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.