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Scrolls, Scripts and Stelae, Hershel Shanks, BAR 28:05, Sep-Oct 2002.

Illuminated lectern Bible from Geraardsbergen, Belgium, dating to around 1200A Norwegian collector shows BAR his rare inscriptions

If you have a Dead Sea Scroll for sale, you should get in touch with Martin Schøyen (pronounced Skoo-yen) in Oslo. He is a prime prospect. He already owns several Dead Sea Scroll fragments—making him one of the few individuals in the world (I can think of only one other) who owns Dead Sea Scroll material.

In his spacious London pied-à-terre, Schøyen also has one of the unusual pottery jars from Qumran in which the Bedouin found the first intact scrolls in 1947 or 1948.

He also owns a beautiful bronze inkwell (previously published in BAR)(a) and a small bronze incense altar (see “Rare Incense Altar Raises Burning Questions,” in this issue) that purportedly come from the settlement at Qumran, where many of the scrolls were probably written.

Schøyen’s principal residence lies amid nondescript farmland at the foot of impressive rock cliffs, about 25 miles from Oslo. Approached by a dirt road, the main house, which he renovated two decades ago, was originally built in 1680. Some of the nearly 3-inch-thick planks in the floor date to the 12th century. His roof is covered with moss, out of which small trees grow, keeping the house cool during Norway’s short summer and warm during the winter (until the leaves fall off). Inside is a warren of small, low-ceilinged rooms filled with books—what Schøyen calls his research library—and parts of his nearly 13,000-item collection, mostly manuscripts. I should say collections, however, because Schøyen has such a wide range of objects—from Viking swords to Buddhist manuscripts to some of the earliest cuneiform inscriptions to antiquarian Bibles. Some of his Hebrew Bible fragments are older than the earliest complete Hebrew Bible, the Leningrad Codex of about 1010 A.D., on which the Biblia Hebraica (the standard critical text) is based. He has a collection of almost 70 book boxes (small book-shaped wooden boxes that once held individual volumes); the second largest collection, he says, numbers six.

Schøyen began collecting in 1955, when he was just 15. On a trip to Florence with his parents he purchased an old printed book (published in 1592) from a streetseller for the equivalent of a quarter. After taking it home, he noticed fragments of French sermons from about 1300 coming out of the spine. The fragments had been used to bind the later book.

Not until 1986 did he make his second major book purchase—a 15th-century Latin Bible that had once rested on a church lectern at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Adrian in Geraardsbergen, Belgium. That Schøyen has acquired his world-class collection in only about 15 years is remarkable. As he himself boasts, his is the largest private manuscript collection formed in the 20th century.

In 1986, when Schøyen acquired the Geraardsbergen Bible, he was engaged in the management of a bus company, of which his father had left him a major share. Now, at 61, he is retired, except for the boards of directors he sits on. He devotes himself almost completely to his collections.

At first, Schøyen acted like any other ordinary collector—browsing in antiquarian bookstores, personally bidding at important auctions and sniffing out the availability of items that come on the market from private collections. He has a “good nose,” according to Richard Linenthal of the 153-year-old antiquarian London bookseller, Quaritch’s, in whose vault Schøyen keeps part of his collection.

Schøyen acquired some of his Dead Sea Scroll fragments by using his nose. When the Archimandrite of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem, Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, took four of the original Dead Sea Scrolls to the American School in Jerusalem (now the William F. Albright School of Archaeological Research) in 1947, they were partially photographed by the young John Trever; the head of the American School at the time was Yale University’s John Brownlee. Forty years later, Schøyen reasoned that Trever and Brownlee must have acquired at least a few fragments themselves, so he tracked them down—and purchased fragments from each of them. He also managed to acquire a few fragments from Mar Samuel.

What motivated Schøyen? The desire to build a unique collection. And, he admits, “the thrill of the chase.” But gradually something happened to him, he says. Now it is responsibility to posterity that motivates him. Or to fill in the occasional gap in one of his collections. It is no longer the thrill of the chase.

