Professor Teams Up with Students to Translate Dead Sea Scrolls Fragment

Multnomah University students and faculty are taking their study of Scripture to a whole new level.

Professor Karl Kutz has been chosen by the Green Scholars Initiative to translate a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls with four of his students. It’s the first time the piece has been given any scholarly attention or critical analysis.

The fragment is part of The Green Collection, one of the largest compilations of rare biblical texts and artifacts in the world. Of the more than 40,000 items owned by the Green family, only 12 are Dead Sea Scrolls fragments. MU is the first school in the Northwest region of the United States to receive a fragment from the collection.

The Green Scholars Initiative puts a new spin on traditional research paradigms by loaning items from The Green Collection to established scholars — professors — who analyze the pieces with their students. The professors then investigate and write about the items while simultaneously mentoring students in their field of expertise. The result is groundbreaking research coupled with the unforgettable experience of working with a piece of ancient history.

Dr. Robert Duke, distinguished scholar of Hebrew texts for the Initiative and associate professor of biblical studies at Azusa Pacific University, said the Green family is committed to this model because it gives students real-world training, builds their résumés and opens doors. “They don’t have to wait to become scholars,” he said.

Duke began his own journey as a scholar at MU more than 21 years ago. “Multnomah shaped me in a lot of ways — not just academically, but also personally,” he said. “It was a great foundation.”

That foundation served Duke well as he entered a world of scholarship, and he never forgot the small university in Northeast Portland. When he found out about the Dead Sea Scrolls project, he immediately thought of Kutz and Multnomah.

Duke said Kutz’s training in biblical languages and his desire to mentor students made him an ideal choice. Multnomah’s passion for developing academically strong students added to the appeal. “MU is a great school for this because it allows hands-on training,” he said. “This kind of teaching puts the students at the center, not the professor. Some schools don’t do that. But I knew Dr. Kutz would be very good at it.”

Scholars from more than 60 colleges, universities and seminaries around the world are involved in research projects through the Initiative. “My goal is to see Multnomah become a hub in the Pacific Northwest for many of these projects,” Duke said.

Kutz was surprised to receive a call from Duke, who asked him if he’d be interested in the project this past February. “I didn’t expect that kind of opportunity,” Kutz said. “I was very excited.”

Equally exciting was the news that Kutz’s textual analysis of the fragment would be included in the first volume of a series tentatively titled “Early Jewish Texts and Biblical Manuscripts.” The book, to be published by Brill, will feature in-depth examinations of some of the earth’s oldest and rarest biblical texts.

The analysis will span two of Kutz’s classes: Advanced Hebrew Grammar in the fall and Issues in Exegesis in the spring. The first step in the process is identifying each Hebrew character in the fragment. Then students will learn about transcription as they recreate the text they see. Using electronic resources for the Hebrew Bible, the class will determine the origin of the fragment by finding passages in the Scriptures with the same collection of words.

In the spring, Kutz and his students will engage in textual criticism as they evaluate the fragment’s contribution to the modern Bible. They’ll see how the fragment compares to the Hebrew Masoretic text (used for most modern translations), the Greek Septuagint and the Aramaic Targum.

Analyzing the fragment will not be easy. “It’s a section of the text, a piece of the puzzle,” Kutz said. Estimated to be somewhere between 1,800 and 2,300 years old, the fragment has seen significant damage and decay. The ink, written on parchment (goat’s skin) that has blackened with age, is barely visible to the naked eye. Only an infrared camera is able to make the Hebrew characters legible.

“I’m looking forward to the adventure of working on a very, very old document,” Kutz said. “There’s an excitement when the students don’t have anything to fall back on because the fragment has never been published before.”

The four students who have joined Kutz in this project reflect his enthusiasm. “I’m honored that I’m allowed to partake in this,” said David Tucker, who’s earning his M.Div. and Th.M. degrees. “It’s very exciting to walk through this with Dr. Kutz — he is a master of Hebrew.”

The professors, Tucker said, are what make MU’s Hebrew program unique. “They teach the philosophy of the language,” he said. “The system of learning they’re developing doesn’t require the enormity of memorization that other programs require. Multnomah’s program develops a long-lasting understanding of Hebrew.”

Tucker also appreciates how learning Hebrew has improved his understanding of the Bible. Reading Psalm 22 in English takes him two minutes. But reading the same passage in Hebrew takes him a couple hours. “The detailed exploration of every word causes you to slow down,” he said. “It allows you to understand the passage more deeply.”

Haley Cloyd, an M.Div. student, agrees that studying Hebrew has given her a newfound respect for the Bible. She said analyzing the fragment will bolster her faith while giving her a deeper appreciation for the hard work translators have done to preserve God’s Word.

“People have this idea that the Bible was thrown together, but the people who translated it were very careful,” she said. “When you think about all the scrolls that have survived, there’s a reason for that. God was preserving his truth so more people could know him.”

Cloyd was overjoyed when she heard she could participate in the project. “I’m so unbelievably excited,” she said. “I can’t believe I get to have the opportunity to do something like this.”

Thomas Belcastro, a junior studying Hebrew, can’t believe it either. He couldn’t stop grinning when he spoke about seeing the fragment for the first time. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a class,” he said. “It feels like an Indiana Jones type of thing.”

For someone who wanted to be Indiana Jones when he was a kid, studying a biblical language is the perfect fit for Belcastro. “There’s a misconception about Hebrew that everything has been done already, but that’s not true,” he said. “There is still stuff to be discovered.”

The confidentiality of the assignment adds to his excitement. All notes students take while analyzing the fragment must be left with Kutz at the end of each class period. No pictures are allowed. And the students can’t talk to anyone about what the fragment says. “We’re protecting the Green family’s rights to the translation,” he said.

For Belcastro, the adventure won’t stop once the translating is over. The project is taking him one step closer to his dream job: teaching Hebrew at Oxford. “This is a chance to work toward my goal in a really tangible way,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s thankful he can learn from a teacher who appreciates scholarship and values his students.

“Dr. Kutz is a genius,” he said. “You often hear about how great the Hebrew program is here, but this adds validity to it.” 

December 3, 2013 | News