Eva Mroczek, associate professor of religious studies, has received an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship for research into the often exaggerated stories about the discovery of ancient manuscripts. The Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars, announced March 12, will provide her with resources to work on a project titled “Out of the Cave: The Possibility of a New Scriptural Past.”
“The project is a history of the very idea of textual discovery,” said Mroczek, who joined the UC Davis College of Letters and Science Department of Religious Studies in 2015. “I’ll be looking at the stories themselves and how they really are their own entities. They are not just about religious writings; they are religious writings. These stories are where basic problems of the historical and religious imagination are worked out.”
Most discovery stories are a mix of truth and sometimes outrageous fiction, and the discovery often gets more attention than the thing discovered, she said.
One of the best-known tales is about a shepherd finding the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. The story, she said, “is basically true, but it is also part of a tradition that dates to antiquity, spanning the boundary between premodern religious myth-making and modern scholarship.” Another story from the 1940s had an early Christian text being traded for a bag of oranges. But these stories are nothing new; in 800, a bishop in the Middle East wrote a letter that enthusiastically, but probably inaccurately, described recently found ancient Hebrew texts.
Still the bishop’s excitement over the discovery is an important part of the research, Mroczek said, because early Jewish and Christian religious leaders and scholars knew that the texts they had were only part of the story.
“We might assume many premodern Jews and Christians thought the Bible was the perfect and complete holy book,” Mroczek said. “But it seems that they knew that parts of it were missing, lost or hidden. They knew that they didn't know or have everything.”
Mroczek will complete the fellowship at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, during the 2019–2020 academic year.
She has also received a grant from the Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for the long-term collaborative project “Books Known Only by Title: Exploring the Gendered Structures of First Millennium Imagined Libraries”. — Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science