Tributes to Geza Vermes, June 22, 1924-May 8, 2013

MRB May 15, 2013 2
Photo: Sören Wibeck

Photo: Sören Wibeck

Geza Vermes passed away one week ago today. On many occasions during seven years in Oxford from 2005-2012, I witnessed his captivating personality combined with a sharp (or perhaps: still sharpening) intellect. At times this was over a cup of tea; at others, while I furiously took notes of his lecture. He was warm, and even though approaching ninety, as vibrant as he must have been when he first began what became an august career.

He was loved and esteemed from Oxford to the other side of the world. I encountered numerous people in those years in various parts of Europe and North America who, when I mentioned where I was based, wanted me to know that they knew Geza. The first time I spoke to Simon Winder at Penguin, he proudly boasted that he had been Geza’s publisher for some years.

Today we honor his legacy with personal tributes from his friends, students, colleagues, and admirers, and I specifically requested a reflection on his major intellectual contributions from another dear to me, Fergus Millar, whose name repeatedly appears alongside Geza’s in the other tributes. There is some repetition, but given the nature of these deeply personal memories, we did not interfere. We invite you to use the Comments section below to add your own words to these below, and all of them will be made available to the family he has left behind.

As so many have already said, may his name be for a blessing.

T.M. Law
Editor-in-Chief

Geza Vermes’ arresting autobiography, Providential Accidents (1998), recorded the details of his life up to 1993. Rather than rehearsing them again only a few days after his death, I will take this occasion to offer a view of his most significant intellectual contributions from his vast range of publications.

Geza’s most famous achievement was his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was the first ever to write a doctoral thesis on the scrolls. His work in Louvain resulted in Les manuscrits du désert de Juda (1953) and its English version Discovery in the Judaean Desert (1956). These early works established the historical and religious framework (the Hasmonean and Herodian period) that has been (almost) universally accepted ever since. From 1962 he produced successive editions and expansions of The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. These have sold more than a million copies, providing the prime means of access for non-specialist readers.

Geza campaigned tirelessly for the publication of the Scrolls to resume the speed and effectiveness of the early phase of the 1950s. These efforts were rewarded over the last few decades by the magnificent completion, under the editorship of Emanuel Tov, of the series Discoveries in the Judaean Desert in 40 volumes. Geza himself joined Philip Alexander to edit volume XXVI (1998) on the Community Rule from Cave 4. Although this was the only Qumran text of which he published the standard edition, it is not too much to say that in all aspects of the Scrolls except the biblical texts his work was fundamental to the evolving understanding of the historical context and the sectarian character of the community at Qumran, from the very beginning until the present.

One of several ‘providential accidents’ led to the preparation of the revised English Schürer by Geza and myself, with Martin Goodman joining us for vol. III. The work involved the integration of new material of all kinds, and it proved extremely laborious. But in my view, by far the greatest novelty resides in two chapters in that volume. First on “The Writings of the Qumran Community,” and an even more masterly one preceding it on “Jewish Literature Composed in Hebrew or Aramaic.” When Schürer had done his truly remarkable work, almost no such literature was available in the original language; still less were derived from contemporary manuscripts. The integration of the literary material from Qumran—genre by genre, with texts ultimately dated to this period but known only from later manuscripts and from translations into other languages—was a major work of scholarship in itself. Its significance is all the greater because in the case of some major texts, such as Jubilees, Qumran supplied the only known Hebrew fragments, conclusively demonstrating the origin of the work in the Jewish society of the Second Temple period.

Another major contribution was his innovative study of 1973, Jesus the Jew. He boldly set out to discern between the lines of the Gospels the Jewish holy man who preached a profound spiritual and moral message but did not claim any divine status. As was his custom, he followed this line of thought with a number of further studies, some of a more popular kind. Geza’s vivid and succinct evocation of a truly Jewish, truly human Jesus was a major breakthrough. It was to be followed by two further works that took him outside the area of “Jewish studies,” first into the field of the New Testament itself, and then into Patristics and early Christianity.

