thought, acted and lived as a Jew — that took a while to get across.” Dr. Vermes, he said, “was a major force in making that happen.”