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Geza Vermes

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Geza Vermes

The native form of this personal name is Vermes Géza. This article uses the Western name order.

Géza Vermes or Vermès (Hungarian: [ˈɡeːzɒ ˈvɛrmɛʃ], 22 June 1924 – 8 May 2013) was a British scholar of Jewish Hungarian origin—one who also served as a Catholic priest in his youth—and writer on religious history, particularly Jewish and Christian. He was a noted authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient works in Aramaic such as the Targums, and on the life and religion of Jesus. He was one of the most important voices in contemporary Jesus research,[1] and he has been described as the greatest Jesus scholar of his time.[2] Vermes' written work on Jesus focuses principally on Jesus the Jew, as seen in the broader context of the narrative scope of Jewish history and theology, while questioning the basis of some Christian teachings on Jesus.[3]


Vermes was born in Makó, Hungary, in 1924 to parents of Jewish descent, schoolteacher Terezia (Riesz) and liberal journalist Emo Vermes,[4][5] (His family, however, had not practiced Judaism since the early 19th century.[4]) All three were baptised as Roman Catholics when he was seven. His mother and journalist father died in the Holocaust.

Vermes attended a Catholic seminary. When he was eligible for college, in 1942, Jews were not accepted into Hungarian universities.[6]

After the Second World War, he became a Roman Catholic priest, but was not admitted into the Jesuit or Dominican orders because of his Jewish ancestry. Vermes was accepted into the Order of the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion,[4] a French/Belgian order founded by Jewish converts[7] which prayed for Jews.[8]

He studied first in Budapest and then at the College St Albert and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he read Oriental history and languages. In 1953 obtained a doctorate in theology with the first dissertation written on the Dead Sea Scrolls and its historical framework.[4]

After researching the scrolls in Paris for a few years, he left the Catholic Church in 1957, and reasserting his Jewish identity, came to Britain and took up a teaching post at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He married Pamela Hobson Curle, a scholar and poet who was already married.[4][9] in 1958. In 1965 he joined the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, rising to become the first professor of Jewish Studies before his retirement in 1991. In 1970 he became a member of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London,[10] "but insisted he had not converted, just “grew out of” Christianity".[7] After the death of his first wife in 1993, he married Margaret Unarska in 1996 and adopted her son, Ian Vermes.

Vermes died on 8 May 2013 after a recurrence of cancer.[11]

Academic career

Vermes was one of the first scholars to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls after their discovery in 1947, and is the author of the standard translation into English of the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (1962)[12] He is one of the leading scholars in the field of the study of the historical Jesus (see Selected Publications, below) and together with Fergus Millar and Martin Goodman, Vermes was responsible for substantially revising Emil Schurer's three-volume work, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ,[13] His An Introduction to the Complete Dead Sea Scrolls, revised edition (2000), is a study of the collection at Qumran.[14]

Until his death, he was a Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, but continued to teach at the Oriental Institute in Oxford. He had edited the Journal of Jewish Studies[15] from 1971 to his death, and from 1991 he had been director of the Oxford Forum for Qumran Research at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies[16] He inspired the creation of the British Association for Jewish Studies (BAJS) in 1975 and of the European Association for Jewish Studies (EAJS) in 1981 and acted as founding president for both.

Vermes was a Fellow of the British Academy; a Fellow of the European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities; holder of an Oxford D. Litt. (1988) and of honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh (1989), University of Durham (1990), University of Sheffield (1994) and the Central European University of Budapest (2008). He was awarded the Wilhelm Bacher Memorial Medal by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (1996), the Memorial Medal of the city of Makó, his place of birth (2008) and the keys of the cities of Monroe LA and Natchez MI (2009). He received a vote of congratulation from the U.S. House of Representatives, proposed by the Representative of Louisiana on 17 September 2009.

In the course of a lecture tour in the United States in September 2009, Vermes spoke at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, at Duke University in Durham NC, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore MD, and at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and at Baton Rouge.

On 23 January 2012 Penguin Books celebrated at Wolfson College, Oxford, the golden jubilee of Vermes's The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, which has sold an estimated half-a-million copies worldwide. A "Fiftieth anniversary" edition has been issued in the Penguin Classics series.

Historical Jesus

Main article: Historical Jesus

Vermes described Jesus as a 1st-century Jewish holy man, a commonplace view in academia but novel to the public when Vermes began publishing.[4] Contrary to certain other scholars (such as E. P. Sanders[17]), Vermes concludes that Jesus did not reach out to non-Jews. For example, he attributes positive references to Samaritans in the gospels not to Jesus himself but to early Christian editing. He suggests that, properly understood, the historical Jesus is a figure that Jews should find familiar and attractive. This historical Jesus, however, is so different from the Christ of faith that Christians, says Vermes, may well want to rethink the fundamentals of their faith.[18]

Important works on this topic include Jesus the Jew (1973), which describes Jesus as a thoroughly Jewish Galilean charismatic, and The Gospel of Jesus the Jew (1981), which examines Jewish parallels to Jesus’ teaching.[14]

Vermes believed it is possible "to retrieve the authentic Gospel of Jesus, his first-hand message to his original followers."[19]

Selected publications

For more details see his autobiography, Providential Accidents, London, SCM Press, 1998 ISBN 0-334-02722-5; Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham MD, 1998 ISBN 0-8476-9340-6.


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