John van der Ploeg
04.07.1909 – 04.08.2004


A brief biography and some outlines:


  1. His youth, the Dominicans and his studies, 1909-1946.
  2. The Dead Sea scrolls cave 11. (11.12.1946-11.12.1947).
  3. His life since 7 January 1948.
  4. The Syriac manuscripts, (1963).
  5. The Saint Thomas Christians.
  6. The years: after 1972  - + 4 August 2004


A.    His youth, the Dominicans, his studies.



John (Jan) Peter, Mary van der Ploeg was born in Nijmegen on 4 July 1909 in the family of 7 children of Harke Antonius van der Ploeg  and Petronella Anna Snijers. His father was headmaster.
John van der Ploeg was a brilliant student. At his 16th he took his certificate of the High School (HBS) cum laude in Maastricht.

During his bicycle rides through Limburg he saw the French Dominican life in the priory of Ryckholt, and was impressed, according to him, by the beauty of the Dominican liturgy and the singing choral prayer. He decided to become a Dominican and followed private lessons of Greek and Latin. He joined the Dominican Province of the Netherlands in Huissen on 18 September 1926. After the noviciate, he studied philosophy and exegesis in Zwolle (the Netherlands) and chose also Hebrew and Syriac.

After studies of theology in Huissen and in the priory of Saulchoir he was ordained a priest by Mgr Benjamin-Octave Roland-Gosselin, Bishop of Versailles on 6 July 1932.
After his ordination John van der Ploeg was sent to the Dominican university ‘Angelicum’ in Rome (10 October 1932) where he obtained his doctorate with a dissertation on 'Les chants du serviteur de Iavé dans la seconde partie du livre d’Isaie’ cum laude (9 July 1934). On 13 July 1934 he was teaching in the priory of Zwolle (the Netherlands). He was awarded his licentiate by the Papal Biblical Commission at Rome 25 November 1937.

In 1935 he met, by his knowledge of the Old Syriac, sisters of the Syriac rites from Kerala, India, students in medicine with scholarships of the ‘Apostolaat van de Hereniging’. He was member of this 'Apostolaat' and twice chairman, till 1973.

During WO II he was teaching in Huissen because the Albertinum in Nijmegen was occupied by the German troops. In the wartime (10.05.1940-05.05.1945) van der Ploeg’s library, even then extensive, was completely lost by German and English grenades.

Van der Ploeg wrote during this wartime in the underground illegal catholic press and maintained secret contacts with the national organisations for places of hiding for Jews citizens and allied pilots. Several times he had to go into hiding to escape the hands of the Germans.

After the war van der Ploeg was again in Rome to take his doctoral degree,- summa cum laude - in the Biblical Sciences with his dissertation: ‘Une sociographie d’Israel et de Juda au temps des rois’, 28 November 1946. 

B. The Dead Sea Scrolls.

After his second promotion van der Ploeg was allowed to go to Palestine for a year of studies in Arabic and Archaeology at the Dominican École Biblique from 11 December 1946 till 11 December 1947.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in that time by Bedouins in caves near the Dead Sea. Four of these scrolls were on 19 July 1947 in possession of Mar Athanasius Yehoshue Samuel, Archimandrite of the Syriac-Orthodox Saint Marcus Monastery in Old Jerusalem. (2)

Van der Ploeg, who had visited the Bishop twice, because of his interest in the Syriac Tradition, was invited by the end July 1947 to give an opinion. Hereby he was, after Stefaan Hanna Stefaan, official of the Palestinian Museum of Antiquities (now the ‘Rockefeller Museum’) - but not an expert of this matter – (2, note 16), the second one, outside the circle of Bedouins, dealers and monks, who saw the scrolls.

Van der Ploeg means: It is the great Jesajascroll or ‘Pesher of Habakuk‘and the ‘Rule of de Community’, divided over two scrolls from cave 11.

It is ironic: when van der Ploeg visited Mar Samuel he had a camera, and took photographs of the Bishop, the monastery and the monks, but not of the opened scrolls; than he was the first who had seen the Jesaja text!  Later he gave the pictures to the monastery. 

On 11 December 1947 van der Ploeg returned to the Netherlands.
On Thursday 19 February 1948 the monks of the Monastery granted John C. Trever, fellow of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem permission to take photographs. Also he heard the story about the discovery.

