John Strugnell, a prominent biblical scholar who was the editor in chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls project for six years but was dismissed from his position for anti-Semitic remarks he made during an interview with an Israeli newspaper, has died. He was 77.
A former professor of Christian origins at Harvard Divinity School, Strugnell died Nov. 30 at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., where he had been hospitalized with an infection, his daughter Anne-Christine Strugnell said this week. He was a resident of nearby Arlington.
Strugnell was in his early 20s when he began working on the scrolls, some 900 documents dating from about 200 BC to AD 70. The scrolls had disintegrated into fragments by the time they were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea on the West Bank, starting in 1947.
After piecing them back together, scholars discovered that they contained the oldest known copies of a number of biblical texts, as well as other religious writings and laws that shed light on a critical period in the history of Judaism and early Christianity.
Strugnell was among a small group of scholars with access to the scrolls, to decipher and publish them in a project overseen by the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
He became chief editor of the project in 1984. Six years later he set off an international furor with comments he made during an interview with the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’aretz.
Strugnell was quoted as referring to Judaism as “a horrible religion. It’s a Christian heresy, and we deal with our heretics in different ways.” Colleagues denounced his remarks and called for his resignation. He was removed from his post in 1990.
Strugnell rejected accusations that he was anti-Semitic, pointing out that he had added Jewish scholars to the main research team, which had been dominated by Christians. He was raised in the Church of England and later became a Roman Catholic.
Several of his colleagues attributed his statements to ongoing health problems. For some years he had been treated for bipolar disorder.
Even before the damaging interview, a number of Bible scholars and others had complained that Strugnell and his team were taking too long in publishing the scrolls and were blocking other scholars from studying most of the texts.
A change in leadership was overdue, according to news reports at the time Strugnell was dismissed.
He was replaced by Emanuel Tov, an Israeli scholar who had been a part of the team. With Tov’s encouragement, Strugnell continued working on the scrolls.
In his close to 40 years on the project he translated and deciphered several liturgical and biblical texts, including, in the 1990s, a work of previously unknown Jewish wisdom literature that he completed with Father Daniel J. Harrington.
“John Strugnell was one of the first and most brilliant decipherers of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” said Harrington, a former student of Strugnell who is on the faculty of Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. “He had a genius for reading them and piecing them together.”
Strugnell also trained several generations of scholars in the painstaking work of deciphering the scrolls and was generous with his time and expertise both toward students and colleagues, Harrington said.
Strugnell was born May 25, 1930, in Barnet, England, and began studying ancient languages at an early age. He graduated from St. Paul’s School in London and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Jesus College at Oxford University.
He was a student at Oxford in 1954 when he was invited to join the editorial team working on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Before he began teaching at Harvard in 1966, Strugnell was on the faculty of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and then taught at Duke University Divinity School.
For many years he spent summers in Jerusalem. He retired from Harvard in 1996.
He and his wife, Cecile Pierlot, had five children before they divorced in the 1970s. Along with his daughter Anne-Christine, Strugnell is survived by two other daughters, two sons, a sister and five grandchildren.