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1955: Four Dead Sea Scrolls Come Home to Israel

PM Sharett announces that an Apocalyptic Noah text and the oldest version of Isaiah among the Dead Sea scrolls bought from Syrian Church.

David Green
David B. Green
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A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.
A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

On February 13, 1955, Israel’s prime minister, Moshe Sharett, held a press conference to announce that the country had acquired four more of the fabled Dead Sea Scrolls, an acquisition of sterling importance to scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity and a real coup for the fledgling state’s national pride.

The initial discovery of what came to be known collectively as the Dead Sea Scrolls — referring to whole documents and fragments of some 950 parchment scrolls, dating to the period between the 3rd century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E. — was in 1946. That’s when three Bedouin of the Ta’amra tribe happened upon the first part of a cache of seven rolled-up pieces of parchment, stored for over 2,000 years in clay jars in a cave in the hills overlooking the western shore of the Dead Sea, adjacent to the site known as Qumran, north of Ein Gedi.

The Bedouin quickly recognized that these artifacts might be of significant historical value. One of the antiquities dealers with whom they consulted was in touch with an archaeologist at the American School of Oriental Research, today the Albright Institute, in Jerusalem. This contact soon led to a scientific expedition which surveyed a number of the caves in the area, in search of additional documents and information about the finds.

Unknown apocalyptic text

In December 1947, as the clouds of war were gathering over the region, Eliezer Lipa Sukenik, professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University, succeeded in purchasing three of those seven scrolls from a dealer in Bethlehem. They included a partial manuscript of the biblical Book of Isaiah, and two scrolls that were dubbed the Thanksgiving Scroll, and the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness.

The Isaiah fragment was part of a manuscript of the prophetic book that was far older than any then-known version of the book. The Thanksgiving and the War scrolls were unfamiliar texts that, respectively, contain a number of blessings and describe an apocalyptic confrontation.

The other four scrolls heralded by Sharett at his press conference had been bought by Metropolitan Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, at the time head of the St. Mark’s Monastery of the Syrian Orthodox Aramaic Church, in Jerusalem, who paid the equivalent of $250 to acquire them from another Bethlehem dealer. Those scrolls were moved to Beirut in May 1948, when the War of Independence borke out, after which Mar Samuel managed to bring them to New York. There, on June 1, 1954, he placed a small ad in the Wall Street Journal announcing the sale of “The Four Dead Sea Scrolls Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C.,” adding that the scrolls would make “an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution.”

At the time, Yigael Yadin was in the United States. Yadin was the son of Eliezer Sukenik and, like his father, an archaeologist, as well as a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. He arranged for non-Israeli friends to examine the scrolls being offered by Athanasius, who by then was the primate of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the United States, and verify that they were authentic.

Finally, on July 1, 1954, Yadin and his Hebrew University colleague, the biblical archaeologist Benjamin Mazar, bought the four scrolls for $250,000. They were then flown to Israel, each on a separate airplane. The money was provided by the Jewish-American businessman and philanthropist D. Samuel Gottesman, a banker and paper manufacturer. (It was Gottesman’s children who, a decade later, built the Shrine of the Book, at the Israel Museum, in his memory. The scrolls are currently stored and displayed there.)

Those four final scrolls are: The Great Isaiah scroll; the Manual of Discipline scroll, which later came to be understood as two separate documents connected to the community that wrote it; the Habakkuk Commentary scroll, an eschatological document that cites Habakkuk; and the Genesis Apocryphon, an apocalyptic text that imagines a conversation between Lamech and his son, Noah.

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