Geza Vermes: A child of his time

Geza Vermes has spent 40 years arguing that Jesus can be understood only as a Jew. Peter Stanford asks him about fact, faith and the truth and myth of Christmas
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They don't bother with a Christmas tree and crib at the Vermeses' top-of-a-chocolate-box 17th-century country cottage on Boar's Hill, outside Oxford. For a start, they've got the builders in this year and all is in chaos. Geza Vermes (pronounced Gey-zah Ver-mesh) may once have been a Catholic priest but later, while teaching Jewish studies at Oxford University in the 1970s, he started attending a liberal synagogue. Judaism doesn't have much invested in Christmas.

Yet, oddly, Vermes has a deep and very public fascination with Jesus. It has remained with him through all the twists and turns of his own extraordinary spiritual journey from Hungarian Jewish parents, who converted with him to Catholicism, through disillusionment as a cleric with Christianity, and onto an eventual return to his roots. His new book, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (Allen Lane, £20), will be his fifth on the man born in a stable in Bethlehem. There are, he promises, still more in the pipeline. Even his best-known work - a translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls into English which has been in print for over 40 years and is soon to be reissued as a Penguin Classic - is linked in most minds with the foundation story of Christianity.

Whatever this abiding wider interest in Jesus, the Christmas story is, so Vermes pronounces without a moment's hesitation, a no-brainer. He dismisses it in a single sub-clause in the new book as composed of "artificial genealogies and legendary infancy narratives", conjured up by the gospel writers. He's not much impressed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John either - or at least by the standard Christian interpretation of who they were. "We have no solid evidence," he writes, "to prove that any... was a close associate of Jesus".

Indeed, for devout Christians, reading The Authentic Gospel of Jesus will be rather like seeing one cherished notion after another debunked. It is only a matter of time, you suspect, before Jesus himself is consigned to the world of fairy tales by one of Vermes's plain but pithy put-downs. Which many in our secular and sceptical age would, of course, see as an entirely sensible conclusion. Vermes, however, is not among them. He's a big fan of the historical Jesus.

"My view of Jesus," he protests, picking his words slowly and with great care, "is that he was a totally eschatologically inspired person, very charismatic, who fitted very well into the world in which he lived." So Jesus did, in his opinion, most certainly exist - but not as most of us have come to know. He was not, Vermes believes, the son of God. And, of course, he adds almost casually, he didn't say many of the best-known phrases associated with him.

There is, as we talk, an odd counterpoint between this wholesale destruction of Christian tradition that Vermes is delivering from his armchair and the joyful, almost sing-song tone of his voice, which would be better suited to telling tales of reindeer in Lapland. With his chubby cheeks, copious beard and propensity to chuckle, Vermes could easily pass for one of Santa's elves. If the publishers' blurb hadn't told me he was 79, I would have guessed his age as early sixties. He has the same youthful exuberance and evident delight in talking about his subject that he also brings to the pages of his books.

Popularising religion and its history can be a thankless task. The theological establishment accuses you of selling out. Jews are suspicious of one of their number waving a flag for Jesus. And the zealots in the pews only want opinions that confirm all their prejudices. Vermes is, for all these interest groups, something of a maverick. He is the first to admit that his crusade to engage a wide audience, interested in but not wedded to organised religion, can be a lonely one. "Now is the season for books of the year and religion is never ever mentioned as a category," he laments.

His own longevity in the general marketplace rests partly on the phenomenal success of his translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient documents which give a unique insight into the world in which Jesus lived. When Vermes's version came out in 1962, it broke a taboo because the rest of the academic world was carefully keeping to itself the Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s by shepherds in caves at Qumran. Vermes's trust in his readers' intelligence remains the key to his writings to this day.

In 1973 came Jesus the Jew, then ten years later Jesus in the World of Judaism, and - completing the trilogy in 1993 - The Religion of Jesus the Jew. All made the basic point that Jesus can only be understood as a Jew. The new book continues this general theme, but it takes a fresh tack. Vermes examines every phrase attributed to Jesus in the gospels in the context of other sources, mainly ancient Jewish writings, to see if a case can be made that they are authentic.

