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The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls

by Peter W. Flint

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In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd literally stumbled upon a cave near the Dead Sea, a settlement now called Qumran, to the east of Jerusalem. This cave, along with the others located nearby, contained jars holding hundreds of scrolls and fragments of scrolls of texts both biblical and nonbiblical—in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The biblical scrolls would be the


In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd literally stumbled upon a cave near the Dead Sea, a settlement now called Qumran, to the east of Jerusalem. This cave, along with the others located nearby, contained jars holding hundreds of scrolls and fragments of scrolls of texts both biblical and nonbiblical—in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The biblical scrolls would be the earliest evidence of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, by hundreds of years; and the nonbiblical texts would shed dramatic light on one of the least-known periods of Jewish history—the Second Temple period. This find is, quite simply, the most important archaeological event in two thousand years of biblical studies.

The scrolls provide information on nearly every aspect of biblical studies, including the Old Testament, text criticism, Second Temple Judaism, the New Testament, and Christian origins. It took more than fifty years for the scrolls to be completely and officially published, and there is no comparable brief, introductory resource.

Core Biblical Studies fulfill the need for brief, substantive, yet highly accessible introductions to key subjects and themes in biblical studies. In the shifting tides of biblical interpretation, these books are designed to help students locate relevant meanings in conversation with the text. As a first step toward substantive and subsequent learning, the series draws on the best scholarship in order to provide foundational concepts and contextualized information on a broad scope of issues, methods, perspectives, and trends.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls

By Peter W. Flint

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-7107-1


The Discovery of the Scrolls in the Judean Desert


The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts found at sites in the Judean Desert near the western shore of the Dead Sea. This chapter focuses on the major site, Qumran, with its 1,050 or so scrolls and many artifacts such as jars. A few details will also be given on three other important sites: Wadi Murabba'at, Nahal Hever, and Masada.

Since the discovery of the first scrolls in 1946 or 1947, Palestine has been a volatile region: sometimes dangerous, always exciting. Even the name is controversial: most scholars prefer Palestine, which denotes the larger area now called Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The first scrolls were found at a time of great turmoil and violence in the Middle East, with Palestine under a British Mandate that ended with partition of the land in May 1948. Tensions between Arabs and Jews did not end with Israel's independence and remain to this day. This political backdrop helps explain the actions of various key figures, whether Jewish (acquiring scrolls for the new State of Israel), or Bedouin (working secretly as treasure hunters), or Western (bringing scrolls to the United States and planning international exhibits).

1. The First Cave at Qumran and Its Seven Scrolls

The discovery of Cave 1 and the first scrolls has been told from several perspectives: the Bedouin shepherds, the Israelis, the archaeologists, and Western scholars. Each group, not always consciously, tends to follow an agenda, whether cultural, historical, or scientific. For the most complete accounts, we are grateful to two men, who interviewed many of the early discoverers while preparing their books. The earlier is John C. Trever—the first American to see and photograph the scrolls—in The Untold Story of Qumran (1965), The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Personal Account (1977), and The Dead Sea Scrolls in Perspective (2004). The second is Weston W. Fields, managing director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, in his definitive work The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History, vol. 1: 1947–60 (2009).

1.1 The Discovery

Cave 1 was discovered by a group of Bedouin (from the Ta'amireh tribe) near a spring on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea called Ain Feshka, a frequent stopover point for watering flocks. Three shepherds, Khalil Musa, Jum'a Muhammed Khalil, and Muhammed edh-Dhib, or "the Wolf," were tending their herds near the adjacent Khirbet (ruin) of Qumran.

One day in late 1946 or early 1947, Jum'a threw a rock into an opening in the cliffs and heard the sound of shattering pottery. He summoned his two cousins, but they decided to come back later. However, the youngest, Muhammed edh-Dhib, returned early and entered the cave. (The Bedouin later described the interior of a cave whose walls were lined with several tall jars, some with lids and handles for tying to the jars.) Muhammed the Wolf saw a pile of rocks fallen from the ceiling and broken pottery strewn about the floor. There were two intact jars, one with a cover and containing a large leather scroll, the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa). It also contained two greenish bundles, wrapped in linen and coated with a black layer of pitch or wax. These were later identified as the Habakkuk Commentary (1QpHab) and the Community Rule (1QS), first called the Manual of Discipline.

