By Dr. Mark Goodacre in his NT Blog.
Geza Vermes was a legend. It is rare for a scholar to make so massive an impact in the guild in different areas, the study of early Judaism and the study of Christian origins. His Penguin paperback, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, was for many of us our first encounter with the scrolls, and the book has remained in print for decades. His scholarly contributions on the scrolls as well as on other areas in early Judaism have been seminal, yet he will perhaps be best remembered for his work on Christian origins, and especially the Historical Jesus.
It has almost become a cliché to point out that his Jesus the Jew (1973) was revolutionary, but its impact was indeed massive. I remember seeing the book for the first time in our home when I was a teenager in the 1980s and being somewhat taken aback by its title and its appearance, with lots of Stars of David all over it. In the early 1970s, with the new quest for the historical Jesus still in full swing, it was still de rigueur for Jesus to be depicted as some kind of Lutheran figure championing his gospel in contrast to a law championed by petty legalists. The exciting thing about reading Vermes’s book was that he had actually read the rabbinic texts that many a New Testament scholar only pretended to know.
In many other books in the four decades afterwards, Vermes continued to draw attention to reading early Christian texts in conversation with a proper knowledge of early Jewish texts. He never saw these texts as “background”. This was not “the World of the New Testament”. Instead, these texts were themselves evidence in the quest, themselves part of the conversation. His enduring legacy was in the subtitle of Jesus the Jew — “A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels”. Again it might sound hackneyed now, but that itself is largely the result of Vermes’s work — he stressed the importance of reading the Gospels as a historian would read them. He was effectively democratizing the quest of the historical Jesus. Like all good history, it should not matter who is asking the questions. Like all good history, the study is open to all, no longer thickly mired in the theological agendas of those engaging in the enquiry.
I became fascinated with Geza Vermes’s work when I saw him on the Channel 4 documentary Jesus: The Evidence in 1984. This was something of an iconoclastic piece and I have written about it on the blog before. Here’s a clip that nicely gives you a feeling for the curiously compelling way that Vermes attacks a topic:
When I arrived in Oxford as an undergraduate a year later, I was eager to hear Dr Vermes (then a Reader at the Oriental Institute) in person. For me, it was like seeing a celebrity. I went along to a talk that he gave about Jesus: The Evidence (later published — see note here) and loved it. And later, when I took a special paper on Varieties of Judaism, I went along to his classes on the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. It was a privilege not many Oxford students took up. While E. P. Sanders and Tom Wright were lecturing to hundreds in the Examination Schools, Geza Vermes was talking to just a handful of us in the Oriental Institute.
As a graduate student and later also as a scholar, I occasionally got to meet Geza Vermes. I remember how on one occasion at lunch at Wolfson College, where Vermes would mix with the students, and chat away to his colleagues, he explained to me why he thought that most approaches to the Synoptic Problem were wrong. He noted that his article on forty years of the Dead Sea Scrolls had gone through so many different versions that he himself did not know which one was prior and which one was later. He imagined that something quite similar might have happened among the evangelists.
The last time I saw him was sadly now a decade ago, when we were both part of a controversial BBC documentary filmed at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew Studies, focusing on the Virgin Mary. He was witty and charming, and I remember that he was very happy to have his simple sandwich lunch provided at the BBC’s expense.
In spite of his erudition, Geza Vermes was a gifted communicator and understood well how to appeal to a broader public. His little books were hugely popular, and he often wrote short op-ed style pieces for British newspapers. To my amazement, he was also a consumer of the blogs, and sometimes popped along to this blog to comment.
And what’s more, he’s the only scholar in our area that I can think of who has been on Desert Island Discs. And that really is matter of distinction. (You can download or stream the episode, which was broadcast in 2000, here).
He will be greatly missed.