Friday, May 10, 2013

Geza Vermes's legacy

Following on from the sad news of the death of Geza Vermes earlier this week, The Times today has its obituary:

Geza Vermes

Unfortunately, most of the obit is behind a subscription wall, as regular readers will know.  Meanwhile, in The Guardian, Hugh Muir's diary today mentions his passing:
Great sadness, finally, at the death at 88 of the great British biblical scholar Geza Vermes. He was a sweet-natured, scholarly man of Hungarian Jewish origins, who survived the Holocaust, became a Catholic and later reconverted to Jewry. In 2004, on the release of Mel Gibson's bloodthirsty film The Passion of the Christ, with all its claims of authenticity, the Guardian took him to a press preview. As the audience recoiled from the scenes of bloody violence, we could hear him chortling. Why so? "It's quite obvious that none of the actors could speak Aramaic," he told us afterwards. He knew hokum when he saw it.
Prof. Vermes's passing has been widely reported among the blogs.  In particular, I'd recommend James Crossley's interesting comments over on the Sheffield Biblical Studies blog, including the following:
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.
I have a lot of sympathy for what James says here.  I sometimes wonder whether scholars have learned the wrong lessons from Vermes, looking to take "Jesus the Jew" and find a role for him in reconstructions that are every bit as thickly mired in Christian theological agendas as were the German, Lutheran historical Jesuses of the "new quest" that they so criticize.  It's why the subtitle of Vermes's seminal book, A Historian's Reading of the Gospels, is  in many respects more important than its main title.

4 comments: said...

Geza Vermes had his foot in two camps, the Catholic camp and the Jewish camp, at different times. Did this lead to an ambivalence?. He was certainly enigmatic. May be Vermes was too hooked on the idea that the Scrolls were the work of a Qumran sect. Didn't he base his PhD thesis on this? And did that prevent him from understanding the Messiah as fully Jewish with all its implications.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark. As for the subtitle, I think you are right to stress its importance. As you'll know as well as anyone, this strong emphasis on 'historian' is something that comes through in the work of Sanders, the other 'big name' in the changes in NT scholarship in the 70s. He of course had the interest in challenging negative constructions of Judaism but his autobiographical piece really hits home the importance of being a historian. I kknow this idea of being a 'historian' is also tied in with ideology and presuppositions etc but I think Sanders and Vermes provided a challenge (possibly also as threatening) to challenge theological dominance of interpretation. It is interesting that some of the more obviously theological work in historical Jesus studies (e.g. Wright's) uses the rhetoric of the 'historian' and much as emphasising 'Jewishness' and in both cases they are used to add credibility to overtly theological agendas. Is that fair?

Unknown said...

I highly respect Vermes' scholarship, but I would take issue with a great deal of rhetoric surrounding his passing. Namely, I don't think the academic community has dealt sufficiently with how tenuous the idea of "disinterested scholarship" really is. Quite frankly, to position oneself _against_ "theological agendas" constitutes something of a theological agenda in its own right. While we labor under a densely-packed rhetoric of bias-free inquiry, this is really an illusion. It seems as though many have addressed this issue outside biblical studies. Even supposedly "objective" scholars have constructed an aura around the notion of objectivity. In essence, I wonder if there is any "there" there. Every mode of investigation, it seems to me, is motivated by some impetus (on a grand spectrum ranging from attempting to justify theological claims all the way to the attempt, however cloaked in objectivist rhetoric, to disprove them). Now, please understand that I am not making a case for doing historical inquiry for theological purposes. I find this to be as problematic as the objectivist assertions. However, we should realize that history has a history, and "scholarship itself" (if such a hyper-essentialized notion exists) could just as easily be reduced to sociological explanation as well. A thought experiment might be this: think of a forward date several centuries in the future. When those scholars look back at us, by what means (sociological, theological, philosophical) will they be able to account for (or explain away) our methodologies, presumptions, scholarly dispositions, etc.? Reducing history to simple, discrete facts transfers to the discipline a schematic form of the sciences, without the actual conditions of investigation.

Anonymous said...

While I fully understand the desire to laud a man upon his death and hesitate to make this comment, ultimately I think we are also bound to remember the course of conduct of Dr. Vermes, meticulously documented in a chapter of Dr. Norman Golb's book Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (Scribner, 1995). This included the use, by Dr. Vermes, of funds donated by a charitable foundation to purchase photographs of the monopolized DSS texts, pursuant to an arguably unethical agreement under which the photographs would not be shared with any opponents of the DSS monopoly or "official editorial team" as it was then known. Dr. Vermes attempted to defend this agreement in an exchange with Dr. Golb in the pages of the Times of London; the Huntington Library was not convinced by Vermes' arguments, and soon thereafter famously released its own DSS photographs to scholars at large, citing the Times exchange as a motivating factor in its decision. This episode, and other aspects of Vermes' conduct at the time were discussed at length in Dr. Golb's book and may, sadly, be regarded as part of the "scandal of the century."