THE STORY OF
THE SCROLLS FROM THE DEAD SEA
Shrine of the Book
NOVEMBER 1947 the United Nations Organisation. sitting in the USA was
engaged in deliberations which were to lead up to the ending of the British
Mandate for Palestine and recommending the establishment of a Jewish State.
Jewish intelligence reported that Arab attacks on Jewish cities and
settlements were curtain to follow.
It was in such a tense atmosphere that E.
L. Sukenik, Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University received on
Sunday 23 November, 1947, a message from a friend, an Armenian dealer in
antiquities, asking the professor to get in touch with him immediately. A
meeting was fixed for the next morning. The British forces had divided
Jerusalem into military zones, each marked off with barbed wire barriers.
Sukenik met the Armenian dealer at the gateway to Military Zone B. As
neither of them had passes to go from one zone to another, their
conversation had to be across the barbed wire.
The dealer held up a scrap of leather;
Sukenik strained his eyes to peer through the loops of barbed wire to make
out the letters on the scrap. Gradually he recognised the shapes of the
letters. They resembled those he had found on small coffins and ossuaries
discovered by him in ancient tombs around Jerusalem and dating hack to the
period before Rome`s destruction of Jerusalem.
At first Sukenik felt the writing must be a
forgery but as he continued to peer the feeling grew stronger and stronger
that this was no forgery but the real thing. The professor's initial doubts
were understandable. Until the discovery of these scrolls it had been
accepted by scholars that the survival of writing on leather or parchment
for 2.000 years was an utter impossibility. In fact, because of this
feeling, it appears a valuable scroll was lost in the 1880's. Moses Wilhelm
Shapira offered for sale to the British Museum an ancient manuscript of
Deuteronomy which he had found during his exploration of the area east of
the Dead Sea, but it was denounced as a forgery by the experts at the time.
There is a strong feeling now that it was a genuine document, rejected
simply because the experts felt that no scroll dating back to the time of
Christ could have survived.
We can well imagine Sukenik's suppressed
excitement as the conviction grew that the fragment he was gazing at was
probably 2,000 years old. The dealer then told him that a mutual friend, an
Arab antiquities dealer in Bethlehem, had told him that some Bedouin had
called on him bringing several parchment scrolls which they said they had
found in a cave near the Dead Sea shore, not far from Jericho. Sukenik made
the perilous journey to Bethlehem. It was through Arab held territory and
the seven Arab nations were about to attack Israel. After the usual long
drawn-out preliminaries the Arab dealer produced three scrolls. Professor
'My hands shook as I started to unwrap
them. I read a few sentences. It was written in beautiful biblical Hebrew
. . I looked and looked. and I suddenly had the feeling that I was
privileged by destiny to gaze upon a Hebrew scroll which had not been read
for more than two thousand years.'
The late Professor Sukenik
examining one of the scrolls
dealer agreed to let Professor Sukenik have the scrolls for two days for
further examination, and to raise the cash for their purchase. It was with a
sigh of deep relief he reached Jerusalem again safely with his precious
parcel. He wrote:
'I made straight for my study and
unrolled the leathers. As I read the texts, I became more and more
convinced that my first hunch had been correct and that I was witnessing a
discovery of tremendous importance. I was enthralled by the beauty of the
Hebrew, but the identity of the texts still eluded me. I looked up the
Apocryphal books in my library to see if I could find parallels, but there
were none. Here then, were original texts.'
So next day Sukenik sent a message to the
Bethlehem dealer Feidi Salahi to say he was buying the scrolls.
A little later. Sukenik learned that
already Four scrolls from the same cave had been sold through a Syrian
antiquities dealer to the Syrian Metropolitan of the Monastery of St Mark in
the Old City of Jerusalem. Toward the end of January1948, professor Sukenik
received a letter from an acquaintance, a member of the Syrian Orthodox
Christian Community. He said he wished to show the professor some ancient
Hebrew scrolls. They arranged to meet in the YMCA building in Jerusalem.
