Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls

In 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 Sukenik records:

‘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 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 chapters.’

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 heritage.’

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:

Biblical Manuscripts 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. – Box 206.

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.’

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 commentary.

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.


In 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.

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?

In 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.

Thus 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 original manuscripts.’

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.