The Men of Qumran: Discovery of the Scrolls

Juma was beginning to get nervous. Some of his goats were climbing too high up the cliffs. He decided to climb the face of the cliff himself to bring them back. Little did Juma realize as he began his climb on that January day in 1947 that those straying goats would eventually involve him in what William Foxwell Albright would call “the greatest archaeological discovery in the twentieth century.” Such thoughts were far from his mind when he saw two small openings to one of the thousands of caves that dot those barren cliffs that overlook the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. He threw a rock into one of the openings. The unexpected cracking sound surprised him—what else could be in those remote caves but treasure? He called to his cousins, Khalil and Muhammad, who climbed up and heard the exciting tale. But it was getting late, and the goats had to be gathered. Tomorrow they would return—perhaps their days of following the goats would come to an end once the treasure was uncovered!

The youngest of the three, Muhammad, rose the next day before his two “fellow treasure-seekers” and made his way to the cave. The cave floor was covered with debris, including broken pottery. Along the wall stood a number of narrow jars, some with their bowl-shaped covers still in place. Frantically Muhammad began to explore the inside of each jar, but no treasure of gold was to be found…only a few bundles wrapped in cloth and greenish with age. Returning to his cousin, he related the sad news—no treasure. No treasure indeed! The scrolls those Bedouin boys removed from that dark cave that day and in the days following would come to be recognized as the greatest manuscript treasure ever found—the first seven manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

Such was the discovery of a group of manuscripts which were a thousand years older than then-oldest-known Hebrew texts of the Bible (manuscripts many of which were written more than 100 years before the birth of Jesus). These manuscripts would excite the archaeological world and provide a team of translators with a gigantic task that only recently has been completed.

The story of how those scrolls traveled from the hand of young Bedouin goatherders to be under the scrutinous eyes of international scholars is stranger than fiction. Well, at least the above account is the accepted version of the scrolls’ discovery. In recent years there has been some skepticism expressed about the tale above, asserting that it was concocted by the Bedouin who actually had been engaged in illegal “excavating” for years and wanted to cover their “discovery” with this tale of accidental, unintentional good fortune! Although all the details of the original “discovery” will probably never be known for sure, this much is clear. After hanging from a pole in a Bedouin tent for a period of time, the seven original scrolls were sold to two separate Arab antiquities dealers in Bethlehem—one was the famous cobbler, “Kando” who eventually became a rich man through trading in antiquities such as these. From there, four were sold (for a small amount) to Athanasius Samuel, Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan at St. Mark’s Monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem—the head of Kando’s church.

Scholars at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem who examined them were the first to realize their antiquity. John Trever photographed them in detail, and the great archaeologist William F. Albright soon announced that the scrolls were from the period between 200 BC and AD 200. The initial announcements were then made that the oldest manuscripts ever discovered had been found in the Judean desert!

Three of the other original scrolls found by the Bedouin boys were sold to E. L. Sukenik, archaeologist at the Hebrew University and father of Yigael Yadin (an Israeli army general who later became a famous archaeologist). The drama of these events was heightened because these were the last days of the British Mandate period in Palestine, and tensions between the Arab and Jewish population were great. This made the transporting and examination of the scrolls by scholars an extremely dangerous maneuver at times.

All of the scrolls finally came together at the Hebrew University under another strange set of circumstances. After touring the United States with his four scrolls and not being able to find an interested buyer, Metropolitan Samuel placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal. By “coincidence” Yigael Yadin happened to be lecturing in New York when someone brought to his attention the advertisement. Through an intermediary, the Biblical scholar Harry Orlinsky, he was able to purchase for the State of Israel these priceless scrolls for around $250,000. In February of 1955, the Prime Minister of Israel announced that the State of Israel had purchased the scrolls, and all seven (including the three purchased earlier by Professor Sukenik) were to be housed in a special museum at the Hebrew University named the Shrine of the Book, where they can still be seen today.

The initial announcement about the scrolls had prompted feverish searches in the area of the original cave. An official archaeological expedition was begun in 1949 which eventually resulted in the discovery of ten additional caves in the surrounding area also containing scrolls. The archaeologists also directed their attention to a small ruin nearby called “Khirbet Qumran,” which had been thought of previously as the remains of an old Roman fortress. After six seasons of intensive excavation, the scholars were sure beyond any reasonable doubt that the scrolls found their origin in this community which flourished between 125 BC and AD 68.

The ruins and scrolls reveal that a substantial group of Jewish ascetics called Essenes inhabited this community. Storehouses, aqueducts, ritual baths and an assembly hall were all uncovered. One of the most interesting rooms uncovered was what appears to be a sort of scriptorium, identified by two inkwells discovered there along with some benches for scribes. It was in this room that many of the discovered manuscripts were copied.

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