Jozef Milik

Scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Józef Tadeusz Milik, priest and biblical scholar: born Seroczyn, Poland 24 March 1922; ordained priest 1946; married Jolanta Zalowska; died Paris 6 January 2006.

Described by Time magazine in 1956 as "the fastest man with a fragment", Józef Milik was perhaps the most brilliant of the small team of international biblical scholars assembled in Jerusalem in the early 1950s to uncover and decipher what would become a treasure trove of early Jewish manuscripts uncovered from caves in Qumran in the Judaean hills. They were soon dubbed the Dead Sea Scrolls and excitement mounted as the outside world hoped for new insights into Jewish communal life and the early days of Christianity.

At the end of 1951, Milik, an émigré Polish Catholic priest who was already making a name as a scholar in Rome, was taken on by the team leader, the French Dominican priest Roland de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique. When he arrived in Jerusalem the following year, Milik was just 30 and had the unique opportunity to be among the first to decipher and understand the extraordinary hoard of texts.

Milik set to work as part of the team, cleaning, classifying and assembling the texts with a view to their eventual publication in scholarly editions (though modern scholars would be horrified that he smoked as he worked and stuck fragments together with sticky tape). Indeed, it was he who devised the system of designating the fragments. He also joined the excavations in caves.

Although Milik was shy and introverted, with slightly peculiar English (learnt from Mickey Spillane thrillers and P.G. Wodehouse), he was dedicated and popular. He enlivened the drudgery by his "infectious sense of humour", a fellow team member, Frank Cross recalled, often breaking out in giggles over something he found amusing. As the manuscripts were laid out under glass in the scrollery of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, Milik's talents for spotting where the often tiny fragments fitted together and how to decipher the handwriting became clear. Another team member, John Allegro, later recalled how he and Cross "were tearing our hair out" over a particularly agonising section when "Milik strolled in and informed us that he had done it, or at least got enough of the letter to make a full decipherment eventually possible".

Scholarly, fully annotated publication began in 1955 with Qumran Cave 1, an edition of some 70 fragmentary texts discovered in Qumran's Cave 1, edited by Milik and Dominique Barthélemy, the first of the "Discoveries in the Judaean Desert" (DJD) series from Oxford University Press. Milik also published a variety of texts in the early 1960s in DJD volumes 2 and 3 and, later, in volume 6. Milik's description of the finding of the scrolls, as given in his work Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judaea (1959), is one of the most reliable.

But soon publication of the texts began to falter and conspiracy theories - that Catholic fundamentalists were suppressing crucial texts or that Jewish scholars were being deliberately excluded - began to spread. Some of the scholars - notably Allegro - came up with more and more bizarre interpretations.

In reality, Milik and his fellow scholars had been allocated far too many texts at once. As another scholar, Fr Joseph Fitzmyer, who worked for a year at the scrollery, later noted, Milik published more original texts than anyone else, but "it is now clear that too many important texts were entrusted to one person". Moreover, in Milik's case, the fraternal beers and wine with colleagues after a day's work had been overtaken by serious alcohol dependency that began to impair his work.

Born in a small village near Siedlce east of Warsaw, Milik completed studies at Siedlce's grammar school in the fateful summer of 1939. That September he began training for the priesthood in Plock, but this was soon interrupted as Poland was engulfed in war. He resumed at the seminary in Warsaw in 1940. Recognised as having a gift for languages, he entered the Catholic University of Lublin in 1944 for studies in ancient and modern languages (including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic Syriac and Old Church Slavonic). He was ordained priest in Warsaw in 1946.

As his homeland fell victim to ever more restrictive Communist policies, Milik was sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and Pontifical Biblical Institute. There he learnt Arabic, Georgian, Ugaritic, Accadian, Sumerian, Egyptian and Hittite (he already knew Polish, Russian, Italian, French, German and English). He gained a licentiate in 1950 summa cum laude. Already fascinated by the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947, he began his own work on them which brought him to the attention of de Vaux.

After Milik's return to Rome from Jerusalem in the early 1960s (after a spell in Beirut), his early promise seemed to fade. He left the Catholic priesthood. In 1969 he met a Polish woman, Jolanta Zalowska, in Rome. They married and moved to Paris, where he worked as a researcher for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique until his retirement in 1987. He finally completed several Dead Sea Scroll texts for publication in the 1970s, notably The Books of Enoch in 1976, and also worked on Nabatean inscriptions from Petra.

Milik became a French citizen. A brother lived in London and Milik occasionally came over to visit, but showed no desire to revisit Poland. He declined to go to Poland in 1992 when the Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Zdzislaw Kapera produced a Festschrift in his honour.

As new scholars were brought into the Dead Sea Scrolls team, attempts were made to extract the texts from Milik, who had retreated almost into silence, never answering letters. After a series of tense visits to his Paris flat, Milik eventually handed over what he had kept for so many years, though some younger scholars spurned his notes in favour of their own decipherments. He complained that even those who drew heavily on his and his colleagues' early pioneering work often failed to credit them.

It was only in later years that Milik's bitterness at what he regarded as his "terribly unjust" treatment at the hand of the scholarly community and journalists began to ease. For his 75th birthday, the Revue de Qumran produced a Festschrift for Milik that at last recognised the crucial role he had played in deciphering one of the most exciting troves of ancient manuscripts to be discovered in the 20th century.

Felix Corley

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments