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Geza Vermes, a Jew, ex-priest and translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and expert on the life of Jesus, died in May.


Geza Vermes

22 June 1924 – 8 May 2013

His life, Geza Vermes said, had been a series of ‘providential accidents’. The biggest of these was escaping the Holocaust.

The Vermes family, assimilated Hungarian Jews, had become Roman Catholics: initially ‘for social reasons’ he wrote later, ‘naively or optimistically believing’ that baptism would protect them.

But too late. In the anti-Semitic 1930s, only baptisms before 1919 counted. Even before the German grip on Hungary tightened, higher education was closed to Jews. Training for the priesthood was a rare exception.

Despite being unable to sing, the young Geza passed entry to a Catholic seminary, which taught him, (boringly, he thought), and later hid him, (perilously, he gratefully remembered), from the Nazis.

It got worse. He never found out where or when his parents were killed. ‘I thought at least you would be safe’ were his mother’s last words to him, after visiting him in his hiding place in 1944.

His last memory of her was walking away, in a yellow blouse to conceal the yellow star of David, ‘bearing the burden of the world’. He hoped her Catholic piety had comforted her in whatever hell awaited her.

He found little to keep him in post-war, Soviet-occupied Hungary.

Catholic scholarship, though not ministry, appealed to him. He escaped the Russians and moved to Belgium to study with the Fathers of Sion, an order founded by Jewish converts.

Arriving, worn and famished, to the friendship and relative plenty of Louvain in 1946, he was so overjoyed that he wanted to sing the Te Deum. ‘I abstained for fear of hitting the wrong note,’ he recalled.

His life’s work was a definitive study of the Dead Sea Scrolls: parchments, written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages, sensationally discovered in caves in Palestine in 1947.

They were the rules and holy texts of a first-century Jewish sect, which cast an interesting sidelight on messianic Judaism and its parallels in early Christianity. He battled a clique of scholars who hogged the manuscripts for decades—the ‘academic scandal of the century’, he called it.

But Mr Vermes’s real fame came from his contention that the historical Jesus, whatever his followers came to believe later, was first and foremost a Jewish holy man, one of many such itinerant preachers and wonder-workers. When his book Jesus the Jew came out in 1973, that approach seemed revolutionary. In many respects, the two faiths were in a state of mutual ignorance. Jewish scholarship and piety shunned the Christian scriptures: what could be gained by studying a self-proclaimed messiah and his mistaken followers? For their part, Christians all but ignored Jesus’s Jewishness. Mr Vermes, somewhat combatively, highlighted the neglected common ground.

Asked on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs for his first record, he chose It Ain’t Necessarily So. That was his watchword.

He disliked certainties masquerading as scholarship in organised religion, whether it was the Catholic hierarchy’s disregard for academic study of the Bible, or for its blaming Jews for Christ’s death (those both changed in the 1960s), or Pope Benedict’s book on Jesus: ‘mountains of pious and largely familiar musings’, he wrote in a scalding review.

He left the priesthood—and soon afterwards the church—after meeting Pam, then a friend’s wife and mother of two. He joined her in Britain in 1957, stateless, jobless, penniless, and with shaky English. But—more ‘providential accidents’—all worked out well.

Her divorce was amicable. Academic successes came thick and fast, mostly in a long stint in Oxford: ‘golden years’, as he termed it. He joined a Liberal synagogue but insisted he had not converted, just ‘grew out of’ Christianity. He continued to listen to a ‘still small voice’, often with Pam, in their beloved garden…

Full obituary in The Economist:

Obituary in The Guardian:

Obituary in The New York Times:

Obituary in The Independent:

Wikipedia on Geza Vermes: