The Dead Sea Scrolls and their Publication

Emmanuel Tov

Today we celebrate the scrolls of the Land of Israel, not just the Qumran scrolls but all the scrolls that were discovered in the Judean Desert, both by Israeli  and foreign expeditions. For today we are marking the conclusion of the Dead Sea scrolls publication project. By coincidence, the last volume of the international publication project of the Qumran scrolls, in the extensive Discoveries in the Judean Desert series, has come off the printing press in Oxford at the same time as the last volume of the Nahal Hever scrolls, published in Jerusalem, on behalf of the Israel Exploration Society. Approximately one year ago the same society published the last volume of text from Masada.

Since the discovery of the scrolls at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s, the publication process was slow and fraught with obstacles. Therefore, after the scrolls were hidden for two thousand years in the caves of Qumran or buried below ground, some of them continued to be concealed for an additional four or five decades because of serious delays in publication. These delays were severely criticized by the public. Hence, we can now say that the scrolls which were hidden for two thousand years are now available for all to see, for both the glory of the people of Israel and the glory of science.

In talking about the Qumran scrolls, we first think about the biblical scrolls that were found there, scrolls that have provided us with the earliest biblical texts. Perhaps thanks to the long scroll of the Book of Isaiah, on display in the Shrine of the Book, the biblical scrolls are better known to the public than the other scrolls.

But all of the scrolls are of considerable importance to the world of research and the information they yield is slowly being absorbed by the various fields of research. The non-biblical scrolls allow us to understand the literature and the spiritual life not only of the group of people secluded in the wilderness, but of the entire people of Israel. These contain among other things works of poetry, extensive wisdom literature, reflections on the End of Days, an essay on heavenly Jerusalem, halachic literature, sectarian essays, tables of priestly shifts, various rewritings of biblical books and pesher texts. By way of these essays we can intimately understand the state of mind of the people of Israel during this period, not just that of the group residing in Qumran, but also the mood of other groups of people in the country.

But outside the academic world the scrolls were also famous especially because of the mysterious circumstances of their discovery; hundreds of books have been written about them, among them some excellent pieces of research, as well books that spread some very strange theories. What has not been found in the scrolls? There are even those that claim they found the sign of the cross and even Chinese characters in the Isaiah scroll.


The biblical scrolls allow us to understand details of the biblical text dating from the last centuries before the Common Era and in the first century of the Common Era. One can clearly see the different masorot of the biblical text from that time and they include many surprises. We see ‘our’ version, which is the traditional text in the Qumran caves, but it occurs in a better form in the Bar Kokhba caves and on Masada. It is now clear to everyone that the zealots of Masada and Bar Kokhba’s people, who regarded Jerusalem as their spiritual center, were in possession of scrolls that reflected the Pharisaic text. These scrolls were also composed in accordance with the instructions of the Sages for writing Holy Scriptures. All of these scrolls are currently held by the Antiquities Authority and the Shrine of the Book; some are on display for the public and some remain in storage.  


The fate of the scrolls was not much better after their discovery from 1947 to 1956 because the process of publishing them was so complicated. The international publication team that was assembled in the beginning of the 1950s in Jordanian Jerusalem acted with genius, diligence and originality but over the years it became apparent that it too was driven by a sense of monopoly, isolationism and selfishness and without sufficient consideration for the research community that awaited the full publication of the documents. As a result of this, during the forty years until 1990, only eight volumes were published in the official publication series, Discoveries in the Judean Desert (DJD). I will state parenthetically though that the seven large scrolls from Cave 1, also known as the ‘Israeli scrolls’, were published in the 1950s and they are now on exhibit in the Shrine of the Book. I am aware that it is not always easy to differentiate between the two groups of scrolls. I am not referring to the scrolls on display in the Shrine of the Book, rather to the 190 other scrolls whose publication I am charged with on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the international team. The first eight volumes in the series were good and without them I would not be able to have continued from the point at which my predecessors left off. Yet in many respects I started from the very beginning. Following my appointment it was necessary to compile an inventory of all the fragments, down to the very smallest of them, both in the museum and what was photographed. This was necessary to determine what had been published and what remained, but primarily to assign tasks for the growing team of researchers in order for them to publish the remaining majority of fragments. The reorganization took long because we were dealing with tens of thousands of fragments, different desires  of the scholars and, during the first years of our work, an ongoing public outcry and incessant criticism. The team that operated before me numbered between ten and twenty researchers only, but because there was no chance of concluding the work in a timely fashion with so few scholars, we were obliged to augment the team with some seventy new members from all over the world. A third of the new team was from the United States, a third was from Europe and a third was from Israel. The Israeli team was something of an innovation, because prior to this Jews and Israelis were not at all allowed to participate at all in the project. Mr. President, among the team members are also some of your neighbors who live on the streets nearby the president’s house.

The reorganization, which was planned by the previous director of the Antiquities Authority, Major-General (res.) Amir Drori, was carried out like a military operation. At a certain point Amir decided that the State must intervene where the previous team of researchers had failed. And thus, at the moment of truth, at the end of the 1980s, he appointed a scroll committee to advise him in both scientific and practical matters, at which time he also nominated me. The committee members consisted of the late Professor Jonah Greenfield, Professor Shemaryahu Talmon, Magen Broshi and Ayala Sussman. The committee determined the framework for the publication and I reported to it. Amir was the heart and soul behind the entire operation; he defended the rights of the researchers during the stormy days of 1991, he insisted on holding international exhibitions for the scrolls, which in the end were also very useful, and provided funds when there were none to be had. The new director, Shuka Dorfman, has also continued to support the scrolls project.

Mr. President, today you can see the results of the scrolls project of the Antiquities Authority, and the numerous volumes spread before you on the tables here in your residence speak for themselves. We succeeded in our mission to publish all of the scrolls from the Judean Desert and it can also be said, to the credit of the State of Israel, that ever-so-slowly the researchers from abroad have come to the realization that this is an Israeli operation. Although the team of scholars was scattered across the globe, the nerve center was here; from an administrative standpoint in the Antiquities Authority and from a scientific standpoint in the Hebrew University, where we prepared all of the volumes. The publisher, Oxford University Press, received manuscripts and plates from me that were print ready, from which the large and impressive volumes were produced – no less than 10,000 extremely complicated pages and 1,000 plates.

We did not succeed in all of our tasks, but where we did we owe thanks to the Antiquities Authority and the determination of Amir Drori, to the Hebrew University that allowed me to devote myself to this work for ten years, to the team of researchers that labored with perseverance and wisdom, to the editing staff that assisted me in the office and to those that provided funding for us, the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation currently chaired by Professor Shalom Paul.

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