The first major step was The Changing Faces of Jesus (2000), seeing both Jesus himself and the earliest Christian works which speak of him in the context of Jewish culture and belief, but also exploring in detail the contrasting understandings of him in the works that make up the New Testament. The structure of these books was unmistakably original. Geza worked back from the doctrinal conceptions that inform the Johannine corpus to Paul, Acts, and the Synoptic Gospels, finally to reach the “real Jesus.” In this work, one could say, he was still within the field of study explored nearly three decades earlier in Jesus the Jew.

His final step was published last year, his 88th. Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325 extends the same enquiry through a range of literature on which he had never published before, namely Christian writings up to the first half of the fourth century and the Council of Nicaea. “Christian Beginnings” here means the evolving, and conflicting, conceptions of Jesus and his divine status over three centuries. Geza did not involve himself in dialogue with the extensive bibliography of this field but explored the sources with a fresh eye. He saw the doctrines developed in them as human constructs that led progressively away from a true understanding of the human Jesus.

This is not a memoir but a brief appreciation of his work. All the same, it would be out of order not to record his two happy and creative marriages, to Pam, who died in 1993, and then to Margaret, whom he married in 1995.

There is much else to say, not least about the clarity and force of his writing, or his sheer intellectual and practical efficiency shown in his editorship of the Journal of Jewish Studies since 1971. It is no mere cliché to say that we shall not see his like again.

Fergus Millar
University of Oxford

In many ways the passing away of Geza Vermes at the blessed age of 88 was untimely since Geza still had so much to give as a scholar and a human being, and it is hard to imagine a world without him. He lived a long and productive life, not without distress, but definitely full, rewarding, and eventful. While he lived a quiet life on Boar’s Hill in Oxford, far from the city center, his intellectual activities were closely followed around the world through his many writings. He will probably be remembered best for his books depicting the Jewish background of Jesus, his reworking (together with Sir Fergus Millar and Martin Goodman) of Schürer, his seminal work on the “rewritten Bible,” and his many activities around the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In the area of the study of the scrolls Vermes has become a household name beyond academic circles because of the wide distribution of his Penguin edition of the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which in seven editions has sold more than a million copies. Samples of these editions, his Introduction to the scrolls, and his other books, translated into many languages, have a place of honor in his living room. Unhappy that he was not included in the original editorial team editing the scrolls, he was satisfied that in the second round of that team he was to have his own DJD volume, XXVI (Serekh Ha-Yahad, 1998), together with his former student Philip Alexander.

Providential Accidents (1998), Vermes’ autobiography, describes very eloquently the various stages in his turbulent life and the development of his academic interests. In 1974, as a young post-doc in Oxford (at the time we never used that term) I met Geza (never “Professor Vermes”) for the first time and immediately fell under his spell, and years of warm friendship followed. I took some of his courses, participated in his seminar, and learned from his experience. He was a combination of a British gentleman and a Hungarian expatriate, who in a rather un-British way made no secret of his views in pursuit of scholarly truth and in support of academic causes. I vividly remember his appearance in the Congregation meeting in the Sheldonian Theatre in the spring of 1975 where he spoke passionately against the proposal to abolish the requirement of ancient languages for theology students. With the same fervor he spoke in favor of public access to the scrolls, and against the monopoly of the international team. In the fall of 1991, weeks after I had been appointed editor-in- chief, he called me, emotionally pleading for such freedom of access. Before too long, this freedom came about.

Geza’s intellectual capacities, intensity, and warmth will remain in our thoughts.

Emanuel Tov
Hebrew University, Jerusalem

“I will send you From Nazareth to Nicaea,” Geza wrote to me a few weeks ago. “Rowan Williams described it as ‘a beautiful and magisterial book.’ ” I heard the cadences of Geza’s voice as I read these lines, which means that I saw the light in his eyes, the humor in his wry smile, as he continued: “Whether it is that or not, I do believe that it is a good read.”

So much learning, worn as lightly as he wore those steel-wool tweeds on a June Oxford day. On the merit of which of Geza’s ma’asim tovim does his scholarly fame most rest? Conceiving, organizing, and writing the new Schürer? Working on late Second Temple traditions of biblical interpretation? Illumining the Dead Sea Scrolls—and helping to bring down their old cartel? All good and important works, all composed in Geza’s lambent English—his third vernacular.

