Geza Vermes was a graduate student in Belgium in the late 1940s when he was captivated by news about a remarkable discovery in the desert east of Jerusalem. He quickly switched gears, penning his doctoral thesis on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient manuscript fragments that would become his life’s work.
The timing of the discovery, Vermes would later say, was among many “providential accidents” of a life that carried him from Hungary to England and from Judaism to Catholicism and back again. He became one of the first scholars to translate the scrolls into English and later wrote engaging, seminal works about the Jewish origins of Jesus.
Vermes, whose compelling personal history, like his writings, bridged Jewish and Christian worlds, died May 8 in Oxford, England, said David Ariel, president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, an independent center of Oxford University where Vermes spent much of his career. He was 88.
A Hungarian-born Jew who converted to Catholicism as a child and, for a time, became a priest, Vermes became known for his skillful translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, first discovered in 1947 and contain the earliest known versions of the Hebrew Bible.
A strong advocate of open access to the scrolls, he was praised for his dedication to revising and expanding his books as additional manuscripts became available.
Vermes, who’d left the priesthood and Catholicism by the late 1950s, also used his understanding of Judaism of the period to write a pioneering series of books that reclaimed the historical Jesus as a Jewish holy man and teacher. The first, “Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels,” was published in 1973. Vermes’ final book, “Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325,” was published in 2012.
Vermes was born June 22, 1924, in Mako, Hungary to Erno and Terezia Vermes.
In his late teens, Vermes had chosen to study for the priesthood in Budapest. The decision almost certainly saved his life as the priests sheltered him, keeping him from deportation. After the war, he joined a Belgian religious order and was sent to the Catholic University of Louvain, where he earned a doctorate in theology in 1953 and began his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
He left the priesthood and the Catholic Church in 1957, and later returned to his Jewish roots, eventually joining a synagogue. The same year, he moved to England and took a job as lecturer in divinity at the University of Newcastle. In 1965, he was appointed a lecturer in Oriental studies at Oxford University, rising to become a professor of Jewish studies before his retirement in 1991.
Vermes’ first wife, Pamela, died in 1993. He is survived by his second wife, Margaret.