College mourns passing of Frank Moore Cross '42, Biblical scholar
Sadly, Maryville College has learned of the passing of Dr. Frank Moore Cross, a member of the College's Class of 1942. One of MC's most distinguished alumni, he was presented an honorary degree from the College in 1968 and the Alumni Citation in 2001. In 1981, he was inducted into the College's Wall of Fame for his performance as a student-athlete in swimming, diving and track.
The obituary below, written by William Yardley, was published in the printed version of the New York Times on Sat., Oct. 20.
Frank Moore Cross, an influential Harvard biblical scholar who specialized in the ancient cultures and languages that helped shape the Hebrew Bible and who played a central role in interpreting the Dead Sea Scrolls, died on Tuesday in Rochester. He was 91.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, family members said.
“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.”
Dr. Cross grew up in Birmingham, Ala., the son of a Protestant minister. After earning a divinity degree, he went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and became one of the most prominent students of William F. Albright, whose work is part of the foundation of biblical archaeological studies.
The field was shaken in 1947 after a Bedouin goatherd stumbled across ancient scrolls in a cave west of the Dead Sea. More scrolls were eventually found in other caves near the site of an ancient settlement called Qumran, and many people believed that they would reveal new insights into the Bible.
Mr. Albright and some of his students were among a small group of scholars given exclusive access to the scrolls. Dr. Cross was given responsibility for Cave No. 4, and he published his findings in “The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies” in 1958.
Mr. Albright, writing that year in The New York Times, praised his student’s work as an “authoritative survey on the bearing of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the Bible.”
“It is now demonstrated,” he wrote, “that there were many different Hebrew versions of such books as Exodus, Deuteronomy, Samuel, Kings, etc., and that the uniformity of medieval Hebrew manuscripts is chiefly the result of careful editing by Jewish rabbis in the first two centuries A.D.”
But the scrolls were a continuing source of debate. Some scholars disagreed with Dr. Cross’s interpretations — or revised them through newer archaeological work — while others were critical of him and his colleagues for not sharing their access to the scrolls and publishing them more quickly in their entirety. Some suggested that the scholars were withholding material that could be sensitive to one religious group or another. (This concern proved largely unnecessary after the documents were eventually published in their entirety.)
Criticism over the delays, led by Hershel Shanks, the founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, crested in the 1990s. But on the publication’s Web site, Bible History Daily, Mr. Shanks wrote on Thursday: “All this concerning the scrolls was a blip that fades into insignificance with the passage of time. Frank’s scholarly achievements have had a radiating and lasting influence.”
In 1994, Mr. Shanks published a book-length series of interviews with Dr. Cross.
“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.”
Once, several colleagues said, after carbon dating confirmed dates that he had established through script analysis, Dr. Cross joked that he was happy to hear that his script studies had validated the practice of carbon dating.
Frank Moore Cross Jr. was born on July 13, 1921, in Ross, Calif. (He dropped the Jr. after his father died.) His family moved to Alabama when he was a young boy. He graduated from Maryville College in Tennessee and received a divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins.
At his death he was emeritus Hancock professor of Hebrew and other Oriental languages at Harvard, where he had supervised the doctoral work of more than 100 students.
“There are very few areas in which you do not meet with Frank Cross,” said Jack M. Sasson, a biblical scholar at Vanderbilt University, who did not study under Dr. Cross. “If you do not meet with Frank Cross, you meet with one of his students who had ideas he had launched.”
Dr. Cross is survived by his daughters, Susan Summer, Ellen Gindele and Rachel Cross, and six grandchildren. His wife of more than 60 years, the former Elizabeth Anne Showalter, died in 2009.
Dr. Cross often sequestered himself in his study at home until late into the night.
“He was very intense, and we would just kind of tiptoe by the study,” Ms. Gindele recalled. “My mother liked to say you could feel the wheels turning and not to bother him.”