June 22nd, 1924 to May 8th, 2013
June 22nd, 1924 to May 8th, 2013
"Geza Vermes obituary"
Expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity
May 14th, 2013
Geza Vermes, who has died aged 88, was one of the world's leading authorities on the origins of Christianity. In the early 1950s he completed the first-ever doctorate on the Dead Sea Scrolls – a risky topic to choose. 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 along the north-west shore of the Dead Sea. These were published rapidly, but reports kept circulating that more caves containing more manuscripts were being found. No scholarly consensus had yet emerged as to when the scrolls were written, or by whom. Wildly fluctuating dates were assigned to them, some even claiming that they had been copied in the middle ages.
From careful analysis of the published material, Vermes argued that the Jewish sect behind the scrolls originated at the time of the Maccabean crisis in the middle of the second century BCE. It was a brilliant hypothesis which gained many adherents and became academic orthodoxy. Vermes himself never saw grounds for modifying it throughout his career.
He was born in Makó, Hungary, to assimilated Jewish parents. His mother, Terézia, was a schoolteacher, and his father, Erno, a journalist and poet who associated with leading Hungarian intellectuals. When the family moved to Gyula, Vermes was enrolled in a Catholic primary school, and the family converted to Catholicism – "to give me a better chance", as he wrote in his autobiography. That may have been his father's intention, but his mother took the conversion seriously and became a devout Catholic. Vermes also seems to have taken it seriously enough to consider becoming a priest, when he graduated from the Catholic gymnasium. It was 1942 and life was becoming increasingly difficult for Hungarian Jews. The family's baptismal certificates proved useless to protect them. Vermes was desperate to further his education but saw little chance, as a Jew, of gaining a place at university. Entering the priesthood offered a way forward.
Turned down by the Jesuits, he was accepted by the diocese of Nagyvárad, and began life as a seminarian. The move was providential and saved his life, when, in March 1944, German forces occupied Hungary, setting up a puppet government, which, under Adolf Eichmann, rapidly began to implement against the Jews the Nazis' "final solution". Vermes's parents perished – exactly when, where and how he never discovered. With the aid of the church Vermes managed to remain hidden, and was liberated by the Red Army in Budapest in December 1944.
He resumed his studies for the priesthood, but as ordination approached, the thought of parish ministry appealed to him less and less. He was desperate to continue studying. An attempt to join the Dominicans was rebuffed, but he was admitted to the Order of the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion, and after a hair-raising journey across war-ravaged Europe he entered their house in Louvain, Belgium, in 1948. The nearby Catholic University of Louvain gave him the chance to become a licencié in theology and philosophy, and he completed his doctorate on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
His superiors then moved him to the Paris house of the Fathers of Sion. There he engaged with Paul Démann in a campaign, fought through the pages of the order's journal, Cahiers Sioniens, to challenge the anti-Judaism then rampant in the Catholic church. He broadened his education, meeting leading scholars such as André Dupont-Sommer and attending the classes of Georges Vajda. Renée Bloch introduced him to Jewish Bible commentary (midrash) – a field in which he later excelled.
On a visit to Britain, he was introduced by a mutual friend to Pamela, and, in late 1955, they fell in love. The situation was complicated and stressful. Pam was married with two young daughters. Vermes was a Catholic priest. It was resolved (reasonably amicably) by Pam separating from her husband, joining and subsequently marrying Vermes, and Vermes leaving the Fathers of Sion, and the Catholic priesthood.
Desperate for a job that would allow him to remain in Britain, he gladly accepted in 1957 a temporary lectureship in divinity in King's College (then a constituent college of the University of Durham, but now the University of Newcastle). There he cemented his international reputation with Scripture and Tradition (1961), a seminal study of early Jewish bible commentary, and with an English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1962. The latter, steadily augmented as new scrolls were published, has not been out of print since.
