Geza Vermes (1924–2013)
Hershel Shanks • 05/20/2013
“Dear Hershel, Margaret and I spent two glorious weeks in Provence at Vaison la Romaine. I hope you are flourishing.” – Geza
My friend Geza Vermes is dead. He was, most famously, the intellectual leader in the fight to free the Dead Sea Scrolls from the small coterie of scholars who was assigned to publish them but who endlessly procrastinated and wouldn’t let anyone else see them in the meantime. Geza Vermes (GAY-za ver-MESH) really started the public campaign to free the scrolls with his ringing prediction at a lecture in 1977: “The world is entitled to ask the authorities … what they intend to do about this lamentable state of affairs. For unless drastic measures are taken at once, the greatest and most valuable of all Hebrew and Aramaic manuscript discoveries is likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.”
Even before they were fully released, Vermes was an authority on the scrolls that had already been published (mostly by Israeli scholars). His initial translation of the then-available scrolls was a 270-page volume. Edition after edition followed. Now in its seventh edition, the 720-page tome The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English is by far the best-selling of the several English translations available, having sold in excess of a million copies.
He was also an influential authority on so-called “historical Jesus” studies. In his view, now widely accepted, Jesus was not simply a Jew, as everybody knew, but the movement he led during his life was a thoroughly Jewish movement with little intent of becoming a separate religion. Vermes’s views heavily relied on his analysis of contemporaneous Judaism as revealed in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
His personal biography in its own way matched the drama of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was born to a secular Jewish family in Hungary in 1924. In 1931 (Geza, then six years old), with Nazism on the horizon, his family converted to Catholicism. In 1942, at age 18, he enrolled in a Catholic seminary to become a priest. In a 1994 interview, Vermes told me that, without that, he knew that his “chances of a higher education would have been next to nothing.”* This decision also undoubtedly saved him from the holocaust, but his parents, although nominally Catholic, were not spared. They were taken to a Nazi concentration camp and were never heard from again. (The anti-Jewish legislation in Hungary counted as Catholics only Jews who had converted prior to 1919.)
Vermes later applied to become a Jesuit, but he did not know, as he tells us in his autobiography, that “the Society of Jesus refused in principle to tolerate Jewish converts among its ranks.”** He subsequently sought (twice) to join the order of Dominicans but was twice turned down. “The Dominicans were traditionally as unwilling to admit Jewish convert candidates as the Jesuits.” (This is no longer the case.) So he eventually turned to the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion, an order that had been founded by Jewish converts and consisted largely of former Jews.
At that time his interest turned to the scrolls, but his efforts to obtain access were rebuffed by Father Roland de Vaux, who had assembled what Vermes describes as the “notorious … Jew-free editorial team.” Vermes found de Vaux and several members of the elite editorial team not only anti-Israel but also anti-Jewish.
The next chapter in his life is more personal. In 1954 he went to England, where he fell in love with a married woman, lived with her, then married her (Pamela died in 1993 at age 74; he subsequently married his current wife, Margaret, who survives him.) By this time, he had left the priesthood and accepted a teaching position at the University of Newcastle in England. There he was drawn into the Jewish community. As part of his teaching duties, he took his students to the synagogue, his first time there in 40 years. There he met a Hasid who told him a story of a pearl that was lost in the mud yet remained precious. Vermes decided to return to Judaism. Then, eight years after teaching at Newcastle, he was called to Oxford, where he remained to the end of his life.
Geza Vermes died on May 8, 2013, at age 88. The cause was cancer.
Intermittently, beginning in 1992, Vermes agreed to write forBAR, and we became friends. Most recently, he wrote the chapter of our book Partings—How Judaism and Christianity Became Two, which will be published this fall.—H.S.
* “Escape and Rescue—An Interview with Geza Vermes, An oxford Don’s Peregrinations,” Bible Review, June 1994.
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