Geza would number among the greats for any of these achievements. His broadest fame, however, still attaches to his work on Jesus. Jesus the Jew brought Jesus into a new world. It constructed an Aramaic, Jewish interpretive context within which to place the synoptic evangelists’ portraits. Within that context, Geza introduced Jesus into the company of other Galilean holy men, prophets, charismatic healers; and—to the then-surprise of many readers—Jesus fit right in. It is hard to remember what a revelation this was back in 1973. Thanks in part to this book, perspectives shifted, things changed. Indeed, as Geza notes in The Changing Faces of Jesus (2001), “The Jewishness of Jesus is now axiomatic . . . [even for] those New Testament scholars who can only pay lip service to it.”

The life that led to these works was indeed a series of Providential Accidentsthe title of Geza’s gripping autobiography. He described there the twists and turns that brought him, in 1945, back in Hungary, to the study of a professor of Scripture, whose books lay scattered in heaps in the wake of the Soviet army. Attempting to bring order to the chaos, the young Catholic seminarian picked up a Tanakh. In prose worthy of Book 8 of Augustine’s Confessions, Geza narrates the transformation worked in this moment. The Bibles’ pages “filled me with . . . an irresistible urge to learn Hebrew.” Learn it he did as, through it, he passed eventually out of the seminary and out of the church; into two happy marriages, first to Pam, then to Margaret; ultimately into the halls of Oxford, and onto the international stage of first-rank scholarship.

And now, with his death, Geza passes into history. “Oh Paula,” I can hear him say, eyes alight, smile implicit. “So sad and serious?” And he has a point: my tone ill suits his temperament. I’ll do better in a while, Geza, once this sudden absence is not so deafening. And thanks to your indefatigable energy, we still have the company of your many books. Beautiful and magisterial. And—yes, Geza!—good reads.

Paula Fredriksen
Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Out of a store of vivid memories of Geza stretching over decades, the earliest come to the fore in my mind. A big part of the very first day of my DPhil work was Geza, eying quizzically from behind his desk this unexpected new arrival at his postgraduate class who claimed she was embarking on a study of the whole of Josephus. But once the name of my supervisor (Fergus Millar) had provided complete reassurance, I was welcomed as though into a family, and before very long, felt I was treated as a colleague and a friend. Thanks to Geza, my research in the Oxford Lit. Hum. Faculty was complemented by a deepening understanding of the significance of Josephus as biblical interpreter, and of his mindset as a Jerusalemite formed by that same world of discourse to which the Qumran sectaries and Jesus belonged.

That indispensable insight has never left me—indeed, I do not think I have yet got to the bottom of it. Geza’s readiness to place trust in novice scholars was generous, and also shrewd, and it played a large part in my academic growing up—whether through revising the Josephus section of the new Schürer, or cutting my teeth as a book reviewer in the Journal of Jewish Studies. I think my very first assignment was Rengstorf’s massive Josephus lexicon. And, in 1975, as he used to like to say, “we founded the British Association of Jewish Studies in a Wimpy Bar on Clapham Common”: for that was indeed the unlikely venue for the fledgling organization’s first committee meeting. Geza was its initiator and convenor and the first President of BAJS, while I became the first secretary.

Matters turned even more familial when my newborn son, Saul, participated, sometimes actively from his crib, in the organization’s inaugural conference, to Geza’s evident delight. Recently, it was Geza alone who was proved correct when he unhesitatingly identified the venue of that first conference (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford). Over the years, his wit and wisdom, his thoughtfulness, and, not least, his touch of central European charm and gallantry, made every encounter something to look forward to and relish in retrospect. Visits to the cottage and garden on Boar’s Hill, always Margaret’s elegant hospitality, were a huge treat.

But, when I look back on it, much transpired simply on the telephone, and perhaps it is the loss of those stimulating and sparkling conversations—in which Geza unfailingly came over as his quintessential brilliant and humorous self—that will leave the largest gap in my life. When I was co-editor of the Journal of Jewish Studies, meetings, ably steered by Margaret as the journal’s manager, were fun and highly creative; but Geza’s unerring judgment on any dilemma, whether academic or practical, was indispensable, and that was readily and economically dispensed over the distance.

