Patten professor Hannah Harrington digs into the Dead Sea Scrolls

College professors are known for loving old books. But Patten University’s Dr. Hannah Harrington takes the study of old texts to the extreme – 2,000 years extreme.

Harrington is an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient texts discovered in the Qumran caves, an archaeological site in the West Bank about a mile inland from the Dead Sea.

The texts, which date to around 300 BCE, include some of the earliest known surviving copies of biblical and extra-biblical documents.

Harrington, chair of Patten’s Religious Studies department, has studied these ancient texts for more than twenty years. In fact, she is one of the few people to study the Temple Scroll, the longest and one of the most complete of the Dead Sea Scrolls, before it was published.

Currently Harrington is part of a team of scholars compiling an encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “I’ve been very fortunate,” Harrington said, “because twice I’ve been flown to Germany to work on different angles of this.”

It’s no surprise, however, that Harrington was invited to work on this project. Since starting to study the ancient texts in the late 1980s, Harrington has published more than 50 articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls, received 4 National Endowment for the Humanities grants, and earned endowments from numerous universities including Brandeis and Brown. She has written numerous books, including Purity Texts, Companion to the Qumran Scrolls, Book 5 (Sheffield Academic Press, 2004) and The Impurity Systems of Qumran and the Rabbis (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1993).

A Strange Path to the Dead Sea Scrolls

Hannah Harrington’s love of music nearly derailed her academic career.

After completing her bachelor’s degree at Patten, she decided to pursue her love of music and also earned a bachelor’s from the highly regarded San Francisco Music Conservatory.

When she decided she wanted to pursue biblical studies, she applied to the highly competitive Hebrew Studies master’s program at the University of California, Berkeley. “I was really interested in the Hebrew background of not just the Old Testament,” Harrington explains, “but also the New Testament and how Jesus came out of that Jewish heritage.”

But her application languished; she heard nothing.

About that time two of her professors from Patten, Dr. Moncher and university founder Dr. Bebe Patten, were invited to a business lunch where they happened to meet the man in charge of Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department. Before long, the man brought up Harrington’s application. “It really doesn’t look like she knows what she’s doing,” Harrington remembers them telling her. “She’s got this bible degree, she’s got this music degree… unfocused?”

“It just looked like it didn’t add up,” Harrington laughs. “But Dr. Moncher and Dr. Patten were able to present me in such a way that he just put me right in.” Granted conditional acceptance to the University, a year later Harrington began her graduate degree in Hebrew.

From the Living Room to the Dead Sea

Her first graduate level class at Berkeley was a Bible class with fewer than ten people that met at the professor’s house. That professor, Jacob Milgrom, was the international expert on Leviticus, the third book of the Bible describing priestly rituals and sacrifices. “I wasn’t thrilled to be studying Leviticus,” Harrington recalls, “but in time it paid off.”

Outside of Berkeley, people were discovering new fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first had been found in 1947, but “the ones they were finding in the 80s, when I was at Cal, were more legal,” Harrington explains. “That was a big shift for the scholarly community.”

That community now needed an expert in both Leviticus and Jewish tradition to help interpret the meanings of the fragments. Who better suited than Jacob Milgrom?

Professor Milgrom joined the international research team working on the newly found scrolls and was able to inspect some of the fragments before they were published. This in turn sparked Harrington’s interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls. “For my project that year, I agreed to do my research on the Dead Sea Scrolls view of Leviticus, Harrington notes. “That was my entry into this whole area.”

And her ticket to spending quality time with 2,000-year-old books.

Dr. Harrington has worked at Patten since 1983 and joined as a full time faculty member in 1989. Currently she chairs the Religious Studies department.

An active member of the Society of Biblical Literature, she is currently researching the Ezra-Nehemiah portion of the Old Testament.