Saturday 11 May 2013

Geza Vermes (1924 - 2013)

I don't want this blog to become a place for obituaries. Nevertheless, I'm going to make an small exception for the recent death of Geza Vermes - a truly exceptional scholar.
Some of the readership here will be very familiar with his scholarship, and others have probably never heard of him. There is an obituary in The Times, but on their website it is behind the paywall. There are various other obituaries around the blogsphere.
Vermes was born to a Hungarian jewish family in 1924. In a rising tide of anti-semitism his family converted to Roman Catholicism when he was only 6 years old, and he attended a Roman Catholic seminary from 1939. His family's pragmatic conversion to christianity did not unfortunately save his parents from the holocaust.
Geza Vermes himself became an RC priest, moved to Belgium following the war and was awarded a doctorate by the Catholic University of Louvain. His religious journey did not end there - although I can't claim him for atheism. He left the priesthood and christianity, "reconverting" to judaism in 1957. Though subsequently strongly identifying with with judaism, he seems not to have been very active in synagogue life. He moved to Britain, teaching first at Newcastle University and then at Oxford University.
He was incredibly famous in the biblical critical world for two areas of research:

1) The Dead Sea Scrolls.
He studied the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) from very early on, and produced the most widely used translation of them into English (The [Complete] Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Penguin, 1966 - original version, 2004 - "Complete" version), a heavily thumbed copy of which sits on practically every biblical critic's bookshelf. He was enormously influential in the early studies of the DSS, combining his extensive knowledge of early jewish texts with the discoveries coming to light from the DSS.

2) The jewishness of Jesus
In 1973 he published Jesus the Jew (Fortress Press) a truly ground-breaking work which showed how the Jesus of the earliest gospels was a product of his time and the jewish religion(s) of his day. Again here he was able to show, thanks to the same extensive knowledge of early jewish texts mentioned above (a familiarity that other New Testament scholars simply didn't possess) that what the earliest gospels were portraying was a Jesus who was not as transcending or paradigm-shifting as earlier scholars had thought.

Although NT scholars today like to refer to Vermes' work, and claim their reconstructions of Jesus and early christianity are "thoroughly jewish", there is still a tendency to make out that Jesus surpassed the judaism(s) of his day - Vermes' lesson has not been well learnt by the profession!
I think that one of the greatest achievements of Vermes was to show that whatever a scholar's personal background and current beliefs, he or she can do a great deal to counter his/her own inherent bias, if he/she is prepared to try - a theme I touched on over at the Deity Schmeity blog.


  1. Thanks for this tribute VRS. When is the next episode of 'who killed Goliath?'

  2. Thanks for that. Yes I know I am really behind hand on my "Who Killed Goliath" series. I've just had too much Aramaic studies to do. But I do hope to get part 5 out soon.