The scholar of the scrolls

Providential Accidents

August 28, 1998

This book is the record of a threefold odyssey: from Christianity to Judaism, from Hungary to Oxford (by way of Louvain and Newcastle), from celibacy to marriage. Dominating all, however, and giving some unity to this variety of experience is the scholarly zeal that has made Geza Vermes into a world authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and a central figure in the work of Jewish-Christian relations.

The story begins in a highly assimilated close-knit Jewish family in Hungary, polyglot and composed of fairly prosperous members of the commercial and professional middle class. Most had distanced themselves from Jewish practice and observance: the first time the author of these memoirs saw a Hebrew Bible was in a Catholic seminary, at the age of 21. Most of the family had also embraced Christianity in the expectation that a baptismal certificate would provide protection from Hungarian anti-Semitism. It did not of course, and the fate of the Vermes family before and during the Holocaust is movingly described. Geza Vermes was one of the very few to survive, largely owing to his admittance to the Central Theological Seminary in Budapest. But it still meant seven months on the run when the Germans took over Hungary in 1944. The help and protection extended by the churches during the years of ordeal in the 1940s was never forgotten. In December 1950 in Louvain, Vermes, now a member of the order of Notre-Dame de Sion, was ordained a priest, and in 1952 awarded a doctorate in theology for a thesis largely devoted to the reconstruction of the historical framework of the recently unearthed Dead Sea Scrolls.

But it was precisely at this time that two serious and growing reservations assailed the young priest: the first concerned doubts about the possibility of combining freedom of inquiry in biblical scholarship with adherence to the church's doctrines in relation to biblical interpretation. Vermes sees his own position in the context of the modernist struggle at the turn of the century, which led to the excommunication of Abbe Alfred Loisy in 1908.

Vermes acknowledges that over the next few decades the atmosphere became propitious to what he calls "a more liberal scientific approach to biblical studies". Indeed, he was encouraged on this path by the erudition and teaching of his Jesuit lecturer, Father Gustave Lambert, who, however, also warned the young 24-year-old seminarian to "tread carefully".

The second reservation arose, at much the same time as the first, out of what Vermes calls "the pernicious and indeed un-Christian nature of Christian anti-Judaism". He planned "a new crusade... I saw my role as that of a student of the Bible and of the history of Jewish-Christian relations, fighting on the academic battlefield and not in the arena of religious politics".

This dual campaign is at the heart of an absorbing autobiography, animating the outward saga of academic progress and controversy with a rare passion for enlightenment and clarity. This is impressively displayed in the effort to secure the full publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here is a personal account of the struggle. Others, no doubt, will see matters differently.

The same goes for the variety of encounters with the many other scholars, Christian and Jewish, who have crossed the author's path. But this only means that this autobiography will richly reward connoisseurs of academic gossip.

In the last resort Vermes looks back on a lifetime of effort in a mood of serenity. His trilogy Jesus the Jew, Jesus and the World of Judaism and The Religion of Jesus the Jew has been central to the creation of a new picture of the historical Jesus; in his beloved Oxford he has attained deep personal and academic fulfilment; and his scholarly achievements have been widely recognised in "a flood of accolades" that their recipient does not fail to mention.

Lionel Kochan is a research fellow, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

Providential Accidents: An Autobiography

Author - Geza Vermes
ISBN - 0 334 022 5
Publisher - SCM
Price - £15.00
Pages - 258

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