Escape and Rescue—An Interview with Geza Vermes
An Oxford Don’s peregrinations
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Despite the close historical links between Judaism and Christianity, few scholars cross the line to work in both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. One notable exception is Geza Vermes, professor emeritus of Jewish studies at Oxford University and director of the Forum for Qumran Research at the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies. Vermes specializes in the crucial centuries that gave birth to both Rabbinic Judaism and to Christianity. He is particularly known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that more readers encounter the scrolls through his The Dead Sea Scrolls in English than through any other work. BR editor Hershel Shanks recently interviewed Professor Vermes.
Hershel Shanks: You’re the first Oxford Don I’ve ever interviewed. What is an Oxford Don? And why aren’t you called an Oxford Joe or an Oxford Sam or an Oxford Pete? Why an Oxford Don?
Geza Vermes: Don comes from the medieval abbreviation of dominus, which just means “Mr.”
HS: Not “Lord”?
GV: No. An Oxford Don is just an Oxford teacher—very often an Oxford teacher born and bred, not someone like me. A traditional Oxford Don used to be someone who had been through Oxford himself or herself, whose father and grandfather had been through the Oxford mill, and so on. The most characteristic Oxford Don I’ve ever met was the late Professor Sir Godfrey Driver, who was professor of Semitic philology from the end of the First World War until 1960 or so. He told me, “My father”—that was S. R. Driver, former Regius Professor of Hebrew in Oxford and canon of Christ Church—“My father and I have taught in Oxford for 90 years.” Now that’s a genuine Oxford Don. Godfrey Driver once told me that his first memory was of being taken up to Tom Tower, the big tower of Christ Church, by Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, to watch the inauguration of the new Oxford town hall by the future Edward VII. Driver was born in Christ Church—his father’s college—lived in Oxford, taught in Oxford as his father before him. I can’t hope to match that.
HS: Well, you do have an extraordinary personal history that surely provides a background to your two primary scholarly interests—first, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and second, early Christianity and the life of Jesus. You don’t have an English name; you speak with an accent. It’s a Hungarian accent, isn’t it?
GV: I always wonder what sort of accent it is. When I hear Hungarians speaking English, they have a somewhat different accent. Mine is probably a cosmopolitan accent. But definitely not Oxford English. [Laughter]
HS: Were you born in Hungary?
GV: Yes, I was born in 1924 in Mako, a town in southeast Hungary. My father was a journalist.
HS: At one time your family converted to Catholicism. Was that because of the rise of Hitler?
GV: No, that happened before Hitler.
HS: Was it because of anti-Semitism?
GV: I’m pretty sure it was. It happened when I was six.
HS: Do you have any memories of a Jewish upbringing?
GV: My parents were not observant Jews in any way. Though my whole family was Jewish, none of them participated in Jewish communal life. This was very typical of a certain stage in the sad story of Hungarian Jewry, characterized by very strong steps towards assimilation. For example, nobody in my family spoke Yiddish, going back several generations. My great-grandmother, whom I knew—she was born in 1839—told me that they used to sing Hungarian nationalist songs during the 1848 revolution. They were Hungarian-speaking even then. I don’t know how far back we would have to go to reach the Yiddish stream in the family, but it would be more than 150 years.
HS: Did they still know they were Jewish?
GV: Oh, yes, certainly they knew they were Jewish.
HS: And they married other Jews?
GV: Yes, yes, they married other Jews. I don’t know the detailed reasons why my parents decided to convert. No doubt they thought it would probably help me if they joined Christianity.
HS: What were they thinking of?
GV: The basic anti-Semitism that was rampant in that part of the world for hundreds of years. It didn’t work. They themselves were victims of the Holocaust.
HS: Do you recall growing up as a Catholic?
GV: From primary school onwards, I was brought up that way.
HS: At one time, you decided to become a priest.
GV: Yes.
HS: How old were you?
GV: Eighteen. My intentions were serious and honest, but, at the same time, I knew that without opting for that solution, my chances of a higher education would have been next to nothing.
HS: If you were 18 when you decided to become a priest, that would have been 1942. By that time things were already pretty clear.
