This Day in Jewish History

1924: The Priest Who Noticed Jesus Had Been Jewish Is Born

Geza Vermes was born Jewish himself, became a Catholic priest, but came back to Judaism, and Jesus.

The Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a lecture presented by Professor Geza Vermes at Louisiana State University's Hill Memorial Library on September 29, 2009. Prof. Geza is wearing a brown suit, lighter tie and glasses, and is standing behind a podium, to the right of which is a large bouquet of flowers.
Professor Geza Vermes, speaking at Louisiana State University's Hill Memorial Library on September 29, 2009. Screebgrab from YouTube

June 22, 1924, is the birthdate of Geza Vermes, the Hungarian-born scholar who was among the first to study Jesus as a Jew, and was also one of the first academics to write about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Vermes himself also had an unusual spiritual journey, which included a spell as a Catholic priest before his return to Judaism.

Geza Vermes was born in the southeastern Hungarian town of Mako, though from age 4, he grew up in Gyula, another town along the country’s southern border. There, his father, Erno Vermes, was the owner and editor of the local newspaper; his mother, the former Terezia Riesz, was a schoolteacher.

Once a Jew…

The Vermes family was of Jewish background but had given up religious practice in the mid-19th century. In 1931, when Geza was 6 and anti-Semitism was becoming more open in Hungary, his parents and he underwent baptism into the Roman Catholic church, not that their conversion would help, as Budapest elected to join the Axis.  

In 1942, having finished high school with top marks, but convinced he would be denied university admission as a Jew, Geza entered a Catholic seminary. His studies alternated with his being on the run, and he escaped arrest thanks to the assistance of various Catholic clergy. In the meantime, both his parents, as descendants of Jews, were arrested, in 1944, after the appointment of a Nazi-puppet government, and were never heard from again. Geza never did find out the circumstances of their deaths.

After the war, and his ordination, Vermes, having been turned down by both the Dominican and Jesuit orders because of his Jewish heritage, joined the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion, a Catholic order of former Jews whose main business was praying for the Jews. Their base was in Louvain, Belgium, where Vermes moved in 1950.

In 1953, by now living at the order’s community house in Paris, he earned his doctorate in theology at the Institut Orientaliste in Louvain, writing his dissertation on the newly found Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts and fragments dating back to the era of Jesus, which had captured his attention after their discovery became public, in 1947.

In Paris, he worked as assistant editor at Cahiers, a journal dedicated to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation, which had an influence on the theological reforms adopted by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

In the meantime, Vermes had met Pamela Hobson Curle, a poet and a scholar of the philosophy of Martin Buber, and the two fell in love. She was married and the mother of two children, but her marriage was in the process of ending. In 1958, after her divorce, and after Vermes left the priesthood, they married, remaining together, and often collaborating on work, until her death, in 1993. He also renounced Christianity, and re-embraced his Jewish identify, although not religious observance.

Lecture by Professor Geza Vermes on the Dead Sea Scrolls YouTube

Vermes was on the faculty of the University of Newcastle from 1958 until 1965, when he was invited to Oxford University, becoming first professor of Jewish studies at Iffley (later, Wolfson) College there. Later, he helped found what is now known as Oxford’s Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He also published the first English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in 1962 (unfortunately, the first edition had an upside-down image of a scroll page on its cover), revising it several times over the next half-century. His first book about Jesus, “Jesus the Jew,” was published in 1973, and was followed by several other books looking at the Jewish origins of Christianity.

Though today it is common for people to speak about Jesus as a Jew, that wasn’t the case four decades ago, and it is Geza Vermes who deserves much of the credit for this historical correction. By 1993, even the “Shorter Oxford Dictionary” had adopted Vermes’ definition of Jesus as “a Jewish preacher (c 5 BC-c AD 30) regarded by his followers as the Son of God and God incarnate,” in place of the earlier “Founder of Christianity.”

Vermes died on May 8, 2013, at age 89.