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Thursday, September 24, 2020
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Part II

I am continuing the story I started last week about how the initial 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).

Last week, I told the story of how seven scrolls were found in late 1946 or early 1947 by two Bedouins searching for lost sheep in a cave. This took place near the ancient settlement of Qumran, a site near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.

The seven scrolls were then divided into lots: three in one lot and four in the other, and were sold to Arab antiquities dealers in Bethlehem. One of the antiquities dealers was named Faidi Salahi. Last week I explained how Salahi’s three scrolls ended up being purchased by Eleazar Sukenik, a professor of archaeology at Hebrew University, and father of Yigael Yadin. Sukenik was first shown the scrolls by Salahi’s representative through the barbed wire border in Jerusalem in the last days of the British Mandate. Shortly thereafter, on Nov. 29, 1947, the same day as the UN vote, Sukenik made the dangerous journey on an Arab bus to Bethlehem to negotiate and arrange for his possession of the scrolls. He returned home safely with two of the scrolls just hours before the vote. He got possession of the third (Isaiah B) a few days later.

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But what happened to the four scrolls in the hands of the other antiquities dealer, “Kando”?

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 and he could get a fair price in the international market.

These four scrolls turned out to be: 1) a complete copy of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah A); 2) a sectarian text that came to be known as the “Manual of Discipline,” 3) a commentary on the book of Habakkuk, and 4) a text that came to be known as “Genesis Apocryphon.”

Samuel and those he knew had the scrolls photographed and the photos were sent to William Albright, a Biblical archaeologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Albright’s reply arrived on May 15, 1948: “My heartiest congratulations on the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times! There is no doubt in my mind that the script is more archaic than that of the Nash papyrus…I should prefer a date around 100 B.C.!...What an absolutely incredible find!...”

In Jan. 1949, Samuel arrived in the U.S. with the scrolls. He needed money for his church and was looking for a buyer. To generate interest in the scrolls, he arranged to exhibit them publicly. In Oct. 1949, they were exhibited at the Library of Congress. Thereafter, they were exhibited at other museums and art galleries in Baltimore, Chicago, Worcester and Durham. Shanks writes: “Interest was high, but strangely, no institution was ready to make an offer to buy the scrolls.”

Years passed. In the meantime, Samuel settled permanently in New Jersey. On June 1, 1954, he placed a classified ad offering the scrolls for sale in the Wall Street Journal. The ad read: “The Four Dead Sea Scrolls. Biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BCE are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group. Box F 206, The Wall Street Journal.”

By chance, Yigael Yadin was in the US on a lecture tour at the time, and someone called his attention to the ad. He decided to buy the scrolls for Israel and arranged for an intermediary to reply to the ad and negotiate for their purchase. Yadin kept himself and Israel out of the deal for fear that Samuel would not consent. The nominal buyer was a New York businessman named Sydney Estridge and the agreed-upon purchase price was $250,000. But before turning over the money, a scholar needed to examine the scrolls. Yadin did not want to be the one doing the examination as this would make Samuel suspicious.

Yadin called a Biblical scholar he knew named Harry Orlinsky at Johns Hopkins University. Orlinsky was literally out the door about to go on vacation. He writes: “My wife was already seated in the car and I was locking the [house] door when the telephone rang.” Yadin asked Orlinsky, without telling him why, to postpone his vacation and immediately come to New York on a matter of importance to Israel. Orlinksy wrote: “I asked for a minute or two to talk it over with my wife. Together we decided that if Israel needed me, we had no choice.”

Orlinsky arrived in New York. He was told to take on the name “Mr. Green” and state that he was an expert for his client. He went with Mr. Estridge to the vault of a bank at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. There a representative of Mar Samuel would let him examine the scrolls. After examining the scrolls, he went to a payphone and uttered the code word: le-chayim! His mission had been successful!

The four scrolls were flown to Israel, one at a time. (This was 1954. It was too risky to fly them all at once!)

Sukenik had died the previous year, so he did not see this part of the story. In 1948, after failing to obtain the four scrolls, he had written in his diary: “Thus the Jewish people have lost a precious heritage.”

On Feb. 13, 1955, Prime Minister Sharett called a press conference to announce that all seven scrolls were now in Israel. Presumably Mar Samuel now learned for the first time that he had sold the scrolls to the government of Israel!

P.S. Shanks speculates that the reason people and institutions were not interested in the scrolls, despite the extensive publicity, was that they feared that Jordan would later sue them for possession of the scrolls. He also observes that Israel did Samuel a favor by hiding its identity as the purchaser. Samuel benefited from this subterfuge.

Shanks points out a final irony: Samuel was selling the scrolls on behalf of his church. But the sale papers were badly drawn and the IRS contended that the proceeds were personal income to Samuel. He resisted the claim, but ended up losing. The result was that much of the proceeds of the sale were paid in taxes to the U.S. government.


Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His scholarly work is not that dangerous or exciting. Nor does it have tax implications. For more of his articles, visit his website at www.rootandrituals.org.

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