In a few weeks’ time The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ will offer Philip Pullman’s radical new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the myths and mysteries of the gospels that have shaped the course of the last 2,000 years.
But before we are presented with the retelling of the life of Jesus by the His Dark Materials author, another Oxford author will have published two new books on Jesus, 35 years after first causing a sensation with Jesus the Jew.
Pullman’s take on Jesus, which will argue that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul, is said to be novel, part history and part fairytale.
For all the massive publicity surrounding the publication of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, it is unlikely to match the long-term impact of Prof Geza Vermes, who, at the age of 85, is still pursuing Jesus the man.
Prof Vermes still smiles when he recalls being a castaway on Desert Island Discs, when Sue Lawley introduced him as the author of Jesus the Jew — a book she informed listeners he had “written for fun”.
You can see why the man hailed by many as the world’s greatest living Jesus scholar is still amused. For, in truth, his best known book was rooted in decades of hard labour studying ancient texts and first-century AD Palestinian Jewish history.
The pioneering work was to transform his life. For, back then, the very idea of a book on the historical Jesus was quite revolutionary. Rebuilding the picture of the historical Jesus had long been considered beyond any scholar’s means.
That first book, too, was viewed as something of a myth-buster.
“Its writing,” said the professor, “was prompted by a single-minded search for fact and reality undertaken out of feeling for the tragedy of Jesus of Nazereth, that was distorted by Christian and Jewish myth alike.”
His latest book is entitled Searching for the Real Jesus, with Jesus: Nativity, Passion, Resurrection soon to follow.
“Had I been told in the 1950s that one day I would be known as an expert on Jesus, I would have been greatly surprised,” says Prof Vermes.
His work on Jesus, like so much else in his life, he insists, was simply the produce of “a providential accident”.
Meeting him at his home in Boars Hill, there are only a few clues of all the turmoil that he has survived. Born into a Hungarian-Jewish family, he has lived for 40 years in Oxford, where he became the first professor of Jewish studies at the university.
He nevertheless retains a strong accent, which, with his beard and impeccable manners, mark him as the kind of emeritus professor who you know has lived through history, as well as studied it.
When he observes that “old age carries with it a plethora of nuisances, but it possesses unique advantages too: long memories”, then you believe him.
For here is a man from the city of Mako, who was there when the Nazi Reich was let loose on the Jews of Hungary.
Both his parents were to be innocent victims of the Holocaust and he can still vividly recall seeing his mother for the last time. From the basement window of his hiding place he watched as she walked away to an improvised ghetto, wearing a yellow blouse to hide the compulsory yellow star of David.
In 1946 he took the decision to walk out of Hungary, the country of his birth, which felt had tolerated, and partly engineered the horrors of 1944. Crossing frontiers illegally, he migrated westwards, passing through Austria, the devastated southern Germany and France to join the community of the Fathers of Zion in Louvain.
And then there is his role in the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in Qumran, Palestine, in 1947, in one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.
When he first encountered the scrolls — written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek that had been hidden in caves by an ancient Jewish sect — he was an undergraduate in Paris.
When he first heard about them, the year after an Arab shepherd accidentally stumbled on seven scrolls in a cave by the Dead Sea, the young Geza was fired by “a curiosity and enthusiasm” that seems to have endured ever since.
“I was enormously privileged to witness from its initial stages the story of the scrolls,” he says, “and to play an active part in their investigation and in their communication to the world.”
He completed his doctoral dissertation on the historical framework of Qumran, published in French in 1953, and travelled to the Middle East, requiring forged papers once more to see for himself the excavation work.
His English translations ultimately brought the documents to thousands of people. The chief cause of the excitement was the antiquity of the scrolls, which pre-date by a millennium the oldest previously known codices of the complete Hebrew Bible.
“However, the subsequent history has been one of delay, secrecy and even allegation of scandal,” says the professor, in sadness rather than anger. He tells that long and frustrating history in The Story of the Scrolls — a third new book in a month (perhaps a record for an octogenarian).