GV: Things were pretty clear, granted. But the Nazis did not actually take over in Hungary until 1944. This was different from most other countries in Eastern Europe. Before March 1944, Hungary had a very Germanophile government, but without direct violent action against Jews in civil life. Jews were deprived of most civic rights, but their existence was not endangered until 1944.
HS: If your parents converted when you were six, that would have been 1930. Were they regarded as Christians thereafter? If someone in the community were asked whether they were Jewish or Christian, would the answer be Christian?
GV: I suppose so, although nearly all my father’s friends were Jews. He moved entirely in Jewish circles.
HS: How were your parents finally swept up in the Holocaust?
GV: My father was picked up in the first stage of anti-Jewish action in May 1944. The Nazis occupied Hungary in March and set up a Quisling government. The previous government was right wing, but not Nazi. By May some sort of decree was issued whereby all Jews of any influence and all left-wing people (communists, socialists) were put into concentration camps. My father was taken then as a Jew and a liberal journalist. Gone without a trace…
HS: And your mother?
GV: My mother was deported with all other provincial Jews in June 1944.
HS: Even though they were baptized?
GV: Absolutely.
HS: Were they taken because they were Jewish?
GV: Oh yes. Legally, people with four Jewish grandparents counted as Jews, irrespective of their present religion—or absence of religion.
HS: How were they identified? They had been Christians for 14 years.
GV: In order to be recognized as non-Jewish, you had to produce certificates that your grandparents were Christian
HS: Where were you at this time?
GV: I was already in a theological college.
HS: Do you remember hearing about your parents being taken away?
GV: I heard of my father’s arrest, but later I was on the run myself.
HS: Can you tell me about that?
GV: Well, the college authorities wished me luck. They were unwilling, however, to bear the responsibility of hiding a Jew. They provided me with false documents. They were useless; it was so patent they were not genuine that I wouldn’t have dared to use them. From the summer of 1944, I traveled in Hungary from east to west and back again. I must acknowledge, with profound gratitude, that I did this with the help of a number of priests and bishops. They helped me not just because I happened to be a baptized Jew; they would have sympathized with anyone in those circumstances. The parish priest who had baptized my parents—he became a bishop afterwards—helped me to move to Budapest, where I thought I would have the best chance of surviving. He provided me with recommendations to the theological college at the University of Budapest. I was there when the capital was occupied by the Russians in December 1944.
HS: The Russian occupation of Budapest saved you.
GV: Yes. But the bishop who saved me was murdered by Russian soldiers when he tried to protect a woman whom they wanted to rape.
HS: When were you ordained a priest?
GV: That was years later, in 1950 in Belgium. After the war, I got out of Hungary as quickly as I could. I went to Belgium and studied in Louvain. In 1950 I became a priest, associated with the Congregation of the Fathers of Zion.
HS: What was your thinking at that time?
GV: I wanted to be a scholar and to teach, but I had no chance in those days to do that.
HS: Why not?
GV: You ask me, and I ask you. I was not given an opportunity. I then moved to Paris, where I was involved in editing a journal called Cahiers Sioniens. All my first articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls were published there. In Paris I studied with a man who had a great influence on me academically, a Hungarian professor at the Sorbonne named Georges Vajda, a graduate of the famous Hungarian Jewish Rabbinic Seminary. He was teaching Jewish studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, and I was one of the very faithful members of his weekly seminar. With his help, I became a part-time researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Yet I felt my life was not really where I would find myself most at home. I was wondering where to go.
I visited England a number of times, liked the atmosphere and met my future wife. I decided to turn my back on my Christian past, pull up roots from France, where I lived, and move to England. With enormous help from the late Professor [Paul] Kahle, who lived in Oxford, I obtained a lectureship at the University of Newcastle. I was most fortunate. At the time I was in England on a tourist visa, I was a stateless person and I had no money or any local connections. I spent eight years in Newcastle, from 1957 to 1965, teaching Hebrew Bible. There were not many students, so I had plenty of time to do my research. During those years I produced my first English book, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism [Brill, 1961]. I had already written a book in French on the scrolls, which had been translated into English [Discovery in the Judean Desert (Desclee, 1956)]. In 1962 came The Dead Sea Scrolls in English [Penguin, Harmondsworth], which since then has never been out of print and has sold close to 300,000 copies.
