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The Bible Scholar Who Became an Undercover Agent, Harry M. Orlinsky, Biblical Archaeology Review, Jul-Aug. 1992.

War ScrollIt was about noon, Thursday, July 1, 1954. My wife and I had just seen our two sons off for their summer in Vermont. Our car was packed for a fortnight’s trip to Toronto, my wife was already seated in the car and I was locking the door when the telephone rang. We looked at each other- should I answer? We were impatient to get away, but after the third or fourth ring, I went back inside.

It was Yigael Yadin, speaking from the office of Avraham Harman, Consul-General of Israel in New York City. I must come over to the consulate at once, he said. What could be so important that only I could perform the service? Was I needed for some military action, I asked facetiously [typical Orlinsky humor—Ed.]. It was more important than that, Yadin declared. 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.

When I reached the Israeli Consulate, Harman and Yadin were waiting impatiently. The matter, they said, concerned the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Exactly a month earlier, Monty Jacobs, the (London) Jewish Chronicle staff correspondent in New York, had been told by an American colleague that he had seen a small announcement tucked away in the advertising columns of the Wall Street Journal. Under the heading “Miscellaneous for Sale,” among scores of other commercial and business advertisements, was a small two-inch paragraph. The advertisement ran-

The Four Dead Sea Scrolls Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C. are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.

Unable to get any additional information about the advertisement from the executive editor of the Journal, and reminding himself that Yadin and his wife had just arrived in this country on a speaking tour for the United Jewish Appeal, Jacobs telephoned Yadin and asked him whether he had seen or heard about the advertisement.

After reading the advertisement, Yadin decided that he must acquire these four scrolls, that the only proper home for them was Israel. He had frequently thought of them, ever since his father, Prof. Eleazar Lippe Sukenik, founder and head of the Hebrew University Department of Archaeology, had “experienced” them and several others in the late forties. For it was in the very midst of those historic months in 1947–1948, when the Jews were preparing desperately to fight not only for a Jewish State but for their very lives, that Sukenik first learned of the scrolls, and on several occasions thereafter endangered his life to examine and acquire three scrolls for Hebrew University- “The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness,” “The Thanksgiving Psalms” (Hodayot), and the partial “Isaiah Scroll” (later designated number “2”).

Sukenik learned from two independent sources that several scrolls had come into the possession of the Metropolitan of the Syrian Monastery of St. Mark in the Old City. Sukenik got to these scrolls and recognized them as belonging to those he had acquired. However, because of the extreme difficulty in communication and the lack of ready funds for purchasing the new batch, negotiations between the Metropolitan and Sukenik dragged. This provided the Metropolitan the opportunity to make contact with the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. Assured that the scrolls would fetch considerably higher prices in the United States and fearful of what the consequences of the war between the seven Arab nations and the State of Israel might be for the scrolls, the Metropolitan left the country with these documents and came to the United States. He deposited them in a vault of the Trust Company of New Jersey in Journal Square, Jersey City, and waited for a more opportune day to dispose of them.

Sukenik was broken-hearted that these scrolls were no longer available to Israel; as he put it, “The Jewish people have lost a precious heritage.” When he died in 1953, he had no inkling that exactly one year later his son Yigael would be given the opportunity of acquiring them. Small wonder that Yadin was determined to make this acquisition.

The scrolls had become a major problem for the Metropolitan. Even though Israel had beaten back the Arab armies that had threatened to annihilate her, she was yet compelled to share the city of Jerusalem with Jordan. But the Metropolitan could not return to his Monastery in the Old City, for the Jordanian Government regarded itself as the legal owner of these scrolls and could scarcely be expected to condone what it considered to be the arbitrary and illegal removal of these antiquities.

On the other hand, it had become increasingly apparent to the Metropolitan that the huge sums that the four scrolls in his possession had been expected to bring from eager buyers would not materialize. Any purchaser, be it an institution or an individual, would be subject to possible legal proceedings by the Government of Jordan. Hence the advertisement in the Wall Street Journal.

But would the Metropolitan knowingly sell the scrolls to the Israeli Government? Hardly, and this worried Yadin. And would the Israeli Government purchase the scrolls, knowing that it might well be subjecting itself to a lawsuit at the hands of a Government that had not signed a peace pact with it? Yes, because the Government of Jordan would, in effect, be recognizing the State of Israel as a legal entity by taking it to court.

Since Yadin was known personally to the Metropolitan, the scrolls had to be examined at first hand and vouched for by someone who had worked on the texts and had direct knowledge of their appearance, but who was unknown to the Metropolitan, so that no link with the State of Israel might be suspected. It was my task, Yadin told me, to examine the scrolls to make sure that they were the ones that had been advertised for sale, the ones that his father had examined in January–February 1948 and wanted so desperately to purchase.

I was to assume the name “Mr. Green,” an expert on behalf of the client. I was to take a taxi to the Lexington Avenue entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where the Chemical Bank and Trust Co. had a branch. I was to make sure that I was not followed. A Mr. Sydney M. Estridge would be waiting there for me; we had been told how to identify one another. He would go with me downstairs to the vault of the bank. There we would find a representative of the Metropolitan, with the scrolls ready for examination. I was to say as little as possible, and admit to no identification beyond being Mr. Green.

The vault was stuffy and hot, and inadequately lit. From a large black trunk on the floor emerged four scrolls. The most important and impressive of them was the Isaiah Scroll, all sixty-six chapters of it. It was cleverly set up for display and examination, placed between two transparent plastic sheets so that either end could be unrolled.

Several years earlier, even before it was reproduced by the American Schools of Oriental Research (1950), the text had been made available to the members of the committee that was responsible for the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament; we were working at the time on the final draft of Isaiah. But, unknown to the Metropolitan’s representative or to Mr. Estridge, there was a problem in the text of the Isaiah Scroll that I was determined to solve; when would I again have the Scroll at my disposal? The problem involved the reading of the final word in 43-19, namely, whether the Scroll read netivot or netivim, “paths” in place of the traditional neharot, “rivers.”

Since our passage (43-19) was to be found two-thirds from the beginning of the scroll, I kept asking the merchant to keep unrolling the scroll. After a while he became impatient, and perhaps suspicious. He wanted to know who I really was, and why I insisted that the scroll be unrolled almost to the end, and couldn’t I tell from the number of columns already exposed that the scroll was the original Isaiah Scroll that had created such a sensation when its discovery was first announced six years earlier? In reply I mumbled that I’d like to make sure that the scroll was intact and undamaged.

When I finished examining the Isaiah Scroll, I turned to the scroll known as the Pesher (Exposition) of Habakkuk. From the edition of this scroll published by the American Schools of Oriental Research and a number of studies which discussed it, I was aware of the sensational conclusions that had been drawn by some scholars that the text of missing passages referred to a person who was crucified under circumstances that paralleled and recalled some aspects of the traditional account of the crucifixion of Jesus.

The third scroll was the Manual of Discipline (Sereth Ha-yahad). The fourth scroll I could not examine because it was not possible to unroll it in its current condition. It had been designated by some scholars as the long-lost Apocalypse of Lamech because a piece of it had been removed several years earlier and the name Lamech (Lmk) was inscribed in various contexts on the inner surface. I tried to unroll a bit more of the scroll but the merchant intervened angrily, and with justification; after all, I could be damaging a piece of material worth thousands of dollars.

After leaving the vault, I phoned an unlisted number and spoke the word “lechayim” [to life], meaning the scrolls were genuine. When I arrived later at the consulate, there was much rejoicing. I was handed a statement for my approval and signature authenticating the scrolls.

With that, we bade one another shalom and kol-tuv [all the best] and le-hitraot [so long] and my wife and I drove off for Toronto. We were sworn to secrecy until all four scrolls safely reached Israel.

The scrolls were flown to Israel one at a time, bearing a code name in Hebrew. When the last arrived, Yadin received a cable from Teddy Kollek saying- “At this memorable moment the Prime Minister [Moshe Sharett] is telling the country and the world about the homecoming of the scrolls. Excitement and joy are great.”

This article is excerpted with permission from Essays in Biblical Culture and Bible Translation by Harry M. Orlinsky (New York- Ktav, 1974).

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