It was a great sadness to me to learn yesterday of the death of Geza Vermes. Vermes’ discipline changing book Jesus the Jew was the first book I ever read in preparation for my degree. It was first on the reading list and it was the book I read to kick of my New Testament studies.
Vermes underlined the ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus in a unique way, which would shift scholarship forever – as James Crossley eloquently shows here. He also provided the definitive translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Of course Vermes had a long association with T&T Clark, largely in his revision of Schurer’s History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, which I am delighted to say that we will be publishing in paperback for the first time, later this year. In recent months this association has been renewed, partly through the plans for the paperback of Schurer and partly through a new book on Herod the Great which came out of contact surrounding Schurer.
Geza proposed the book on Herod as a short, heavily illustrated volume, giving a biographical sketch of the ‘third man’ in the Roman Empire. The book looks at Herod’s skill as a politician, and his legacy as a great builder. It also looks at the human Herod... and the character who would emerge in Christian tradition as the ruthless baby-killer of Matthew 2.
Working on the book with Geza has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my publishing career. I visited him and his wife Margaret at their home in Boar’s Hill in January, on what turned out to be an extremely snowy day. After several hours discussing Herod before a roaring fire and with excellent coffee I departed in what must have been the last car able to leave Boar’s Hill that day. On my way home to London, on an empty OxfordTube bus, on an equally empty M40, I reflected that I had enjoyed the privilege of meeting a true great... a truly humble and charming man.
Since that visit I have enjoyed an email correspondence with Geza over the development to the Herod manuscript ... and indeed we were scheduled to meet on Monday in order to discuss the images in the book, but really more (in my mind at least) to celebrate that the contract had been signed. Sadly this lunch date was not to be, as Geza had been taken into hospital. Margaret, however, made what I now realise was an utterly heroic effort to come into Oxford to have lunch with me to discuss the Herod book and a couple of other things that I hope we may be able to collaborate on. She also brought with her a small bag of macaroons for me as a treat, which was extremely kind.
Yesterday I had the day off work to walk the bit of the Pilgrims’ Way from Guildford to Gomshall with a dear friend. It was at the top of St Martha’s Hill as we tucked into tea and those excellent macaroons that I heard of Geza’s death.
I am very sad that Geza will not see the publication of his book on Herod – that we expect early next year. I’m also sad that I will not get to work on the proofs of the book with him, which I am sure would have been an unusually, and refreshingly, enjoyable experience. He was quite simply, as Mark Goodacre says on his blog, a legend. I feel immensely privileged to have enjoyed a short acquaintance with him, and to be the publisher of his Herod book.