Searching for the Real Jesus, however, brings together many previously published articles that have appeared in national newspapers — all with the same bold aim of making Jesus the Jew accessible to a wider readership.
He was himself once a Christian, having at the age of six been baptised, together with his parents, as a Roman Catholic, in the mistaken belief that it would secure for them a better future. He was to remain a Catholic as a student member, seminarian and, for six years, as priest, until he reached the age of 32. Then, in the 1960s, apparently without any great spiritual storm, he returned to his Jewish roots.
His fascination with Jesus, he now says, was not the product of his own “religious to-ing and fro-ing”, although it could perhaps be located in his insider’s knowledge of both Christianity and Judaism.
As, no doubt, Pullman is about to discover, it is often claimed that books on Jesus tell us more about their authors than about Jesus himself. The professor sees himself as an exception to this. For him, there are simply two kinds of truth about Jesus Christ: the Gospel truth, with its veracity vouchsafed by faith, and the truth uncovered by means of ‘scientific’ historical inquiry.
Everyone except “the desperately naive” knows that the Gospel sources are not strictly historical and postdate events by decades, he says.
Mark, Matthew and Luke, he points out, were written between 70 and 100 AD, with the author of the Gospel of John writing at the beginning of the second century AD.
As for Paul, he was unable to report anything original about the earthly Jesus, whom he never met.
And if there is no definitive answer as to what Jesus stood for or what sort of man he was, the primary culprit is Jesus himself, says Prof Vermes.
“Everything would be different if he had put on paper (better still on leather or papyrus) his thoughts. But, as he wrote nothing, we have to rely on secondary evidence.”
Some factual information has been handed down by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who speaks of Jesus as “a wise man” and “a performer of prodigies”. And one fact Prof Vermes insists is clearly established is that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judaea between 26 and 36AD.
“He fell foul of the high priestly authorities in a politically unstable Jerusalem because he did the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Prof Vermes argues. The wrong thing being the disturbance caused by overturning the stalls and tables; the wrong place the Temple of Jerusalem; the wrong time being the days leading to Passover, the expected date of the manifestation of the Messiah, when the nerves of the guardians of law and order were at breaking point.
Christianity lost sight of the real Jesus and the original meaning of his message as early as the end of the first century, he maintains. The mistake was forgetting he was a Jew. For the historical Jesus can only be retrieved in the context of first-century Galilean Judaism.
The very title of his book Jesus the Jew had in 1973 had been enough to shock conservative Christians. So what do we know about Jesus the man? He was poor and unmarried, lived for 30 years in Nazareth with his parents, his four brothers and at least two sisters, says Prof Vermes.
“He was an eschatological prophet but what distinguished Jesus from the other holy men of this time was the simple beauty and magnetism of his message.”
The latest Jesus book contains his reflections on more recent Christian-Jewish issues ranging from tax collectors in the age of Jesus to the Mel Gibson blockbuster The Passion of the Christ (“I would never watch something as dreadful again”).
Alas, it is too early to include his take on the Pullman book. “I’m afraid I know nothing about the work of Philip Pullman. I am not an expert on fiction and even if this sounds old-fashioned, I don’t think novelists are qualified to contribute to the advancement of the study of the historical Jesus unless they are also historians and philologists.”
In the book he also returns to his first academic love, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and their contribution to helping us understand the New Testament as well as Old Testament.
His own prolific output has been in marked contrast to the decades of proscrastination, with the publication of the scrolls only finally completed last year. He dismisses the theory of a Vatican conspiracy designed to stop the appearance of manuscripts with potential to threaten Catholic doctrine. No, it is simply down to lack of organisation, obstinate editors and lack of staff and oversight.
His thoughts return to the sunny morning in 1948 when his professor of Hebrew turned up in a class with a photograph of one of the manuscripts that had arrived from Jerusalem. It represented chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah. “Others thought they were a hoax. Older scholars were worried about their reputations. I felt in my bones that they were genuine. I knew that they were extraordinary.”
And thanks to his work over 60 years, so does the rest of the English speaking world.