JESUS was a charismatic Jewish teacher rather than the divine figure of Christianity.

That is one of the claims of Professor Geza Vermes, an expert on the historical Jesus, and one of the first people to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Prof Vermes, who is Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, gave a talk to a packed audience at the Orthodox Synagogue in Bournemouth on the historical Jesus. He has penned several books on the subject.

So how much historical evidence is there for the existence of Jesus?

“There is quite enough both in the Gospels and outside the Gospels to go on. Yes, he was a real figure,” he says.

“It’s pretty clear from the evidence of Josephus, the first century Jewish historian talking about James the brother of Jesus – the Christ.”

And how do Christians and Jews tend to react to his writings?

He says: “When I first published Jesus the Jew in 1973 I expected to be attacked from both sides but the book was welcomed as something new, providing people with a fresh understanding of the age of Jesus and Jesus within his age. The book has been translated into nine languages.”

One of the most interesting things to emerge from the professor’s writings is that the phrase “Son of God” might have meant something different to Jews of Jesus’s time.

Prof Vermes says: “The expression ‘Son of God’ can have many, many different meanings in Jewish religious language.

“For instance, the Jewish people are described in the Bible as the people chosen by God.

“In consequence every member of the Jewish people could call himself or herself a son or daughter of God. This is the general meaning.

“But later it had a restricted meaning only to very pious Jews, the prophets and religious leaders – very holy, very close to God.

“Later interpretations were by Christians who had no Jewish background,” he says.

And what of the assertion in the New Testament that Jesus was born of a virgin?

The professor says: “The book of Isaiah says that ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name will be Emmanuel’.

“When translated into Greek the word translated as parthenos, which means virgin.

“But in fact the Hebrew word which was used by Isaiah is Almah, which means a young woman.”

And are the famous Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran scrolls) Jewish or Christian documents?

“I think they are entirely about Judaism. Almost all the surviving Dead Sea Scrolls were written before Jesus.”

So why are Christians so excited about the Dead Sea Scrolls?

“Because they don’t know what they contain,” he says.

“They imagine whenever there is some new document coming out it will provide the key to the mystery.”

And what about the popular conspiracy theory that suggests publication of the scrolls was prevented by powerful Christian figures who feared they contained harmful revelations, as in The Da Vinci Code?

He says: “That was the idea in the mind of the people who invented this conspiracy about the Dead Sea Scrolls; that they were kept away from the world because they contained something dangerous for Christianity.

“The truth is it was lazy publication and bad organisation and a lot of selfishness.”

And what of the idea that the Dead Sea Scrolls are Gnostic in origin? Gnosticism was a movement once thought to be a heretical offshoot of Christianity but now considered to be a dualistic religion influenced by Hellenic philosophy, Judaism and Christianity.

Followers pursued “gnosis” – a form of esoteric knowledge which they believed led to salvation.

“I don’t think the Dead Sea Scrolls are gnostic. They are entirely Jewish,” adds Professor Vermes.

And did Jesus actually mean to start a new religion?

Prof Vermes says: “I’m pretty sure that he didn’t. There was nothing contrary to fundamental Jewish ideas of that age.

“He had one way of interpreting Judaism and other teachers interpreted it in a different way, like we see in every age and every religion.”