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Treasures from the Judean Desert
Author: Israel Antique authority

Published at: Israel Antique authority website

Date: Feb / 12/ 2009

Ancient Hebrew scrolls that were accidentally discovered in 1947 in the Judean Desert by a Bedouin boy have kindled popular enthusiasm as well as serious scholarly interest over the past half a century. The source of this excitement is what these Dead Sea Scrolls reveal about the history of the Second Temple period (520 BCE–70 CE), particularly from the second century BCE until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, a time of crucial developments in the crystallisation of the monotheistic religions. One discovery led to another, and 11 scroll-yielding caves and a habitation site eventually were uncovered. Since 1947, the site of these discoveries – the Qumran region (the desert plain and the adjoining mountainous ridge) and the Qumran site – have been subjected to countless searches. The first trove found by the Bedouin in the Judean Desert consisted of seven large scrolls from what is now called Cave 1. The unusual circumstances of the find, on the eve of Israel’s War of Independence, obstructed the initial negotiations for the purchase of all the scrolls. Shortly before the establishment of the State of Israel, Professor E.L. Sukenik of the Hebrew University acquired three of the scrolls from a Christian Arab antiquities dealer in Bethlehem. The remaining four scrolls reached the hands of Mar Athanasius Yeshua Samuel, Metropolitan of the Syrian Jacobite Monastery of St Mark in Jerusalem. In 1949, he travelled to the United States with the scrolls, but five years went by before the prelate found a purchaser. On June 1, 1954, Mar Samuel placed an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal offering “The Four Dead Sea Scrolls” for sale. The advertisement was brought to the attention of Professor Sukenik’s son, Yigael Yadin, who had recently retired as chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces and reverted to his primary vocation, archaeology. With the aid of intermediaries, the four scrolls were purchased from Mar Samuel for US$250,000. The scrolls that had eluded the father were now at the son’s disposal. The seven scrolls from Cave 1, now on exhibit to the public in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, are Isaiah A, Isaiah B, the Habakkuk Commentary, the Thanksgiving Scroll, the Community Rule (or the Manual of Discipline), the War Rule (or the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness) and the Genesis Apocryphon, the last being in Aramaic. Archaeological Investigations The Caves At least a year elapsed between the discovery of the scrolls in 1947 and the initiation of a systematic archaeological investigation of the Qumran region. The northern Dead Sea area, the location of Qumran, became and remained part of Jordan until 1967. The search for scroll material rested in the hands of the Bedouin, who ravaged the Cave 1 site. Early in 1949, the cave site was finally identified by the archaeological authorities of Jordan. The director of the Jordanian Antiquities Department, G. Lankester Harding, undertook to excavate Cave 1 with Pere Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican priest who headed the E École Biblique in Jerusalem. Exploration of the cave, which lay a kilometre north of Wadi Qumran, yielded at least 70 fragments, including bits of the original seven scrolls. This discovery established the provenance of the purchased scrolls. Also recovered were archaeological artefacts that confirmed the scroll dates suggested by palaeographic study. The Bedouin continued to search for scrolls, as these scraps of leather proved to be a fine source of income. Because Cave 1 had been exhausted by archaeological excavation, the fresh material that the Bedouin were offering proved that Cave 1 was not an isolated phenomenon in the desert and that other caves with manuscripts also existed. The years between 1951 and 1956 were marked by accelerated activity in both the search for caves and the archaeological excavation of sites related to the manuscripts. An eight-kilometre-long strip of cliffs was thoroughly investigated. Of the 11 caves that yielded manuscripts, five were discovered by the Bedouin and six by archaeologists. Some of the caves were particularly rich in material. Cave 3 preserved two oxidised rolls of beaten copper (the Copper Scroll), containing a lengthy roster of real or imaginary hidden treasures – a tantalising enigma to this day. In Cave 4, 15,000 fragments from at least 600 composite texts were found. Cave 11, the last manuscript cave discovered, in 1956, provided extensive documents, including the Psalms Scroll (catalogue 2), an Aramaic Targum of Job, and the Temple Scroll. Yigael Yadin acquired the Temple Scroll in 1967; it is now housed with the first seven scrolls in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. All the remaining manuscripts – sizable texts, as well as minute fragments – are stored in the Rockefeller Museum building in Jerusalem, the premises of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Khirbet Qumran (The Qumran Ruin) De Vaux gradually realised the need to identify a habitation site close to the caves. Excavating such a site could provide clues that would help to identify the people who deposited the scrolls. The ruins of Qumran lie on a barren terrace between the limestone cliffs of the Judaean Desert and the bed of a fossil lake along the Dead Sea. The excavations uncovered a complex of structures, 80 by 100 metres, preserved to a considerable height. De Vaux regarded the structures as neither military nor private but rather communal in character. Nearby were remains of burials. Pottery uncovered was identical to that found in Cave 1 and confirmed the link with the nearby caves. Following the initial excavations, de Vaux suggested that this site was the wilderness retreat established by the Essene sect, which was alluded to by ancient historians. The sectarians inhabited neighbouring locations, most likely caves, tents and solid structures, but depended on the centre for such communal facilities as stores of food and water. Excavations conducted in 1956 and 1958 at the neighbouring site of Ein Feshkha proved it to be the agricultural adjunct of Qumran. Dating of the scrolls The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls caused heated controversy in scholarly circles over their age and the identity of the community they represented. Professor Sukenik, after initially dating the scrolls to the Second Temple period, recognised their special significance and advanced the theory that they were remnants of the library of the Essenes. At that time, however, he was vociferously opposed by a number of scholars who doubted the authenticity of the texts. Today, scholarly opinion regarding the timespan and background of the Dead Sea Scrolls is anchored in historical, palaeographic and linguistic evidence, corroborated firmly by carbon-14 datings. Some manuscripts were written and copied in the third century BCE, but the bulk of the material, particularly the texts that reflect on a sectarian community, are originals or copies from the first century BCE; a number of texts date from as late as the years preceding the destruction of the site, in 68 CE, at the hands of the Roman legions.

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