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Geza Vermes

Now that I have been posting on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the historical Jesus, I would be remiss not to mention  that one of the absolutely great scholars of modern times, one of the world experts on both the Scrolls and Jesus, died several days ago.   Geza Vermes was a formidable scholar.   Of the three major English translations of the Scrolls, it is his that I typically use and prefer.   In the 1970s he began publishing a series of books on Jesus that did more than almost anything to push for the idea that if Jesus is to be understood, he must be understood as a first century Jew.   This was something of a novel idea at the time.  It has become the standard view that virtually every Jesus scholar on the planet shares.

Vermes was a scholar’s scholar.  Professor at Oxford, he was an incredible linguist, intimately familiar with every ancient historical source of relevance, a creative thinker.    He wrote books for scholars but also books that were accessible to the educated layperson.   He was at the very top of Dead Sea Scrolls studies and Jesus studies, at one and the same time.   He died at the age of 88.

There is a fine obituary in the Economist that I can recommend: http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21578017-geza-vermes-jew-ex-priest-and-translator-dead-sea-scrolls-died-may-8th-aged    It shows that, among other things, Vermes had a very interesting life, and not always in a good way.   Born into a Jewish home in Hungary in 1924, he and his family (because of his parents) converted to Catholicism and were all baptized  when he was still a boy.   The parents had hoped that this conversion would save them from the coming onslaught of the Nazis.  It ended up saving Vermes, but not his parents.

He was accepted in the Catholic Seminary, and in 1944 he saw his parents for the last time.  They died – he never knew how or where – in the holocaust.  At the time, the seminary hid him away, so that he survived.  He was trained in Catholic circles, but eventually became disenchanted with Christianity and returned to the synagogue.

I had known about Vermes and his work since I was a graduate student in the early 1980s.   But I never met him until a couple of years ago.   He was in Chapel Hill giving a lecture, and he, his wife, and I all had a very nice and intimate dinner together.   He was soft-spoken, sharp, interesting.  He had a sense of humor and a gentle disposition.  He was interested in my work, and not just interested in talking about his own.  I was far more interested in hearing him talk – he was a legend.

It is very sad to see that he has now passed away.   The academic community has lost a real scholar with a real story to tell.

Exciting Discovery of a Hebrew Bible Scroll
Back in the Saddle. Sort of….



  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  May 19, 2013

    Bart, You said: “….if Jesus is to be understood, he must be understood as a first century Jew. This was something of a novel idea at the time.”

    That struck me as being something I did not notice in my life, in my time at the seminary, or in the pastoral work I did. Could that be because your background was fundamentalist and mine was not?

    I remember in the early 1960’s, before I decided to attend seminary, that I often thought of myself as more Jewish than what we call evangelical Christian now. I was a member of the United Church of Christ (Congregational) which today is very liberal / progressive.

    I remember watching a weekly TV discussion by Rabbi Alvin Fine of Temple Emanuel in San Francisco and never found anything he said to be contrary with my beliefs, even when speaking about Jesus.

    I used to call Jesus “my Rabbi” and I once considered Joining our local Synagogue after attending many sessions and events there.

    I often had to remind many people that “Jesus was Jewish, you know.”

    Perhaps I should never have considered becoming a Christian minister but should have considered a different direction…which I eventually did (public school teaching).

    I naively assumed that everyone knew that Jesus was Jewish (influenced by the context of his times) and that his teachings were directed to his people then and applicable to us Gentiles as well.

    Question about Geza Vermes…since reading your blog I have acquired many new books dealing with the subjects discussed here. I would like you to recommend a good started book written by Geza Vermes that would be representative of his life’s work (if there are any in English…I will check Amazon).

    Thank you, Todd

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 19, 2013

      yeah, good points. What I was trying to say is that before the 70s or so, scholars tended to talk about how Jesus *contrasted* with judaism rather than *expressed* it.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  May 19, 2013

        Thanks for the clarification. I wasn’t thinking about scholar’s views but views generally in the churches I served.

  2. Avatar
    tooronga  May 19, 2013

    I agree with all you have said. My first book in this area of interest was Nineham’s Commentary on Mark’s Gospel. The second was Geza Vermes’s ‘Jesus the Jew’, to which I still refer. I then went on to purchase many of his other books, as well as yours of course.

  3. Avatar
    samchahal  May 19, 2013

    Hi Bart, hope you are feeling better now.

    I posted the below oin 15/05/2013 after your invitation for questions, however do not seem to have got a response, could you please commenty on this, thanks, Sam

    Bart, thanks for the invitation to ask general questions, I have 2 which come to mind:

    1. You commented in an earlier post that You thought that John’s account of Jesus’s death at passover was certainly made up to fit theological purposes, however the dating of passover is also in other Gospels including Mark which was written first (although the day is different) so are you saying that the passover date is definetely out altogther historically or just John’s version? So do you think that the crucifixion could have happened at any time and not specifically at passover? That surely has major implications as it would mean that Easter is also wrong – and it is normally thought to be accurate (unlike Christmas) or do you think Jesus could have purposely instigated his capture in order to “suffer” at apssover to fulfil Jewish ideology at the time of a suffering messiah which would bring on God’s judgment on the enemies of Israel and foreign invaders, in this case Romans?

    2. Could You comment on deutero Isaiah, 40-55, it is thought by Christians that certain passges here relate to Jesus (suffering servant etc), who and when did this understanding take place, was Paul the first to relate these verses to Jesus or do you think the Jesus family and followers also did or could it have gone back to Jesus himself?

    thanks, get well soon


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 19, 2013

      Sorry — I indicated in a post that I would be making a list of all the questions I received (over twenty) and answering them one by one over a period of time, rather than writing short comments here, and that if I didn’t make a comment here, that should be an indication that I would take up the qustions later. Thanks,

      • Avatar
        samchahal  May 20, 2013

        no worries, I look forward to the questions being answered in the posts in that case, cheers! Sam

  4. Avatar
    hwl  May 19, 2013

    Before Vermes’ work in the 1970s, what arguments were mounted against the view that Jesus must be understood as a 1st century Palestinian Jew?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 19, 2013

      It’s not that peole argued *against* the view. Instead they tended to see Jesus as standing in *contrast* to the Judaism of his day, rather than as participating in it fully.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 19, 2013

    What a remarkable man! Thanks for sharing this. I understand disliking “certainties masquerading as scholarship in organized religion.”

  6. Avatar
    Walid_  May 19, 2013

    R.I.P. Mr Vermes

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