From the Telegraph:
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.
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.
Professor Geza Vermes, born June 22 1924, died May 8 2013
- via: Professor Geza Vermes (Telegraph)