There are a number of online recollections of Geza Vermes, all of which, as far as I can see, recognise his importance as a scholar of early Judaism and the New Testament, particularly the quest for the historical Jesus. I want to look at his importance for New Testament studies, with the qualification that this aspect of Vermes’ career was, of course, part of Vermes’ Jewish studies.
A number of historical events and trends came together at the right time for Vermes, particularly by the late 1960s and early 1970s. He had begun his (re-)conversion back to Judaism from Christianity and at this point had plenty of experience working in Jewish studies. More broadly, there were major cultural shifts after 1967 which were starting to emphasis issues concerning Israel and Judaism. This was particularly happening in America after the Six Day War, which itself came at a time of post-war Jewish concerns about assimilation into American culture, a new post-Holocaust generation of Judaism, and the emergence of Holocaust museums among other things. This may have been more prominent in America but America was starting to become the centre of biblical studies and similar trends can be found in the UK too. It was also the beginning of an era where liberal multiculturalism (and its enemies) was beginning to develop, notably in the UK. When we combine these cultural and historic trends with Vermes’ training, wide-ranging knowledge of Jewish sources, and a personal interest in both Christianity and Judaism, alongside family memories of the Holocaust, he was able (perhaps uniquely) to challenge to dominant anti-Jewish rhetoric and heavily Christianized discourse of historical Jesus scholarship.
One notable thing about his famous book, Jesus the Jew (1973) is that it was simultaneously both controversial and then well-received, at least in terms of the language of Jesus the Jew. His autobiography, Providential Accidents, gives a good account of the initial problems then surprising acceptance of his ideas. With hindsight, his historical and cultural context helps explain this. And Vermes, along with E.P. Sanders, was clearly successful in changing the scholarly rhetoric about Judaism. Today, scholars will often do their very best to claim what they have reconstructed is ‘very Jewish’. But one point needs to be stressed. Vermes’ Jesus (if we can use his own implicit and sometimes explicit distinction) was to be sharply differentiated from the Christ of faith. Vermes’ Jesus was Jewish in the sense that everything this Jesus did was also found in early Judaism and early Jewish sources.
Yet at the same time, Vermes’ work is still problematic for scholarship whether or not this is acknowledged (often it is not). His version of Jesus’ Jewishness did not have a strong emphasis on Jesus ‘transcending’, ‘overriding’, ‘making redundant’, or even ‘intensifying’ aspects of Judaism (Judaism, that is, as assumed or constructed by a given scholar or scholarship more generally) that is still found in scholarship and is not so different from the pre-Vermes era. In other words, this makes Vermes stand out from the constant rhetoric of Jesus the Jew that has come after Vermes. I think it is worth being blunt by stating that scholars continue to use Vermes as a Jewish scholar and his influential work on ‘Jewishness’ to justify supercessionist positions (implicit or explicit) that Vermes would not have accepted nor recognised and, unlike Vermes, often without reading sources from the Judaism supposedly ‘transcended’. Apart from some notable exceptions, Vermes’ challenge has still not been met on a widespread scale in historical Jesus scholarship.
There are other notable areas where Vermes shifted the academic discussion or anticipated later scholarly trends such as the ‘son of man’ debate and the role of Nazi scholarship in New Testament studies. Vermes’ appendix to the third edition of Matthew Black’s Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (1967) was his most significant contribution to the son of man debate. Perhaps most crucially, Vermes collected a number of Aramaic texts containing the Aramaic idiom (variants on bar nash) which he argued was a circumlocution – effectively a way of saying ‘I’. The debate moved on after Vermes did the initial hard work – including discussions about ‘son of man’ also including a reference to a wider group of people as well as the speaker – but it was always clear just how much he had influenced scholars such as Casey and Lindars. While Vermes hinted that he was open to such developments in the son of man debate, there are a number of instances where his reading of the relevant Aramaic texts continues to be influential. One example would be the idea of the speaker using the circumlocution in embarrassing, controversial or dangerous situations.
His discussion of Nazi scholarship in Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983) is worth mentioning because it is probably the most overlooked book in his work on Jesus and because he discussed the work on Nazi Jesus scholarship nearly twenty years before it became commonplace in New Testament scholarship. While more detailed work has now been done (partly because more primary sources have become available since Vermes wrote Jesus and the World of Judaism), it remains an important critique which anticipated some of the more recent critiques of the extent of the influence of Nazi New Testament scholarship.
There is a strong case for Vermes being the most influential historical Jesus scholar of his generation. In some ways he was perhaps even more influential than Sanders whose historical Jesus work and challenge to the anti-Jewish rhetoric in New Testament scholarship owes something to Vermes. Others wrote bigger books but none of them changed the rhetoric of the debate as Vermes’ Jesus the Jew did.