You might expect to find the preeminent scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls cloistered in the sunless basement of a museum, surrounded by ancient artifacts and sheaves of dusty papers.
But on a warm afternoon in early September, Michael Wise, Ph.D., internationally celebrated for his knowledge in ancient languages, history and the scrolls, is in his well-lit office at University of Northwestern.
The scholar-in-residence and professor of Hebrew Bible & ancient languages jumps up amiably to meet with a student seeking advisory help. Wise, the highly regarded author of The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, has published innumerable scholarly papers, presented professional papers and lectures and has been featured in Time, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. But he is relaxed and at home in his third-floor office in Nazareth Hall.
Fellow professor Randy Nelson, Ph.D., of the Department of Biblical & Theological Studies said, "What surprises people is not how brilliant he is, but how down-to-earth. Serving Jesus is real, not abstract."
A self-professed “language guy,” Wise reads Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Syriac, Middle Egyptian, Coptic, Arabic and Akkadian (an extinct language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia). For him, learning the intricacies of ancient languages is as addictive as "eating peanuts." His achievements put him into an elite group of academics, both secular and religious.
"There aren’t too many of us," he admitted. 'We talk about languages with a certain glee."
How did University of Northwestern come to claim one of the most renowned experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls as a professor?
"This is where God is working,” answered Wise, who is also chair of the Department of Biblical & Theological Studies. "I look at Northwestern as God’s ministry—not just the faculty and staff, the whole of it. God is making things happen, and I have felt it was His intention that I be part of it.”
He points to Northwestern’s 30-credit biblical studies requirement for every student. "It means we get a special group of students,” he explained. "They’re very serious. I help them understand the Scriptures and the world of the Scriptures. That truly is ministry."
Michael Wise’s journey to Northwestern was God-directed rather than linear. After his father’s retirement from the U.S. Navy, the family settled in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Just before his senior year in high school, a girlfriend invited him to hear Bill McKee, a youth evangelist.
The message of grace and reconciliation resonated, and he made the decision to accept Jesus into his life. It was the beginning of his call to ministry. He could not have envisioned where it would lead him.
Wise attended the University of Minnesota and remembers signing up for Greek (the language, not a fraternity) at the beginning of his junior year.
"It was an August day. I bought The First Year of Greek textbook, brought it home and smelled it. I was enraptured by the idea of studying something so old, a fabled language."
His plan to specialize in New Testament studies emerged while he was studying for his Master of Divinity degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. But the world of the Old Testament, with its one thousand years of intersecting history, archaeology and language, attracted him.
"This seemed much more challenging as a project for my life.” He attained a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago—the institution where the fictional treasure-seeking hero Indiana Jones taught—and worked as an assistant professor and specialist in Second Temple Judaism at the university’s Oriental Institute.
Around this time, a concerted effort was under way to open study of the Dead Sea manuscripts to the international scholarly community. The scrolls had remained in the exclusive control of a privileged group of scholars who were “depriving others of the knowledge and the right to see the text.”
There was great emotion on both sides. It was a time, Wise remembers, of “legal and scholarly skullduggery and hidden fragments” within a “very spirited,” contentious environment. Wise became involved in efforts to free the scrolls, which eventually proved successful. With access to documents, he embarked on a three-year research and translation project with fellow scholars Martin Abegg, Jr. and Edward Cook. Together they produced an accessible English translation of the scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation was "the most complete translation that had ever been done, the only one that made the effort to explain things to the ordinary reader."
It sold 100,000 copies, appearing first in hard cover, then soft cover. The publisher sold translations in France and Italy. It was a History Book Club main selection, a bestseller in Germany for eight months and the translation used in BibleWorks, software used for study of the Bible. The translation would be used in some of the more prestigious professional publications for the field.
"That," said Wise, "was a sign that scholars thought we had done a good job." But the animosity over the struggle to release the scrolls had created opponents who used their influence to force Michael Wise out of his work at the University of Chicago.
With no academic position, Wise and his wife Cathy returned to Minnesota. After being at the top of his field, he now had only "a feeling of grief."
University of Northwestern history professors Clyde Billington, Ph.D., and Chuck Aling, Ph.D., learned that Wise was in town and eagerly proposed a teaching role. Eventually he was teaching full time. Since then, he has found a good balance at University of Northwestern: time in the classroom and room for scholarly activities.
As scholar-in-residence, Wise teaches a reduced number of courses, three per year rather than six. The rest of the time he writes and participates in conferences and research. Out of deep pain grew an opportunity to fully use his intellectual gifts. "Now I see it as God’s plan," he said.
Wise is now back at the University of Minnesota studying Classics—ancient Greek and Roman literature—and preparing a second dissertation. His wife Cathy, a partner in much of his work, will be retiring from her career in the next few years. She looks forward to working with him on several new book projects and presentations.
"He is a man of faith with a warm, tender heart—a heart for God," she said, offering a simple summary of a complex man. "He loves ideas and is not afraid to go where new information leads."
Wise says he is blessed to be part of University of Northwestern. "I think it’s important for evangelicals to be in [public] universities, but I’m so much more fulfilled by being in a place like this. I never take it for granted. I do have a passion for clear and serious thinking. That’s something I can give to my students. I want to help them become people who believe it’s important to honor God with ‘all your mind’ as well as your heart and soul."
Written by Shelly Barsuhn.