Text size

On a fine spring day in 2004, archaeologist Hanan Eshel and his research assistant, Roi Porat, parked their jeep near the cliffs at Ein Gedi. Eshel, 49, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and one of the most keen researchers of the Judean Desert scrolls, has been digging in the region's wells for years. When the two returned to the jeep, they discovered that thieves had broken into it and stole equipment. Eshel asked Porat to find a local Bedouin who would guard their vehicle during future expeditions, and so it was.

In August 2004, the Bedouin told Porat that an acquaintance of his, also a Bedouin, had found fragments of a scroll in a cave in the Judean Desert. He asked for assurance that his identity would remain confidential, and promised to find a way to show the fragments to the two scientists.

That same day, Eshel and Porat met with him southeast of Hebron, on the edge of the desert. The Bedouin showed them four small fragments and allowed them to take photographs.

Eshel was not a little surprised when the Bedouin informed him that the pieces of scroll were from the Bar-Kochba era. The Bedouin explained that the acquaintance who had found the fragments had already shown them to an antiquities dealer in Hebron. The Hebron dealer brought them to a dealer in Tel Aviv, who estimated the fragments' worth at around $20,000.

Eshel later examined the photographs of the fragments and decided that they were from chapters 23 and 24 of Leviticus. A week later, he flew to the University of Michigan for several months and, meanwhile, asked Porat to determine the precise location of the cave for the sake of deeper examination, following which they could publish the fragments in the scientific press.

From Eshel's perspective, the find was a dramatic one, not only on scientific grounds but on personal ones as well. He had been digging in the desert caves for almost 20 years and had naturally hoped for significant findings. Over the years, he found scrolls made of papyrus, coins and other relics that attested to the lives of the people who hid in the caves, most of them the last rebels from the Bar-Kochba era. But this was the first time he'd come across parchment of a biblical document.

Tens of thousands of scroll fragments had been discovered at the Qumran site in the desert from the era of the destruction of the Second Temple, and in the caves where the Bar-Kochba rebels hid. But this was the first piece of parchment scroll to be found in the Judean Desert since Yigal Yadin's discoveries at Masada in 1965.

Eshel believes it is urgent to continue searching for additional relics before they are lost forever. He argues that Israel's scientists have difficulty competing with the Bedouin, who know each nook and cranny of the area and who dig in secret, aiming to sell any antiquities they uncover. But Israeli scientists have an advantage, too: advanced equipment.

Therefore, while Eshel was in the United States, Porat located the cave where the fragments had been found and discovered pieces of pottery and the remains of woven cloth from the time of Bar-Kochba. They had been left behind by the Bedouin who had dug up the site and sifted through the dirt.

Any discovery from the Bar-Kochba era is of great significance because very little is known about what happened during the years of the rebellion he led from 132 to 135 C.E. Some sixty years earlier, there had been a great uprising against the Romans, at the end of which, in the year 70 C.E., Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed. Three years later, the last rebel stronghold, Masada, fell.

The Romans were brutal in their suppression of the Bar-Kochba rebellion. Jewish settlement in the land of Israel was severely weakened and the few survivors moved to the Galilee. Jewish sources from the Talmud describing the events of a certain period cannot be regarded as historical documentation because they discuss the merits of the rebellion and of Bar-Kochba, aided by tradition and commentary by sages and legends, too.

In general, the Talmud condemns Bar-Kochba and even disparagingly refers to him as "Bar-Coziba", loosely - a liar.

Following the failure of the rebellion and the destruction of the Temple, Judaism adopted a tradition of vowing to forsake rebellion against regimes in order to forestall bringing about the End of Days, and not to try to conquer the land of Israel.

Indeed, the next time Jews would achieve independence would be in 1948.

There are any number of writings about the rebellion, including Josephus Flavius and other Jewish and Roman writers. But there are almost no relics of the Bar-Kochba rebellion. Before Yigal Yadin's discovery of writings in Nahal Hever 45 years ago, nobody even knew the full name of the rebellion's leader, Shimon Bar-Kochba.

Until recently, scholars didn't even know crucial details about the struggle itself: Did it break out because of the establishment of the pagan city Aelia Capitolina on the rubble of Jerusalem? Or because of decrees handed down by the Romans, who prohibited circumcision and Sabbath observance? Which regions were involved? How long did it last? And, did the rebels ever conquer Jerusalem?

Therefore, any discoveries from the era are of vast interest and indeed, with the help of the relics, the Israeli scientists managed to resolve some of the questions. At the orders of Bar-Kochba, Roman coins were stamped with his seal, and with the year of the rebellion and the words "for the liberation of Israel" or "to free Jerusalem". Based on the sites where thousands of such coins were found, the rebellion is now known to have encompassed the area from the Binyamin region in the north to the Hebron mountains in the south, and from the Judean hills to the Jordan River and Dead Sea.

Only a handful of coins from this period were found in Jerusalem itself, compared with tens of thousands from other eras. Therefore, the current belief is that Bar-Kochba never did conquer Jerusalem, though an image of the facade of the Second Temple does appear on large silver coins that he minted.

Papyri with economic content that Eshel found in other caves, as well as coins, also shed light on the events. One hoard included coins of the rebels together with coins of Aelia Capitolina, which the scientists believe proves that the rebellion began after Jerusalem was turned into a pagan city. That strengthens the theory that the conversion of Jerusalem was the main reason why the rebellion broke out.

