Frank Moore Cross, Requiescat in Pace

It’s impossible to have even a cursory knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls without encountering Frank Moore Cross, who died last Wednesday at age 91 from complications from pneumonia. His work on Semitic languages and Canaanite myth informs a great deal of what we know about the development of Hebrew writing.

Cross retired from a long and distinguished career in 1992, but his influence never faded, and he remained an active figure in the ongoing study of epigraphy and the DSS. He was a young professor in 1953, when he was assigned responsibility for texts from Cave 4. Some of those texts remained unpublished for 40 years, drawing Cross into the controversy about the secretive nature of the original DSS team. That controversy reached a head in the early 1990s, when photographic reproductions of the scrolls were published, breaking the academic monopoly on the remaining texts.

The fruits of his work, however, were crucial to understanding the texts. In 1961, Cross published “The Development of the Jewish Scripts” based on his research, and was able to separate scrolls and fragments into three periods base don their script. This was a key development in the study of the scrolls, and although the details have been finessed over the years, Cross’s work is central to our understanding of Hebrew writing.

From the NY Times obituary:

“When you walked into his classes, you felt you were on the frontier of knowledge in the field,” said Peter Machinist, who studied under Dr. Cross as an undergraduate at Harvard and now holds the endowed professorship there that Dr. Cross had held until his retirement in 1992. “Whatever happened in the field would come to him first, before it got published, because people wanted to know what he thought.”

“The more light we can shed on crucial moments in the history of our religious community — or on the birth of Western culture, to speak more broadly — the better,” Dr. Cross said of the scrolls in the interview. “The longer and more precise our memory is, the more civilized we are.”

Dr. Cross studied culture, religion and politics of the period in which the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was written and revised, and he traced the ways different nations and cultures had translated its early texts. He also traced the evolution of ancient script and developed expertise in dating documents by the slightest shifts in writing style.

“That we know that a particular scroll comes from 100 B.C. and not 50 A.D. is almost entirely due to the study of the scripts and their development that he worked out,” Mr. Machinist said. “That may seem like a trivial point, but if you don’t have a sense of when these texts are dated, you have no sense of their historical importance.”

Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review, remembers his friend here, and the Harvard Crimson provides some additional comments.

I’m working from memory, but unless I’m mistaken, Dr. Cross was a practicing Christian, despite being perceived as a revisionist scholar in some quarters. It’s important to remember that tracing the roots and textual development of the Hebrew scriptures does not strip it of its sacred and inspired character. I disagree with some of his conclusions (such as the idea that we need to study OT texts through the discipline of history rather than theology: I don’t see why it has to be either/or), but there’s no question that his work deepened our knowledge of the intertestamental period, and thus provided a vital window into the soil in which Christianity would take root.