Interviews with Geza Vermes
The Spirit of Things with Rachel Kohn
The Spirit of Things was on Radio National, part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This interview was in association with the publication of Geza Vermes Autobiography, Providential Accidents (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998).
The accidental discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 has led to a re-evaluation of the Hebrew bible, early Judaism, and the origins of Christianity. One of the world's great scholars in this area is Geza Vermes. In his 17th century cottage in Oxford, he tells his remarkable life story to Rachael Kohn.
A full web transcript is now available.
Details of Transcript:
One of the world's great scholars in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls is Geza Vermes (pronounced Ge-zar Ver-mesh).
His book The Dead Sea Scrolls in English remains a classic resource and other groundbreaking works like Jesus the Jew & Jesus and the World of Judaism have also had an enormous impact in the world of scholarship.
His personal story is deeply entwined with his scholarship. Born in an assimilated Hungarian Jewish family, and baptised in the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 7, he lost his parents in the Holocaust. He joined an order, which was to have a lasting effect on Vatican II, and its teachings regarding the Jews. He would later leave the order, marry, and begin a steady rise in Academia. Finally, he was made the chair of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, an appointment that aroused some ire and curiosity, given his past affiliation with the church.
Providential Accidents is how Geza Vermes describes his remarkable life. In his 17th century cottage in Oxford, he tells his life story to Rachael Kohn.
Rachael Kohn: Hello, and welcome to Providential Accidents: The Life and Scholarship of Geza Vermes.
This is the first of a two-part look at The Dead Sea Scrolls on The Spirit of Things, with me, Rachael Kohn.
First discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin goatherder, the Scrolls would be the single most important discovery for the study of early Christianity and Judaism. The first edition of the Scrolls in English was the work of Geza Vermes. His name may not be familiar to you, but Geza Vermes has permanently changed the way we think about early Christianity. He's changed the way Christians think about Judaism and he hopes, the way Jews think about Jesus.
English would become something like the sixth or seventh language in which he would become expert.
Professor Emeritus, Geza Vermes of Oxford University, started out life in Hungary, in 1924. His rise would be anything but inevitable. Indeed, he has called it a series of Providential Accidents.
Geza Vermes was born into a Jewish family, but in 1931, when he was seven, he and his parents were baptised in the Roman Catholic Church. Things were going well. His father was a successful journalist, and as a young man, Geza began theological studies in the town of Szatmar.
Then everything would change. The Nazis arose in Germany and then swept over Europe. Hungary's collaboration resulted in the rounding up of about a half a million Jews from the Spring of 1944. His parents' 13 years as Christians did not exempt them, and they were killed in extermination camps in Poland. At the age of 20, Geza Vermes had lost his parents, and was trying to lie low in Hungary and elude the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian collaborators with the Nazis.
Where did you spend the war?
Geza Vermes: In Hungary, running from east to west and then from west towards Budapest. That was in 1944. I started off in north-eastern Hungary. I spent some time in Budapest, and I again moved on practically through there to the Austrian frontier to the west in the late autumn of 1944, at which moment things became even worse because the extreme Nazi party of the Arrow Cross took over the government in October 1944, at which stage I said, 'Now, I must go somewhere where I can really get lost in a larger crowd.'
And with the help of the priest who actually baptised the family in 1931, who by that time became a Bishop, with his help I got to Budapest and tried to get myself lost among 200 or 300 students in the central theological college attached to the university. This Bishop was extremely kind and helpful. A few months later, he lost his life; again as a loving and courageous man, he was trying to protect a group of women from Russian soldiers, and they simply shot him dead. In fact, exactly a year ago he was beatified by the Pope, the blessed William Apor.
Rachael Kohn: Geza, you were to enter a very unusual Roman Catholic order called the Fathers of Our Lady of Sion. Can you describe how you got to it, and how important it was in your formation?
