Geza Vermes, who died on 8 May, was an expert in the history of Judaism in the early Roman empire. His 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. In 1965 he was appointed Reader in Jewish Studies in Oxford and a Fellow of Iffley (soon to be Wolfson) College. 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,
In Oxford Vermes served 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), and he devoted much energy to his role as editor of the Journal of Jewish Studies, establishing the international reputation of the Journal as a forum for scholarly discussion of Jewish history and literature, particularly of late antiquity. 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.
Vermes was among the first in a humanities faculty in Oxford to seek to attract graduate students by setting up taught masters courses in Jewish Studies in the Graeco-Roman Period, and he attracted and inspired many doctoral students who went on to academic careers in many parts of the world.
His output 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.