The exchanges of recent years, even after the onset of Geza’s at first slow-moving illness, were truly astonishing, more often than not announcing yet another book completed or testing reactions to yet another idea for a new one, which, needless to say, would have been not only agreed with a publisher but already begun. And then perhaps a query about exactly where, if anywhere, in Josephus this or that interesting detail might be found. Geza’s lightly-worn learning, his remarkable memory, his inventiveness, his sureness of touch, his sense of his audience, and his sheer delight in the twin processes of problem-solving and writing, seemed just to gather strength. One felt it would never end; and in one sense, it never will, for the immense legacy of a unique scholar and friend will continue to enrich and inspire us all, and undoubtedly future generations too.

Tessa Rajak
Somerville College, Oxford

For me, it is very sad to lose Geza Vermes in my life. He was brilliant scholar, a truly wise man, someone who had a wonderful glint of humour, a real warrior when he needed to be, and a man of perception, compassion and plain common sense. His books have changed the way we see Jesus and created a foundation for the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has been a mentor and a friend for so many scholars of my generation. He will be very much missed by many, and greatly by me.

I first “met” him as the author of a book that shaped my life. At 22 I was working in Covent Garden, during what is now called a “Gap Year,” post-BA, wondering what to do with my life. I went into a Penguin Bookshop and found his book The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. I read it voraciously under the counter of the craft shop I was working in, scribbling in all the places where I thought the Dead Sea Scrolls connected with the New Testament. It made me think that I really wanted to go and visit Qumran and learn more about the world of Jesus, and the way to do that, cheaply, at that time was to go to work on a kibbutz. So off I went, for three months. I ended up hitchhiking around and found my way to Qumran, with Geza’s book in my backpack. After I returned to New Zealand, I kept thinking about what I had learnt, and decided to do postgraduate study at Knox Theological College, Dunedin, with a major in New Testament, after which I went on to doctoral research, returning to Jerusalem for research on site and then pursuing my studies at New College, Edinburgh. As I went about, Geza’s book went with me, and many years later Geza signed it for me, after I told him this story. I know it meant a lot to him to hear it.

I can honestly say that I would not be in my present career had it not been for Geza Vermes. I first met Geza in person as a doctoral student. I was rather awed by him then; the first time I ever read an academic paper, at a Jewish Studies conference, Geza was in the chair, and I trembled from start to finish.

I tell the story of the book and my own journey because Geza had a remarkable and valuable talent: not only could he be extremely innovative and use his vast knowledge to further academic study, he could translate that into words that would inform and inspire people. He has written books that are easily read by those outside academia, and he could lead them through scholarly controversies and his argument, but also through information that would otherwise remain unknown. When I said that to him recently he responded that it was because his father was a journalist, and so he knew how to write like one.

How many lives has he touched? How much do we owe him? I am sure he would smile to read this, and be touched, and tell me about something new he is writing. He always felt he had to set something right, and was often fed up by small-minded people and self-serving behaviour. There was something quite innocent in his pleasure in achieving success, in rocking the boat, or winning a battle. He was always eager to get on with the next new thing, and he took delight in a sound perspective.

I will miss him.

Joan Taylor
King’s College, London

I owe Geza an immense debt of gratitude on both a personal and intellectual level. He was responsible for me adopting an academic career in Jewish Studies, having persuaded me to stay on at Oxford to do a doctorate with him after I finished Schools in Oriental Studies in 1969, and he kept a benign eye on my developing career, intervening from time to time when he thought he could do me some good. He went from being a formidable teacher to being a dear friend, whose warmth and friendship I will sorely miss.

I admired and have tried to emulate the clarity of his thinking and writing, his uncannily sound historical judgement, his ability to make valid generalizations. In some ways he made things look too easy. Some less discerning readers of his work constantly complain about his lack of methodology—only to be surprised, when they criticise him, how strong and well thought out his positions are. It takes courage and intellectual self-confidence in today’s jargon-laden world for an academic to write in such an accessible, popular way.

