Thursday, January 09, 2020

From Bedouin to Scholars: The Discovery and Preservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls largely belong to the realm of scholars and researchers. However, this was not always the case. When the scrolls were discovered, they belonged to the realm of Bedouin. The Bedouin sold those first few manuscripts to merchants. Finally, some were sold to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem while others were sold to the religious leaders of St. Mark’s Monastery. In this post, I will discuss five important figures associated with the discovery and the early preservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This list is quite diverse. It includes Bedouin, a merchant, a religious leader, and two scholars. Truly, many different people are due credit for the discovery and preservation of these fascinating manuscripts. For a full discussion of these figures, I recommend Weston Fields’ work Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History. Citations to his work are found in parentheses.
Juma (left) and Mohammad ed-Dib (right)
Photo by John C. Trever
1) Mohammad ed-Dib, a member of the Taʿamireh Bedouin, is credited with the discovery of these manuscripts in either late 1946 or early 1947. The discovery happened when a rock was thrown to guide the Bedouin’s herds. This stray rock “coincidentally” broke something inside a nearby cave. Mohammed and another friend investigated the cave the following day and discovered the first manuscripts now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls (25). The greatest archeological find of the last century was, thus, a mere accident.

2) Kando (Khalil Eskander Shahin), a Syrian Orthodox shop owner in Bethlehem, verified shortly after this discovery that the scrolls were leather. Kando’s involvement with the Scrolls would from this point be extensive. In fact, the Bedouin would bring the manuscripts to Kando, who was their sole dealer. As the Scrolls dealer, he would sell the manuscripts to de Vaux at the École (the “French School” [see 147-154]) on behalf of the Bedouin.

3) Mar Samuel of St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem purchased 1QIsaa, the Habakkuk Commentary, and the Manual of Discipline from the Bedouin on July 19, 1947 (33). He had the opportunity to buy 1QIsab, the War Scroll, the Thanksgiving Scroll, and the Genesis Apocryphon but missed the opportunity because of miscommunication (29-30). Samuel immediately believed the scrolls to be ancient, but most others were less certain (see 39 for a list of the uninterested observers).

4) Father van der Ploeg was the second person outside of the local Arab community to see the scrolls. Although van der Ploeg recognized the antiquity of the scrolls, he had little involvement in their publication (see 33-35).

5) Eleazar Sukenik was a professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and specialized in Hebrew epigraphy and the archaeology of ancient synagogues (41). According to Fields, he was the first person with the skills necessary to evaluate the scrolls properly (39-40). His first acquaintance with the scrolls was at the gateway to military Zone B with a barbed wire fence between him and his friend, an antiquities dealer, Nasir Ohan. This meeting took place on November 24, 1947 (41). On November 30, 1947, Sukenik decided to buy the manuscripts presented to him (likely the War Scroll and Thanksgiving Scroll) for the Hebrew University (45). Sukenik later purchased 1QIsab, a fragment of Isaiah, and possibly some Daniel fragments on December 22, 1947 (50).

View of Qumran Cave 4 discovered by Bedouin in 1952
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a fascinating story. The fact that they were discovered by “accident” by Bedouin only adds to the intrigue. Indeed, modern scholars owe a great deal of gratitude to past scholars; this much is certain. Gratitude, however, must also be extended to Bedouin, merchants, and shop owners.

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