Geza Vermes: Well the reason for entering this congregation, first of all I was very unhappy in a general priestly setting. And secondly, although I tried to enter the Dominican order, I was simply not accepted, and the untold reason was that they didn't want anybody with a Jewish background. And then in a kind of accidental way, I heard about the Fathers of Sion and I imagined, wrongly, that all the members were Jewish converts. And when I was still in my provincial college, I screwed up enough courage to write a letter in French asking for admission. And in the postal situation of 1946, you couldn't be sure that a letter reached the next village, let alone from Roumania, as it then was, to France. I sent this letter, and there was no answer until the very day of my departure. On that morning the letter arrived from France, saying yes, they were interested in me and I wanted more information. If that letter had stayed in the post for one more day, probably it would have never reached me.
Rachael Kohn: One of the first providential accidents in your life.
Geza Vermes: Maybe it was not the first, but one of the significant providential accidents. But anyhow, cutting the story short, I reached the theological college of the Fathers of Sion, which was in Belgium in Louvain andI carried on with my studies, concentrating especially on the study of Hebrew and of the Hebrew Bible.
It was during that period that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947,and I got interested in them. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on them, and became 'an expert' as a youngster, because my doctoral dissertation which was published in 1953 was one of the first substantial books on the subject.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, and it's remarkable, comparing it to what followed, because in that period, the Dead Sea Scrolls were more readily available.
Geza Vermes: Well in one way, yes. In that sense, the big Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947, were very promptly published between 1950 and 1954-55, all of them became public property. So that in the early period it was much easier to keep abreast, and the people working on them were also much more enthusiastic than they became later on. So that there was an enormous amount of information flowing from the press, appearing in all the journals or the periodicals and the newspapers. So that in fact it was easy in a way, to know whatever was knowable at that time. Later it became much more difficult, but I suppose we'll come to that later.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, in fact let's just keep to that period for the moment. Your own study of the Hebrew Bible for example, was something of a departure for a Catholic scholar, was it not?
Geza Vermes: Well, the problem was in the first half of the present century, that the Papal authorities were very unkeen on giving academic freedom to Catholic scholars to study the Bible. Mine was considered as a somewhat dangerous book, good for Protestants, but not that good for Catholics, and what Catholic scholars were allowed to say were only things which were in full harmony with the official, traditional teachings of the church.
Rachael Kohn: So that, for example, historical critical scholarship such as Wellhausen started and that whole tradition, would not have been so welcomed.
Geza Vermes: Certainly not welcome, in fact at one stage it was really taboo. By the time that I became a student, things were beginning to be slightly less constricted.
Rachael Kohn: Well in other ways you were also going a little bit against the grain, not a little bit but actually a lot. In the Fathers of Sion you made friends with Paul Demann for example, and had common cause with him in respect to the anti-Jewish tradition in the church.
Geza Vermes: Well I was extremely lucky in that sense, that once I completed my theology and orientalist studies, I was posted to Paris, which was the centre of the religious order, and the place where the fairly influential small periodical was published, and the editor of this journal was another Jewish convert also of Hungarian origin by the name of Paul Demann and he was engaged in a kind of one-man campaign aided and abetted by an extremely capable young woman by the name of Renee Bloch and the two of them started off work first by dealing with the theological presuppositions of Christian anti-Judaism
and also leading a campaign against a distortion in Catholic education of all
things relating to the Jews. And quite frankly, when one reads through the articles and the little booklet they published, one hardly can believe that this was possible. The level of anti-Semitism propagated in Catholic educational books at every level of education from primary schools to theology colleges; and really, this is where we had our efforts concentrated, trying to put the record straight, to convert the Catholic church to the truth.
Rachael Kohn: Well in fact, didn't that catalyse something of a shift for the order itself in terms of its own calling, it's own mission?
Geza Vermes: Well sadly, the order started off originally with the aim of converting the Jews to Catholicism, but in a way as a result of our efforts, which about ten years later became official church doctrine, defined in the statements relating to the Jews in the Second Vatican Council, the whole Catholic attitude and consequently also the inspiration of the religious orders' fathers changed from conversion to collaboration, to mutual understanding, to friendships between Christians and Jews, and this is how it continues. The only curious consequence of these things was that by that time, none of the three persons, Paul Demann, Renee Bloch, and myself were any longer part of the movement. Renee Bloch died and Demann and myself by that time left the Sion order and the Catholic church.
Rachael Kohn: Now could it be said that instead of converting the Jews to Catholicism, in a way your work focusing on Jesus, was sort of converting the church to a more Jewish view of their own tradition.
Geza Vermes: The straight answer is Yes. Because if one accepts the idea that we can know something about the historical Jesus, which for about 50 years in the first half of this century was considered as academically unsound, if not impossible. But if it is accepted that we can know something about him, one realises very soon that we are dealing with a totally Jewish person with totally Jewish ideas, whose religion was totally Jewish and whose culture, whose aims, whose aspirations could be understood only in the framework of Judaism. So when finally after many years of study of Jewish history, I took as it were, a sabbatical to enjoy myself, and decided to write a book on Jesus, and titled Jesus the Jew. To my great surprise it was greeted both by Jews and Christians as something that would put the research on the history called 'Jesus' on an entirely new basis, and whereas for years before, there were no books on the historical Jesus for the last 25 years; Jesus the Jew was published in 1973. One book after the other is being published on the subject, and what sounded at that time something absolutely revolutionary and very sensational has become almost a cliche. Everybody talks of Jesus the Jew today.
Rachael Kohn: And yet you did have some detractors at the time. Was there not some concern that this was forcing Jesus back into a tradition that he was meant to be breaking away from?
Geza Vermes: Naturally some conservative people did not welcome this kind of revolutionary novel approach to Jesus.
Rachael Kohn: How connected was your research into the Dead Sea Scrolls, or indeed at that time, there were some scholars for example, who argued that maybe Jesus was part of an Essene-like sect, such as the Qumran community. What did you feel about those matters?
Geza Vermes: I never accepted that these views or adopted such an approach. The only possible link is John the Baptist. But even there I believe that if John was ever a member of the Essene community, by the time of the encounters in the New Testament story, he is certainly an independent person who is no longer an Essene. But I mean, I have no reason to believe that he ever was.
Rachael Kohn: Now you actually finally got to see Qumran yourself, and that must have been an extraordinary experience for you.
Geza Vermes: Well indeed, that was an amazing event. I felt that before publishing my dissertation as a book, I had to have a direct view of things, and I was sent to Jerusalem, to Israel, where there were some Dead Sea Scrolls, but I was not able to see them, and then I managed to slip across the Mandelbaum Gate from Israel in Jerusalem, to Jordanian Jerusalem and spend about a month there at the Dominicans' Biblical School, and had an opportunity there to visit Qumran and see some of the caves which were well known at that time, and see the first archaeological digs, and also see some of the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments which were collected by Arabs, clandestine diggers, and brought in in matchboxes to the Ecole Biblique to sell them.
Rachael Kohn: Well eventually those fragments and more and more documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls would be harder to access by scholars like yourself. How did that make you feel? What was actually going on and why had it become a hostage to a cult of secrecy?
Geza Vermes: Well at the beginning there was no real problem. It was the result of the discovery of an extremely large amount of manuscript fragments in the early 1950s, that the problem actually arose, namely this very substantial mass of very difficult material. Instead of having large scrolls we had to deal with a jigsaw puzzle of small, medium fragments, that the authorities of the day in Jordanian Jerusalem decided to set up a small editorial team collected from people from various countries, France, England, United States, Germany. It was at that time that the kind of embargo which prevailed for many years, was first put in, that only the people who were entrusted with the deciphering and publication of the fragments, had access to them, and nobody else. At the beginning they were working hard, in fact we know now, that by the end of the 1950s the very large majority of the fragments had been deciphered and translated and identified. But it did not become available to scholars at large, it was just kept for those who were working on the manuscript.