As Schøyen’s collections grew, so did his interests—and they went back earlier and earlier in time. Soon he was looking not only for early Bibles, but for cuneiform tablets; even the Dead Sea Scrolls were not old enough for him. The history of writing has become one of his specialties. His collection includes the earliest examples of Sumerian proto-cuneiform pictographic writing, Egyptian proto-hieroglyphic writing, Chinese characters and Indus Valley script. He notes that all four of these writing systems developed along rivers—Sumerian cuneiform along the Tigris and Euphrates, Egyptian hieroglyphs along the Nile, Chinese characters along the Yangtse and Hwang Ho, and Indus Valley script along the Indus River. The development of alphabetic script occurred, however, in riverless Canaan, and Schøyen also has examples of this—two 14th-century B.C. tablets in alphabetic cuneiform from Ugarit (see the sidebar “The Earliest Writing”).

Schøyen has one pre-3000 B.C. clay tablet that records an order for barley placed by the brewery of the Inanna temple in Uruk (modern Iraq). The center of the tablet face shows an ear of barley; reading from right to left, we then see the brewery—a mudbrick structure with a chimney on top—and a bottle or jar of beer with the barley inside. Above the jar is the signature of one Kushin, the official in charge of the brewery. Other marks denote the amount of barley and the span of time over which it is to be delivered.

Among the more unusual “texts” in Schøyen’s collection is a small bronze branding iron once applied to the foreheads of runaway slaves. In Old Babylonian cuneiform, dating to the beginning of the second millennium B.C., it reads, “I am his slave.” While cuneiform texts describing the branding of slaves are known, this is the only actual cuneiform branding iron ever discovered.

The ever-popular Gilgamesh epic is not only the world’s oldest literary work of any length, it also includes details of a flood story that were incorporated into the Biblical account in Genesis. The Gilgamesh epic has survived in copies from a number of different periods, but Schøyen has the oldest—a Sumerian version from about the 19th century B.C. Two later tablets in his collection also contain parts of the Mesopotamian flood story.

Another tablet in his collection contains part of the earliest known law code, 300 years before Hammurabi’s. Hammurabi ruled Babylonia from 1792 to 1750 B.C.; since his law code was discovered in 1901, parts of older law codes have been unearthed—including the laws of the city of Eshnunna, which date to about 1800 B.C., and the laws of King Lipit-Ishtar of Isin, dating to about 1930 B.C. The Sumerian Ur-Nammu Code in the Schøyen Collection takes us even farther back, to King Shulgi’s reign—2095–2047 B.C. Parts of eight of the original ten columns of text have survived. We might expect the earliest code to be the most primitive, but that’s not so. Unlike the crude lex talionis (law of retaliation) incorporated in Hammurabi’s Code and in the Bible—“life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21-24–25)—the law of Ur-Nammu, like more modern legal systems, provides only for compensation to a wronged party- “If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out one-half a mina of silver.” Schøyen wondered aloud whether the Bible would have been different had the Biblical writer read the clay cylinder the collector held in his hand.

The great ziggurat of Babylon, on which the Biblical Tower of Babel is probably based, was restored and enlarged by Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 605–562 B.C.), the same king who destroyed Jerusalem, including Solomon’s Temple, in 586 B.C. Alexander the Great in turn partly destroyed Babylon’s ziggurat on a campaign to the east in 323 B.C. Until Robert Koldewey’s German excavation in the early part of this century, we had only literary descriptions of the tower; but Koldewey not only excavated what remained of the ziggurat, but also found, in levels associated with the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, a small black stone stela that depicts Nebuchadnezzar’s restored and enlarged edifice. Koldewey found the stela broken in three pieces; the upper two—the most important pieces—are now in the Schøyen Collection. (The third part is believed to be somewhere in the United States; Schøyen would like to acquire it.)

The upper two pieces of the stela show a profile of the ziggurat with seven clearly marked steps, as well as what looks like a temple complex at the base. This may be the very temple Koldewey excavated south of the ziggurat. Also pictured on the stela is Nebuchadnezzar himself, holding a spear in his left hand and, in his right, an architectural plan for rebuilding the tower. At the top of the stela is a plan showing the outer walls and interior layout of the temple that was to be rebuilt on top of the ziggurat. The surviving cuneiform inscription clearly identifies the edifice- “The Foundation of Heaven and Earth, Ziggarat in Babylon.”