Thus the bit of parchment from Leviticus can be added to similar relics found in other Judean caves and broadens our knowledge. Eshel and his colleagues deduced that the Jews who read the scroll did it for the last time on Passover, when the book is traditionally read. Since no remnants from other biblical books were found in the cave of the scrolls, the researchers assume that the Jews fled to other caves after Passover. The remains of food found in the caves, such as pits from fruit, confirm their theory regarding the season of the year in which they hid.

Eshel prepared a preliminary publication on the parchment remains and upon his return to Israel in February 2005, he discovered that the remains were still in the possession of the Bedouin. Even before that, Porat submitted a report to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) about the robbery of the cave the Bedouin had committed, to which he appended photographs of the scroll remnants. Eshel, who discovered that the Bedouin had damaged the pieces when trying to glue two of them, decided he had to rescue the pieces and contacted Judaica collector Dr. David Jeselsohn of Zurich.

Jeselsohn, who makes donations to Bar-Ilan University for the study of the history of Israel, put up $3,000 to buy the scroll. The parchment pieces were immediately transferred to the Israel Museum laboratory for handling and later, photographs were given to the Israel Police, which has the most advanced equipment for investigating such cases. In April 2005, the remnants were handed over to the IAA, as is required by law.

That could have been the end of the relics' story. But it wasn't. It was just the beginning of a messy affair that isn't over yet.

But the IAA was irked at the way the discovery and acquisition of the relics had been handled. Its director general, Shuka Dorfman, and his people questioned Eshel and Bar-Ilan's management, and ultimately complained to the police against him. The police began to investigate.

In September 2005, police investigators accompanied by a representative of the Antiquities Authority came to Eshel's home in Jerusalem and announced that he was suspected of trading in antiquities and in buying stolen property - the parchment fragments. The police searched his home, confiscated this and that, ordered Eshel to relinquish his passport and brought him for further questioning to the in Jerusalem police headquarters in the Russian Compound. A month later, he was summoned for more questioning and when he left, he was pounced on by reporters and photographers covering the juicy affair of the professor suspected of criminal activity.

Dozens of Eshel's colleagues, Israeli academics of repute, signed a letter published as an ad in Haaretz protesting the IAA's actions. Eshel had "rescued a scroll that could have been lost," they wrote, and "treating him like a criminal was vengeful, wrong and unfair." Never before had a member of the scientific establishment been treated in such a way, they added.

The IAA responded with an official announcement that stated it regretted that Eshel had "as a private person, broken the law, been caught and was now doing everything in his power to save his skin, including through the cynical exploitation of his colleagues."

The abusive language toward the professor reached a crescendo in a Yedioth Ahronoth headline: "The Antiquities Authority is positive: Eshel's next finding will be the defendant's docket."

Two years have passed and no charges have been filed against Eshel. The investigation seems to have stopped. The tempest in the teacup has dissipated. Some researchers believe that the IAA's battle against robbers and traders was brutally pursued at the expense of a scientist who had no ill intentions or expectation of monetary gain. Anybody who knows the antiquities market in general, and that of Jerusalem in particular, knows that it's a tricky arena. There are plenty of researchers held in the highest esteem who traded in antiquities, in peace.

The only ones to pay a price so far are the three Bedouin who found the fragments and sold them. They were arrested, tried and heavily fined.

Eshel feels bruised, but thinks that at the end of the day, it worked out. He is proud to have brought the pieces to the State.

Yet there's one person who isn't satisfied: Arnold Spaer, a lawyer and a member of the management boards at the Islamic Art Museum in Jerusalem and the Hecht Museum in Haifa, and a member of the Israel Museum.

Eshel told Spaer that the the IAA had cut segments from the parchment margins to verify that they were genuine. Spaer promptly complained to the police against the IAA.

Why did the authority do that? Probably, in the pursuit of another investigation into forged antiquities. A photograph of the fragments was found in the computer of Oded Golan, an antiquities trader from Tel Aviv who is accused of forging antiquities, and is in the middle of his trial. It is possible, however, that the Bedouin who found the Leviticus fragments contacted Golan before showing them to Eshel and Porat.

The latest twist in the affair is that Spaer has demanded that the Jerusalem District Prosecutor's Office address his complaint about the scroll's vandalization. The prosecution told him that it has more important things to do. To which Spaer replied, "When Dorfman and Amir Ganot" - the robbery prevention director at the Antiquities Authority - "complained at the time against Eshel, in respect to buying fragments of the scroll, the full investigative mechanism of the police and the Antiquities Authority went into action, including confiscation of documents, multiple interrogations and informing the press. Yet in this case, which is 10 times more serious, no response to the complaint is evident." Could a double standard be coming into play?, the lawyer suggested.

The IAA comments, "Following the complaint against Eshel and others on suspicion of allegedly violating the Antiquities Law, the Israel Police conducted an investigation, at the end of which the case was transferred to the Prosecutor's Office for handling." The authority added that acts to enforce the Antiquities Law against any and all offenders.

The Justice Ministry commented that the case against Eshel and Porat is still being pursued by the Jerusalem District Prosecutor's Office, and added that it hopes a decision will be reached soon. The ministry denied that the state prosecutors said that handling the complaint about the Antiquities Authority vandalizing the parchment was being delayed because it had more important things to do. "The case was delayed based on priorities and the handling of more urgent cases," it said.