Geza Vermes was born in Makó, Hungary, on 22 June 1924, into a Jewish family that had converted to Catholicism. Since anti-Semitism made it unlikely that he would be allowed to attend university, he opted to train for the priesthood, attracted as much by the intensive six-year philosophical and theological curriculum as by religious conviction. When the Holocaust reached Hungary in 1944 and carried off his parents, he was hidden in a Budapest seminary by his former parish priest before joining the Fathers of Sion first in Louvain, Belgium (1946-52), and then in Paris.
Although he was already developing his scholarly expertise in books such as Manuscripts from the Judaean Desert (1953, the title under which his doctorate was published), Professor Vermes’ life changed dramatically in 1957 when he fell in love with a married woman, left the priesthood and “grew out of Christianity”. He therefore embarked on a new academic career in Britain as lecturer and then senior lecturer at Newcastle University (1957-65), before moving to Oxford as reader in Jewish studies. He was promoted to professor in 1989.
Widely acclaimed for his definitive version of The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (1962; fourth edition, 1997), Professor Vermes widened his interests to Jewish biblical interpretation, of which the New Testament was only one minor element. Yet in 1965 he embarked on what he described as “20 years of slave labour”, updating Emil Schürer’s classic History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ.
He once told Times Higher Education that, after completing the first of three volumes, he took a year off and said to himself: “I now know much better what life in Palestine was like, so how would the Gospel picture of Jesus look if it was dropped into that ocean of Jewish history, religion and culture?” The result was his celebrated book Jesus the Jew (1973), whose central premise “was then something new and is now a cliché”.
Operating from a small office in his Oxford home with all the core texts within arm’s length, Professor Vermes continued to develop these themes into his late eighties with his learned but accessible trilogy on The Passion (2005), The Nativity: History and Legend (2006) and The Resurrection (2008), followed by Christian Beginnings: from Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325 (2012). A further volume, The True Herod, is scheduled for publication next year.
Professor Vermes died unexpectedly on 8 May 2013 and is survived by his second wife, Margaret Unarska, and her three children.