"I started by assuming," he explains, "that Jesus did say at least some of them. Why? Let's put it this way. There are certain things that are attributed to him, which no Christian writer would ever have thought up. In my experience with ancient writings, especially in the Jewish world, they like to embellish, but very often they keep also the original."

He picks one of the many examples he quotes in the book. "The gospels tell us two contradictory things - that Jesus was interested only in Jews and that the world was his target. Which one is right? My belief is that the first is something Jesus did say, which has survived in the text, while the other was something that was later attributed to him by gospel writers to suit the needs of an expanding Christian church."

It takes us onto another aspect of Vermes's thesis about Jesus: that he was someone concerned for the fate of the Jews, talking at a particular point in Jewish history, and so is of historical interest but not a particularly useful guide to the modern world and its problems. Or, as he puts it pithily: "I think that Jesus was primarily a teacher for the individual and not for the collectivity." Jesus's life and teachings, Vermes stresses, were dominated by the belief that what he calls a "divine event", what Christianity refers to as the Second Coming, was about to happpen to benefit the Jewish people, and so can only be read, understood and, most importantly, applied, in that context. It is a point that echoes throughout his private life.

This rejection of Jesus as a contemporary guiding light is something that echoes throughout Vermes's private life. Providential Accidents, his 1998 autobiography, recounts how Vermes managed, with the help of a bishop in Budapest, "to loose myself in the crowd" at a seminary and so survive the Holocaust. His parents, despite their conversion, were sent to the death camps in spring 1944 with half a million Hungarian Jews.

After the war, he joined a small French-based Catholic order, the Fathers of Sion. He had applied believing that its members were all Jewish converts but discovered when he arrived in Paris that the congregation had been set up with the very traditional purpose of converting Jews to the Church. This profound anti-Semitism was widespread in the higher echelons of Catholic academia, he soon discovered to his dismay. However, the "providential accident" that saw him included in the first wave of scholars to work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were the subject of his doctrinal thesis, encouraged him to develop what was at the time an iconoclastic viewpoint on Jesus's essential Jewishness. Such a stance soon put him at odds with his superiors.

The problem, he recalls, went wider than his efforts to make Catholicism more aware of its roots in Judaism. "The Papal authorities were very unkeen on giving academic freedom to Catholic scholars even to study the Bible. That was considered good for Protestants but not good for Catholics." Such constraints led Vermes in 1957 to leave the priesthood. But his break was more final. He also rejected Christianity and its belief in Jesus as the son of God.

He went to England, where he married and took on a new challenge - changing the way Jews think about Jesus. He taught first at Newcastle University and then, from 1965, at Oxford, where he became in 1989 Professor of Jewish Studies. His initial appointment was controversial. "At the time," he recalls, "I did not consider myself any longer a Christian. I was a kind of free agent, moving along without being attached to one denomination or another. But naturally some Jewish circles imagined that readership in Jewish studies in Oxford was a position to be occupied by someone whose Jewish credentials were more obvious than mine."

Though his subsequent reversion to the Jewish faith calmed the disquiet, Geza Vermes remains, on account of his background and his iconoclastic beliefs, an outsider who makes his own rules. Which seems to suit him down to the ground. "For years," he says with a chuckle, "before Jesus the Jew, there had been no books on the historical Jesus, but since then one book after another has been published and what sounded at that time something absolutely revolutionary and very sensational has become almost a cliché. Everybody talks of Jesus the Jew today."

Biography: Geza Vermes

Geza Vermes was born to Jewish parents in 1924 in Hungary. All three were baptised as Catholics when he was seven. His mother and journalist father died in the Holocaust. After the Second World War, he became a priest, studied in Paris and Louvain in Belgium, and was among the first scholars to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls after their discovery in 1948. He left the church in 1957, came to Britain, took up a teaching post in Newcastle and married. In 1965 he joined the department of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, rising to be professor before his retirement in 1991. His 1962 book, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, is still in print and will be reissued as a Penguin Classic next year. It was followed by Jesus The Jew (1973), Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983), The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993) and The Changing Faces of Jesus (2000). He has also written an autobiography, Providential Accidents, published in 1998. His latest book, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, is published by Allen Lane. He lives in Oxford with his second wife, Margaret and her teenage son.

The revised edition of Peter Stanford's biography of Lord Longford is published by Sutton