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

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