Then along came the Six Day War in 1967, when practically all the manuscripts came under Israeli control. The Israelis themselves did not interfere with the publishing policy of this small group already working, for about 20 years. And as a result things became even worse. So that during the period from 1967 until 1991, 24 years, only two volumes of Dead Sea Scroll material was published, and the people who were supposed to work on them, they did not allow other scholars any access to them. As a result I mean the dissatisfaction grew more and more. I tried to do something about the situation once I arrived in Oxford and persuaded Oxford University Press, the publishers of the Scrolls, to put pressure on the editors. They tried, but without any success, and it was in the mid-1980s that the revolution, as it were, began to brew all over the place in the United States, in this country, in the United Kingdom as well. In 1987 we organised here an international conference inviting all the people who failed to publish their material to come along and explain why, and indicate their intentions. They came along, they found excuses, they made promises, but nothing changed.
A new Editor-in-Chief was appointed in the person of John Strugnell who was an Englishman teaching at Harvard University. But although he himself was involved in the work for many years, he didn't actually produce anything significant, and in 1990 he was kind of obliged to resign, and a new Editor-in-Chief was appointed in the person of the extremely capable Israeli scholar, Emanuel Tov, but even then the old policy continued of allowing access only to nominated editors, except the number of editors was increased from seven to about 60. I myself got involved at that stage, but then in 1991 along came the revolution which really blew open the Dead Sea Scrolls to the scholarly world, and at the end the fait accompli was accepted by the authorities and since then, any competent scholar has full access to everything.
Rachael Kohn: Known world wide as an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Geza Vermes' was the first official translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls into English. Vermes' books, Jesus the Jew, and The Religion of Jesus the Jew have been seminal in the study of early Christianity. We return to our conversation, which I recorded with Geza Vermes in his lovely 17th century Oxford cottage.
What do you think was really at stake during those years, when the editors prevented access to these materials? There have been many possible conspiracies: the material was dangerous, a certain degree of anti-Semitism also prevailed; there were no Jews on the Editorial Committee. What was actually going on?
Geza Vermes: Well I think the anti-Semitic idea is a red herring. In fact once the Israeli archaeological authorities took over the running of the show in the late 1980s, they continued the same policy of exclusion. I think the main reason was first and foremost in the early years, a total lack of organisation. There was no supervisory body capable of telling people 'You ought to get on with your job, or else'.
Rachael Kohn: Was it also a matter of competence?
Geza Vermes: Oh they were competent. I would not blame incompetence. The chief reason for the delays is academic imperialism.
Rachael Kohn: Explain.
Geza Vermes: Academic imperialism means these are texts which have been entrusted to me, to us. We are going to publish them when we are ready, and in the meanwhile, shut up.
Rachael Kohn: No-one else will.
Geza Vermes: No-one else will, except some of our students who will get bits and pieces to earn their PhD degrees, and that applied essentially to Harvard University.
Rachael Kohn: Meanwhile, your translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls was widely available, and became something of the Bible of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the average person, and even to the scholar.
Geza Vermes: Well I had the extreme luck, shortly after I moved to England, and English became my medium, to approach Penguin Books with the proposal of a little volume on the Dead Sea Scrolls in English translation. And this is a book which appeared first in 1962. It was a smallish volume, about 250 pages, which sold at that time for 4/6d and has since been reissued goodness knows how many times, until it reached in 1997 the glorious stage of being called The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, which came out in hardback, and a few months ago, in September 1998, it went into Penguin paperback, and the original 250 pages have reached now nearly 700.
Rachael Kohn: Now that was a very important stepping stone for you to be recognised in England and to have gained a readership at Oxford University. But that appointment was in itself controversial, because it was in Jewish Studies, and here was someone who had been a priest. Can you talk about what sort of responses swirled around at that time, when you were put forth to this position?
