Geza Vermes was one of Wolfson’s founding Iffley Fellows and a distinguished scholar of Judaism. Martin Goodman, Professor of Jewish Studies and Fellow of Wolfson College looks back upon his life and work.
Geza Vermes was an expert in the history of Judaism in the early Roman empire whose prolific writings, particularly on the Jewish background of early Christianity and on the Dead Sea scrolls, have had a profound effect both among scholars and in the wider public.
Geza Vermes was born in Makó in southern Hungary in 1924. His father, Ernó, a journalist, and his mother, Terézia, a school teacher, were part of the largely assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie in Hungary. In 1931, when he was six, he and his parents converted to Christianity. Sent to the local gymnasium, he proved a precocious student and decided in his late teens to study for the priesthood. The decision almost certainly saved his life, since the seminary priests protected him during the period of the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.
After the war Vermes joined the order of the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion and in 1947 he was sent by the order to Louvain to study Theology and Oriental history and languages. His intention was to write a thesis on Isaiah, but on news of the discovery of biblical and other ancient Jewish writings in the Judaean desert, he changed his topic. His thesis on the origins of the Dead Sea sect, completed in 1952, was the first doctoral thesis to be written on the Dead Sea scrolls. In 1957, having left the priesthood, he was appointed to a Lecturership in Divinity in the University of Newcastle, and it was there that he published with Penguin in 1962 the first edition of The Dead Sea Scrolls in English as well as a series of important studies on bible interpretation in antiquity.
Appointment to Wolfson
In 1965 Vermes was appointed Reader in Jewish Studies in Oxford and a Fellow of Iffley College (soon to be Wolfson). He played a pivotal role in the negotiations that led to the creation of Wolfson College, and was instrumental in securing funds from Wolfson Foundation and in creating a democratic vision for the College. He invited a number of exceptional Fellows and Visiting Scholars to Wolfson, and remained a devoted member of the College for the rest of his life. At the time of his death in May 2013, Vermes was one of the last remaining Iffley Fellows who had witnessed the creation of Wolfson from the beginning.
In his new post, he soon became widely known for a series of studies on Jesus within his Jewish environment, particularly Jesus the Jew, first published in 1973. The depiction of Jesus as an individualistic holy man who operated at a tangent to the religious currents of the Judaism of his day was further clarified by in a series of later studies. Apart from his University duties as Chairman of the Faculty Board of Oriental Studies and as a Governor of the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies (now renamed the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies), he devoted much energy to his role as editor of the Journal of Jewish Studies, a position he held for 43 years. In 1971, he secured the transfer of ownership of the Journal from the Jewish Chronicle Publications in London to the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, which became a proprietor and the publisher. Under Vermes’s editorship, the Journal established an international reputation as a forum for scholarly discussion of Jewish history and literature, particularly of late antiquity.
Vermes played a founding role in and was the first President of the British Association for Jewish Studies in 1975, and of the European Association of Jewish Studies in 1981. Both associations continue to flourish, drawing thousands of international members to meet regularly at varieties of conferences, expanding the scope and circles of academic debate.
By setting up taught masters courses in Jewish Studies in the Graeco-Roman Period, Vermes was among the first in a humanities faculty in Oxford to seek to attract graduate students, and he attracted and inspired many doctoral students who went on to academic careers in many parts of the world. Not least among the achievements of his time in post in Oxford was the extensive revision, in collaboration with a small group of colleagues, of Emil Schürer's History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ.
His output was hardly diminished after retirement from his university post in 1991. A series of studies sought to clarify his views on the significance of Jesus within Judaism. He produced an edition of the fragments of the Community Rule from Cave 4, in collaboration with Philip Alexander, with exemplary speed and accuracy. Among his many later publications were a series of studies of central elements of the Jesus story (on the nativity, passion, and resurrection), and, most recently, a history of Christianity from its origins to the fourth century.
Vermes was awarded a D.Litt. by Oxford in 1988 and was appointed to a personal chair in Jewish Studies in 1989. In 1985 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy and in 2001 he was elected to the European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities. He received honorary degrees from Durham, Edinburgh, Sheffield, and the Central European University of Budapest, and in 2009 he was honoured by the United States House of Representatives with a vote of congratulation ‘for inspiring and educating the world'. The latest edition of the translated Dead Sea scrolls, now entitled The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, was issued, fifty years after the first edition, as a Penguin Classic.