Ovid R. Sellers

Ovid R. Sellers

Ovid Rogers Sellers (August 12, 1884 – 1975) was an internationally known Old Testament scholar and archaeologist who played a role in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He served as Professor of the Old Testament and Dean of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois from 1924-1954.

Ovid Sellers grew up on the campus of Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri, and graduated from Wentworth at age 13, the youngest in the history of the school. He earned an A.B. from the University of Chicago in 1904, a B.D. from McCormick Theological Seminary, becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister, in 1914, and a Ph.D from Johns Hopkins University in 1922. His studies concentrated largely on the Old Testament and ancient languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Syriac, and Akkadian Cuneiform.

His father, Sandford Sellers, was superintendent of Wentworth Military Academy, and Ovid returned to fill positions at the Academy while gaining his education, serving variously as instructor (1905-06, 1910-12), coach, and headmaster (1919-21). He also was the editor of the local paper, the Lexington Intelligencer News, from 1907-11. In World War I, he served as a chaplain and First Lieutenant in the 17th Field Artillery, Second Division, AEF. After getting his doctorate from Johns Hopkins, he became a Professor of the Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary, serving in that position from 1924 to 1954, and as Dean from 1934 to 1954. He periodically served as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago.

He was Director of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem in 1948-49 and was immediately thrust into the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In early September 1948, Mar Samuel, who had acquired the first four scrolls soon after their discovery in 1947, showed Sellers some additional scroll fragments that he had acquired. A few weeks later, on September 23, 1948, Sellers boarded a small twin engine Arab Airways biplane, flying from Beirut to Amman. Travel was very dangerous. The British mandate in Palestine ended on May 15, 1948. War broke out immediately, and peace would not be restored until November. While en route, Sellers' plane was intercepted and attacked by an Israeli fighter aircraft, forcing it to crash-land in Transjordan territory. Three of the six on board were killed, with Sellers as one of the survivors. A United Nations investigation led by Ralph J. Bunche found that the Provisional government of Israel was "responsible for a serious breach of the terms of the Truce as a result of unjustified attacks made by an Israeli fighter aircraft upon the Transjordan aircraft, resulting in the deaths of three persons, burns and injuries to three other persons, as well as the destruction of the attacked aircraft, and the incursion upon Transjordan territory by the Israeli fighter aircraft." In 1950, Bunche would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to Palestine.

Sellers recuperated and returned to his job within a few weeks. By the end of 1948, nearly two years after the discovery of the scrolls, no scholar had yet located the cave where the fragments had been found. With the unrest in the country, no large scale search could be undertaken. Sellers attempted to get the Syrians to help locate the cave, but they demanded more money than Sellers could offer. The cave was finally discovered on January 28, 1949 by a UN observer, and Sellers brought his box brownie camera to take the first photos of the cave, which were soon published in Life Magazine. In an attempt to date the scrolls, Sellers took some linen found in the cave, presumably from an outer wrapping of the scrolls, and brought it back to the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, the carbon-14 test, done at Chicago in 1950, was inconclusive, with a range from 245 BCE to 245 CE. It was later found that the carbon-14 test's margin of error was at 500 years.

Sellers was a staff member on 10 archaeological expeditions in Palestine, three of which he directed. He retired from McCormick in 1954, and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico the following year. He served as a Lecturer at the School of Theology in Djakarta, Indonesia in 1955, and returned to the American Schools of Oriental Research in 1957-58 as Professor of Archaeology. Sellers died in his hometown of Lexington, Missouri in 1975. Sellers had three children: Roger Sellers, Betty Sellers, and Lucia Sellers Butler.

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