“In the field of the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, van der Ploeg published a number of important studies and translations. With A.S. van der Woude and B. Jongeling he co-authored the editio princeps of the Aramaic Job Targum from Qumran (1971), and in the Netherlands and Belgium his Vondsten in de Woestijn van Juda’ served for decades as a reliable guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was first published in Dutch in 1957 and was often revised and reprinted; it was translated into English in 1958 (The Excavations at Qumran. A Survey of the Judaean Brotherhood and Its Ideas) and into German in 1959.” (1)


C. His life from 7 January 1948.

John van der Ploeg returned to Nijmegen 1947 continued his teaching on 7 January 1948. After ‘examen ad gradus’ the Master of the Order appointed him Magister of Theology (6 June 1950). In this capacity van der Ploeg was member of council of the Province of the Netherlands and member of the council of the Prior of the priory Albertinum.

On 30 July 1951 he became professor at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, (now Radboud University) teaching Exegesis of the Old Testament, Hebrew, and Syriac (1955) till 1979. (1)

The Provincial Chapter chose him in 1956 as diffinitor for the General Chapter in Caleruega in 1958.
In 1958 he was appointed momber of the ‘Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen’, Amsterdam.
He was Rector Magnificus of the University from 1961 till 1962.
From 25 April 1962 till 6 Mai 1962 van der Ploeg was in Jerusalem at the descrolling and investigation of the scrolls of cave 11. (2)

D. The Syriac Christianity.

Because of his good relations since 1947 with Catholics of the Syriac ritus in Lebanon and India,  and the support of the ‘Apostolaat der Hereniging’ Ignace Gabriël Cardinal Tappouni, Catholic Patriarch of  Antiochië of the Syricans’ appointed and consecrated him to chor-bishop of the Syrian Catholic Church and titular chor-bishop of Amid in South-Turkey (Diar-Bekr) in 1963. (2)

 'Syriac Christianity constituted a third important focus of Father van der Ploeg’s academic work. In his later life his many contacts with the Syrian Christians of Southern India gave him the opportunity to pursue his Syriac interests. This is expressed eloquently in the title of the Festschrift that was offered to him for his seventieth birthday: Von Kanaan bis Kerala (eds. W.C. Delsman, J.T. Nelis, J.R.T.M. Peters, W.H.Ph. Römer, and A.S. van der Woude; Alter Orient und Altes Testament 211; 1982.'.

“Father van der Ploeg’s Syriac work can be traced back, however, to a much earlier period in his life.  His interesting book on Oud-Syrisch Monniksleven, ‘Old-Syriac Monastic Life’ (Leiden, 1942), written and published during the wartime, never received the attention it deserved. It was not meant to be a history of Syriac monasticism; the author intended merely to present “some critical observations and a short explanation of the origins of monastic life in Syria, along with a brief sketch of Syriac, more particularly East-Syriac, monasticism as it existed for centuries, following the reform introduced by Abraham of Kashkar” (Preface, p. ix). While Thomas of Marga, Isaac of Niniveh, and Bar Hebraeus are the most prominent frequently quoted authors, several other texts, Syriac and Greek, are used and referred to as well. A number of important questions are dealt with in a clear and elegant style, enlivened with anecdotes and personal observations. A final section discusses monastic life of the present-day Syrians. The Syrian Orthodox, with their monasteries in Tur Abdin, Jerusalem (Mar Markos), and Iraq (Mar Mattay) are singled out as the only community to have preserved, uninterrupted, the tradition of early Syriac monasticism (p. 97).”

Source: Lucas Van Rompay. Duke University
Department of Religion, Box 90964
Durham, NC, 27708-0964, U.S.A.

E. The Christians of Saint Thomas.

From 1963 van der Ploeg was several times in India, where he held many conferences for priests. He also investigated a Syriac manuscript in Kerala.  