I was intrigued by his religion. In the latter part of his life he was not religious in any conventional sense of the term. Though he attached himself to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, I don’t think he attended. But from time to time a profound religious sensibility showed through—in flashes in his autobiography, in casual one-to-one conversation, at Pam’s memorial service. He felt a deep affinity with Jesus the Jew, and was determined to rescue him from the layers of misinterpretation he felt the Church had heaped upon him, because the real message of Jesus was still one worth hearing. He was a doughty campaigner—whether it was attacking the biblical obscurantism and endemic anti-Judaism of the Catholic Church in his Paris years, or leading the charge from Boar’s Hill in the great battle for the liberation of the Scrolls.

His life had been one of constant triumph over setback and adversity. He himself felt he had won through because of “providential accidents,” and he certainly had some narrow escapes and lucky breaks, but he had the strength of character to seize the moment, and in many ways made his own luck. He offered leadership to his discipline—as founding member and first president of both the British and the European Associations for Jewish Studies, and as a strict but benign Doktorvater to a talented group of research students, many of whom have made their own mark in Jewish Studies. And all this while publishing truly landmark studies in three distinct fields—the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Bible-interpretation (Midrash and Targum), and Christian origins.

He will be missed, but it was a life well lived, which has left a huge legacy.

Philip Alexander
University of Manchester

I first encountered Geza Vermes in written form as an undergraduate at Trinity College in 1979. I was taking a course in apocalyptic literature, and one of our textbooks was Geza’s first edition of The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. It was a much thinner book back then! When I was a graduate student, his introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls was an important reference work for all of us working on the Scrolls.

I did not have the pleasure of meeting Geza until long after my graduate days. Whenever we were together at a conference, I was always struck by his attentiveness at any paper he attended—he was always the first to ask a question, and that question was always probing, getting to the heart of the thesis in question. This past fall I was a Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, of which Geza was a founding member. In spite of his illness, he attended the papers at the Centre, as well as the post-graduate seminar at the Oriental Institute. My husband and I enjoyed a delightful dinner at his home, with his beloved wife Margaret, and Sir Fergus Millar and his wife Susanna. That evening will be a cherished memory of a warm, cultured and gracious scholar, who will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Sidnie White Crawford
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Chair of the Board of Trustees
W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research
Jerusalem

Last Thursday, I woke up to the sad news of Geza Vermes’ passing. Although we were not close, he was my tutor in Dead Sea Scrolls and Post-Biblical Hebrew at Oxford, and later served as the supervisor of my DPhil dissertation. Like many people, I used his translation of the Scrolls as an undergraduate, but it was when I read his book on Jesus the Jew that I realised that I needed to know much more about Judaism in the Graeco-Roman period.

When I first met Geza, he was involved in the revision of Emil Schürer’s History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. My impression was that he was languishing in Qumran scholarship, not having had access to the unpublished Scrolls from Cave 4, and turned to other interests. This all changed with the freeing of the Scrolls at the beginning of the 1990s. We ran the Oxford seminar on the Scrolls together between 1991-1994. The collection of photographs of the Hebrew Centre at Yarnton was central to the activities. Geza was re-energised, and showed flashes of his brilliance, not least in marshalling his media contacts and revising his popular translation.

Geza was not someone who had much time for methodology; he worked instinctively towards a solution. He was suspicious of discussions of method, and attributed such activities to transatlantic scholarship. His disdain for methodology often left him vulnerable to criticisms of rigour.

He had an urbane and gentle sense of humor. He was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh. I invited him to give the Gunning lectures in 1998 in connection with the conference on the scrolls. He packed out the Martin Hall and the audience grew from lecture to lecture. He had pulling power and celebrity status and he was one of the original ‘rock-star’ academics. In the last few years, Geza published a series of popular books on the Scrolls and the origins of Christianity. His legacy is assured and I will miss him.