This building was in Zone B and was at the time much used as a meeting place
for Arabs. Sukenik packed several books under his arm as if he were about to
change them at the YMCA library. The Arabs looked startled to see a Jew
enter the building and thought he must be a crazy bookworm to take such a
risk in hostile territory. The librarian was also a Syrian Orthodox
Christian. In a private room the safe was opened and several ancient scrolls
were produced and put on the table.
One of them was the now famous complete scroll of Isaiah.
The professor`s joy was great. He was allowed to take them home for further
examination and bring them back in a few days. His excitement is vividly
conveyed in his own words:
'I returned to the manuscripts
continually. day and night, sometimes even getting out of bed in the small
hours of the morning to read them and to make copies of some of the texts.
The Isaiah Scroll interested me particularly and I copied several of its
But the immediate problem was how to raise
the cash. Owing to the political troubles the Jewish Agency headquarters had
been moved to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem and travel between the two places was
highly dangerous. Before he could get the promise from the Jewish
authorities that the cash would be forthcoming he had to keep his promise to
return the precious parchments to the Syrian at the YMCA. Sukenik even tried
to raise a loan on his house, but as the political and military situation
was so grim, he was refused.
However, it was arranged that the Syrian
would meet Sukenik the following week at the Yugoslav Consulate. In the
meantime the Jewish Agency leaders were so impressed they told Sukenik they
were ready to provide any sums needed to secure the scrolls. But, alas it
was too late. The Syrian did not keep the appointment, but wrote weeks later
to say the sale was off
What had transpired was that the four
scrolls, which were the ones in the possession of the Syrian Metropolitan,
were taken by members of the Syrian Church to the American School of
Oriental Research in Jerusalem, for an opinion. The Americans advised that
the scrolls be taken to America; there they could be photographed, published
and translated and the publicity would enhance the value of the scrolls and
the Metropolitan would get a much better price for them.
Commenting on this, Professor Sukenik, who
had been 'left out in the cold`, wrote:
'Thus the Jewish people have lost a precious
So the professor believed - a
belief in which he died in 1953. But the story has a remarkable sequel.
Professor Sukenik's son is Dr Yigael Yadin,
the soldier-scholar. Dr Yadin was Chief of Operations in the defence of
Israel when the Israel war of independence took place in 1948. He is also,
like his father, an archaeologist of world repute and in 1964/5 was the
organiser of the great archaeological expedition at Masada. In 1954 Dr Yadin
was invited to visit the United States on a lecture tour. His thoughts
continually returned to the four Dead Sea scrolls. He knew were in the
country, but he had heard that several millions of dollars were being asked
for them. Then on 1st
June he received 'out of the blue` a telephone call from a young Jewish
journalist. Did Dr Yadin know that there was a small advertisement in the
Wall Street Journal for that day, advertising the scrolls for sale?
Dr Yadin told the caller to come round at
once, and there, among scores of business advertisements was the following:
DEAD SEA SCROLLS
dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale. This would be an ideal gift
to an educational or religious Institution by an individual or group. -
It seemed incredible, yet it fitted in with
Professor Albright's account to Dr Yadin that the Syrian Metropolitan had
been unable to sell the scrolls and was getting short of cash.
We must omit many interesting details, but
through a Gentile nominee, and the guarantee of a wealthy American Jew, Mr
Samuel Gottesman, to contribute the major part of the purchase price until
the Israel Government could send the necessary funds, the four precious
scrolls were purchased for Israel. The price was $250,000 a reasonable
figure when we compare it with the £100,000 which the British Government
paid to the Russian Government in 1933 for the Greek Codex Sinaiticus.
The scrolls were sent separately to Israel
and great was the joy on their arrival. Dr Yadin, just arrived in London
from the USA, received a cable from Jerusalem on 13 February 1955. It read:
'At this memorable moment the Prime
Minister is telling the country and the world about the home coming of the
scrolls. Excitement and joy are great.'
