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Search for the Jewish Jesus

21 June 2024

Alexander Faludy celebrates the life and legacy of Géza Vermes, born 100 years ago on Saturday

Géza Vermes

Géza Vermes

GÉZA VERMES (1924-2013) was born 100 years ago into a Jewish family in Makó, Hungary, but, at the age of six, was baptised — along with his parents — in the Roman Catholic Church. His eventful life would later involve ordination to the priesthood, a return to Judaism, appointment to a university chair at Oxford, and a voluminous output on the historical Jesus.

In 1942, aged 18, Vermes entered the seminary at Szatmárnémeti, north-east Hungary (now Satu Mare, in Romania), to prepare for ordination. The decision saved his life. On 19 March 1944, Germany invaded Hungary. In just 52 days (May to July), 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. The overwhelming majority were gassed, including Vermes’s parents.

As a seminarian, Vermes was legally exempt, but practically vulnerable. Eventually, shelter was found for him in the Central Theological Seminary, Budapest, where he could disappear among a crowd of students in a city where he was unknown.

POST-war, Vermes joined the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion, in Leuven, Belgium, an order with a historic focus on mission to the Jews, and was ordained in 1950. He completed his doctorate on the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls in 1952, and, for a number of years, led the quietly industrious life of a young academic priest in both Leuven and Paris.

Things changed dramatically in 1957. Vermes’s falling in love with a married Englishwoman who, Pamela Curle, who had become a Roman Catholic, precipitated a vocational crisis and departure from his order. The couple married in 1958. Social excommunication by RC friends was inevitable, and precipitated a slow rupture of faith. In 1970, Vermes officially joined the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London.

From 1957, he taught Hebrew at Newcastle University. But it was his bestselling translation, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (1962), that made him a household name and led to his appointment as Reader (later Professor) in Jewish Studies at Oxford (1965).

IN 1973, Vermes published Jesus the Jew: A historian’s reading of the Gospels, the controversial book that secured his enduring status as a public intellectual. It was followed by two sequels: Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983) and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993), which further fleshed out his case.

Previously, Jesus’s Jewishness was something that Christian New Testament scholars struggled to deal with adequately. Much mainstream scholarship acknowledged Jesus’s ancestry, while minimising its significance: Jesus “overcame” his Jewishness by “critiquing” his culture. Alternatively, some scholars, such as Rudolf Bultmann, said that Jesus must be viewed as sitting comfortably inside his first-century Jewish context — without elaborating on what that really meant.

Vermes unsettled things. He did not say the obvious (“Remember that Jesus was Jewish!”), but, rather, asked “What sort of first-century Jew was Jesus of Nazareth?” His work challenged the criterion of “double dissimilarity” pioneered by Ernst Käsemann in the1950s, which held that if a saying of, or story about, Jesus could be found to contrast with both its ambient Jewish setting and the apologetic priorities of the Early Church, it could reliably be deemed authentic.

In response to this, Vermes asserted that if one could identify to which distinctive strand of first-century Judaism Jesus belonged, and separate it from traces of others in the Gospel texts, then far more of the Jewish material could be left in place.

“JESUS the Jew”, Vermes said, was inescapably “Jesus the Galilean Jew”. He argued that Galilee had — by dint of distinctive geography, Jewish political self-government under Herod, and separation from Jerusalem by Samaritan territory — developed a distinctive ethos that made Judaism there different, in subtle but important ways, from the form that it took in Judaea or the Diaspora.

Jesus exemplified aspects of that difference. He accepted the fundamentals of contemporary Judaism: the Temple, respect for the sabbath, and the dietary laws. Yet, like other Galileans, he did so with greater flexibility than was common for Sadducean or Pharisaic Jews.

Thus, Jesus was less concerned with scholastic debates about observance than with the inner disposition and depth of relationship with God which such practices sought to foster. His message was not “The law or my way,” but “The law and my way” — the inner, spiritual aspect taking priority. Ritual and customary regulations had their place, but lower down in the priority order.

THE Jesus of the Synoptics, Vermes argued, overlapped notably with portraits of Galilean contemporaries preserved in rabbinic tradition: a type of charismatic holy man, whom Vermes termed “Hasids”. Hanina Ben Dosa and “Honi The Circle Drawer” from the first century BCE were recorded as manifesting a special, filial, intimacy with God, conducting healings (sometimes, as Jesus did, from afar), and exorcising demons. Jesus resembled them in character and behaviour, but outstripped them in eloquence.

The crucifixion happened, not because Jesus claimed to be the Messiah (a later invention by the Church), but because of his protest in the Temple: the overturning of the tables during his Passover visit to Jerusalem. Fearing a threat to public order at a sensitive calendar moment, the Temple authorities acted to contain matters, concerned that public disturbance could spiral in unpredictable ways, and risked terrible Roman vengeance on the people.

Therefore, Jesus “died on the cross for having done the wrong thing (caused a commotion) in the wrong place (the Temple) at the wrong time (just before Passover). Here lies the real tragedy of Jesus the Jew.”

VERMES’s work was perceived as an assault on the historical foundations of Christian belief. Critics challenged his assertion that his work had no apologetic purpose — after all, he had experienced painful disillusionment with Christianity before starting his “historian’s reading of the Gospels”.

Yet, while highlighting the difficulties of grounding theological assertion on historical evidence, Vermes was careful to help Christians to keep open the door to belief in Jesus’s unique significance — even if he himself no longer held it.

In his Desert Island Discs interview (2000), he surprised many by appealing to Jesus’s words in John 16.13 (“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth”). Referring to them, Vermes maintained that “If you base your belief on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian Church, then I think you can be totally satisfied.”

The preface to The Passion (2005) is similar. There, Vermes distinguished between, on the one hand, the theological proposition that Jesus’s death reconciled God with humanity and, on the other, the Passion narratives (and Christian interpretation of them) as imperfect witnesses to that reconciliation.

The narrative-homiletic error, he said, lay in attributing Jesus’s suffering and death to “the hostility and hatred of his enemies, the Jewish priestly leaders . . . who browbeat the weak but basically decent Roman governor” by their words and manipulation of the crowd. It is this that the historian could criticise.

Conversely, the authentic, theological account of divine-human reconciliation was “a story which is meant to be perceived with the eyes of faith” — and thus was immune to historical falsification. It was one in which “without exception all the children of Adam have to accept their own responsibility for it [Jesus’s death] if they are to reap the fruits of atonement.”

Christians cannot accept Vermes’s Jesus the Jew without qualification — but they are unlikely to articulate their faith in the same way, having read it.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest. This article is developed from a lecture given to the Leeds Council of Christians and Jews on 28 May.

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