Timothy Lim
University of Edinburgh

I first met Geza Vermes in the meetings of the Oxford Forum for Qumran Research convened by Geza and co-hosted with Timothy Lim. The Oxford meetings were no ordinary seminar. For one thing—and with the exception of a group of students including myself—the people in the room were an extremely high-powered crowd such as Oxford’s Hugh Williamson and Martin Goodman, Cambridge’s William Horbury and Markus Bockmuehl, Michael Knibb and Sacha Stern from London, Philip Alexander (at the time President of the Oxford Centre), and the late Edward Ullendorff. In addition, every senior scrolls scholar in the country would come to speak in turn, such as George Brooke and Philip Davies. I joined the group in 1991, the year in which images of all unpublished scrolls had first become available to all qualified scholars. It was an electrifying experience to read previously unavailable texts in this setting especially under the chairmanship of someone who had campaigned for many decades to be able to read this material. I cannot say I got to know Geza closely then though we often reminisced later about the heady days of the early 1990s. His edition of the Cave 4 manuscripts of the Community Rule—jointly prepared with Philip Alexander—was a major milestone in the publication history of the Scrolls.

Beyond the ivory towers of the academy Geza was also a major public figure with a considerable following. Hosting him to present a public lecture in the margins of a specialised international Scrolls conference in Birmingham drew a huge crowd, and he clearly relished making an “impact” beyond the academy long before it became fashionable. His Penguin translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls into English introduced several generations of English speakers to this material in many editions, and in recent years he seems to have just published a book, completed a manuscript, or planned another volume whenever we spoke.

Between 2007 and 2011 I worked closely with both Geza and Margaret (as well as Sacha Stern) as Reviews Editor for the Journal of Jewish Studies. It is difficult to capture the boundless dedication both of them shared for the Journal. It was a privilege to discover that beneath the towering scholar, who to me seemed rather terrifying in the 1990s, there was a much gentler and warm private man.

May his memory be a blessing.

Charlotte Hempel
University of Birmingham

Geza’s scholarship leaves a lasting mark on present-day understanding of Second Temple Judaism and the beginnings of Christianity. He introduced the Dead Sea Scrolls to a wide public, providing informed and accurate information, when some wild speculations were abounding, and his translation of the Scrolls became the preferred English translation for more than one generation. His revision, particularly with Fergus Millar, of Emil Schuerer’s The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ was a very necessary updating that gave the late nineteenth century classic text a new life as a basic reference work.

But above all, his work on Jesus the Jew (1973) marked a turning point in European scholarship’s “quest for the historical Jesus.” Till then it had been assumed, and fashionable, that Jesus had stood out from his native Judaism and could only be properly understood by distinguishing him from his native religion. Geza did not single-handedly turn the tide, but after his monograph it became impossible to ignore the characteristically Jewish character of Jesus’ life and teaching. Geza was the John the Baptist of what came to be known as the third quest of the historical Jesus, in which Jesus’ Jewishness is an important starting point and seen as the principal context of Jesus’ mission, and not a subject to be tackled with some embarrassment or understated as a subsidiary issue in any resolution of the quest. Since then his many restatements of the Jewish Jesus have made his portrayals of Jesus one of the most influential at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

James D.G. Dunn
Durham University

Geza Vermes will undoubtedly, and quite properly, be remembered as a great scholar and expounder of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His magisterial translations of these documents into English are familiar to countless readers; they are not only accurate versions of the original but are written in the most elegant and memorable English.

A less well-known, but equally important contribution to Jewish scholarship is to be found in Geza’s writings on the ancient Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Targumim. Once somewhat neglected in academic discourse, these translations, which often include important interpretations of biblical passages, were reinstated to the position of importance which they deserve by Geza and a handful of other scholars writing from the mid-1950s onwards.

In his support for Jewish Studies in the broadest sense, Geza was unfailing. The success of the Journal of Jewish Studies under his editorship; the sterling support he gave to David Patterson in the founding and maintenance of what was to become the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies; and his untiring international efforts to promote the academic study of Judaism have been an inspiration to all who continue to follow in his path. In all this, his kindness, generosity, hospitality, and unstinting assistance to students setting out on their scholarly careers holds a special place. My years as a doctoral student working on Targum under Geza’s supervision in Oxford were among the very happiest of my life: Geza was not only a mentor, but a trusted friend, and his passing leaves for me a gap in life which can never be filled.

