I learned from Mark Goodacre’s blog that legendary Biblical scholar Geza Vermes passed away this week. Like many, I first encountered Vermes in the massive and important Dead Sea Scrolls in English, the most widely available edition of the Qumran texts. Later, I read some of his more controversial work on the historical Jesus. I disagreed with his revisionism about the person of Jesus, but it was his approach that was important, as Goodacre observes:
Vermes continued to draw attention to reading early Christian texts in conversation with a proper knowledge of early Jewish texts. He never saw these texts as “background”. This was not “the World of the New Testament”. Instead, these texts were themselves evidence in the quest, themselves part of the conversation. His enduring legacy was in the subtitle of Jesus the Jew — “A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels”. Again it might sound hackneyed now, but that itself is largely the result of Vermes’s work — he stressed the importance of reading the Gospels as a historian would read them. He was effectively democratizing the quest of the historical Jesus. Like all good history, it should not matter who is asking the questions. Like all good history, the study is open to all, no longer thickly mired in the theological agendas of those engaging in the enquiry.
Obviously, as a Catholic, I reject this last point, since you can’t simultaneously believe in the truth of scripture and the claims of Jesus while also believing that the historical Jesus was someone radically different from the man portrayed in the Gospels. You can’t completely separate history from theology where Jesus is concerned, but you can use historical methods to understand the texts, the times, and the man more effectively. If your historical quest for Jesus is not rooted in the reality that Jesus is Lord, however, then that quest is ultimately in vain.
Clearly, Vermes was conflicted about these claims, and went through various stages in wrestling with them. According to First Things:
Vermes was born to Jewish parents and converted to Roman Catholicism with them before WWII. After the war he became a Roman Catholic priest, but then returned to Judaism while in his 30s.
That biography is the lens through which Vermes’ scholarship must be viewed, particularly his efforts to de-divinize Christ. Great minds with have wrestled with this material and come to the wrong conclusions, and Vermes was one of them. His mastery of the text and history of the time was profound, however, and the scholarship he produced is always interesting.
There’s a lengthy interview with him by Hershel Shanks that’s well worth your time. It gives a good insight into the man, and also why his work was flawed despite his erudition.