It looks like a simple hole carved into a piece of rock in the middle of a desolate desert region. The outline of Cave 4 is stark and solitary. But out of that cave—and some 10 others in Qumran, in the Judean Desert—came ancient scrolls that have changed the way we read the Bible.
James VanderKam ’68 has spent a good share of his life and professional experience examining, translating and interpreting the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
James Snyder, the Ann and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, calls VanderKam “one of the great scholars of our time in the field of Second Temple Judaism and especially of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Second Temple Judaism is what used to be called by Christian scholars the “Intertestamental Period,” the era between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, roughly from 515 B.C. to A.D. 70. “Basically, this is from the time the returned exiles rebuilt the temple to the time it was destroyed again by the Romans,” said VanderKam. “Although there were no books in our current Bibles written then, a lot was written and much happened—it was a valuable time for literature.”
VanderKam is well-known for his work on the Book of the Jubilees and the Book of Enoch, two books from which fragments were found among the other Dead Sea Scrolls. He has completed a commentary on a major section of Enoch and is currently working on one for Jubilees for Fortress Press, which has expanded a series of biblical commentaries into non-canonical books.
“Jubilees is important because it covers Genesis up to the first half of Exodus, and the concern of the author was that people would understand Genesis correctly and not make wrong inferences,” he said. “So we see in the book the earliest biblical interpretation taking place, dealing with problems in the text in a way that shows thoughtful reading and impressive scholarship.”
VanderKam’s work on Jubilees caught the attention of Dead Sea Scroll scholars in the 1980s. There was growing pressure on the small group of older scholars assigned to work on publishing the scrolls. While the scrolls were originally found between 1947 and 1956, relatively few had been fully transcribed 30 years later. VanderKam was the second younger scholar invited into this special group of academicians and was assigned to work on Jubilees. That work grew into more editing assignments, and now, of the 40 volumes in the now-completed official publication of the scrolls, VanderKam was editor of 13.
Currently, VanderKam continues his work, along with teaching undergraduate and graduate students, at the University of Notre Dame as the John A. O’Brien Professor of Hebrew Scriptures.
VanderKam’s interest first started to develop at Calvin, where he majored in classics in anticipation of the parish ministry.
“Since Greek was required for seminary, I spent a lot of time with the texts and I came to like the language very much,” he said. “I remember Professor Robert Otten requiring that those in his section translate in the classroom without notes. You had to be prepared, as this upped the intensity level, and I made sure I was.”
As he began at Calvin Theological Seminary, VanderKam was asked to teach introductory Greek at the college, which was customary at the time for one seminarian to do. As his studies progressed, it was clear to him that language, culture and history were a stronger draw than the pulpit, although pastoral training was also beneficial.
Legendary seminary professor Bas Van Elderen was also an influence; Van Elderen, too, was engaged in studying the scrolls and directed VanderKam to biblical scholarship opportunities at St. Andrews in Scotland (as a Fulbright recipient). Harvard University followed. After graduate school, he taught and did research at North Carolina State University for 15 years before the invitation from Notre Dame.
“In the scrolls we have copies of the Old Testament that were 1,000 years older than the previously known copies,” he said. “It is logical that hand-copied texts are going to contain mistakes over the years no matter how careful the scribe. Today, the scrolls are no longer in a specialized, separate world of study. They can now be used by all those interested and have influenced not only Old Testament study, but many other areas of biblical scholarship.”
VanderKam’s acclaim in his field also comes from extensive publications—his book The Dead Sea Scrolls Today is the most widely used introduction to these texts in colleges and universities—and leadership as editor-in-chief of the prestigious Journal of Biblical Literature.
In addition to these scholastic achievements, VanderKam is known as a caring mentor and friend. A colleague at Notre Dame says of him, “James VanderKam shows that it is still possible to be a ‘Christian scholar’ in the modern world and the modern university. Even more, he shows that it matters to do so.”
His pastor notes: “He humbly, faithfully, generously and lovingly serves the Lord in the church and in his chosen profession.”
VanderKam and his wife, Mary (Vander Molen ’68), have three children and six grandchildren. The VanderKams attend the South Bend Christian Reformed Church, which he quotes former member (and alumnus/Calvin professor) Alvin Plantinga describing as “the best little church in Christendom.”
VanderKam recalls “an intense emotional reaction” the first time he saw the caves of Qumran. Ever since, he has channeled the many gifts God has given him to help us read and understand the Bible better—and with the gentle grace modeled by that early student of the scriptures, the rabbi from Galilee, Jesus Christ.