Just to put the icing on the cake, Schøyen also has a brick from the tower inscribed with the Babylonian ruler’s name! The seven-line inscription reads “Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, guardian of the temples Esagila and Ezida, firstborn son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon.”

The Bible tells us that the Tower of Babel, like the real ziggurat of Babylon, was constructed of bricks rather than stone and that the bricks were held together by bitumen—asphalt or tar—rather than mortar (Genesis 11-1–9). Schøyen’s brick still has traces of bitumen on the back.

Less than three percent of the Schøyen Collection has been published. But, consistent with the obligation he feels to be a responsible collector, Schøyen has plans to remedy that. He intends to publish a series of volumes that will in effect make the collection public. Approximately half—more than 6,000 items—have already been assigned to world-class scholars. The first two folio volumes—the first on newly discovered Buddhist manuscripts and the second on Coptic papyri—are now out. Schøyen anticipates that the series will eventually include between 40 and 50 volumes—more even than the official series of volumes in which the Dead Sea Scrolls are published.(b)

The Schøyen Collection also includes more than 40 fragments from six different Dead Sea Scrolls, including the Biblical books of Joshua and Daniel, the Qumran sect’s Manual of Discipline and the Genesis Apocryphon. Schøyen would dearly love to acquire an intact scroll. He has never seen one, aside from the well-known ones that have been published and are publicly owned. Despite the rumors that have circulated about such a scroll (or scrolls) existing in private hands, he has followed all the leads and they have all turned out to be “ghosts.” Of one well-known scholar’s worldwide search for more scrolls, Schøyen says that “all he did was raise a lot of dust.” Yet Schøyen cannot dismiss the idea that there may yet be some scrolls locked away in a vault, increasing in value each passing day.

Schøyen insists, however, that he does not buy looted objects. And while he will try to get the “best price” at auction or from a dealer, if he is purchasing from a private party who does not know the value of what is offered for sale, he will pay the fair market value. That provision is included in his own published code of ethics. A devout churchman, he says it is the Christian thing to do. Even at a public auction, Schøyen will not bid against a national library or a public museum; only when the institution drops out of the bidding will he enter the lists. He will, however, purchase a looted item if a museum or scholar asks him to “rescue” it.

As for the looting problem, Schøyen says it would be solved if every country adopted a law that assured the finder of unexcavated antiquities the fair market price for what is dug up, provided he or she notifies the authorities of the find and the site is then scientifically excavated. Up to half of the objects discovered on the site could be taken by the government, but the finder would be paid fair market value even for those items. The balance of the objects would go to the finder, who would be free to keep or sell them.

At 61, Martin Schøyen is at the height of his powers. But he is already thinking of the inevitable. At one time, he would have been satisfied to have his collection auctioned off piece by piece, giving each new owner the pleasure he had in owning the object. Now he is thinking of his responsibility to the public. His collection, he has decided, will remain together. And it will remain together not as a gift, but as a sale. Already museums are coming to him, not the other way around. He rattles off the four great museums in London, Paris, Rome and New York—the British Museum, the Louvre, the Vatican and the Metropolitan—that would outshine his own. That is why he does not want his collection to go to any of those four cities. His collection, he says, would put any other city “on the map.” It would be the fifth great collection. The current going price for his collection is $110 million. A loyal Norwegian, Schøyen would clearly like the collection to remain in Norway if proper arrangements, including exhibition rooms, can be made.

For most of his life, Schøyen was a bachelor. He married five years ago, but he and his wife have no children. So what will happen to the proceeds from the sale of the collection? It will go into a charitable foundation he has set up, the Martin Schøyen Foundation for Human Rights. Human rights is defined in the broadest possible terms—from curing diseases to protecting the environment, from ensuring freedom from gender discrimination to eradicating political suppression and terrorism.

Clearly, Schøyen is thinking about the future almost as much as about the past.

For more on the Schøyen Collection, see The Schøyen Collection.

a. Stephen Goranson, “Qumran—The Evidence of the Inkwells,” BAR 19-06.

b. See “Chief Scroll Editor Opens Up—An Interview with Emanuel Tov,” BAR 28-03.

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