Weston Fields’ Full History of the DSS, vol. 1

I just read the last page of Weston Fields’ The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History, and I want to share a few reflections in order to bring this book to your attention if you do not already know about it and, hopefully, to motivate you to pick it up in the near future.

I have never been a “history guy.” History books do not line my shelves. I say this with a little shame, but it is true. Nevertheless, Weston Fields’ Full History of the Dead Sea Scrolls is on my short-list of books to buy this year at SBL. This history does not consist of boring, broad generalizations about events the author merely read about in other history books. Fields’ book is based on eye-witness testimony from,  interviews with, and the letters and diary entries of the people involved in the discovery, acquisition, research, and publication of the DSS. Fields writes,

“Between 1999 and 2003 my wife and I traveled to every one of the people whose interviews are cited here, to Israel, the Netherlands, Jordan, Germany, Switzerland, France, the Isle of Man, England, and in the United States to New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Claremont. We met and learned from these men whose names are forever melded to the scrolls.” (pp. 14-15)

This is real history writing. The difficulty of putting together the history of these fragmentary documents is no doubt comparable to the monumental task the Scrolls team faced in trying to piece together the thousands of fragments from Cave 4. It is an intriguing story told with the level-headed rigor of a scholar and the genuine excitement and passion of an enthusiast.

Toward the end of last semester I read the first couple chapters, which document the discovery of and initial research on the Cave 1 materials. I picked the book up again this summer during vacation. The remaining chapters tell the story of the discovery and acquisition of materials from Wadi Murabbaʿat (ch.3) and Caves 2-11 (ch.4-13), with special focus on the Cave 4. My favorite chapter is chapter 6, where Fields gives short biographies of each member originally considered for and/or a part of the Cave 4 team (Cross, Milik, Wernberg-Moller, Allegro, Emerton, Starcky, Strugnell, Hunzinger, Skehan, Baillet, and de Vaux [an administrator over the team], pp.193-231). Leslie, my wife, read this chapter to me while we drove to her parents for vacation, and she seemed to enjoy it, too. Fields has accomplished his goal of writing a history of the DSS for “all audiences.” He writes,

“The book is intended for all audiences. Many books have been written about the Dead Sea Scrolls by specialist for specialists. This is not one of them.” (p. 16)

As is clear from the glowing review by Charlotte Hempel, the newly appointed executive editor of the Dead Sea Discoveries, the book certainly has something to offer to the specialist, as well. I walk away from Fields’ Full History feeling like I know these scholars. How could I not? The book is beautifully illustrated, and a large chunk of the 592 pages is filled with the (often witty and humorous) letters written between team members.

Four of the team members stood out to me in particular. I was inspired to immediately start gathering articles and books written by Frank M. Cross, Jr. “‘The Great Cross,’ as Allegro called him in a letter to Baillet in 1982, ‘Paragon,’ as W.F. Albright described him in 1950…” (193). If you get your hands on a copy of this book, please note the stately picture of this scholarly “paragon” on page 194. It’s impressive. Fields’ portrayal of Józef T. Milik leaves me with the impression that any work bearing Milik’s name is worthy of careful consideration. John Strugnell’s solid scholarship and gracious personality, especially in his dealings with Allegro, stood out as well. Fields’ description of John Marco Allegro’s descent from colleague of the scrollery to exile had me in one moment sympathizing with Allegro’s plight and in the next shaking my head in agreement with the decision of de Vaux (et al) to disassociate with him. When you get to hear this drama play out from the actual letters written between Allegro and the other team members, it is moving–an absolutely tragic story.

Thank you, Weston W. Fields, for a fantastic read! You have helped kindle within me an interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls that I suspect will not soon be extinguished. As Charlotte Hempel said, “We look forward to the next installment.”