HS: You could have done all this without giving up your Catholicism. You didn’t have to become a Jew.
GV: Once I ceased to be formally a Christian, I knew that I was a Jew. In fact, I never was anything but a Jew with a temporary sort of outer vestment. I realized I ought to recognize my genuine identity. It happened straightaway, although it was only formalized later.
HS: How was it formalized?
GV: When I joined the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of Great Britain in London.
HS: Did you have to go through a conversion process?
GV: No. I had to make a declaration and pay a membership fee.
HS: This reminds me of a story that’s told about Charles Steinmetz, the discoverer of electromagnetism, who was a hunchback. He was walking in a garden with a friend who said that he, too, used to be a Jew, as Steinmetz was. Steinmetz replied, “Ah, yes, and I used to be a hunchback.”
GV: Yes, I suppose there is something in that, although in my case both things happened in a sort of imperceptible way. I became a Christian as a child without realizing it. And I became a Jew as a grown-up by ceasing to be a Christian. In 1965 I was appointed a teacher of Jewish studies at Oxford. In 1969 the then-editor of the Journal of Jewish Studies, Joseph Weiss (another Hungarian), tragically died, leaving the Journal without an editor. I offered my services and was appointed.
HS: One of your specialties has been the historical Jesus and the background of early Christianity. Do you feel this peregrination of yours has given you a unique perspective?
GV: I would like to think that as far as scholarly studies are concerned, this is irrelevant. But it is pretty obvious that what I’ve been through must have helped considerably, first and foremost to acquire the technical knowledge and to understand the viewpoint of an insider. As an insider, you know how the other fellow thinks. At the same time, you come to realize that there is an enormous amount of misunderstanding and blindness and confusion in both camps regarding one another that really prevents them from perceiving historic reality accurately. Perhaps I kid myself by thinking that I’ve performed something useful in producing a historically valid portrait of Jesus without preaching either to one or the other. I trust I am an objective and a detached historian. I don’t want to convert Christians to Judaism. I simply want to learn and to provide knowledge to others who seek to understand things better.
I started off studying Bible. In 1950 I switched to do a doctoral thesis on the Dead Sea Scrolls. In studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, I realized that in order to work on the scrolls, one must become an expert in the study of the interpretation of the Bible in ancient Judaism, so I turned my interests to ancient Jewish Bible exegesis, which resulted in Scripture and Tradition in Judaism. So that was my second line of study. Then in 1965 I was invited to reedit and revise Emil Schurer’s great three-volume classic, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. With two Oxford colleagues [Fergus Millar and Martin Goodman], I spent 20 years on this; we finally finished it in 1986.
I became more and more involved in the details of Jewish political, cultural, religious and literary history. As an offshoot, I wrote Jesus the Jew [Collins, 1973]. When it came out, it sounded like a very provocative title. Today it is commonplace. Everybody knows now that Jesus was a Jew. But in 1973, although people knew that Jesus had something to do with Judaism, they thought that he was really something totally different—in the past 20 years, interest in the historical Jesus has increased enormously.
Meanwhile I pressed on with the Jesus work. The second volume, Jesus and the World of Judaism [SCM Press], appeared in 1983; this incorporated a series of public lectures I gave called “The Gospel of Jesus the Jew.” Just a few weeks ago, a third volume, The Religion of Jesus the Jew [SCM Press and Fortress Press], came out. It is entirely devoted to the religion Jesus preached and practiced.
HS: Did Jesus intend to start a new religion?
GV: Not as far as I can see.
HS: What has been the reaction to your new book?
GV: It is too soon to say. The reviews that have appeared so far are mostly positive, even from conservative Christian circles. The reactions have almost been overgenerous. The most detailed review appeared in the [London] Times Literary Supplement by the subdean of Westminster Abbey, Canon Anthony Harvey. He does not agree with me that Jesus did not want to found a church, but very largely agrees with most other things I say.
HS: What does the canon agree with?
GV: He simply says that my portrait of the religious Jesus is very “credible” and “even at times arresting.” I think that he would concede that the religion Jesus preached was substantially different from what Christianity has become.