SEVEN SCROLLS TOGETHER
Thus the three scrolls purchased by Sukenik
and the four purchased in America are now safely housed in Jerusalem in 'The
Shrine of the Book'
The first three are:
I. 'The War of the Sons of Light
against the Sons of Darkness.'
2. 'The Thanksgiving Scroll.'
3. 'A scroll of the prophet
Isaiah, now known as 'Isaiah MS 2.'
The four which professor Sukenik missed,
but which were later bought in the United States are:
4. The now famous Isaiah Scroll,
now known as 'Isaiah MS 1.'
5. The Habakkuk Scroll with
6. The Manual of Discipline.
7. An Apocryphal book of Genesis.
The fame of these scrolls spread rapidly,
and search began in the area for other places of concealment. In this the
Bedouin were more successful than the scientific workers. With their desert
experience, eagle-like eyes and unlimited time, the Bedouin were able to
spot likely crevices and clefts which the scholars missed.
AND MORE FINDS
Fragments of scroll arranged
under glass in Jerusalem
1952 a scientific expedition was searching the caves when news came that the
Bedouin had found another cave close to Cave 1. In this Cave 2 leather
fragments of scrolls of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Psalms,
Ruth and Jeremiah were found. In Cave 3 were discovered the two copper
scrolls. Owing to corrosion it was impossible to unroll them. But at
Manchester a highly sensitive saw was designed and the scrolls were cut into
strips, opened out and put together. They contained details of some 60
places where the treasure, probably of the Qumran sect, was buried.
Next, the Bedouin discovered a hewn chamber
on the plateau between the cliffs and the Dead Sea. It was designated Qumran
4. It yielded more fragments of scrolls than anywhere else. Portions of 60
scrolls of books of the Old Testament were found. These included fragments
from Samuel with text different from the Hebrew Masoretic text, but somewhat
similar to the Greek Septuagint.
In 1952 the archaeologists probed an easily
accessible cave, now known as Cave 11. The probe was not thorough enough.
Four years later the Bedouin found that what appeared to he the solid back
of the cave was merely a rock fall and behind this fall was a small recess
in which had been neatly piled a hoard of manuscripts. One was an unrolled
scroll of the book of Psalms and another was a badly damaged scroll of an
Aramaic translation of the book of Job.
The Bedouin have no title to the scrolls
they find, so they are tempted to hide them away and the cash passes more or
less secretly. One Arab buried two in his garden. But the soil was very
different from the dry conditions of the cave where they had lain for 2,000
years. When the Arab took them out of the ground they were just a gluey
mess, ruined irretrievably. Some of these finds have been exhibited in the
British Museum, others have been purchased by museums, universities and
private persons and are scattered about the world.
OF BIBLICAL INTEGRITY
Our interest leis in the way in which these
scrolls confirm the integrity of the Holy Scriptures. As soon as the news of
their discovery began to spread, news-hungry journalists came out with
sensational columns. Were the new discoveries going to cause radical
modifications to the texts of our Bible? Would beliefs and doctrines have to
he adjusted in view of the contents of the Biblical scrolls which had now
come to light?
Two of the jars in which the
scrolls were discovered
the event, the sensationalists were completely disappointed. Until the
discovery of these scrolls, the earliest known Hebrew manuscripts of the Old
Testament were the Ben Asher Codex of the Prophets, of AD 895, and the
Aleppo Codex of the complete Old Testament dated AD 929. That is to say,
there was no known Hebrew manuscript of the complete Old Testament earlier
than the tenth century AD.
It is now generally agreed that the Khirbet
Qumran community hid these scrolls away for safety at the time of the Roman
invasion which resulted in the destruction of the temple in AD 70. But the
writer of this article heard a lecture by Professor Sukenik in which he
stated that the Isaiah Scroll was already of venerable age when it was put
away in the cave. The marks of the hands and fingers on the scroll as it was
opened and rolled up again speak of many years of regular use. Sukenik put
its date at the second century before Christ.
at one great leap, these Biblical scrolls carry us back to a time at least a
thousand years earlier than the oldest previously known Hebrew manuscripts.
