Major Archaeological Discovery The Dead Sea Scrolls

About the major archaeological discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jordan, history of the major religious finding.


Year: 1947, 1951

Location: Hills at northwest corner of the Dead Sea, Jordan

Discoverers: Elazar L. Sukenik, G. Lankester Harding, Father Roland de Vaux

Findings: The circumstances surrounding the actual discovery of the scrolls are shrouded in mystery, with variant, retold stories. Allegedly, Muhammed Adh-Dhib, a member of the Ta'amireh Bedouin who perennially scavenge the wastes in the Judean Desert, located the first scrolls. While pursuing an errant goat, he had stumbled onto the cache, placed within pottery jars stored in a hidden cliffside cave.

Three of the battered leather manuscripts were removed and taken to "Kando," an Assyrian Christian cobbler from Bethlehem, also doing business as a go-between dealer in the illicit antiquities market. These scrolls came to the attention of Elazar L. Sukenik, an archaeology professor at Hebrew University. Sensing their immense value, Sukenik braved the dangers of the Jewish-Arab war then raging in Palestine to purchase the scrolls for Israel.

Kando meanwhile had looted the cave of another four scrolls, along with the largest fragments he could remove. The cobbler found a second buyer, the Syrian cleric Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, metropolitan at the Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem. In 1948 Athanasius learned that the scrolls for which he had reluctantly paid pound 24 were authentic biblical manuscripts at least 1,000 years older than any others known. Ultimately, in 1954, after placing a blind advertisement in the Wall Street Journal, the churchman sold the four scrolls back to the Israeli government for $250,000.

Dating the scrolls accurately became an immediate problem. Challenges from critics who doubted their authenticity were swept away in 1951 by Harding and De Vaux, who headed a trial excavation at Khirbet Qumran, an ancient ruin just 1/2 mi. south of Cave I. (The 11 caves in which scrolls have been discovered are numbered I through XI.) By pure luck, the first room worked yielded pottery fragments that perfectly matched the unidentified pottery pieces found scattered in Cave I. In the same immediate area, the team discovered a coin bearing a date corresponding to 10 A.D. Some 500 coins of nearly continuous dating, which spread over two centuries, further pinpointed the years. Analysis of the Khirbet Qumran dig proved that the site had been occupied by an ascetic sect called the Essenes up to 68 A.D., when the Romans had totally destroyed the commune. Warned somehow of the approaching disaster, the sect had concealed its most prized possession--the library of scrolls--in the nearby marl caves.

Cave I--the original discovery--yielded the only complete scroll discovered to date: the great scroll of Isaiah, unrolling to a length of 7 1/2 yd. Cave II produced an unusual two-strip copper scroll enumerating the hiding places of many precious treasures. Cave IV proved to be the most prolific of all, containing thousands of additional fragments, ample to keep scholars busy for years.

Of the scrolls translated to date, most are from the Old Testament, and the remainder comprise biblical apocrypha or secular works. Essene copyists favored the teachings of Isaiah, Psalms, and Deuteronomy, for some 10 to 15 separate manuscripts are now identified as such. They also leaned heavily toward use of the Septuagint, the earliest Greek Old Testament translation (3rd-2nd century B.C.), favoring this rendition by a margin of three to one over the authorized Hebrew, or Masoretic, text. The scrolls, while explaining many obscure passages and gaps in the Bible, suggest no radical theological changes in the Old Testament in use today.

The sectarian manuscripts identified the Essene leader as the Teacher of Righteousness, founder of the world's first-known monastery. Among the apocryphal scrolls are the Book of Tobit, written in the original Aramaic, a work seen previously only in a Greek translation, and a new narration called The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. The Dead Sea material, when fully translated, is expected to shed much new light on the early history of the Christian Church.

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