HS: Can you characterize the two?
GV: Jesus preached a totally God-centered religion, whereas Christianity is Christocentric. Everything focuses on Jesus. But Jesus was not concerned with himself; he was concerned with how to bring himself and the people who listened to him into the kingdom of God, to be children of God. Everything in his teaching is entirely within Judaism. The religion he preached and practiced was an eschatologicala Judaism. But this eschatological Judaism in the form he envisaged it obviously didn’t happen; the kingdom of God did not come in his lifetime. His followers, still totally under his influence, expected this kingdom of God to come almost immediately in their lifetime, coinciding with the return of Christ, which was imminently awaited. Some Christians in Greece went so far as to give up their jobs; they stopped carrying on business because they believed the day of the Lord was at hand, even present. Some believed that Christ had already returned and that Paul had written a letter to this effect. Paul himself had to pour cold water on all the excitement (2 Thessalonians 2:1–12).
Quite clearly such eschatological enthusiasm can’t last. When things don’t happen as quickly as you had hoped, the excitement cools down and evaporates. The expectation of the return of Christ is still part of Christianity today. But it is expected to come toward the end of an enormously long future; so much so that in practical terms it has no impact on individuals in the main Christian churches. Jesus himself, however, envisaged this as happening very soon—in his time. So did his disciples and even their disciples. And then, very naturally, it abated—in the same way as happened with the Dead Sea Scroll community of Essenes. In the Habakkuk commentary from Cave 1, you find exactly the same thing. The “moment of God” was expected very soon. The classical Hebrew prophets had also believed that it would happen in the near future. When it didn’t happen, members of the Dead Sea Scroll community were told to put up with this, to persevere and show that they believed in the words of the prophets and in the teaching of the Teacher of Righteousness.
HS: It’s a similar accommodation to the early Church’s readjustment?
GV: Yes, of course. If the Essenes had lasted as long as the Church has lasted, probably they would have developed in the same way—paying lip service to the idea, as is the case in mainstream Christianity today.
HS: One of the problems for the layperson in getting an understanding of Jesus from modern historians using modern historiographical criteria is that we get so many different pictures. How does the layperson choose? Different scholars interpret Jesus as an ascetic, a preacher, a magician, a hasid [a teacher of outstanding devotion], a revolutionary, a Mediterranean peasant, on and on.
GV: For me, he was an eschatological hasid.
HS: Who expected the imminent kingdom of God?
GV: Yes.
HS: How can you reconcile all these different portraits of Jesus? The layperson who reads these different interpretations says to himself or herself, “How can I trust these scholars who disagree so much among themselves. I look to my own faith and my own faith tells me that Jesus was born of a virgin and arose from the dead after three days.”
GV: Partly the variety is due to the fact that our information is very sparse, incomplete and partly self-contradictory. Consequently, all these portraits are vague sketches and approximations. There is room for a fair amount of disagreement among scholars in the details. But they would nevertheless agree on certain main lines of the portrait. In addition, there are means to improve the portrait—by an ever greater familiarization with all things Jewish of the time. Most New Testament scholars claim they have made some study of the Jewish world of the period, but surely most of them must agree that the possibilities are still not altogether exhausted. By improving on that knowledge, I’m confident that the means to arrive at a more precise picture will be available.
HS: In my contacts with New Testament scholars, I notice a great divide between those people who, on the one hand, are trained deeply in Greek and Hellenistic thought and, on the other hand, those who are trained in Hebrew and Aramaic and Semitic thought.
GV: Yes. Absolutely, I am in agreement. And for a very good reason. This is the basic divide in the New Testament itself and in the earliest layers of Christianity. Everybody knows that Jesus was a Jew and that he preached to Jews; his first followers were Jews: If you want to reach Jesus, it is definitely through a better knowledge of first-century Judaism that you can achieve this. But of course Christianity, after the crucifixion, very soon moved out of this Jewish context into Syria, into Asia Minor, into Greece, into Egypt and into Italy—into a civilization the language of which was Greek and the culture and religion of which was Hellenistic. It was to people with such a background that early Christianity—from St. Paul onwards—was preached. The teaching of Jesus had to be remolded and translated so that people who had no knowledge of Judaism and to whom all the Jewish ideas were double Dutch could grasp it. At the first stage, the followers of Jesus thought that only people who first became Jewish could become Jewish Christians. But of course this didn’t work, so the Jewish condition was discarded, and it was agreed that people could become Christians without passing through Judaism. All those men and women from Athens or Antioch or Ephesus or Rome or Alexandria had no idea what Paul and his companions were talking about when they used all those Jewish concepts. They didn’t have the faintest notion what those concepts meant. All this had to be adapted for them so that they could reach Christianity by means of the Hellenistic links.