When he was offered the position of reader in Jewish studies at Oxford in 1965 (promoted to full professor in 1989), some in the Jewish community decried the appointment, but buoyed by the support of Oxford luminaries such as David Daube, he dug himself into Oxford life. It was there I first met him, in 1967, when I joined a class he was teaching on the early Jewish law-code the Mishnah. Subsequently I did a doctorate with him on the Aramaic translations of the Bible.
His achievements at Oxford were immense. He took on the editorship of the Journal of Jewish Studies, turning it into one of the foremost in its field, and collaborated with Fergus Millar and Martin Goodman on a major revision of Emil Schürer's multi-volume classic The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. In Vermes's own truly epoch-making Jesus the Jew (1973), one of the earliest of his many studies of Jesus and the origins of Christianity, he helped launch the new quest for the historical Jesus.
He continued work on the scrolls, but felt he was treading water because the publication of the numerous texts had virtually ground to a halt. Worse still, the small editorial team to whom they had been assigned were barring access to the manuscripts to others willing and able to do it for them. Vermes was at the forefront of the battle to rectify this situation, and it was in part due to his well-fought campaign that in 1991 the unpublished scrolls were finally "liberated" (as he put it), and access granted to any scholar who wanted it. Vermes was invited to become an editor, and, together with myself, published the Cave 4 fragments of the Dead Sea Sect's rule-book, the so-called Community Rule.
Vermes helped build up Jewish studies as an academic discipline, acting as first president both of the British Association for Jewish Studies and of the European Association for Jewish Studies. He attracted a group of talented students to work with him, many of whom became scholars of distinction. Recognition followed thick and fast, including a fellowship of the British Academy, honorary doctorates from Edinburgh, Durham, Sheffield and the Central European University, Budapest, and a vote of congratulation by the US House of Representatives "for inspiring and educating the world".
When Pam died in 1993, he was devastated. But in 1995 he married Margaret, a younger friend, whom he and Pam had known for years. With Margaret came her son Ian from her former marriage. Vermes found himself, to his surprise and delight, playing in his 70s the role of paterfamilias. He was rejuvenated. His intellect and memory remained undimmed to the end, and only weeks before he died he was discussing a new book he planned to write.
"Professor Geza Vermes"
Professor Geza Vermes, who has died aged 88, was from 1965 to 1991 first Reader, then Professor, of Jewish Studies at Oxford and the foremost world authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls — early manuscripts of some Old Testament scriptures, the first of which were discovered accidentally in 1947 by a young Arab shepherd in a cave near the Dead Sea.
May 12th, 2013
Vermes led a long and sometimes bitter battle with the Israeli archaeological authorities to secure publication of all the manuscripts and fragments, copies of which were eventually lodged in the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in 1992. His own The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, first published in 1962, had four editions, the latest in 1997, and sold 300,000 copies. He was the first to identify the Scrolls as belonging to the middle of the 2nd century BC.
That Vermes was able to achieve anything in this area and in other important fields of Jewish history and religion owed everything to the fact that during the darkest days of the Second World War he was, in his native Hungary, a Roman Catholic priest and, although of Jewish family background, just managed to escape deportation to a German death camp. Both his parents, who had converted to Catholicism in the 1930s, were less fortunate: he never saw them again after their arrest in 1944.
Vermes remained a priest until 1957, when marriage required his resignation and, having also renounced Catholicism, he returned to his roots and became a non-practising Jew. Eventually, however, he became a member of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London and a member of the academic committee of Leo Baeck College, though he declared himself to be uninterested in “organised religion of any description”.
Geza Vermes was born at Mako, southern Hungary, on June 22 1924. When he was four the family moved to Gyula, where his father was the owner and editor of the town’s weekly newspaper until it was closed down by anti-Jewish laws in 1938. Geza was sent to a Roman Catholic school where in 1942 he obtained top marks in every subject and qualified easily for university entry. He decided, however, that because of his Jewish origins he would never secure a university place, so he opted instead for the Catholic priesthood.
