Thursday, October 24, 2019

5 Surprising Details about the Initial Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Several details about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are common knowledge. Many in the public, for example, are aware that approximately seventy years ago Bedouin accidentally discovered hundreds of ancient manuscripts near the Dead Sea. Although many understand a few general details about this discovery, several other details are less known, and perhaps even surprising. I discovered many of these details and many more while reading Weston W. Fields' Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History. Here are five less known and surprising details about the initial discovery of these manuscripts and the subsequent few months of trying to sell them.

1) The discovery of these manuscripts in 1947 by Bedouin was not the first-time manuscripts were discovered near the Dead Sea. In the third century AD, Origen discovered a manuscript preserving psalms in a cave near Jericho (22). Then, again in the eighth or ninth century AD, several manuscripts with psalms attributed to David were discovered near Jericho (29 n38).

2) The Bedouin did not rush to sell their newly discovered treasure but waited until they “had occasion” in the words of Fields (26). Before making it to market, it has been reported that one manuscript was destroyed by children playing. The scraps of that manuscript were then thrown away (26)! Other reports claim that pieces were used as sandal straps, but Fields believes this story to be unlikely (26).

3) When the Bedouin finally arrived at market (roughly two months or so after the discovery), they had a difficult time selling these manuscripts. A suspicion that the scrolls were stolen led the first, or perhaps even the first two antiquities dealers to pass on purchasing these manuscripts, at less initially. Fields suggests that the Bedouin were only looking for a small amount of money in exchange for the manuscripts in their possession (26). These manuscripts were likely 1QIsaa, the Habakkuk Commentary, and the Manual of Discipline in two pieces (29).

4) The Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel purchased 1QIsaa, the Habakkuk Commentary, and the Manual of Discipline. He, however, almost missed his opportunity to buy them when the monastery steward at St. Mark’s monastery in Jerusalem sent the Bedouin away because the manuscripts were written in Hebrew, not Syriac (29-30).

5) Kando, a Bethlehem merchant who became acquainted with the manuscripts because he could verify that they were written on leather, agreed to sell 1QIsaa, the Habakkuk Commentary, and the Manual of Discipline for the Bedouin on consignment for commission (one-third of the purchase price). He sold these manuscripts to Samuel for roughly $97 saying, “Much dirty paper for little clean paper” (33 n52). Samuel later sold his scrolls in 1954 for $250,000.

First four columns of 1QIsaa
The story of the discovery, collection, reconstruction, and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a riveting tale that Weston Fields traces and narrates in Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History. Anyone interested in these manuscripts will find the details recorded here quite fascinating and worth the time to read and enjoy.


  1. One remarkable section of Weston Fields' book, I'd say, is the discussion on the possibility that there may have been two different scroll caves that were later conflated as Cave One (vol. 1, pages 110-112 and endnotes), even though F. M. Cross dismissed that idea, and Occam's razor looms.
    On item 2 above I'd add that bedouin likely know more about animal products (very old skins in this case) than to offer them for sale a sandal strap material. (The usual, presumably false, myth has them offering them to Kando as such.)

  2. Another possible misapprehension Fields' vol. 1 can help clear up is the occasional baseless claim that R. de Vaux and G. W. L. H. Harding prematurely associated the scrolls and Khirbet Qumran. They did *not* do so during their 1949 survey, and not until after A. Dupont-Sommer publications in 1950, and also after digging at Qumran in November-December 1951 did they make that association.
    It may be interesting to see how W. Fields, in a subsequent volume, addresses the 21st-century sales of fragments claimed to be from Qumran, but in many cases disputed.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Stephen. The book is fantastic, isn't it? I only wish that I would have read it at the beginning of my dissertation. Truthfully, I enjoyed reading that even Oxford University Press was confused about how to cite DJD properly.

  4. Hello, I have a question. The number 22 and number 26 that look like foot notes. If so, what are they referencing?