Most people, probably rightly, consider that in order to understand Christianity, you do it best through Paul. To understand Paul you have to do it through Greek ideas. So in one sense New Testament scholars are divided between the Hellenists and the Judaists. They are divided because some are interested in Paul and some are interested in Jesus. To understand Jesus you have to go one way; to understand Paul—and the religion known as Christianity—you have to go the other. If you want to avoid the difficulty—and here I’m being provocative—that faces Christians, then you can take a shortcut and decide that it is Pauline Christianity that gives you an easy understanding of what Jesus was about. You can cut out the Jewish part. That is the traditional Christian path. But if you are more demanding and want to go back to the sources, you will realize that Jesus stood before Christianity. And if you want to discover Jesus, Paul is not really your best guide, as he was never associated with Jesus and probably never knew him.
HS: If you ever make Bartlett’s Quotations, it’s likely to be for the statement you made about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I think it was in 1977 that you said, “The Dead Sea Scrolls are likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.” What occasioned that remark?
GV: It was occasioned by the realization that the editorial system then in practice was a total failure and that there was nobody who could ensure that there would be reasonable progress in publishing the large majority of the fragments. And that would be the scandal of the century. My concrete evidence for this was my certain knowledge that in the early 1970s genuine steps were made via the publishers of the scrolls, the Oxford University Press, at my instigation, to oblige the then-editors to commit themselves to a definite, reasonable, close date for the delivery of their finished manuscripts. That was in 1972. The then-director of Oxford University Press, Colin Roberts, the famous Greek papyrologist, got in touch with all the editors—who had also been instructed in that way by the editor in chief of the day, Pierre Benoit—and requested them to send to Oxford University Press a very definite timetable. I know exactly what happened. Half of them didn’t reply. The other half did reply and gave precise dates, which had all expired without any result by the time I made that statement.
Then I said to myself, “Unless something drastic is done, this scandal will happen.” I still hoped at that time that somebody would shake things up. But there was a fatal flaw in the system inaugurated by [Roland] de Vaux [the first chief editor]: There was no ultimate supervising authority who could say, “You, Mr. X, you received so many texts on such and such a date; 20 years have elapsed, and you still haven’t produced the goods; we’re going to take this manuscript away from you and give it to somebody else.” There was no such independent authority. In fact, the only authority was the editors themselves. Their vested interest was that nobody should interfere with their activity—or their inactivity. My oft-repeated saying came about through the concrete realization that the system had completely failed.
About ten years later, the new editor in chief-in-waiting—not yet confirmed—John Strugnell—and most of the other editors attended a symposium in London. At a public meeting in connection with the symposium, I urged Strugnell to do the easy thing for himself and for everyone else. The editorial work consisted of publishing the plates (the photographs) on the one hand, and the transcriptions, translations and notes on the other. I proposed that the two be divorced. Release the plates at once. This could be done in no time. To which the answer was a two-letter word, no. No explanation and no comment, except possibly, “Out of the question.” It could have been done easily and then they could have taken their time thereafter and everybody would have been happier because people who were equipped to work on the texts would have been able to do so, as they can now.
HS: You were really the first voice crying in the wilderness about the situation.
GV: Yes, I suppose so.
HS: Yet it wasn’t taken up by other scholars, at least not very widely.
GV: Not until a few years later. Then voices became louder, asking for access to the texts. And that was fair and totally justified. I still can’t understand why what I now call the “secrecy rule” had to be imposed except that some people didn’t want to be disturbed in their snail-paced nonactivity.
HS: Are you satisfied with the situation today?