Edh-Dhib removed the three scrolls from the jar and brought them to his companions, who were displeased he had returned to the cave alone. Jum'a deposited the scrolls at a Ta'amireh site southeast of Bethlehem, where they remained in a bag suspended on a tent pole for several weeks. It is not surprising that some were damaged; for example, the cover sheet of 1QIsaa broke off. In May and June, George Isha'ya Shamoun, a key figure in the sale of one group of scrolls, was brought twice to the cave by its discoverers; on his second visit, four more were removed, including theGenesis Apocryphon (1QapGen).

The four scrolls named so far (1QIsaa, 1QpHab, 1QS, and 1QapGen) are grouped as the "St. Mark's Monastery Scrolls," for the first institution to purchase them. The other three—a second copy of Isaiah (1QIsab), the Thanksgiving Hymns (1QHa), and the War Scroll (1QM)—form the "Hebrew University Scrolls," also named for the institution of purchase.

1.2 The Hebrew University Scrolls

In June 1947, Musa and Jum'a sold the three scrolls, together with two jars from the cave, to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem named Faidi Salahi for seven Jordanian pounds (about $28).

Salahi's associate Nasri Ohan (an Armenian dealer in Jerusalem) contacted Eleazar Sukenik (1889–1953), professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University, and arranged to show him a sample. On November 25, they met near the Jaffa Gate in Zone B of partitioned Jerusalem, and Sukenik was shown a sizable piece. On this first encounter with the scrolls, his diary reads:

As I gazed at the parchment, the letters began to become familiar, though I could make no immediate sense of the writing.... I had seen such letters scratched, carved and, in a few cases, painted on stone. But not until this week had I seen this particular kind of Hebrew lettering written with a pen on leather. (Yadin, Message of the Scrolls, 18)

A few days later, at great risk, Sukenik traveled to Salahi's shop in Bethlehem, where he received two scrolls: the Thanksgiving Hymns (1QHa) and the War Scroll (1QM). Taking these back with him to Jerusalem, he promised to decide within two days whether to buy them.

Sukenik's trip to Bethlehem took place on a momentous day: Friday, November, 29, 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections. Rioting broke out the following day, but on Monday, December 1, Sukenik contacted Ohan and confirmed his decision to buy. On December 22, he also bought the two jars and the Isaiah scroll (1QIsab).

By then, Sukenik had become aware of the four St. Mark's scrolls, but their contents were as yet unclear to him. So he set to work on the Hebrew University Scrolls, and already in 1948 published the first preliminary edition, with a second volume in 1950. Sukenik died in 1953, but all three scrolls and excerpts from his diary were published in a posthumous volume (Sukenik, 1954 and 1955).

1.3 The Saint Mark's Monastery Scrolls

The journey of the four St. Mark's Scrolls—the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa), theHabakkuk Commentary (1QpHab), the Community Rule (1QS), and the Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen)—makes fascinating reading.

In February or March 1947, Musa and Jum'a showed three of them (1QIsaa, 1QpHab, and 1QS) to Ibrahim 'Ijha, an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem, but Jum'a also met with George Isha'ya Shamoun, a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The three scrolls were brought to Kando (Khalil Eskander Shahin, about 1910–1993), another antiquities dealer (with a shop near Nativity Square in Bethlehem) and a member of the same church. Kando agreed to pay five Jordanian pounds ($20) to the Bedouin.

The Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen) was added to Kando's purchase soon afterward. All four scrolls were kept by Shamoun for Kando, who proceeded to seek a major buyer.

Thinking the four scrolls were written in Syriac, Shamoun contacted St. Mark's Syrian Orthodox Monastery in Jerusalem's Old City during Holy Week (April 13–17) of 1947. Athanasius Yeshue Samuel (1907–1995), a mar (or archbishop) associated with the monastery, was shown part of the Community Rule and decided to buy all four scrolls. On July 19, the scrolls were transferred to the Metropolitan, hence their collective title "The St. Mark's Monastery Scrolls." Samuel paid 24 Jordanian pounds (about $100) to Kando, who in turn paid the Bedouin 16 pounds ($64). In late July, Shamoun took to the cave a priest (Father Yusif), who observed one intact jar, several pieces of cloth wrapping, and scroll fragments on the floor.

