The odyssey of the Dead Sea Scrolls — what a long, strange trip it’s been


The Dead Sea scrolls will arrive this summer at the San Diego Natural History Museum after a long, convoluted journey – one that was often interrupted by controversy.

The Bedouins who discovered the first seven scrolls in a cave near Qumran in 1947 often smuggled contraband across the desert. But they knew that selling these documents would be tricky, because excavating antiquities without a license was illegal in British Mandate Palestine.

Their “fence” proved to be a Bethlehem merchant who sold four of the scrolls for $100 to a Jerusalem-based archbishop. The famed Israeli archaeologist, Eleazar Sukenik, bought the other three, making the trek from Jerusalem to Bethlehem during the dangerous last days of the British Mandate.

As for the archbishop, he was unable to sell his scrolls – including a 24-foot-long book of Isaiah – for his set price of $1 million. So he placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal which essentially read, “scrolls for sale,” and sold them to Yigael Yadin (who happens to be Sukenik’s son) for $250,000.

In Jerusalem, the Shrine of the Book was built to house the seven scrolls the Bedouins had discovered in that long, narrow cave near Qumran, on the Dead Sea.

Other Bedouins continued to comb the hundreds of caves in the area, hitting the jackpot when they found what is now called “Cave Four.”

Beneath a meter of animal dung, bat guano and dirt, they discovered pieces of about 600 scrolls, in tens of thousands of fragments. Curators at the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian rule, eventually bought the scrolls and hired a small team of scholars to examine them. The scholars included John Strugnell of the Harvard Divinity School.

In the early 1950s, members of the team began the painstaking task of piecing together the often-blackened fragments, working at a number of long tables. The documents they reconstructed included perhaps the oldest biblical manuscript ever discovered: a book of Exodus, circa 250 B.C.E.

Because the Jordanians were in charge, no Jewish scholars were allowed to participate in the text work or in the excavations at Qumran, where the scrolls’ owners had lived. In fact, all the academics were Christian scholars (the head of excavations was a Dominican monk) who believed the scrolls and the ruins described the roots of Christianity and monasticism. For decades, they hoarded the scrolls, refusing to let any other scholars see them.

“They felt the real significance of the scrolls would be in explaining Christianity, because that was their interest,” said Lawrence Schiffman of New York University, an Orthodox Jew who himself was officially denied access (today he is considered among the foremost scholars in the field).

“I understand why people in general would fall into the trap of ‘Christianizing’ the scrolls,” Schiffman adds.

Scholars now believe the scrolls elucidate the world of the sectarians, a group of Jews who somehow became radicalized, perhaps in response to increased Hellenistic influences inside the Second Temple; they fled to Qumran to live pure lives in preparation for the Messiah. Their messianic preoccupation resonated with the Christian scholars, as did the sectarian’s belief that God had predestined every human act.

Sectarians also believed that “good” and “evil” did not come from within a person but from without; there was a spirit of good and a spirit of evil (“like Satan with a small ‘s,'” Schiffman said) warring for the soul of every human being.

In the “Scroll of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness,” the sectarians identify themselves as the sons of light, who are preparing for a holy war against the sons of darkness – meaning everyone else on earth. They are mandated to hate these enemies, whom they also refer to in another scroll as “the people in the pit.”

The original Christian scholars dominated scroll research even after the Six- Day War, when Israelis conquered East Jerusalem and took over the Palestine Museum (which was renamed the Rockefeller Museum). Israeli officials allowed the Christian scholars to continue hoarding the scrolls – until the frustration of other academics exploded into an international controversy in the late 1980s.

The monopolizing scholars are “like children who have the cookie jar all to themselves,” Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, publicly stated at a Princeton University conference on the scrolls.

At the same conference, John Strugnell, then editor-in-chief of the international scrolls publication team, replied that his scholars were working at an acceptable pace, and that “We seem to have acquired a bunch of fleas who are in the business of annoying us.”

The change came when an Israeli newspaper quoted Strugnell as saying that Judaism was a horrible religion that should not have survived. He was hospitalized for bipolar disorder in 1990 and dismissed from his post as scrolls editor in chief, according to a 1991 NOVA documentary, “Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

The texts were “liberated” the following year, when scholars at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion clandestinely reconstructed the scrolls on a home computer, using an index that Strugnell had given them, among other developments.

With all scholars allowed access to the texts, new research about the sectarians began to emerge, contradicting earlier theories that the sectarians were proto-Christians. Schiffman, along with many other academics, now believes that the sectarians were extremists – but within a Jewish tradition. The Qumranites shared ideas about Shabbat that were similar to those of other Jews of the period (and to Jews today). They also observed mikvah rituals (although they immersed far more often than other Jews, submerging before every meal, for example). And their biblical manuscripts were essentially the same as those we have today, with what are mostly minor variations.

“Of course the sectarians do not represent the views of the average Jew running around in the first and second centuries B.C.E.,” Schiffman said. “But the only way to understand the scrolls is within the context of the history of Judaism.