And they provide an answer to the ready-tongued but shallow critics who say,
'How can you rely on the Bible today? It has been copied and translated and
inevitably, over the centuries, it must have changed radically from the
Our Old Testament translation in the
Authorised and Revised versions is based on the Masoretic text. The
Masoretes were a body of Jews whose work extended from the sixth to the
eighth centuries AD. They compared all the various manuscripts available to
them. and agreed a standard text, which was as near as possible to the
original text of the inspired writers.
The following words are very interesting:
Dr Yadin writes concerning the Biblical Dead Sea Scrolls, 'What is
astonishing is that despite their antiquity and the fact that the scrolls
belong to this pre-standardisation period they are, on the whole, almost
identical with the Masoretic text known to us. This establishes a basic
principle for all future research on texts of the Bible. Not even the
hundreds of slight variations established in the texts, affecting mainly
spelling and occasionally word substitution, can alter that fact.'
Supporting evidence is afforded by
Professor Miller Burrows of Yale University. Writing of the Isaiah Scroll he
says 'The conspicuous difference in spelling and grammatical forms between
the St Mark M.S. (Isaiah Scroll) and the Masoretic text, makes their
substantial agreement in the words of the text all the more remarkable.'
'Considering what a long time
intervened between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the oldest of the medieval
mss. one might have expected a much larger number of variant readings and
a much wider degree of divergence. It is a matter for wonder that through
something like a thousand years the text underwent so little alteration.
As I said in my first article on the scroll "Herein lies its chief
importance supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.'
We observe that Dr Yadin says that this
fact is astonishing. Professor Burrows says 'it is a matter for wonder'. But
for the earnest believer in the divine inspiration of the scriptures it
causes no astonishment. There is one factor which all the writers on the
scrolls completely ignore. That is, the hand of Divine Providence in
preserving the integrity of the sacred writings. Is it believable that the
Almighty would inspire holy men to pen the books of the Holy Scriptures and
then suffer copyists and translators so to distort the text that earnest
seekers after Truth would seek in vain?
The writings of Moses and the prophets
reveal the sins and waywardness of the Children of Israel, exactly as the
Spirit of the Almighty moved them to write. Yet, in spite of this, so great
was the reverence of the Jews for the sacred writings that when making
manuscript copies they counted the words and letters to make sure nothing
had been added or omitted. It is said that whenever the scribe had to write
the word Yahweh he washed his hands before so doing
The words of Paul come forcibly to mind:
"What advantage then hath
the Jew? ....Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were
committed the oracles of God."
But, while the original writers were
divinely inspired the copyists and translators were not, therefore allowance
must be made for a slight element of human error. We have before us at the
moment of writing a large photograph of the Isaiah Scroll (MS 1) opened out
at chapter 40. When the copyist came to write verse 8
'The grass withereth, the flower
fadeth', he evidently thought he had
already written this, as verse 7 starts in the same way, 'The grass
withereth etc'. So he omitted the verse. The error was subsequently
discovered and the verse is inserted sideways in the left hand margin. In
the margin between chapters 38/9 and 40, that is, on the right side of the
chapter 40 column, another missing verse has been inserted sideways. It is
the last verse of chapter 38:
'Hezekiah also had said, What is
the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?'
Thus any slips on the part of the copyist
were detected and corrected, and the whole scroll, as Dr Yigael Yadin says,
is on the whole almost identical with the Masoretic text known to us. The
slight variations are mainly matters of spelling.
This is not surprising, in our own lifetime
we have seen the spelling of words in the English language undergoing a
change, as for instance the use of 's' instead of 'z' in many words, the
American spelling of 'center' for 'centre', and 'thru' for 'through'.
The fact is, such slight variations
as occur in the copying and translation of Biblical manuscripts are, by the
hand of Providence, restricted within exceedingly narrow limits and affect
no historical fact and certainly no doctrine or belief.