Mar Samuel found it difficult to obtain a scholarly evaluation of the four scrolls. Both a visiting European scholar and Jewish scholar from the New City identified the largest scroll as containing Isaiah, but thought it to be medieval. Samuel then enlisted Anton Kiraz (a member of the Syrian Orthodox church) to help find a qualified scholar to authenticate his four scrolls.

On February 4, 1948, Kiraz met at the YMCA in West Jerusalem with Eleazar Sukenik, who had bought the three Hebrew University Scrolls two months earlier. Sukenik at once noted similarities in script between the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa), the Habakkuk Commentary (1QpHab), and the Community Rule (1QS), and those he had purchased. Sukenik borrowed the three scrolls, and soon afterward secured funding from the Bialik Foundation to buy them. On February 10, Sukenik made an offer of 1,000 Jordanian pounds ($4,000) for all four St. Mark's scrolls, but Kiraz decided to seek an independent appraisal.

Meanwhile, also in February 1948, the St. Mark's scrolls were shown to John Trever and William Brownlee of the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Jerusalem. Soon afterward, Trever photographed 1QIsaa, 1QpHab, and 1QS. The American scholars were not supportive of selling the manuscripts to the Hebrew University and reminded the Metropolitan of the investment already made by ASOR in photographing the three scrolls and preparing them for publication.

1.4 The American School of Oriental Research, First Photographs, and Authentification

On February 18, 1948, Father Butrus Sowmy of St. Mark's telephoned ASOR, and spoke with interim director John Trever, a visiting Fellow from the United States. Trever was asked to examine what the Syrian priest described as some old manuscripts from the monastery library but, in fact, were the four St. Mark's scrolls. Trever describes the first time he—and any Western scholar—saw two of the scrolls (theCommunity Rule and the Great Isaiah Scroll):

Father Sowmy ... handed me a very brittle, tightly rolled scroll of cream-colored leather, less than two inches in diameter. Very gently I pulled back the end of the scroll and saw that it was written in a clear, square Hebrew script, not at all like archaic Hebrew.... [Then] they lifted from the satchel a large scroll, about 10 1/2 inches long and 6 inches in diameter, ... made of thinner, softer leather and much more pliable. It was about the same color as the first one, but with a darkened center, evidence of much handling. It unrolled easily. (Trever, The Untold Story, 22)

Trever compared 1QIsaa against some color slides he had of a few other Hebrew manuscripts. He noticed differences in the characters against a medieval Torah manuscript, but similarities with the much older Nash Papyrus (with text from the Ten Commandments and the Shema' Yisrael prayer, and dated to the second to first century B.C.E.). Before the Syrians left, he copied a few lines from column 51 of 1QIsaa, which he later identified as Isaiah 65:1: "I let myself be sought out by those who did not ask me, be found by those who did not seek me."

Trever now suspected that the scrolls shown to him were very ancient—but was only the third person to perceive just how ancient. The first was Sukenik, who saw three scrolls on November 25 and 27, 1947. The second was Sowmy's brother Ibrahim, a customs official for the Mandate government. The scrolls, he suggested, were copied before 200 B.C.E. since they were wrapped like ancient mummies and belonged to an ancient sect called the Essenes, who had deposited them in the cave during a time of persecution.

February 21, 1948, marks a historic milestone: the first photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Trever, Brownlee, Sowmy, and Samuel gathered in the basement of ASOR to photograph three of the four St. Mark's scrolls (1QIsaa, 1QpHab, and 1QS; theGenesis Apocryphon was too damaged to be unrolled).

By day's end, the Great Isaiah Scroll and the Habakkuk Pesher had been photographed in black and white, and a few color shots were taken of 1QIsaa. Trever's breathtaking photograph of columns 32–33, with the rolled manuscript visible on both sides, was to become the most famous image of a Dead Sea Scroll. On February 24, Trever also photographed the Community Rule. The ASOR scholars then urged the Syrians to move the scrolls to a safer place and have experts in the United States open the badly damaged Genesis Apocryphon.

