Thursday, March 23, 2023

I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of how the first Dead Sea scrolls came to light. I am basing this on a summary in a book by Hershel Shanks, “The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls” (1998). (There are surely accounts by others with slightly different details.) I will tell the story in two separate columns.

Shanks writes: “Probably in late 1946 or early 1947, a shepherd boy of the Ta’amireh tribe [of Bedouins]… was searching for a lost sheep. He tossed a stone into a cave, hoping to scare the sheep out. But instead of the bleating of a sheep, he heard the sound of cracking pottery. When he and a friend explored the cave, they discovered two large jars. Inside, wrapped in linen, they found some ancient scrolls.” This occurred in a cave near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The closest settlement to the cave was the ancient settlement of Qumran.

In April 1947, the two finders brought the scrolls to Bethlehem, the principal market town of the Ta’amireh tribe. There they contacted two antiquities dealers: Faidi Salahi and someone known as Kando. It is possible that Kando went back with one or both of the finders to locate more scrolls. In any event, the total number of intact scrolls numbered seven, either because the two finders originally recovered that many or because Kando’s excavation added to the original number.

The seven scrolls were then divided into lots: three in one lot and four in the other. The first lot was sold to Salahi and the second to Kando. I will discuss what happened to Salahi’s scrolls in this column, and to Kando’s next week.

Salahi contacted an Armenian friend named Levon Ohan. Ohan contacted Eleazar Sukenik, who was a professor of archaeology at Hebrew University. Sukenik was the father of Yigael Sukenik, later to be known as Yigael Yadin. Yadin later became famous as an archaeologist, but at the time, he was chief of operations for the Haganah.

The time was the final days of the British Mandate. Shanks writes: “Violence was rife. The British security forces had divided Jerusalem into military zones separating Jewish and Arab sections of the city; barbed wire marked the boundaries. To move from zone to zone required a military pass. Neither Sukenik nor…Ohan had a pass, so they agreed to meet at the gateway to Military Zone B. On the other side of the barricade from Sukenik, Ohan removed a scrap of parchment from his briefcase and showed it to Sukenik through the barbed wire. Sukenik noticed that the form of the Hebrew letters resembled that of letters…[from] some two thousand years ago….[Sukenik] asked [Ohan] to show him more samples. Sukenik obtained a pass to enter Zone B, and after looking at more fragments, he resolved to go to Bethlehem to negotiate a purchase price.”

Shanks continues: “It was a dangerous journey at the time and his wife objected to his going…Tension was especially high because…the United Nations was about to vote on the partition of Palestine…If the vote was affirmative… the Arabs might declare war to prevent the formation of the Jewish state, and full-fledged fighting could break out, replacing the sporadic violence that preceded the vote.” Sukenik then consulted his son.

Yadin describes his reaction: “What was I to tell him? As a student of archaeology myself, I felt that an opportunity of acquiring such priceless documents could not be missed. On the other hand, as chief of operations of Haganah, I knew perfectly well the dangers my father would be taking in traveling to Arab Bethlehem…I told him not to go.”

Sukenik did not listen to his wife nor his son, and decided to go. On Nov. 29, 1947, he and Ohan boarded an Arab bus for Bethlehem. Sukenik was the only Jew on the bus. In Bethlehem, they met Salahi who was willing to loan him two of the three scrolls so he could take them back to Jerusalem and examine them more carefully. Sukenik boarded the bus for the short ride back to the city. He was carrying in his hands the two scrolls that would later become known as the Scroll of Thanksgiving Psalms and the War Scroll. (The third scroll was a partial copy of the book of Isaiah, later known as “Isaiah B,” to distinguish it from another Dead Sea Isaiah scroll, “Isaiah A,” which is a complete text of Isaiah.)

Within hours of Sukenik’s return from Bethlehem, the United Nations passed the partition resolution. Sukenik went outside to share the joy of the vote with the Jews of Jerusalem and he found two friends to share his own discovery with. The next day the Arabs attacked.

A few days later Sukenik was shown the third scroll. He purchased all three scrolls and paid only several hundred dollars for all three.

Yadin later wrote: “I cannot avoid the feeling that there is something symbolic in the discovery of the scrolls and their acquisition at the moment of the creation of the State of Israel. It is as if these manuscripts had been waiting in caves for two thousand years, ever since the destruction of Israel’s independence until the people of Israel had returned to their home and regained their freedom.”

In Jan. 1948, Sukenik received a call about the four other scrolls. Kando had sold them to the Syrian Orthodox archbishop of Jerusalem, Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel. A friend of Samuel’s brought them to Sukenik, so he was able to see them. But Samuel decided that the time was not yet ripe for them to be sold and that he would prefer to wait until the political situation settled down. I will tell the continuation of this story in next week’s column.


Just to review, the Dead Sea scrolls include both Biblical and non-Biblical texts. There are approximately 220 texts that are Biblical texts (usually very fragmentary). These texts date from the late third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. and cover large portions of the Torah and the Nach. (There are no texts at all of the book of Esther, but this may just be a fluke. For example, there is only one text of the book of Ezra and one of the book of Chronicles. The book of Nechemiah is not represented either.)

What we have of Biblical texts in the centuries after that is very minimal until
the ninth century. I previously wrote a column about the minimal texts that we have in these centuries. Thereafter, British Museum Codex Or. 4445 dates to the early ninth century and has most of the Pentateuch. The famous Aleppo Codex dates from the 10th century, but is missing most of the Pentateuch.

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His scholarly work is not that dangerous. He can be reached at [email protected] Please visit his website rootsandrituals.org for more of his articles.

Sign up now!