Geza Vermes: Well of course by that time I was no longer a priest. We are talking about 1965, and I left Paris, Roman Catholicism, and the priesthood in 1957. By that time I had a job in the Department of Divinity in the University of Newcastle, teaching Hebrew and Old Testament. I applied for the job with the idea that almost certainly that was not for me, because the previous holder of that position was a specialist in a totally different area of Jewish Studies. So it was one of the most extraordinary surprises that one day I simply received a letter informing me, 'You got the job', it just dropped into my lap. I couldn't believe it. I myself at that time, did not consider myself any longer a Christian. I was a kind of free agent, moving along without being attached to one denomination or another. But naturally, some Jewish circles imagined that readership in Jewish Studies in Oxford was a position to be occupied by somebody whose Jewish credentials were more obvious than mine. And pretty soon thereafter the forebodings felt in certain Jewish circles, were dissipated. Five years or so later, I decided to define publicly my identity as belonging to the Jewish community by becoming a member of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue.
Rachael Kohn: Now around this time you embarked on quite a major scholarly project, which was the revision of Emile Schurer's The Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ which was a major book at the beginning of the century. What made you decide to, in a sense, rewrite, or revise this major work, which took many years? And I'd also like you to comment on how influential it was in your own subsequent original work?
Geza Vermes: How shall I say... it just happened. Just a few months before I was appointed to Oxford, Professor Matthew Black, from the University of St Andrew's, approached me with the proposal that he and I should proceed with the revision of this major classic study of the Jewish people.
I didn't really know what I was embarking on, but I said Yes. The fact is that it was heard as one of the most important books on the subject and the book that is totally indispensable. And it has taken as I say, for several of us to complete, 20 years or so. And after the publication of the first volume, dealing with the political and institutional history of the Jews of the period, I thought I am going to have fun, and use that information thus acquired in re-reading the Gospels to find out what Jesus really was like. And Volume I of the History of the Jewish People appeared in 1973 and in the same year appeared also Jesus the Jew.
Rachael Kohn: Indeed, Schurer in some way is a precursor of your own work insofar as the understanding and taking seriously the Jewish tradition and culture in that period, was something of a departure for Christian scholars, wasn't it?
Geza Vermes: It's correct, but as I say, even in Schurer's time, even though he was an extremely important and significant scholar, from the point of view of the distrust of Jewish sources, and the superior attitude towards them, was adopted by him also as was by most of his contemporaries. What happened in the meanwhile was a general change in attitude, and the impact of all the fresh information, including all the fresh light shed on the period by the Dead Sea Scrolls, meant they were the only writings dating from that period which are now available in their original language in their original form addressed to the original readership. And this has really affected greatly the understanding of Christianity, of the New Testament, and also in a way the Qumran community (which was a community expecting the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God and generally eschatological) reminds us that the community expecting the end of time almost immediately, is totally parallel to the spirit prevailing in the whole of the preaching of Jesus, and the earliest stages of the New Testament where again, the Kingdom of God was at hand, it was expected to arrive any minute now, and that the whole concept of religion was centred on the immediacy of the great event, and nobody was speculating about the future and how to organise things, and how to create churches and how to foresee what would happen in hundreds of years time. And by writing about Jesus in this spirit - and of course after Jesus the Jew I managed to produce at ten year intervals, a trilogy Jesus and the World of Judaism and especially the latest, The Religion of Jesus the Jew - they are all intended to give the tangible details of this spirituality and was truthfully and entirely Jewish and truthfully and entirely the spirit of Palestinian Judaism in the 1st century.
Rachael Kohn: Indeed in Jesus in the World of Judaism you have perceived him, you have written about him as an apocalyptic, charismatic figure, and yet he doesn't disappear like so many others. How do you assess him in that world, how do you compare him to other apocalyptic movements and figures?
Geza Vermes: Well I mean quite clearly he must have had something that made a bigger impact than any of the other movements at that time. In particular, we have charismatic figures not unlike Jesus attested in the literature of the period, but none of them reaches quite the same level. Either they are charismatics like Jesus healing, expelling demons and so on, but without the impact and the greatness of his ideas. Or else you have ideas without having the eschatological and charismatic colouring attached to it. So he is seen to have combined both the immediately noticeable characteristics, with some of the ideas which could be transmitted and have an impact beyond the immediate audience.
Rachael Kohn: There is something of a disenchantment currently about studies of the historical Jesus, almost a move away towards a more poetic understanding of the Christian tradition. What do you think can be fruitfully drawn from the studies that for example, you've done? Clearly you have examined the religion of Jesus, you have examined his context. What does it provide for say the community, the world out there, beyond the community of scholars?
