PROFESSOR Geza Vermes, who survived the Holocaust to become the world’s greatest scholar of Jesus Christ, has died aged 88.

Prof Vermes, who lived in Oxford for more than 40 years, went on to become the first professor of Jewish studies at the university.

But for many he will be remembered as being the foremost authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in Qumran Palestine, in 1947, in one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

Prof Vermes, of Boars Hill, produced translations of the scrolls that ultimately brought the documents to thousands of people. And he was to continue to write books on the subject until well into his eighties.

Prof Vermes was born into a Hungarian-Jewish family in the city of Mako in southern Hungary and was to live through history as well as study it. Both his parents perished in the Holocaust and he vividly recalled seeing his mother walking away to an improvised ghetto, wearing a yellow blouse to hide the compulsory yellow Star of David.

In 1931, when he was six, he and his parents had converted to Christianity and in his late teens studied for the priesthood. The decision helped save his life, since the seminary priests protected him during the period of the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.

In 1946 he took the decision to walk out of Hungary, which he 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, joining the order of the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion. The following year he was sent by the order to Louvain to study theology and oriental history and languages.

When he first encountered the scrolls, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and hidden in caves by an ancient Jewish sect, he was still an undergraduate in Paris.

Recalling his professor of Hebrew turning up with a photograph of one of the manuscripts that had arrived from Jerusalem, he recalled: “Others thought they were a hoax. Other scholars were worried about their reputations. I felt in my bones that they were genuine. I knew that they were extraordinary.”

Requiring forged papers, he travelled to the Middle East to see for himself the excavation work. “I was enormously privileged to witness from its initial stages the story of the scrolls and to play an active part in their investigation and in their communication to the world,” he said.

In 1957, having left the priesthood, he was appointed to a lectureship in divinity at the University of Newcastle, and it was there that he published with Penguin in 1962 the first edition of The Dead Sea Scrolls in English.

He was appointed Reader in Jewish Studies in Oxford and a Fellow of Iffley (soon to be Wolfson) College in 1965, becoming one of the last remaining Iffley Fellows who had witnessed the creation of Wolfson from the beginning.

Apart from his university duties as chairman of the Faculty Board of Oriental Studies and as a governor of the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies (now renamed the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies), he devoted much energy to his role as editor of the Journal of Jewish Studies.

The publication of his book Jesus the Jew 38 years ago, brought further worldwide interest in his work and was to transform his life.

Rebuilding the picture of the historical Jesus had long been considered beyond any scholar’s means.

Christianity had lost sight of the real Jesus as early as the end of the first century, he argued, adding: “He was an eschatological prophet but what distinguished Jesus from other holy men of his time was the simple beauty and magnetism of his message.”

In 1985 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy and appointed to a personal chair in Jewish studies in 1989. More books were to follow, including his autobiography Providential Accidents and Searching for the Real Jesus, published in 2010.

Last year Wolfson College, Oxford, welcomed him as an Emeritus Fellow to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Dead Sea Scrolls in English.

Prof Vermes’ wife Pamela died in 1993. He is survived by his second wife Margaret Unarska, a stepson and two stepdaughters. A private funeral will take place next Thursday, with a memorial event happening later this year.

Prof Vermes died on May 8.