“Widely used and well-known among Syriac scholars is Father van der Ploeg’s book on The Christians of St. Thomas in South India''  and their Syriac manuscripts (Placid Lecture Series 3; Bangalore, 1983), which is the product of many years of work in Kerala and in Europe. While the focus is on the preserved manuscripts—many of which are analyzed or briefly described, often for the first time—the author’s interest extends to the religious, literary, and cultural history of the various Christian communities. The first chapter provides a historical survey, followed by an overview of the various categories of manuscripts (chapter 2). Chapter 3 lists a number of important libraries in Kerala and provides descriptions of the main manuscripts. Chapter 4 is devoted to manuscripts copied in Kerala, but presently held in European libraries (Rome, Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, Leiden, and Amsterdam).
In spite of its limitations (and the tantalizing incompleteness of many a description!), this book, carrying the clear mark of the author’s personal approach and dedication, is a unique contribution to the uncovering and study of Kerala’s rich manuscript treasures. Following Van der Ploeg’s publication, the work was picked up by various other scholars, but another publication of similar breadth and erudition has not yet appeared.”

 “Even if Syriac was not always at the centre of Father van der Ploeg’s academic work, Syriac scholars should be grateful for his distinctive contributions to the field and for his strong commitment to Syriac Christian culture in the Middle East and in India.”(1)

In 1999 John van der Ploeg was appointed ‘Doctor Honoris Causa’ of the University of Madras (Department of Christian Studies) India. He received this title with reference to his catalogue and description of Syriac manuscripts, copied in Kerala and dated from the 13th century.  They are now preserved in the libraries or by private persons in Kerala, and in University libraries in Rome, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Amsterdam and Leiden. This publication served as a basis for study about the history of the ‘Thomas-Christians’ in South India and Ceylon, converted by Thomas Apostle in the 1st  Century. (2)

F. The years 1967 till 2004. (2)

1967.  John van der Ploeg attending the Bishops conference in Rome as personal theologian of the Archbishop of Trivandrum,

1979. John van der Ploeg accorded emeritus status (70 years).
The ‘Liber Amicorum’ is published in 1982.
1980. Member of the ‘Pontificia Academia Theologica’ Rome.

John van der Ploeg died on 4 August 2004, the feast day of Saint Dominic from 1558 till 1969. His funeral was celebrated in the church ‘Het Cenakel’ at the ‘Heilige Landstichting’ in Nijmegen. He is buried in the Dominican cemetery of the former priory of Ryckholt.


John van der Ploeg was a deeply religious person. His studies led him to a search for truth behind the words and statements. His meeting with the Thomas-Christians in India strengthened his conviction that it is paramount to conserve and keep and develop the old traditions in which one is raised. This may be the reason that he couldn’t stand that during and after the Second Vatican Council ruptures became obvious.

Celebrating his 40 years of being ordained a priest, he wrote:  ‘I have wanted to celebrate this liturgy of the Eastern Church, because I feel very bounded by it; this liturgy speaks to my heart over and against the ever more matter-of-fact liturgy of the West. The eastern liturgy expresses clearly that serving God on Earth is a representation of his Heavenly service; it expresses most clearly the immeasurableness if the Mystery celebrated in this liturgy.’

J.P.M. van der Ploeg, in ‘Mijn veertig jarig priesterfeest. Veertig preken over Geloof en Evangelie’, Tuilburg 1978, (p.217). (2)

At the end of his book about the ‘Thomas-Christians in Southern India’, he describes with melancholy the old liturgical traditions. One of these is the ‘ceremonia vetustissima’ where after the prayers – the oldest priest takes the hands of all participants in his own as a sign of peace. This peace we may well wish also to Van der Ploeg.’ (E.Noort, 2).

 (1) Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies.
Obituary J.P.M. van der Ploeg O.P. (1909-2004). Lucas Van Rompay. Duke University, Department of Religion, Box 90964. Durham, NC, 27708-0964, USA.

(2) Herdenking van pater prof.mag.dr.J.P.M. van der Ploeg O.P. 2004
Door E.Noort. In
shortened version spoken at the session of the ‘Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen’ on 10th  January 2005.

(3) Wikipedia



The Dead Sea Scrolls were found by Bedouins in caves
near the Dead Sea. Four of these scrolls were on 19 July 1947 in possession of Mar Athanasius Yehoshue Samuel.

The Archimandrite invited John van der Ploeg  at a discretion of the scrolls. John van der Ploeg recognized
them as a text of Isaiah.

Israel 1997, Mi Bl 56; Sc 1306. 

Prof Dr Magister J. van der Ploeg was member of the 'Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen' since 1958.


The Netherlands 2008, Mi 2577, Sc -





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