"My view of Jesus," he protests, picking his words slowly and with great care, "is that he was a totally eschatologically inspired person, very charismatic, who fitted very well into the world in which he lived." So Jesus did, in his opinion, most certainly exist - but not as most of us have come to know. He was not, Vermes believes, the son of God. And, of course, he adds almost casually, he didn't say many of the best-known phrases associated with him.
There is, as we talk, an odd counterpoint between this wholesale destruction of Christian tradition that Vermes is delivering from his armchair and the joyful, almost sing-song tone of his voice, which would be better suited to telling tales of reindeer in Lapland. With his chubby cheeks, copious beard and propensity to chuckle, Vermes could easily pass for one of Santa's elves. If the publishers' blurb hadn't told me he was 79, I would have guessed his age as early sixties. He has the same youthful exuberance and evident delight in talking about his subject that he also brings to the pages of his books.
Popularising religion and its history can be a thankless task. The theological establishment accuses you of selling out. Jews are suspicious of one of their number waving a flag for Jesus. And the zealots in the pews only want opinions that confirm all their prejudices. Vermes is, for all these interest groups, something of a maverick. He is the first to admit that his crusade to engage a wide audience, interested in but not wedded to organised religion, can be a lonely one. "Now is the season for books of the year and religion is never ever mentioned as a category," he laments.
His own longevity in the general marketplace rests partly on the phenomenal success of his translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient documents which give a unique insight into the world in which Jesus lived. When Vermes's version came out in 1962, it broke a taboo because the rest of the academic world was carefully keeping to itself the Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s by shepherds in caves at Qumran. Vermes's trust in his readers' intelligence remains the key to his writings to this day.
His latest book is The Authentic Gospel of Jesus. It is available in the U.K., but Amazon U.S.A. doesn't list it yet.
UPDATE: The Guardian also reviews the book today.