High adventure backs Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit
John Trever, a student of the Old Testament at the American Schools of Oriental Research, was playing a leading role in revealing the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Milwaukee Public Museum’s current exhibit, Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible, which opened Jan. 22, Trever is honored as a hero in interpreting and preserving the scrolls and their meaning.
“Dad helped reveal that the scrolls’ importance was the validation of the Bible,” said his son, writer James E. Trever.
It’s a strange case of synchronicity: a Milwaukee connection for ancient biblical scrolls from desert caves in the Holy Land. Outside the realm of biblical scholarship, Trever’s is hardly a household name.
But in fact Milwaukee native Trevor is the Dead Sea Scrolls’ answer to Indiana Jones. And the museum’s exhibit spotlights him, explaining his role in bringing the scrolls to international attention.
The 2,000-year-old scrolls contain the earliest known copies of the Old Testament. The scrolls also contain writings that shed light on Jewish culture in that ancient time. But for months after they were found in early 1947, no one knew exactly what the scrolls contained or whether they were fakes.
“Trever was one of two scholars who first looked at the scrolls, and he first suggested they were 2,000 years old,” said Carter Lupton, Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit curator.
Bedouin shepherds discovered the scrolls in a cave near the Dead Sea, but no one realized the importance of the parchments at first. That was fortunate because the scrolls quickly went up for sale, and they might have wound up with some antiquities collector waiting for a big sale.
But “my father was the right man in the right place at the right time,” said his son, himself a scrolls author and lecturer.
The son of a local district attorney, John Trever was born in Milwaukee in 1915. He graduated from Yale Graduate School in 1943 with a doctorate in the Old Testament and an emphasis on ancient Semitic languages. He also was a skilled photographer.
Trever arrived to study at the American Schools of Oriental Research and found himself almost alone there during spring break in February 1948. The original scrolls were then in the hands of the archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, who was trying to identify them in the midst of the violence surrounding the partition of Palestine.
After a series of mysterious phone calls and covert negotiations, the scrolls were brought to the school and shown to Trever and fellow student William Brownlee.
Trever had done his doctoral dissertation on the Book of Isaiah. When the first scroll was unrolled before him, Trever recognized the writings immediately. According to Weston W. Fields’ new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History, Trever “burst into (Brownlee’s) room with the thrilling announcement.” The writing on the scroll was, amazingly, from Isaiah.
“Dad recognized it very quickly, and he realized it was very significant. He knew from the writing the scroll wasn’t a fake. He realized it would push the origin of the complete Bible text back more than 1,000 years. He was coincidentally the best-suited person in the world for that initial revelation,” James Trever said.
John Trever knew the scrolls were priceless. As gunfire and mortars went off around him breaking fragments of the scrolls onto the floor, he knew they must be preserved somehow for future research.
He needed to save the writings through photographic copies. But he was out of film.
“There was fighting in the streets around the school, and he ran through the streets and dodged bullets to get film. There was only a minimum available in the city at the time,” James Trever said. “He knew he had to photograph the scrolls and get the photographs out to the world because the scrolls could be destroyed at any time. He was running and ducking. It was pretty scary.”
John Trever found film and set up a makeshift photo studio in the school basement. There he took the first photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since they were taken that day, Trever’s photos have remained the best documentation for the scrolls in the world, because, as he feared, the parchment scrolls started to crumble soon after he took the photos.
Trever would go on to a life dedicated to writing and lecturing about the scrolls and their meaning. He documented the events surrounding their discovery in his 1965 book The Untold Story of Qumran.
Trever died in 2006, but his photos from 1948 remain the master works of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship. A copy of his original negatives is housed at the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at the Claremont School of Theology in California.
“John Trever’s photographs of the four scrolls were most important for preserving the way they looked in 1948, and they also made it possible for their immediate study and for preliminary publication in a very short amount of time,” Fields said. “They are still the best photos of those scrolls 62 years later.”
Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,
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