Geza Vermes: Well I would have thought myself, and I may not have a very large following here, especially among members of organised churches and denominations, I think that Jesus was primarily a teacher for the individual and not for the collectivity. And also that his best audience, according to the Gospels, came not from the pious, not from the members of either the church or the synagogue, but the lost sheep, as he calls them, the poor, the tax collectors who were despised, the Pariahs of society, the sinners, the prostitutes, the people whom the bourgeois society despised. And it is really the people in trouble who may find solace and comfort in the ideas that were propagated by Jesus. And if today few people believe as I believe he did, that the end is imminent, in a collective sense, the end is imminent in an individual sense to each of us. Life is limited, and there is no long-term future for any of us in that sense, so in a way even though the general message cannot be considered as having materialised, I mean there the Kingdom of God did not appear during the lifetime of Jesus, or even during the lifetime of his followers, and as the famous French scholar Alfred Loisy cleverly remarked at the beginning of this century, first Christians were expecting the Kingdom of God, but it was the church that arrived. Well you can still see the Kingdom of God arriving in your own lifetime, and if you see this then the message of the New Testament is meaningful, and what I consider extremely important, whereas many of the ideas that have been superimposed, like Christianity, on the teaching of Jesus, sound rather alien to Jews. When we go back to the authentic teaching of Jesus, it is totally and entirely Jewish teaching, and it would be completely unhistorical not to consider it as part of the religious and literate tradition of Judaism.
And one of the most pleasant experiences I had was that in one of the reviews of The Religion of Jesus the Jew in the Israeli newspaper, Ha Aretz the reviewer is quite an influential person,and he declared in the light of the results of the book that the traditional cherem (ban) on Jesus and on Jews must be now declared absolute.
Rachael Kohn: You called your book Providential Accidents, but it's more than an accident, perhaps it is indeed providence that you have been able to see the connection so clearly between the Jewish tradition and the Christian Messiah. Is it in fact that you have been yourself between two traditions that has given you this kind of sensitivity and also the courage, the boldness, to draw these connections?
Geza Vermes: Well in a way I'm not drawing connections, I am trying to do the historian's job and determine and enlighten the facts. Now if these facts lead to a better understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and to better social link between Jews and Christians, and of course I applaud this, but I did not set out to promote this. My work as far as I'm consciously aware, has always been that of someone who was trying to find the truth. And if I had something slightly beyond the objective pursuit of the truth, was a consequence of this truth, namely that Jesus was misunderstood both by Jews and Christians. The real Jesus was not the Jesus of Christianity or the bogeyman of Judaism, and that's something else. And I think this is I suppose something very British, which some people will laugh at, coming from someone who was born in Hungary: I was trying to put the record straight (!)
Rachael Kohn: Well indeed, the record has even been put straight in a dictionary, where your definition of Jesus has become authoritative, and widely distributed.
Geza Vermes: Well that may be so, and I know that this is the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary which defines Jesus no longer as before, as the founder of Christianity, but as a Jewish preacher who was considered by his followers as the Son of God and God Incarnate. And well I daresay I had some part in this, and it's created a slight outcry when somebody managed to discover the change in the definition, but I think most people would agree that for any independent dictionary this is a totally acceptable and probably recommendable definition.
Rachael Kohn: Geza Vermes here we are in your, is it the Westwood Cottage?
Geza Vermes: Westwood Cottage.
Rachael Kohn: Westwood Cottage in Oxford, and it's been a great pleasure speaking to you. Thank you for being on The Spirit of Things.
Geza Vermes: Well it was a pleasure.
Rachael Kohn: And that ends our conversation with Geza Vermes. I spoke to him in Oxford last December. And if you're wondering how to spell his name, it is Geza Vermes (pronounced Ge-za Ver-mesh).
The Spirit of Things is produced by Rachael Kohn and Geoff Wood, with Technical Production this week by Geoff Wood and John Diamond.