Armchair archeologists can explore Qumran virtually


After glancing at the nearby caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were stored, I walked through the entrance to the main building at Qumran, checked out the scriptorium with its ink wells and oil lamps and the pottery-making workshop, and then up to the four-story tower for spotting approaching Roman legions.

Although it was a hot day, I was perfectly comfortable because my virtual walking tour of the desert settlement was conducted at a sophisticated UCLA computer site, courtesy of the Qumran Visualization Project.

“What we’ve built here is a fully reconstructed, three-dimensional, real-time, interactive model of Khirbet Qumran,” explained Robert C. Cargill, a graduate student in the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

Joining Cargill was his department chairman, professor William Schniedewind, who initiated the project to graphically enliven his class on ancient Israel and to probe current scholarly disputes on the genesis of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

After a Bedouin shepherd discovered the first scrolls in a cave in 1947, archaeologists turned their attention to nearby Qumran. Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican priest, was the first to excavate the site in 1951 and concluded that it was the communal home of a pious Jewish sect, the Essenes, who created the scrolls.

Hardly were his conclusions published, when scholars began to question his theory, a debate that has continued to this day.

As further excavations revealed more about the original structures, some experts backed de Vaux’s assertions. But others proposed that the site was a fortress constructed by the Hasmoneans, whose victory against the ancient Greek occupiers is celebrated during Chanukah.

A third interpretation held that the place had been a mega-mansion, built as a winter retreat by a wealthy Jerusalem family.

Taking the excavated remains as its blueprint, the UCLA team began to model the structure wall by wall, reflecting their thickness, strength and, even, texture.

What the model showed was that the ancient inhabitants of Qumran, like Beverly Hills homeowners, had remodeled and expanded the original structure.

According to its “visualization” and the research of numerous scholars, the UCLA team concluded that the original 20,150-square-foot structure, built around 160 B.C.E., consisted of a two-story building and four-story tower, and was designed as a fortress.

The fortress was abandoned after some time, perhaps because it was no longer needed for defensive purposes. The site was reoccupied in 130 BCE, apparently by the Essenes, who began to repurpose and expand the place for their own communal needs.

Over the years they added a large dining hall, a pottery production plant, and, most importantly, the scriptorium where the scrolls were written.

The idyll was destroyed in 70 CE or shortly thereafter by the conquering Roman legions, after they had laid waste to Jerusalem and its Holy Temple.

According to the descriptions of communal living in the scrolls, the number of eating utensils and the size of the sleeping quarters, Qumran during the Essene era was inhabited by about 75 residents – all men.

One of the true marvels of Qumran, vividly illustrated through the computer model, was an elaborate water system of dams and canals, fed by runoffs from occasional flash floods and a spring, collected in a holding pool.

The system supplied enough water for no less than 11 mikvahs, or ritual baths, for separating clay at the pottery plant, and for the community’s livestock and crops.

Cleanliness was a high priority. Latrines were dug some distance from the structure and scribes had to wash themselves before entering the scriptorium.

Adding to the model’s allure is a series of high-resolution panoramic photographs of the sky, the cliffs to the west of Qumran and the Dead Sea and Jordanian plains to the east.

Cargill and Schniedewind, who developed the computer model over a 15-month period, plan to eventually replace the panoramic photography with satellite imagery, which will allow them to simulate the surrounding topography and terrain. They also hope to create virtual models of the caves where the scrolls were found.

Both Schniedewind and Cargill are practicing Christians with a deep appreciation and knowledge of Judaism and Israel.

After attending a Christian college as an undergraduate, Schniedewind, 44, earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Brandeis, and an additional master’s at Jerusalem University College, a Christian institute in Israel’s capital.

He is fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic and Northwest Semitic dialects and his primary scholarly interest is in ancient Israel, especially the era of formative Judaism from 1000-1 B.C.E.

No ivory tower theoretician, he has worked on separate archaeological digs in Israel, including Qumran in 1993, and frequently praised the cooperation and pioneering research of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Cargill is 34, of Scottish descent, and has handled most of the computer modeling. He graduated from Pepperdine University, majoring in biblical studies, and “realized that to understand Christianity I had to first understand Judaism,” he said.

When first asked if he were Jewish, he asked back, “Aren’t we all?” As a token of his affection for Israel, his forearm is tattooed with the Hebrew word “ahava,” or love.

The Journal got an advance introduction to the virtual Qumran during a demonstration of digital innovation projects at UCLA.

It will be officially unveiled to the public on June 29 at the San Diego Natural History Museum, as part of the largest and most comprehensive public exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in any country.

In all, 27 scrolls will be on view during the seven-month exhibit, 10 of which have never been publicly displayed.

The San Diego museum underwrote 75 percent of the $100,000 cost of the Qumran project.

The preview at UCLA also featured 25 other digital innovation projects, ranging from an urban simulation of Los Angeles to an analysis of Old Icelandic.

