Professor Geza Vermes, 1924 - 2013
One of the most unusual figures in academic Jewish life, Professor Geza Vermes, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, passed away on May 8, aged 88.
Others will memorialize in detail his very considerable academic achievements. His personal history was remarkable. Vermes was born into an assimilated Hungarian Jewish family, who converted to Catholicism when he was a child. He was able to survive the war in Catholic seminaries, although both of his parents perished in Auschwitz. He was ordained as a Catholic priest, and after the war, at the University of Louvain, became the Church's expert on the newly-discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. (The first editions of his works on the DSS bore the Catholic imprimatur!). However, his academic work lead him to personally reassess his Catholic faith, and he moved to the UK, as a lecturer at Newcastle University, where for a time he was a member of a small Protestant church. At some point he left Christianity - but not Jesus - altogether, and, rather gingerly, identified as a Liberal Jew, although he rarely, if ever, identified with any Jewish community. In 1965 he was appointed to Oxford University, becoming Reader in Jewish Studies in the early 1970's (the successor to Cecil Roth) and then the first full Professor - appointments that scandalised the Anglo-Jewish 'Establishment'.
He had two academic passions - the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish background of Jesus and early Christianity. Vermes was a meticulous scholar with a profound knowledge of inter-testamental Jewish literature, Midrash and rabbinic writings. He knew Talmud thoroughly, but in a totally academic fashion. He was personally responsible for forcing a revision of conventional Christology through his widely-read book, 'Jesus the Jew', and his subsequent works, where he portrayed Jesus as a sort of Galilean 'maggid' in a circle of charismatic rabbis including Honi haMa'agal and others. He showed the rabbinic and midrashic origins and techniques of the teachings of Jesus as preserved in the Gospels, and, although never promoting any religious agenda (what exactly did he believe?), championed Jesus as a revolutionary and profound ethical teacher. In a diffferent field, he did enormous work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, including translation of the complete corpus. Under his influence, 'Jewish Studies' at Oxford (and in the UK generally) became identified with what he termed the 'Intertestamental period'. He raised a generation of academic disciples.
As a graduate student in the early 1970's, sitting in his seminars on Pirkei Avot at the Oriental Institute in Oxford was a remarkable experience. In a soft, hissing Hungarian-accented English, he minutely analysed every personality and every saying in its historical, religious and political context. He was totally immersed in the world of the Rabbis, even as he was the most unrabbinical figure one could imagine. Until very late in life, he was extremely reticent about his personal life, and about his personal identity. About the only time I ever heard him allude to his rather bizarre life journey was once when he recalled his Newcastle days, going to the Yeshivah bookshop in Gateshead ('Lehmann's') to find some obsecure Midrashic texts, giggling as he described the reactions of 'the Yeshivah bochurs' to this 'strange apparition'. His first wife, Pamela, who passed away in 1993, wrote on Martin Buber. They lived outside Oxford, where they had pet Alsatians - who at one point 'adopted' and suckled some kittens. The symbolism was not lost on him.
Vermes was a gentleman, unfailingly courteous to all (although he did not mince words in his academic judgements). He was a scholar who was very independent and very original, but whose every word was carefully substantiated in deep textual proof. It is perplexing to speculate where, and in whose company, he will take his seat in heaven!