News of the St. Mark's scrolls reached the outside world via a photograph of 1QIsaa and a letter from Trever to William F. Albright in the United States on February 25. The next day, ASOR director Millar Burrows confirmed that the American School would fund the publication of the St. Mark's scrolls. Trever also secured permission to rephotograph 1QIsaa and 1QpHab in order to improve picture quality for publication.

On March 5, 1948, Mar Samuel and Father Sowmy disclosed to Trever the true origin of their scrolls, as purchased from Bedouin in Bethlehem the previous August, shortly after which Father Yusif had visited the cave of origin accompanied by the Bedouin. With the correct details of the discovery site now established, plans for an official excavation of Cave 1 commenced. Trever and Brownlee applied for an excavation permit from the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, but canceled their plans due to growing danger and military activity in the vicinity of the cave. Trever also rephotographed all of 1QIsaa in color, which he completed by March 13.

The strongest authentication of the scrolls' antiquity came on March 15 in a letter from Albright, who was teaching at Johns Hopkins University and was America's greatest archaeologist at the time:

Dear Trever,

My heartiest congratulations on the greatest MS discovery of modern times! There is no doubt whatever in my mind that the script is more archaic than that of the Nash Papyrus, standing very close to that of the third-century Egyptian papyri and ostraca in Aramaic. Of course, in the present state of our definite knowledge about Hebrew paleography it would be safe only to date it in the Maccabaean period i.e., not later than the ascension of Herod the Great. I should prefer a date around 100 B.C. (Trever, The Untold Story, 85)

A few days later, Sowmy was sent with the precious manuscripts to Beirut and deposited them in a bank vault for safekeeping. The first international press report announcing the discovery appeared in the Times of London on April 12, 1948:

Yale University announced yesterday the discovery in Palestine of the earliest known manuscript of the Book of Isaiah.... dating to about the first century B.C., ... a commentary on the Book of Habakkuk, ... a manual of discipline of some comparatively little-known sect or monastic order, possibly the Essenes. The third scroll has not yet been identified.

1.5 The St. Mark's Scrolls in the United States and Their Final Purchase

On April 26, Professor Sukenik called a press conference, announcing the three scrolls recently acquired by the Hebrew University and that these and the St Mark's Monastery Scrolls were from the same cave near Qumran.

With the authenticity of his four scrolls now confirmed, Samuel's asking price rose to one million dollars, and Sukenik's hopes of acquiring them faded. Sukenik's son, Yigael Yadin, deeply regretted that his father, who died in 1953, did not live to witness the purchase of the St. Mark's scrolls for the State of Israel on June 15, 1954.

On May 14, 1948, the British Mandate over Palestine expired, and the State of Israel was declared. Burrows and Trever, having already returned to the United States, had invited Mar Samuel over to finalize the publication of the St. Mark's scrolls and to get expert help in unrolling the damaged Genesis Apocryphon. Samuel was also appointed Apostolic Delegate of the Syrian Church to the United States and Canada. In December (or early January 1949), he sailed from Beirut to Jersey City, carrying the four scrolls with him.

The first ASOR publication appeared in March 1950: The Dead Sea Scrolls of St. Mark's Monastery, volume 1, with photographs and transcriptions of the Isaiah manuscript and the Habakkuk Commentary. The next year volume 2 appeared, with photographs and transcriptions of the Community Rule.

The Metropolitan set about seeking a buyer for Mar Samuel's scrolls, holding exhibits at the Library of Congress (October 1949) and Duke University (1950) and the University of Chicago (1950). Still no buyer came forward, perhaps dissuaded by the asking price (initially one million dollars) or questions as to legal ownership of the manuscripts. Mar Samuel's final attempt to sell was through an advertisement in theWall Street Journal, which first appeared on June 1, 1954:

The Four Dead Sea Scrolls

Biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C. are for sale.

This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.

Box F 206, Wall Street Journal


Excerpted from The Dead Sea Scrolls by Peter W. Flint. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Peter W. Flint is the Canada Research Chair in Dead Sea Scrolls Studies and Director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. He has edited or co-edited almost thirty Dead Sea Scrolls for publication, including the Cave 1 Isaiah Scrolls, the Cave 4 Psalms Scrolls, and the translation, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible. He has authored of numerous books and articles and co-edited a major two-volume study collection (The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty Years). Dr. Flint regularly lectures on the Scrolls and related topics at academic conferences and more popular settings.  


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