Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Józef Tadeusz Milik 1922-2006

J. T. Milik was born on March 24, 1922, in Seroczyn, Poland. He pursued his early studies at several institutions in Poland, earning a bachelor's degree in 1939. He then attended a seminary in Plock for a short time until the dangers of war saw him move to a seminary in Warsaw, where he compiled a splendid record over the four years he remained there. In 1944, he entered the Catholic University of Lublin, where he studied theology and the Polish language and earned degrees in both areas in 1946. Between 1945 and 1948 he published ten articles on Polish dialectal words and expressions. For his theological diploma he wrote a dissertation on doxazein in the works of John Chrysostom, while his ordination as a Catholic priest took place in Warsaw on June 30, 1946.

In that same year Milik went to Rome. By this time he had already studied Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Old Slavonic, and Syriac. In Rome, he did further work at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and in the Faculty of Biblical Sciences and the Oriental Institute. To the several languages he had already studied he added Akkadian, Arabic, Egyptian, Georgian, Hittite, Sumerian, and Ugaritic. He graduated from his program summa cum laude in 1950.

By the time he had completed his studies in Rome, the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been found and some of them had been published. Milik became deeply interested in the finds, with his first publications on them dating from 1950. In that year nine articles, written in Italian and Latin, appeared in print, including a coauthored (with G. Berardi) book-length transcription and comparison of col. 35 in the great Isaiah scroll (Isa 41:23-42:17) with the MT and Latin versions of the passage. Four more essays followed in 1951, one of which was a study of a fragment he thought came from 1 Enoch (it was eventually published as one fragment of 1Q19 The Book of Noah). Among his publications of 1951 was a Latin translation of what was then called the Manual of Discipline.

In late 1951, Roland de Vaux invited Milik to Jerusalem to work with the scrolls. De Vaux, as head of the École Biblique and president of the Trustees of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, was deeply involved in purchasing the scrolls and arranging for their publication. He had also excavated the scroll cave (the only one known at the time), and at the end of 1951 (November 24-December 12) he would lead the first season of excavations at Khirbet Qumran. The invitation by de Vaux was a clear indication of the respect with which Milik's work was regarded at that early stage in his career. The only other scholar then editing the fragments was Dominique Barthélemy of the École; he and Milik became the editors of DJD 1, which appeared in print in 1955. By the time the volume was published, other caves with manuscripts had been located and the discovery of the cave 4 hoard had been made.

Milik, supported now by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, became a member of the international team appointed to edit and publish the thousands of fragments from the caves. He also participated in several of the de Vaux-led excavations at Qumran and surveys in the surrounding areas. His work as editor and excavator put him in position to write one of the first introductions to the scrolls. His Dix ans de découvertes dans le Désert de Juda appeared in 1957, and John Strugnell translated a revised and expanded form of it into English in 1959 as Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judaea. Now, nearly fifty years since its initial publication, the book continues to be cited as an authority. Milik was to devote nine years to scrolls work in Jerusalem, after which he spent much of the 1960s in Rome. He eventually left the priesthood and married Yolanda Zaluska, whom he had met in Rome in 1969. The two then lived in Paris until his death.

Milik was an active editor of scroll fragments, although he did not limit his scholarship to the Qumran texts. He, with P. Benoit and de Vaux, was the editor of DJD 2 (the texts from Murabba'at; 1961), DJD 3 (the fragments from the small caves, 2-3, 5-10; 1962), and DJD 6 (phylacteries and tefillin, 4Q128-157; 1977). DJD 6 was the last volume that he edited in the series, but his name is mentioned on the title page of several others because of his foundational work on so many texts that other scholars eventually published (DJD 13, 18, 22); he is frequently thanked elsewhere for the preliminary work he did (e.g., DJD 7, 26). His most famous publication outside the DJD series was The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumrân Cave 4 (1976). The greater space afforded by a separate monograph allowed Milik not only to publish a large portion of the Aramaic fragments from the books of Enoch, but also to analyze them within a broad framework. Some of his bolder hypotheses were poorly received, but it was difficult not to admire the astonishing scholarship ranging over such diverse fields. The last of Milik's Qumran-related publications appeared in Revue de Qumran 15 (1991-92), in our joint articles (one in 1991, one in 1992, and three in 1994), and our editions of the Jubilees and Pseudo-Jubilees texts in DJD 13 (1994).

A number of honors came to Milik in later years. The Junta de Gobierno of the Universidad Complutense presented to Milik and F. M. Cross its medal of honor in 1991, although health problems prevented Milik from attending the Madrid Qumran Congress where the award was to be made (it was presented to him on Oct. 31, 1991, at the Spanish embassy in Paris). In 1992, the year when he turned 70, Z. Kapera edited a celebratory volume entitled Intertestamental Essays in honour of Józef Tadeusz Milik (see also Qumran Chronicle 3 [1993]). Around the time of his 75th birthday the editors of the journal Revue de Qumran, of whose editorial board he had been a member, issued a large and impressive tome in his honor, Hommage à Józef T. Milik (Revue de Qumran 17, numbers 65-68).

At the time when public controversy raged over the glacial pace at which the international team of editors was publishing the cave 4 fragments, Milik too became the object of criticism. He had been assigned the largest number of fragments for editing and publishing; to his credit, he had been, compared to other members of the team, the most active in publication. However, by 1990, he had still not published a considerable part of his lot, and other scholars were anxious to gain access to this material. One of the success stories of that period of strife and rancor is that Milik cooperated with a new generation of editors by making his notes available to them.

This is the context in which I met Milik. In January of 1990, I visited him at his apartment in Paris, where we conversed for a long time—not only about Qumran, but also about the recent developments in his native Poland. I was in awe of how much information he had at his fingertips regarding difficult readings, fragments, etc. It was also apparent that he and Yolanda Zaluska were sensitive about the treatment he was receiving; they did not think he was being given due credit for all he had accomplished. At that time he handed to me his transcriptions and notes on the fragments of the copies of Jubilees and Pseudo-Jubilees from cave 4, and in subsequent years the two of us together published several preliminary and then the final editions of those copies. I have kept not only his notes on the fragments, but also his comments on drafts of the editions as I prepared them: they are eloquent testimonies to his eye for detail, his skill in placing fragments, and his ability to read difficult letters and words. I did have a chance to visit with him some years later, at which time he seemed satisfied with the way the editions were going.

With his passing on January 6, 2006, the field of Qumranology has lost one of its original and most distinguished scholars. It is difficult to imagine that anyone will ever match Milik's skill with the kinds of textual remains uncovered in the caves, and no one is likely to contribute as much as he did to so large a number of editions of the scrolls fragments. He was willing to hazard daring hypotheses, but did so with brilliance and with an authority that no one could ignore. It would have been good if he could have brought about the publication of the many texts in his lot, but that was not to be. Yet his massive contributions to the field are now enshrined in his own works and in those of others whom he assisted.

Note: A nearly identical version of this obituary is being published in the journal Henoch.

James C. VanderKam, University of Notre Dame

Comments on this article? email:

Citation: James C. VanderKam, " Józef Tadeusz Milik 1922-2006," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2006]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.