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John C. Trever (1915–2006)

Posted By Biblical Archaeology Society Staff On August 10, 2006 @ 3:18 pm In Archaeologists, Biblical Scholars & Works | No Comments

John C. Trever, the American scholar who photographed the Great Isaiah Scroll and other important Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts in Jerusalem in 1948, died April 29, at his home in Lake Forest, California. He was born November 26, 1915, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

As a post-graduate student in war-torn Jerusalem during the fall of 1947 and the spring of 1948, Trever was literally “found” by the Dead Sea Scrolls when Syrian Orthodox clergy brought them to be evaluated at what is now the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research. Millar Burrows was the director of the school but was on a two-week excursion in Baghdad—leaving Trever as director pro tempore—when the telephone call came on February 18, 1948, that changed John Trever’s life. Scrolls in ancient Hebrew, the caller said, had been found in the library of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery in Jerusalem’s Old City. These scrolls, as we now know, were the Manual of Discipline (1QS), the Habakkuk Commentary, the Genesis Apocryphon and the Great Isaiah Scroll.

A semi-professional photographer with rare and valuable experience with color photography, Trever persuaded the Syrians to allow him to photograph three of the manuscripts. It was in response to a letter from Trever with a description of the find and a sample of these photos that prompted W.F. Albright’s famous and oft-repeated judgment: “My heartiest congratulations on the greatest MS discovery of modern times!”

Today Trever’s original negatives are housed in California at the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center of the Claremont School of Theology, one of several colleges at which he taught. They are an irreplaceable record of the scrolls because they reflect their color and condition when first discovered. His photographs of the Great Isaiah Scroll are once again being prepared for publication as plates for the Great Isaiah Scroll edition, edited by Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich, of the official series Discoveries in the Judaean Desert.

In addition to his teaching career at Drake University (Iowa), Baldwin-Wallace College (Ohio), Morris Harvey College (West Virginia) and Claremont School of Theology (California), Trever was a quiet scholar who spent much of his life lecturing and writing about the scrolls. Among his books are Scrolls from Qumran Cave One, to this day a critical resource for the study of the important Cave 1 scrolls, and The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Personal Account, a vibrant telling of the events surrounding the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the circumstances leading to their announcement to the public in April 1948. The latter describes Trever’s tenacious efforts to negotiate permission to photograph the scrolls despite the difficulties of locating suitable film, working with extremely primitive dark room facilities and traveling in a dangerous and rapidly disintegrating political environment.

In the preface to his Personal Account, Trever poignantly reflects on a lecture delivered by his friend and mentor Dr. Edgar J. Goodspeed titled “Adventures with Manuscripts.” Trever himself lived this adventure and taught us all how to stand humbly in the shadow of such a monumental experience.—Martin Abegg, Trinity Western University


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