Roland de Vaux

Roland de Vaux

Father Roland Guérin de Vaux OP (17 December 1903 – 1971) was a French Dominican priest who led the Catholic team that initially worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was the director of the Ecole Biblique, a French Catholic Theological School in Arab East Jerusalem, and he was charged with overseeing research on the scrolls. His team excavated the ancient site of Khirbet Qumran (1951-1956) as well as several caves near Qumran northwest of the Dead Sea. The excavations were led by Ibrahim El-Assouli, caretaker of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, or what came to be known as the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. The association of the archaeological site, the caves and the scrolls with the Essene sect of Judaism, long held to be warranted, is now under re-evaluation by a number of biblical scholars and archaeologists.

Life and work

De Vaux was born in Paris in 1903, entered the priesthood in 1929 and became a Dominican later the same year. From 1934 till his death in 1971 he lived in Jerusalem, first studying at the Ecole Biblique, then teaching various subjects including history and exegesis there. He became interested in archaeological studies while in Israel, learning as he went from people such as William F. Albright, Kathleen Kenyon and Benjamin Mazar. He had worked on several excavations when Gerald Lankester Harding, the director of the Jordanian Antiquities Department, contacted him in 1949 to investigate a cave near the Dead Sea where some scrolls had been found. By that time he had been director of the Ecole Biblique for four years. The cave later became known in Qumran nomenclature as Cave 1, the first cave to yield texts which became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The first of five seasons of excavations at the nearby Qumran ruins commenced in December 1951. Besides excavating Qumran, de Vaux also did seasons at Wadi Murabba'at with Lankester Harding in 1952, and at 'Ein Feshkha, a few kilometres south of Qumran, in 1958, while returning regularly to Tell el-Far'ah (north) from 1946 to 1960. He was editor for the Revue Biblique from 1938 to 1953, when he took on the job of editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls, being responsible for the publication of the first five volumes of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, the official publication for editions of the scrolls.

As de Vaux worked at Qumran and its vicinity more scrolls were found and these discoveries brought a small group of young scholars of Hebrew to work on them. These scholars, some of whom worked on their allotted scrolls for decades, included Józef Milik, John Marco Allegro and John Strugnell.

Lectures on Qumran

In 1959 he gave the Schweich Lectures at the British Academy, in which he presented his analysis of the archaeological site of Qumran. His conclusions included the following:

1) The site of Qumran, besides an early use during the Iron Age, was inhabited from around 135 BCE to some time after 73 CE. This represented three separate periods of occupation, Period I, to the earthquake of 31 BCE, Period II from the reign of Archelaus, 4 CE, to the destruction at the hands of the Romans at the start of the Jewish War in 68 CE, and Period III, Roman military occupation until some time before the end of the century.

2) The nearby caves which contained the scrolls were related to the settlement at Qumran, as they both featured similar artefacts.

3) The site was the home of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes and that the contents of the scrolls often reflect what is known of the Essenes from the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus.

From 1961 to 1963 he worked with Kathleen Kenyon in excavations in Jerusalem.

De Vaux chose not to publish a definitive archaeological report for his work at Qumran despite worldwide interest, though he left behind him copious notes, which have been synthesized into a single volume and published in 2003.

His two volume set, "Ancient Israel Volume 1: Social Institutions" (1958) and "Ancient Israel Volume 2: Religious Institutions" (1960) were unparallelled for their comprehensive coverage of what archaeology seemed to reveal about Ancient Israel. While later scholarship and archaeology have changed some of what we believe about the Qumran area and the Dead Sea Scrolls, his books are still a good tool.


* Article by Jacques Briend on Roland de Vaux, in The Encyclopaedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. Lawrence Schiffman and James VanderKam, Oxford, 2000.
* Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Roland de Vaux, OUP, 1973.
* Ten Years of Discovery in the Judaean Desert, Jozef Milik, SCM, 1959.

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