Geza Vermes, who died on 8 May at the age of 88, was a translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls acclaimed for his books exploring the Jewish background of Christ. The scrolls were a cache of documents written between 200 BC and AD 200 discovered in caves at Qumran, near Jericho, between 1947 and 1956. Vermes published the first English translation of the scrolls in 1962. The scrolls gave an insight to Jewish practices and thought at the time Jesus was preaching, and they informed books by Vermes on the historical Jesus beginning with Jesus the Jew (1973); The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (2003) was a commentary on all the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
“Jesus expired on a Roman cross and was buried,” Vermes wrote in the latter volume. “But his disciples saw him in repeated visions, which persuaded them that he had been raised from the dead before ascending to heaven.”
His last book, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325 (2012), was Vermes’ account of the development of Christian doctrine up to the formulation of the Nicene Creed. In a review, Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, praised Vermes as “the unchallenged doyen of scholarship in the English-speaking world on the Jewish literature of the age of Jesus, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls.” However, Williams said the book gave no answers on why Jesus became an object of worship.
Other books included The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective (1977); Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983); The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993); and volumes on key moments in Jesus’s life including his birth, trial and the resurrection.
Born in Mako, Hungary in 1924, Vermes was six when his parents converted to Catholicism, which he described as a pragmatic search for shelter from rising anti-Semitism. In 1939 he entered a seminary and after the war, moved to a Belgian seminary and gained a doctorate from the Catholic University of Louvain, where his dissertation was on the Scrolls.
Vermes left the priesthood and the Catholic Church in 1957, remarking later that his studies of Jesus had reconverted him to Judaism.
“If it is accepted that we can know something about him, one realises very soon that we are dealing with a totally Jewish person with totally Jewish ideas, whose religion was totally Jewish and whose culture, whose aims, whose aspirations could be understood only in the framework of Judaism,” Vermes said in 1999.
Following his stint at Newcastle University (1957-65), he moved to Oxford; after retirement in 1991 he directed the Oxford Forum for Qumran Research at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Though he joined a liberal synagogue, he preferred the garden of his Oxford home to religious ceremonies. “You know, I’m not a great one for synagogues or other places of worship,” he said in 2008. “When I want to listen to that little voice, I go out there for a walk.”