C.T.R. Hayward
Durham University

I first met Geza Vermes in the early 1990s at an SBL meeting in America, although I had long been familiar with his work. Indeed I had used an early edition of his massively influential translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the first course I taught on the subject, during my first year of teaching in the late 1980s. I saw him from time to time at Oxford or at this or that conference, and we kept in touch by e-mail. He was very good about sending me notices about his publications, popular articles, and other achievements for posting on my blog, PaleoJudaica.

I recall how pleased he was on his return from a 2009 lecture tour in the United States to report that he had received a vote of congratulation by the U.S. House of Representatives, proposed by the Representative of the State of Louisiana. He wrote, “I was further overwhelmed by the gift of the keys of the cities of Monroe, LA and Natchez, MS, and the proclamation by the Secretary of State of Louisiana of 29 September (the date of my lecture in Baton Rouge) ‘Geza Vermes Day’ for the whole State. Humble academics in Britain, we are not used to this kind of treatment. Thank you, USA.”

It chanced that I was lecturing at the Qumran Forum in Oxford about a week before he passed away. The original plan was for him to chair the seminar, so we were in frequent contact in the weeks before, but in the event he had to be in the hospital while I was there, and I was very sad not to get to see him.

Professor Vermes was a tremendously influential figure in the field of Second Temple Judaism, especially, but by no means exclusively, the Dead Sea Scrolls. He also published much stimulating work about Christian origins and the historical Jesus. He was truly both a scholar and a gentleman, his bearing always dignified, but with a deadpan sense of humor that sometimes took one by surprise. Once, in tribute to the ever-tardy British rail system, he welcomed my arrival at the Oxford rail station in a voice of astonishment with “Your train was on time!”

A giant in our field has passed from the earth, a giant and a good and gracious man. I will miss him a great deal. May his memory be for a blessing.

Jim Davila
University of St Andrews

  • Daniel Maoz

    Like innumerable scholars, I first “met” Geza Vermes on the pages of his perspective-altering writings. During graduate studies in Chicago in the late 1970s Professor Vermes gave me the Dead Sea Scrolls, forever altering how and by what sources I would join others in reconstructing Second Temple history in general and early Judaisms in particular. In the course of doctoral work at the Université de Strasbourg in the mid-1980s Etienne Trocmé demonstrated to me how Jesus studies were permanently realigned through Geza’s foundational writings on Jesus the Jew and two subsequent publications. At a Christian college in central Canada in the 1990s I established an honours undergraduate program in Jewish Studies wherein Professor Vermes’ ever-expanding corpus became core required reading. Former students in this program who now hold their own PhDs in Qumran studies, Targum, and Gospel literature understand the essential contribution made by Geza that underpins their own intellectual and academic formation. And, of course, prescheduling SBL sessions in which Geza Vermes participated was a given for me.
    On a personal note, Geza’s perceptual reorientation of Jesus as a Jew brought this New Testament and history of Christianity scholar to explore his own Jewish roots which, while on Sabbatical at Hebrew University in the late 1990s, led to the discovery that my maternal grandparents move from eastern Europe to Canada was intended to eliminate as much as possible any traces of their Jewishness in order to protect their children from the miseries that had already triggered their own migration and that of many other Europeans at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I remember discussing my family’s “secret” with Michael Stone at the Orion Centre, a context in which Geza Vermes’ name was as prominent in weekly lunch-discussions as it became for personal reasons that day. Professor Vermes’ scholarship had an entirely unexpected and irreversible effect on my personal life as attested by my bar mitzvah at the Western Wall the following summer, a decision I made to reunite my family heritage with its Jewish birthright. Today, as a Jewish scholar presently engaged in the study of aggadic midrash, I owe an immeasurable personal and professional debt of gratitude to Geza Vermes.
    May his name and memory be forever blessed,
    Daniel Maoz
    Research Associate
    Concordia University, Montreal, QC
    Vice President
    Canadian Society for Jewish Studies

  • Paul Shaw Shaviv