Geza Vermes, 88, renowned Jesus scholar translated Dead Sea Scrolls
By ROBERT BARR May 12, 2013 9:24PM
Updated: June 14, 2013 6:17AM
LONDON — Geza Vermes, a translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls and renowned for books exploring the Jewish background of Jesus, has died at 88.
He died on Wednesday, David Ariel, president of the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, said Saturday.
Mr. Vermes had an early interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls, a cache of documents written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 which were discovered in caves at Qumran, near Jericho, between 1947 and 1956. Mr. Vermes published the first English translation of the scrolls in 1962.
The scrolls gave an insight to Jewish practices and thought at the time Jesus was preaching, and they informed a series of books by Vermes on the historical Jesus.
The first, “Jesus the Jew,” was published in 1973, followed by “The Authentic Gospel of Jesus” (2003), a commentary on all of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
“Jesus expired on a Roman cross and was buried,” Mr. Vermes wrote in the latter volume. “But his disciples saw him in repeated visions, which persuaded them that he had been raised from the dead before ascending to heaven.”
His last book, “Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325,” published last year, was Mr. Vermes’ account of the development of Christian doctrine up to the formulation of the Nicene Creed.
In a review of the book, Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, praised Mr. Vermes as “the unchallenged doyen of scholarship in the English-speaking world on the Jewish literature of the age of Jesus, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls.” However, Williams said the book gave no answers on why Jesus became an object of worship, revered by Christians as God.
Other books included “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective” (1977); “Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983); “The Religion of Jesus the Jew” (1993); and volumes on key moments in Jesus’ life including his birth, trial and the resurrection.
Mr. Vermes gained his understanding of Christianity from the inside.
Born in Mako, Hungary in 1924, he was 6 when his parents converted to Roman Catholicism — which he described as a pragmatic search for shelter from the rising tide of anti-Semitism.
In 1939, he found that the only way he could continue his education was to enter a seminary. Following the war, he moved to Belgium and a seminary run by the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, founded by two Jewish converts, and gained a doctorate from the Catholic University of Louvain, where his dissertation was on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Mr. Vermes left the priesthood and the Catholic Church in 1957, remarking later that his studies of Jesus had reconverted him to Judaism.
“If it is accepted that we can know something about him, one realizes very soon that we are dealing with a totally Jewish person with totally Jewish ideas, whose religion was totally Jewish and whose culture, whose aims, whose aspirations could be understood only in the framework of Judaism,” Mr. Vermes said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in 1999.
Following his stint at Newcastle University (1957-65), he moved to Oxford; after retirement in 1991 he directed the Oxford Forum for Qumran Research at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
Though he joined a liberal synagogue, he preferred the garden of his Oxford home to religious ceremonies.
“You know, I’m not a great one for synagogues or other places of worship,” he said in a 2008 interview with the Guardian newspaper. “When I want to listen to that little voice, I go out there for a walk.”
His wife Pamela died in 1993. He is survived by his second wife, Margaret.