JERUSALEM - Last Thursday, October 14, within the Dominican Priory of St. Stephen of Jerusalem, Fr. Jean-Jacques Pérennès, current director of the Ecole biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem (EBAF), gave a conference presentation entitled "How does one become Roland de Vaux", in which he unveiled the first part of the life of Fr. Roland de Vaux, a Dominican and one of the former directors of the Ecole Biblique.
Fr. Pérennès will dedicate his next book to Fr. Roland de Vaux, while he is already the author of four wonderful biographies, all dedicated to Catholic religious living their mission and priesthood in Muslim majority countries.
Being able to devote months of research and study in order to properly write a single chapter, not hesitating to go to Afghanistan to collect the necessary testimonies, Fr. Pérennès shares with us the scientific but also spiritual quest of these extraordinary lives successfully given.
A beatified churchman, islamologist, ethnographer, archaeologist, orientalist, each one had a particular charisma that he exercised in his own way in a different cultural and geographical universe within the Arab-Muslim world.
Roland de Vaux was born in 1903 into a wealthy Parisian family and member of the French Establishment; he received a very solid classical education before being ordained a priest at the age of 26 and entering the Novitiate. An intelligent person, he then joined the Grand Couvent dominicain du Saulchoir in Belgium. Among 80 religious students, he distinguished himself by a great capacity for work and, very early, two publications, one on Averroes and the other on Latin avicennism, could have made him a recognized medievalist.
Eventually, it was biblical study and archaeology that became his favorite topics after he was sent to the Ecole Biblique de Jérusalem in 1933. The Dominican Fathers who founded the School, explorers and archeology pioneers, were getting old: it was important to form a new generation of which Father de Vaux would be the emblematic figure.
Meticulous, hard-working, versatile, thirsty for discoveries and knowledge, he never ceased to resemble Fr. Lagrange, whom he admired so much for his ability to be a "complete scholar".
Pursuing, in his words, "a great and humble ambition", he placed himself in the continuity of the Ecole Biblique pioneers' vocation, who fully trusted him as a successor: to confront the biblical texts with the historical and archaeological reality of the Holy Land, which he did starting from 1946 in a series of remarkable articles titled the Hebrew Patriarchs and modern discoveries, anticipating The great Ancient History of Israel, published at the end of his life.
Participating in the numerous excavation campaigns directed by the Ecole Biblique, he also taught courses in the Ancient History of Israel (changing the theme each year, he never gave the same course) as well as a course in archaeology on the institutions of the Old Testament and courses in the Assyrian-Babylonian language, while contributing to the launching and completion of the Jerusalem Bible.
As he took on more and more responsibilities within the School, the political context changed, burying forever the golden age of oriental archaeology conducted in a territory unified by the Ottoman Empire. The Second World War and its consequences were to disrupt the life of the School as well as the entire region. Moreover, from 1947 onwards, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, while bringing him worldwide fame, would be a heavy burden to bear.
Until his death at the age of 68, Fr. Roland de Vaux had to adapt to a reality that was different every day, carrying out heavy administrative and material tasks, sometimes in the midst of one of the many armed conflicts that marked his term of office, without ceasing his research as a universally recognised scholar, while remaining a very simple, friendly religious man, attending services among his brothers.
His tenacity in maintaining the functioning of the School and its level of excellence despite very troubled political and security contexts still pays off today, since the EBAF continues in 2021 to welcome young generations of brothers, who are also considered as great specialists in exegesis, archaeology and orientalism (ancient languages, epigraphy).
In the particular context of the Holy Land, the School archaeological work continues in northern Jordan (excavation of Byzantine churches), but also with the publication and preservation of the St. Hilarion monastery excavations in Gaza, which is expected to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in a near future.
Fr. Roland de Vaux and his predecessors' spirit is very much present among the Dominican fathers of today, who think only of sharing with the general public the erudition they acquired at the price of so much personal efforts.
The next Thursday conference at the Ecole Biblique will be given on October 28 by Fr. Emile Puech, epigraphist, director of research at the The French National Centre for Scientific Research / EBAF, and will be devoted to the most mysterious episode of the Qumran excavations, the discovery of the copper scroll.
All conferences are recorded and available here.
Biographies written by Fr. J.J. Pérennès and already published: