Discovery and Acquisition, 1947–1956, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.


Eleazar Sukenik

Eleazar Sukenik, courtesy of National Library of Israel

The Dead Sea Scrolls were not discovered all at once in 1947. We have several accounts from antiquity and the Middle Ages about scrolls discovered in the region of Jericho. These previously discovered scrolls may have reached certain circles that influenced Karaism, a medieval Jewish sectarian movement that has certain parallels to the Dead Sea sect.

In modern times, the earliest scroll materials to be discovered were two partial medieval manuscripts of the Zadokite Fragments, also called the Damascus Document by many scholars. These manuscripts came to the attention of Solomon Schechter in 1896, when he retrieved them from the Cairo genizah, a storehouse for old books and documents in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo. Manuscripts of the very same text were later found in the Qumran collection. It is now clear that this document was a central sectarian text.

The story of the discovery of the first hoard of Dead Sea Scrolls in cave 1 at Qumran by a Bedouin shepherd has been rehearsed often. Despite the momentousness of the occasion, the story actually pertains only to the first seven scrolls. That initial discovery was followed by many more. Ultimately, the collection included fragments of some 850 scrolls from Qumran, not to mention the other Judaean Desert sites where scrolls were found by Bedouin or archaeologists. The spectacular controversy over unreleased documents that was to erupt years later involved only the finds of cave 4, discovered in 1952.

In the winter of 1947 (perhaps fall 1946), a Bedouin shepherd named Mohammed edh-Dhib from the Ta‘amireh tribe went searching for a lost sheep near the shore of the Dead Sea. Chancing upon the opening to a cave, he threw in a stone and heard the sound of the stone’s hitting pottery. In the cave, he found seven almost complete scrolls encased in protective pottery jars. Realizing that they might be able to sell these scrolls, the Bedouin shepherd and his friends brought them in the spring of 1947 to a shoemaker in Bethlehem named Khalil Eskander Shahin, who also doubled as an antiquities dealer. Kando, as he was popularly known, soon became the agent for the Bedouin as they continued to recover scrolls from the Judaean Desert.

In July 1947, Kando sold four of the scrolls to the Syrian Metropolitan Athanasius Yeshue Samuel of St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. Since the scrolls’ antiquity was not yet recognized, they were sold for a pittance. At the same time, another antiquities dealer, Feidi Salahi, offered two scrolls for sale to the Jerusalem archaeologist Eleazar L. Sukenik. Sukenik, father of the prominent Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, had founded the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University and was the leading expert on Jewish antiquities in the Jewish community of Palestine. He immediately recognized the antiquity of the texts from their script, which resembled that of some Second Temple period inscriptions he knew. He succeeded in buying these two scrolls, as well as several fragments, on behalf of the Hebrew University and the Jewish Agency. On December 22, Sukenik acquired another scroll from the same source.

He had acquired, then, three of the seven scrolls found by the Bedouin in cave 1: a manuscript of the biblical Book of Isaiah; the Thanksgiving Hymns, a collection of sectarian hymns; and the Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, a manual for the messianic battle expected by the Qumran sect.

The initial identification of the scrolls by Sukenik took place between the November 1947 UN vote in favor of the Partition Plan for Palestine and the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. By this time, in the difficult months leading up to the Declaration of Independence of the new state, relations between Arabs and Jews were at best strained. Taking great risks, Sukenik doggedly continued his pursuit of the scrolls.

In late January 1948, Sukenik was shown the other four scrolls by Anton Kiraz, an associate of the Metropolitan. The four consisted of another scroll of Isaiah; Rule of the Community, a sectarian rule book; Pesher Habakkuk, a sectarian scriptural commentary; and Genesis Apocryphon, a retelling of parts of the Book of Genesis. On February 6, Sukenik returned the scrolls to Kiraz, telling him that he wished to purchase them for the soon-to-be-declared state of Israel. But Sukenik had trouble organizing the purchase, and in the meantime, intervening political changes made it impossible for him to continue the negotiations. Eventually, these scrolls were acquired by his son, archaeologist Yigael Yadin, but not until 1954.

