• The great love of Mladen Popovic

    Better than the Da Vinci Code

    Suddenly they were hot: the ancient Dead Sea scrolls, that Mladen Popovic' studies at the Qumran Institute. You can still see them live. If you are fast!

    Qumran instituut

    The Qumran Institute at the University of Groningen has a long history of studying the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves close to the ancient site of Qumran, not far from the Dead Sea.

    The scrolls – most of them badly damaged – date from 250 BC to 50 AD and shed new light on the Jewish culture of 2,000 years ago. They are also important for the study of the Old Testament texts.

    In 1961 the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences (KNAW) won exclusive rights to publish the scrolls of Cave Eleven. It transferred those rights to the Qumran Institute, which has since contributed greatly to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    This year has been a rollercoaster ride for Mladen Popovic. Director of the internationally acclaimed Qumran Institute, which is researching the Dead Sea Scrolls, was the guest curator of a unique exhibition on the scrolls at the Drents Museum in Assen. With over 100,000 visitors a few weeks ago, it is already the museum’s second most popular exhibition.

    However, the exhibition is just one of many events that have made this year a special one for Popovic. He has had around 700 primary school children at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Study for a personal lesson about the scrolls from some of his students. He also prepared lessons on the scrolls for over 5,000 secondary school pupils.

    Generous donation

    A generous donation has made it possible for the Institute to attract famous researchers as Fellows, starting next month with Steve Mason, an authority on the Roman historian Flavius Josephus. There was a big international symposium last October, when the Florentino García Martinez Prize was awarded to Bernice Brijan. Last week the Institute organized a congress which attracted visitors from Yale, London and Toronto, culminating in Popovic’s own inaugural lecture as Professor of the Old Testament and Early Judaism. Then there’s the innovative crowdfunding project he wants to start to find out who actually wrote the ancient scrolls.


    You might say he’s been busy! However, he seems physically fit and not in the least bit tired. His eyes sparkle when he talks about everything that he has been doing. The fact that his academic output has been a little low these last few months – it’s not that he hasn’t published anything, but there have been years when he has published more papers – doesn’t bother him in the slightest.

    ‘The exhibition and all the activities around it are our calling card. It’s a way of showing the rest of the world what it is we are doing here. It’s not only about studying the scrolls, but also about studying the world heritage of religion. Sharing that with the general public is at least as important as the academic publications and very exciting too.’

    So what is it then that’s so special about these ancient ‘scraps of paper’ as he lovingly calls them? Popovic smiles. ‘They make it possible to study holy texts in the making’, he says. ‘It’s like the Da Vinci Code but better. This is real.’

    That holy texts – whether they are called the Koran, the Bible or Thora – are extremely important has been clear to everyone since 9/11. The events of that day made everyone aware of the impact religion can have. ‘It put religious studies back on the map.’

    Almost thousand

    These scrolls – there are almost a thousand of them – are among the oldest known religious texts concerning Judaism, Christianity and the Bible. Before their discovery, the manuscripts on which most of the modern translations of the Bible have been based date back to around the year 1,000. ‘They are practically a time machine’, Popovic says. ‘We can read them and watch the Bible forming right under our eyes.’

    ‘The scrolls are practically a time machine’

    The scrolls also show us many texts that never made it into the Bible, but they were obviously extremely important to the learned people who read and studied them in Qumran. They show us the same texts that have been used in the Bible but in a different way. They also show us many, many texts that are not biblical at all, but are extremely useful to shed  new light on ancient Judaism and Christianity.

    Take the Beatitudes that Jesus spoke during the Sermon on the Mount. To many Christians these words are extremely important and unique. However, one of the scrolls – dated 100 years before Jesus was born – has a section that uses exactly the same phrases: ‘Blessed are…’

    ‘It makes clear that Jesus’ style of speaking didn’t come from nowhere. They are part of a tradition’, Popovic says. To anyone who’d respond ‘Of course they are’, he adds: ‘The simple fact that you might say this now is thanks to the study of the scrolls. It shows us the traditions, the way people lived and thought in those days.’

    One person?

    It’s this tradition and the culture that fascinate Popovic the most. Of course, text critique is important, but now all the scrolls have been published – almost 1,000 texts on tens of thousands of scraps of parchment, papyrus and even copper – that basic work is more or less done. His main focus is not the comparison of these words of wisdom, but to see what they can tell us about the world in which they originated, a world waiting to be discovered.

    ‘I want the walls of the differrent disciplines to come down’

    ‘The view on the scrolls has been largely dominated by the finds in the first cave. Now, though, we are discovering the huge diversity and so the research has widened. For example, the scrolls were not the texts of a small sect, as people often still think, but part of a kind of scholars’ library.’

    What is especially important to Popovic is that the scrolls are studied in the context of the world of 250 BC until the first century AD. The more you know about the world from which these texts originated, the better you’ll be able to understand their meaning.

    That calls for a new approach to the research. ‘I want the walls of the different disciplines to come down’, he says passionately. The scrolls should not just be regarded as being a part of the history of the Old Testament or of Christianity, or even of history for that matter. Popovic believes that every discipline that can contribute should do so.

    ‘I even asked microbiologists if they had any technique that we might be able to use’, he smiles. Why not? Archaeologists have long been using C14 from physics.

    The exhibition that displays the scrolls in context is one step. Another one is finding out who actually wrote them. ‘Was it one person, 10 different writers or even a hundred or more?’


    One might use paleography and compare the handwriting on the vast amount of scraps in the archives in Jerusalem, but that would be a nearly infinite undertaking, as it would require every one of the few trained eyes that are available. ‘Then I came into contact with Professor Lambert Schomaker. He has this unique computer programme called Monk that digitizes written words. Wouldn’t it be great if that could be used for the Dead Sea Scrolls?’

    The scrolls are now being fed into Monk. However, that is not enough as Monk has to be taught how to read. ‘We have therefore started this crowdfunding project with the support of the Ubbo Emmius Fund. When enough analyses have been made, we should be able to decipher handwriting that seems impossible to read now.’

    The project is doing very well. Over €13,000 of the required €20,000 has been donated already and there’s still time to reach the target, as the deadline is 5 January. ‘It’s wonderful’, says Popovic. ‘People really relate to this. They are intelligent, curious and very eager to learn. Once you start sharing information, they are willing to help.’

    A unique exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen (only 20 minutes from Groningen by train) displays 16 original manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls for the first time in 20 years in Europe. In one part of the exhibition the scrolls have been dissected and translated. The manuscripts are so fragile – even light damages them – that they were changed halfway through the exhibition. Another part shows us the context of these unique archaeological finds, like the production of the scrolls, daily life and the Jewish uprising in around 70 AD, which was the moment the scrolls were hidden.Over 100,000 people have already visited the exhibition, which runs until 5 January.