GV: I personally am totally satisfied. I can’t see what more could be done except publishing texts more quickly than is done now. But at this moment the benefit of the doubt should be granted. Instead of the original set of eight editors, there are about 60 now. There is hope that this time things will be done. And, in any case, anyone can have access to the original material, either through the various photograph collections or the fragments themselves. The world has completely changed during the last three years.
HS: Yes, and so has the attitude of the new chief editor, Emanuel Tov.
GV: Absolutely. This time freedom is there, and it will stay.
HS: The Israel Antiquities Authority under Amir Drori has also now agreed with this change.
GV: Absolutely.
HS: Do you think that there are any big surprises left in the Qumran material?
GV: This is the sort of question one should dodge because surprises are, by definition, surprising. They may come from a corner where you never expected them. But I have the gut feeling that if there will be surprises they will not be fundamental ones.
HS: How about the possibility of more scrolls?
GV: If you had asked me in 1946, “Will there be any more scrolls?” the answer would have been, “Of course not. For the last hundred years archaeologists have been searching from Dan to Beer-Sheva and from the Mediterranean to Transjordan, in every nook and cranny of the land, and they realized there was nothing there because such things couldn’t survive.” Then, suddenly, the scrolls were there. They can survive. So it would be foolish to say that it’s impossible. It’s perfectly possible. It is perfectly possible that there are still scrolls hidden. And possibly there are still some scrolls clandestinely owned. But beyond this it would be foolish to speculate.
HS: Do you see a development in the biblical concept of the Son of God? Wasn’t, for instance, the Israelite king referred to as the Son of God?
GV: Yes, indeed. I listed at one time the various meaning’s that the words “Son of God” have in the Hebrew Bible, on the one hand, and in early post-biblical Judaism, on the other. And of course the one that does not exist is a Son of God who will be Son of God by nature.
HS: You mean biologically?
GV: Yes, biologically, as it were; that is to say, the idea that has become the teaching of Christianity at a certain stage in its development. But this doesn’t appear in any Jewish text. In Jewish texts, from the Bible onwards, you have a very general concept of “Son of God.” Every Israelite is a child of God. “Israel is my son, my firstborn” (Exodus 4:22). Every member of the Israelite nation is entitled to be considered as God’s son or daughter. Later, the biblical concept is restricted only to good Jews; those who are not observant or faithful don’t deserve to be called sons of God. Then you have specific sons of God, like the king, “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). This is obviously a reference to the Israelite king. Through his elevation to kingly dignity, he becomes God’s earthly representative, his son.
HS: That certainly is an old concept, the idea that the king is divine.
GV: Undoubtedly. That goes back to the dawn of the ages. It was in Mesopotamia, as well. Then you have the holy man referred to as Son of God.
HS: Where is that?
GV: There are many references in rabbinic literature declaring, “Rabbi so and so, my son, is right in teaching such and such,”b and so on. And you have the heavenly voice that is supposed to be the voice of God approving of somebody, and this somebody is elevated to the dignity of being called the Son of God.c But obviously nobody imagined for one moment that they belonged to a very specific group of entities above the human frame and belonging to a divine category. This is symbolical, indicating somebody who is—let’s put it in sort of a boring way—close to God. In the Synoptic Gospels, the phrase often appears in the sense attested in Judaism. In the story of the annunciation (Luke 1:26–38), Jesus is “called” the son of the Most High. Even Paul refers to Jesus, not as being Son of God, but as being declared Son of God (Romans 1:4). This is a far cry from the creed that says that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father.”
HS: Some of the things you have said, especially about Jesus, are going to be shocking to some of our readers. Yet it will be standard, even consensus fare among scholars. How do you explain the relatively large chasm between the scholars’ study and the layperson in the pew?
GV: To begin with, it is certainly not my intention to upset anybody. For instance, in the preface of The Religion of Jesus the Jew, I warn readers that those who are untrained in the academic study of the origins of Christianity may find many pages of the book disturbing. So, if they do not want to be disturbed, they should not go on reading.
But to answer your question, I think the responsibility for the chasm between historians and the men and women in the pew lies mostly on the shoulders of the people in the pulpit who have failed to provide the persons in their charge with intellectual food suitable for educated grown-ups.