He was in the second year of a theological seminary when the Germans invaded Hungary and rounded up all Jews and those of Jewish origin.
Although not yet ordained, he was carrying out the functions of a deacon under the certification of the local bishop, enabling him to escape arrest. The remainder of the war was spent in hiding, protected by the Salesian and Dominican Orders in Budapest.
Although refused admission to the Dominican Order because of his Jewish background, Vermes was accepted by the Fathers of Sion — a community dedicated to prayer for the Jews. By this time he had recognised his calling to be a scholar and was at the community’s house in Louvain, Belgium, from 1946 to 1952 before moving to its central house in Paris, where he remained until 1957.
Having decided to specialise in Old Testament studies, he became particularly interested in the discovery of what became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and from 1950 he began translating and interpreting the new texts. He took a doctorate, with the highest honours, in their historic framework at the Institut Orientaliste in Louvain. The doctorate was published as Manuscripts from the Judaean Desert (1953).
Following his move to Paris, Vermes became assistant editor of Cahiers — a journal devoted to the furthering of Catholic-Jewish relations — and began campaigning for an end to anti-Semitism in the Church. This was influential in the reconciling statements of Vatican II. Although still a young priest, he was becoming widely recognised as a scholar of distinction, and it was after attending an international conference in Oxford in 1954 that he went to stay with a friend at Ottery St Mary in Devon.
There he made the acquaintance of an Exeter University professor and his wife Pam . Vermes and Pam fell in love, and her marriage broke down soon afterwards. After much soul-searching, she and Vermes married in 1958 — a union that brought great happiness and fulfilment to both until Pam’s death in 1993.
On leaving the priesthood, Vermes secured an appointment as a lecturer in Divinity at King’s College, Newcastle upon Tyne — then part of Durham University . The teaching duties were light, and over the next eight years he devoted a good deal of time to research and writing. Besides work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, he became interested in the ways in which the Old Testament was interpreted at different points in Jewish history and how this affected the New Testament — discussed in his Scripture and Tradition (1961).
In 1961 he responded to an advertisement for a Reader in Jewish Studies at Oxford, and such was his reputation that he was appointed without interview. He also became a Fellow of the newly-founded Wolfson College .
A major undertaking was the co-editing of a revised edition of The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ — a classic three-volume 19th-century work by a German scholar. This occupied him, on and off, for several years and encouraged him to embark on a trilogy devoted to the Jewish background of the life and work of Jesus — Jesus the Jew (1973), Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983) and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1996).
These portrayed Jesus as a typical 1st-century Jewish holy man — a preacher, healer and exorcist — who was executed because it was feared that his words and deeds might lead to insurrection: “He died on the cross for having done the wrong thing (causing a commotion) in the wrong place (the Temple) at the wrong time (just before the Passover). Here lies the real tragedy of Jesus the Jew.”
The trilogy was followed in 2000 by The Changing Faces of Jesus, a survey of the various representations of Jesus in the New Testament; and, in 2003, a companion volume, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus .
Although Vermes did not share the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, he acknowledged him to be “second to none” among the Jewish teachers and prophets, and the trilogy was found illuminating by many Christian scholars.
Notwithstanding his high reputation worldwide and his popularity in Oxford, Vermes — a distinguished-looking, bearded figure — always craved further recognition, and this came almost at the end of his academic career when he was elected to the British Academy in 1985 and awarded an Oxford DLitt in 1989 — in the same year he was appointed to the chair of Jewish Studies.
In 1998 he published an autobiography, Providential Accidents, and he continued to write and lecture until he was well into his eighties. In 2012 he published Christian Beginnings from Nazareth to Nicaea AD30–325.
He married secondly, in 1996, Margaret Unarska, a Polish scientist, who survives him with a stepson and two stepdaughters.
The Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a lecture presented by Professor Geza Vermes at Louisiana State University's Hill Memorial Library on September 29, 2009...
Géza Vermes [Wikipedia]
Dead Sea Scrolls [Wikipedia]
The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library