Doyen of the Dead Sea Scrolls: An In-Depth Biography of Józef Tadeusz Milik (1922–2006) Qumranica Mogilansia 17
By Zdzislaw J. Kapera and Robert Feather
(Kraków-Mogilany: Enigma Press, 2011) xii +239 pp., $90
Among Dead Sea Scroll scholars, Józef Tadeusz Milik is considered one of the greatest of the greats. A member of the eight-man team originally assigned to publish the more than 15,000 manuscript fragments from Qumran Cave 4, he was clearly a genius. His abilities and accomplishments were, in a word, simply stunning.
For those of us who were privileged to know him personally, he was, even more importantly, a spectacular human being, a gentle soul whose fame and memory are based and will always be based on solid accomplishment, not selfaggrandizement.
The closest I ever heard him come to admitting some kind of self-awareness of his genius was his answer to a question I posed in 2004 shortly before his death: “Who, next to you, was the best scholar on the Cave 4 Team?” His answer was only one word: “Skehan” (Monsignor Patrick S. Skehan). Milik obviously accepted the premise of my question, but he would never have proposed the premise himself.
When assigned to the Cave 4 Team, Milik was a Polish priest. He later left the priesthood, married and moved to Paris but continued his broad scholarship, which encompassed far more than just the Judaean Desert texts. Zdzislaw Kapera, Polish publisher, editor, bibliographer and founder of The Qumran Chronicle and The Polish Journal of Biblical Research, is the principal author of the book under review. He provides us with a biography of Milik based on information never before available, or available only in scattered publications, much of it in Polish, and thus not easily accessible to most of the world. His personal friendship with Milik and his wife, Yolanta (Zaluska), as well as Milik’s brother and other relatives, gave Kapera access to valuable sources of oral history and family photographs. Especially important are details about Milik’s childhood, early education, religious connections, parents’ background and his father’s professional standing.
Unfortunately, Kapera does not sufficiently distinguish between the various levels of trustworthiness of information through which one must sift in the course of writing a history or a biography. What is the difference in trustworthiness among a written document from the time of an event, a much-later-written document and later oral tradition, even from the person under consideration himself? Somewhat problematically, Milik left behind relatively little in writing from or about his life, such as personal letters about events written the same day or shortly after they occurred, one of the best historical sources for a biography. Thus, much of what we know about Milik’s early life has had to be reconstructed from oral history, with all its attendant possibilities for inaccuracy.
Milik steadfastly refused to allow his rare interviews to be recorded electronically— at least during the dozen or so times I interviewed him over the course of about 15 years (1991–2005). This made it much more difficult to write accurately about what he said (though my wife’s shorthand skills did help a great deal in my own case). If Kapera was also limited in this way, yet another possibility for inaccuracy may have been introduced. How many times was I sorely tempted to hide a recorder in my briefcase during an interview! But I never did. Perhaps Kapera was able to record accurately verbatim, and if so, what he reports in biographical details has more force.
Nevertheless, despite these reservations, everyone interested in the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls is indebted to Kapera for gathering in one place so many new details about Milik’s life and work most of us would never have learned otherwise.
Kapera’s personal contact with Milik spanned some 35 years. This long acquaintance and their shared linguistic, cultural and religious heritage gave Kapera an advantage few others have had.
From the standpoint of reconstruction and understanding of Dead Sea Scroll texts, Milik was the most important member of the Cave 4 Team. But before Cave 4 was even discovered, Milik and Father Dominque Barthélemy were already the first Dead Sea Scrolls “team.” They published the Cave 1 fragments in Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (DJD) volume 1 and set the format, procedure and standards for scroll publication.
Focusing primarily on the life and work of one person, as a biography almost necessarily does, however, may skew the larger story. Others who were also part of the story may be neglected or given insufficient attention. From a broad perspective, this seems to be the case with Kapera’s description of the work of the Cave 4 team. Kapera did not know or chose not to tell much about the significant contributions of the other seven Cave 4 team members.
When Kapera ventures beyond the facts of Milik’s life into the wider subject of the publication of the scrolls, especially the various controversies concerning publication, his information is sometimes questionable and sometimes simply wrong. However, in a number of cases, these mistakes are not entirely his fault; more complete information has only recently become available, and some of it is yet to be made available.
Milik was also important in ways quite apart from his Cave 4 work. For example, he played a critical role in the secret identification and preliminary transcription of the approximately 100–175 fragments (depending on how one counts) that were not part of the assignment of the Cave 4 team, but have been sold or offered for sale by the Kando family since 1998 and are identified by the Kando family as coming from Cave 4. Milik was not the only member of the Cave 4 team to have participated in this recent (and ongoing) effort to obtain additional texts from the family of the antiquities dealer through whom most of the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light.
Kapera’s work also demonstrates vividly the dangers of a self-published work. The guiding hand of an outside editor might have corrected some of the factual misstatements in the book and almost certainly would have standardized and improved the presentation.
The results of this lack of professional oversight might lead native English speakers to find much to criticize in the carelessly edited text. I suggest readers should give Kapera a pass on that, however, and focus on all the valuable information regarding Milik’s personal and professional history. The book is an important contribution, and we should be grateful to Kapera for producing it.
Doyen of the Dead Sea Scrolls is really two separate books bound together. The second one, fewer than a hundred pages, was written by Robert Feather, a British metallurgist and engineer, as well as a journalist, broadcaster and amateur Dead Sea Scrolls author. This section of the book contains glaring factual errors and has only a forced tangential relationship to Milik and his work on the Scrolls. It is a pity that Feather’s work was included in this volume.
Weston W. Fields is executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation and author of The Dead Sea Scrolls, A Short History (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2006) and The Dead Sea Scrolls, A Full History vol. 1 (Brill, 2009; vols. 2 and 3 forthcoming).