Title

Piecing Together the Past

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

11-1995

Publisher

National Endowment for the Humanities

Abstract

Nearly fifty years ago, some Bedouin shepherds stumbled upon a cache of ancient texts in caves near the Dead Sea, thirteen miles east of Jerusalem.

It soon became clear that this was the largest and most significant collection of manuscripts ever discovered in Palestine.

Finds Included the oldest witnesses to the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of Jewish scripture-the Christian Old Testament-along with nonbiblical manuscripts certain to illuminate the tumultuous period of the destruction of the Second Temple and the time of Christ. The singularity of these texts has brought about one of the most protracted and painstaking endeavors of contemporary scholarship on religious history and Scripture.

One afternoon 1947, three Bedouin shepherds were herding their flocks in the vicinity of Wadi Qumran above the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. They casually tossed a rock in acave opening and heard something break. Returning later, they discovered ten large pottery jars, one of which contained three scrolls wrapped in protective linen coverings. Four additional scrolls were soon discovered in the cave. Neither the Bedouin nor the antiquities dealer whom they contacted had any idea what the documents contained. Thinking the script to be some form of Syriac, the antiquities dealer solf four of the scrolls to the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan at St. Mark's Monastery in Jerusalem. For approximately one hundred dollars, the metropolitan unwittingly purchased the oldest extant Hebrew text of the Book of Isaiah, an ancient Hebrew commentary on Habakkuk, and two unknown texts. The antiquities dealer sold the other three manuscripts to Eleazar Sukenik, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The scrolls were in such fine condition that they were all published almost immediately.

The magnitude and antiquity of these finds soon became apparent, and the caves around Wadi Qumran were aggressively explored for additional scrolls. Of the many caves quarried, eleven near the Wadi yielded written material. Cave 11, the last to be discovered (1956), supplied several extensively preserved scrolls of Leviticus, Psalms, and other works whose state of preservation rivaled that of the original Cave 1 finds.

Unfortunately, there were only about a dozen of these beautifully preserved scrolls. Most of the approximately eight hundred texts discovered in the Qumran caves were not scrolls but scraps from disintegrated scrolls. Cave 4 yielded its rich cache of more than 575 manuscripts in tens of thousands of pieces. The condition of the written material in the other caves was no better: Caves 2 and 3 and Caves 5 through 10 yielded only fragments of more than one hundred other texts. Lacking the protection of pottery jars and linen shrouds, these manuscripts had fallen prey to a host of aggressors over the centuries, from the moisture in the caves to the appetite of worms to the swords and sandals of the caves' human visitors. The scrolls simply disintegrated over the centuries, with the result that rarely 5 percent of any individual manuscript survived. The few surviving pieces of discrete scrolls were separated from one another and jumbled indiscriminately in layers of dirt on the cave floors.

The muddle of fragments was made all the more incomprehensible by the manner of their retrieval. The Bedouin had gathered and sold most of the initial fragments without any record of where they came from. Fortunately, subsequent scientific excavations of Cave 4 unearthed fragments that were manifestly part of the same scrolls represented by the Bedouin finds. This established that the Bedouin scraps had been removed from the floor of Cave 4 and thereby guaranteed the authenticity of the initial fragments.

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