San Diego museum culls worldwide collections for Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit


When a young Bedouin goat-herder entered a long-forgotten cave in the Judean desert and found some old jars filled with strange looking manuscripts, he had no idea he had stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological treasures of our time – the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was 1947, and the scrolls had been lost for 2,000 years. During the next decade, archeologists would discover remnants of approximately 900 manuscripts in 11 caves, linking the modern world to the formative years of Judaism and Christianity and opening a doorway to an ancient Middle East culture and its traditions.

On June 29, the San Diego Natural History Museum will open the exhibition “Dead Sea Scrolls,” the largest, most comprehensive show ever of these ancient treasures. It will include authentic scrolls, illuminated biblical manuscripts, artifacts, landscape and aerial photography and interactive displays about science, discovery and exploration. Thanks to loans from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), 24 Dead Sea Scrolls – 10 exhibited for the first time ever – will be on display during the six-month run of the exhibition.

“We’ve really gone out of our way to present the context of the story, the context of the place, how these things were discovered, what some of the various theories are about them and the site that was closest to where they were discovered,” said Risa Levitt Kohn, curator of the exhibition.

Many aspects of this exhibition are unique. Designed specifically for the San Diego Natural History Museum, this is not a traveling show. Normally, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are permanently housed under the care and custody of the IAA, who usually, to ensure preservation of the 2,000-year-old parchment, allow only one set of scrolls to be exhibited for a three-month period outside of Israel. The San Diego museum has been granted the unprecedented opportunity for an extended exhibition with 12 scrolls displayed for the first three months and an additional 12 in the last three months. This is no small feat, considering the rigorous standards of the IAA.

“Our goal is to preserve them for at least another 2,000 years,” said Pnina Shor, head of the IAA’s Artifacts Treatment and Conservation Department. “The Dead Sea Scrolls are extremely fragile and sensitive, and three issues have to be considered carefully before allowing them to be exposed for [even] a limited period of time: illumination, temperature and humidity. On our site visit we check that the venues that wish to exhibit them are up to it and will be able to maintain our strict requirements.” After the exhibition, she adds, the scrolls will return to Jerusalem, where they will have to “rest” for at least another year.

Kohn herself has forgotten what it means to rest because of the amount of time and energy that goes into curating a world-class exhibition, yet she exudes an aura of deep satisfaction – much as you’d expect to see in someone who has spent months digging in the dirt and chipping away at rocks, slowly unearthing treasure after buried treasure.

Misconceptions about the Dead Sea Scrolls abound, she said.

“When many people think of them, they assume they are all biblical in nature. They’re often surprised to hear that there are [around] 900 scrolls, of which only 207 are biblical.”

The biblical scrolls contain all the books in the Hebrew bible, except the Book of Esther – a mystery that remains unsolved. There are also numerous apocryphal manuscripts (texts not included in the biblical canon) and the so-called “sectarian scrolls,” which contain biblical commentary, religious legal writings, prayers, poems and compositions that predict a coming apocalypse.

Although their origins have been a subject of controversy, most scholars believe the scrolls were copied and composed by a group that broke away from mainstream Judaism to live a communal life at Qumran. They called themselves the “Sons of Light,” and those living in Jerusalem – including the priesthood at the Temple – the “Sons of Darkness.” When the Romans invaded around 68 C.E., the Qumran community hid their manuscripts in nearby caves, where they remained until the Bedouin goat-herder found them.

The stories that surround the Dead Sea Scrolls are filled with the unexpected, and the story of how this exhibition came into being is no exception. Three years ago Kohn, the director of the Jewish studies program at San Diego State University and also the first person to earn a doctorate in ancient history and Hebrew Bible from UCSD, was having lunch with her former professor and renowned biblical scholar, David Noel Freedman. They were joined by Weston Fields, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation. Fields had just returned from an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at a small museum at Grand Rapids, Mich., and his enthusiasm over its success was contagious, Kohn said: “I became intrigued with the idea and plied him with questions: ‘how much did it cost, how much space did you need, how many scrolls came, what’s involved in putting this together?’ Eventually I turned to Dr. Freedman and said, ‘We need to do this here,’ and he said, ‘No, you need to do this here.'”

Next came the exhaustive research, and then came the hunt for museum venues. The San Diego Natural History Museum had just undergone a major expansion and seemed in every way to be a perfect fit. To her surprise, Michael Hager, president and CEO of the museum, thought so, too.

As daunting an undertaking as this has been, things have gone remarkably smoothly so far, considering the scope of the project, Kohn said, while acknowledging that she’s had the good fortune to draw upon the expertise of world-renowned historians, archeologists, biblical scholars and scientists, many of whom will participate in the museum’s series of lectures related to the show.

When Hager felt that that the story shouldn’t end in 68 C.E. with the latest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, she learned there was a very large collection of biblical manuscripts from about a thousand years later that are kept in the Russian Library in St. Petersburg. Negotiations began to bring out some of that collection, then some from the British Library and, as Kohn said, “It sort of started a domino effect and that’s how we got to the situation we have now – where we have [manuscripts] coming from all over the world.”