For Geza Vermes, retirement seems to have concentrated the mind. Since giving up the day-job as professor of Jewish studies at Oxford in 1991, he has been writing books at a faster rate than he ever did when he was meant to be working.
And now, aged 83, he shows no sign of letting up.
For the past eight weeks he has been taking seminars for a former Oxford colleague on study leave and in May was in Switzerland speaking at an interdisciplinary conference on The Truth. His most recent book, The Resurrection, has just been published by Doubleday.
The Resurrection is the final instalment of Vermes’s Jesus trilogy, which began with The Passion and The Nativity. Vermes again adopts his trademark forensic textual analysis to separate fact from myth: “I wanted to explain what the New Testament does tell us about the resurrection. People usually rely on others to interpret the gospels and St Paul’s assertion of the physical resurrection has become a cornerstone of Christianity for many people. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then faith is rubbish.
“Yet if you look at what Jesus actually said, then you get a different picture. If he did talk about the resurrection, he forgot to write it down; so it’s more likely he didn’t. And if he did, then why did his resurrection come as such a surprise to the apostles? No one said, ‘Of course, Jesus said it would be like this’ when his tomb was found to be empty; even Mary Magdalene assumed that someone must have moved the body. Nobody’s reactions correspond to the expectation of a resurrection.”
Vermes goes on to argue that subsequent sightings of Jesus are best understood as visions in which the apostles felt his charisma working as it had done when he was alive.
“Jesus had promised to be with them and he was,” he argues. “It’s a resurrection of the spirit in the hearts of believers. The idea of an afterlife predates the Christian era and the preaching of eternal life is well attested; a physical resurrection is not essential to a belief in spiritual survival.”
This won’t thrill the Christian traditionalists, but then Vermes has never been what one might call orthodox. He was born in 1924 in Mako, a small town 200km south-east of Budapest and seven years later his whole family converted to Catholicism.
“My father went from non-practising Jew to non-practising Catholic,” he says. “So I think it was a mainly pragmatic decision to get lost in the crowd and escape from the growing threat of anti-Semitism.” Not that it made much of a difference by 1939, and with anti-Jewish legislation preventing Jews from going to university, Vermes’s only way of continuing his higher education was to sign up to become a priest. Even though his calling was barely audible.
His parents were killed during the Holocaust in 1944, but Vermes survived through a series of encounters that were to set the pattern for his life. “I had caught scarlet fever and was in quarantine in the seminary when the posters went up requiring everyone born in 1924 to report to the military,” he says. “If I had done so, I would have been registered as a Jew and made to do forced labour on the Russian front; as it was, I slipped through the net.”
As the situation worsened in 1944 with the collapse of the Hungarian government, Vermes criss-crossed the country trying to stay a step ahead of the authorities and ended up seeing out the war in a theological college.
Life didn’t get much easier when he went home after the war. Hungary’s boundaries had been redrawn and Vermes found himself living in Romania without a passport. He also wanted to study in a seminary that had a reputation for academic excellence, so he wrote to both the Jesuits and the Dominicans. Both turned him down.
“Neither order was willing to admit Jews,” he says, “so I wrote to the French order of Sion [an order largely made up of Jewish converts]. My dream was to study in a place where I wouldn’t be considered a second-class person.”
Even so, Vermes reckoned his prospects were poor. His French was barely adequate and the chances of his letter either reaching Paris or the reply getting back to him in Romania were minimal, so he arranged to cross the border back into Hungary illegally regardless. But on the very day he was due to travel, his acceptance letter arrived. “Another day,” he shrugs.
That, though, was just the start. To join the order in Leuven, he had to get a Belgian visa from the consulate in Vienna; but to leave Hungary he needed a Russian exit pass. And he could only get the exit pass if he had a Belgian visa. It was catch-22 and there was only one solution. “I paid a smuggler to guide me through the woods into Austria,” Vermes says. “It wasn’t as dangerous as it sounds. There weren’t yet security guards on the border and we made the crossing in daylight.”
Then there was Vienna to negotiate. The city had been divided into four zones and Vermes had to get from the Russian quarter to the French: “If the border guard had noticed I didn’t have a Russian exit visa, I would have been sent home. It was another providential encounter.” Vermes got his Belgian visa and, after a roundabout journey through Germany and France, wound up in Leuven, where he became the first theologian to write his doctorate on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some years later he was moved to Paris to work on a periodical investigating the Catholic Church’s attitudes to Jews and Judaism, before leaving the Sion order in 1957.
“It would be nice to say that it was a political reaction to the church’s anti-Semitism,” he smiles, “but that wasn’t the main factor. The more simple truth is that I had fallen in love with a woman I had met while at a conference in London in 1954, and that we had decided to get married.”
He arrived in England on a tourist visa, all but penniless. “I talked to loads of people about finding work,” he says, “and they all said, ‘I’ll bear you in mind if something crops up.’ Which was nice but useless. Finally, I met up with an old German professor, Paul Kahle, whom I’d met in 1954, who wrote to an ex-student of his at St Andrews University, Scotland, explaining my position. By another providential encounter, on the very day that Kahle’s letter arrived, his ex-student also received one from the religious studies department at Newcastle University, north-eastern England, asking if he knew of anyone good they might take on.”
In his eight years at Newcastle, Vermes published the first English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it was only a breakfast-time glance at the newspaper job ads that took him to Oxford in 1965.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime post of professor of Jewish studies at Wolfson College,” he says, “and I really thought I had no chance of getting it. I applied more in hope than expectation.” He got the job without even being asked for an interview and remained in Oxford until his retirement.
Only once did he think about leaving, when the University of California, San Diego, asked him to be their newly endowed chair of Jewish studies. “It was tempting,” he says, “as they were offering me twice Margaret Thatcher’s salary. But I was already in my 60s and I didn’t want the upheaval. What clinched it, though, was that I received an invitation to become a fellow of the British Academy, providing I was prepared to pay the membership fee.”
He forked out the £25 and still lives in the same cottage on the outskirts of Oxford that he bought 40 years ago. After an uncertain, nomadic beginning, you can understand why he has opted for a more stable ending.
You can also understand why he has become increasingly prolific in old age.
He tries to explain it by saying, “I had a lot stored up that I hadn’t got round to writing”, but it’s not that prosaic. More than most, he knows that life is too short and arbitrary to be wasted. Especially when you’re in your 80s.
Which leaves us with the question of faith. What does the man often described as the greatest Jesus scholar of his generation believe? Vermes takes me to the back of the house and shows me the garden that backs on to woodland. “You know, I’m not a great one for places of worship,” he says. “When I want to listen to that little voice I go out there for a walk.”—