Rather than going ahead with the sale to Sukenik, the Metropolitan continued to investigate other possibilities. In late February 1948, the Metropolitan’s assistant took three of the same scrolls to the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in East Jerusalem to get another opinion. The American Schools in Jerusalem, now known as the Albright Institute (in memory of the late William Foxwell Albright, dean of U.S. biblical archaeologists), was and still is a major center for U.S. archaeological activity in the Land of Israel. In the absence of the director, the scrolls found their way to a young graduate student, John C. Trever, who was an expert in photography. Trever concluded that they appeared ancient, although his own memoirs reveal that he had little real knowledge of Hebrew. He succeeded in getting the Metropolitan’s permission to photograph three scrolls (excluding Genesis Apocryphon). He took the photographs in both black and white and color, demonstrating consummate mastery of his craft. By the time archaeologists began to investigate the location from which the scrolls had come, the state of Israel had been declared on May 14, 1948, and the War of Independence had begun.

The results were of great importance for the future of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The area of Qumran, the provenance of the scrolls, had previously been part of British Mandatory Palestine. When Israel’s Arab neighbors invaded immediately after the Declaration of Independence, the Jordanian Arab legion swarmed across the Jordan River and occupied the West Bank. From that moment until the transfer of territorial sovereignty after the Six-Day War, Qumran manuscript purchases and archaeological excavation remained in the hands of officials of the Jordanian Antiquities Department and those designated by them.

Locating cave 1 for archaeological study was a difficult task, especially since the Bedouin, who still expected to find additional treasures nearby, were reluctant to talk. The cave was found by a detachment of British and Jordanian troops after a seventy-two-hour, meter-by-meter search of the cliffs. In February 1949, G. Lancaster Harding, director of the Jordanian Antiquities Department, and Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique—the French biblical and archaeological school in Jerusalem—undertook the excavation of cave 1.

In the spring of 1950, ASOR published photographs and transcriptions of two of the scrolls in the possession of the Metropolitan; editions of the Isaiah A Scroll, which preserved virtually the entire biblical Book of Isaiah; and Pesher Habakkuk. A year later, ASOR published Rule of the Community. In order to convince the Metropolitan to permit publication of his scrolls, ASOR had assured him that publication would raise their monetary value. This promise turned out to be a pipe dream.

After completion of the excavation of cave 1, it was natural to turn to the excavation of Khirbet Qumran (khirbeh is Arabic for “ruin”). From November 24 through December 12, 1951, de Vaux and Harding conducted the first season of excavations there. Their efforts yielded coins and pottery, confirming the connection between the caves from which the scrolls had come and the adjoining site, as well as establishing the dating of the scrolls.

By this time, the Bedouin, realizing the value of these fragments, had stepped up their efforts to locate additional caves. The biggest treasure came to light in the first part of September 1952, when Bedouin discovered caves 4 and 6 at Qumran. Once the materials were finally pieced together, cave 4 would yield a bountiful harvest: fragments of some 550 manuscripts. Ironically, archaeologists working only about a five-minute walk away from this cave had missed it entirely.

In 1952, the growing volume of manuscript finds and excavated artifacts prompted the Jordanian authorities to arrange for analysis and publication of the scrolls. Harding appointed de Vaux to the post of editor in chief. The work was thereafter subsidized by the Palestine Archaeological Museum (PAM), now the Rockefeller Museum. In 1954, a large donation was secured for this purpose from John D. Rockefeller, who agreed to fund the project for six years, defraying the expenses of the scholars in Jerusalem, the secretarial staff, photography, and preservation. Large sums were also provided for the purchase of material by the PAM. The materials were to be stored and restored in the PAM and to be published by Oxford University Press in the series Discoveries in the Judaean Desert.

Almost all of the photography was done by Najib Anton Albina, mainly during the years 1954 to 1960. Originally the photographer for the PAM, he devoted himself almost exclusively to the production of photographic plates of the Judaean Desert texts during those years. After mastering the techniques of infrared photography, he took three sets of photos of each of most of the texts, representing different stages in the process of sorting and joining the fragments. In many cases, these photographs remain the best documentation we have of the texts, some of which have since deteriorated or lost letters around the edges during various stages of storage, research, and preservation.

The conditions in the PAM during that period were primitive at best. Scholars working on the scrolls never had enough room to work, and there were no assistants provided. Worst of all, no attention was paid to conservation and preservation. Scholars used Scotch tape or the gummed edges of postage stamps to attach fragments as they were being assembled. Sunlight streaming into the room bathed the ancient manuscripts, leading to further decay. Coffee cups and cigarettes were a common sight, and we can only imagine what toll they may have taken on the fragile scrolls.

What do you want to know?

Ask our AI widget and get answers from this website