The Importance of the Discoveries in the Judean Desert

Uzi Dahari

The discovery of the Judean Desert scrolls, commonly known as the Dead Sea scrolls, is perhaps the most important archaeological discovery of the twentieth century. In the first half of that century the question arose as to whether the Old Testament text, as we know it today, is identical to the Bible that was written by the ancients or whether there were changes that were made to it. We need to remember that until the beginning of the nineteenth century we possessed no ancient versions of the Bible and there were Jewish and Christian scholars who contended that changes were made to the Old Testament – those in order to corroborate the revelation of Jesus as the son of God and those in order to eradicate any evidence relating to Jesus.

One hundred and three years later, in the summer of 1947, a Bedouin shepherd discovered by chance a cave in the northern Judean Desert that is today referred to as ‘Cave 1’. In the cave he found jars containing parchment scrolls which he showed to several of his friends, one of whom noticed that the letters on the parchment were similar to those of Syriac Aramaic that he had seen in the Syrian-Orthodox church in Bethlehem. The Bedouins removed seven scrolls from the cave; four were sold to the Syrian monastery in Bethlehem for what is today the equivalent of about 98 dollars and three were sold to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem. The archimandrite did not realize the importance of the scrolls but he did transfer them to the library of his central monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem.

In February 1948, the monk in charge of the monastery’s library carefully examined the scrolls and was the first to appreciate their scientific importance. The monk contacted the American School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, subsequently the Albright Institute, and contacted Dr. J. Trever, who immediately recognized that the scrolls were written in Hebrew and requested permission to photograph them. The photographs were sent to Professor Albright in the United States who confirmed the originality of the scrolls and determined they date from the beginning of the Christian era. Following the War of Independence the four scrolls were sent to the United States to be sold to the highest bidder. Professor Yigael Yadin was able to raise a significant contribution and purchased the scrolls for the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem in June 1954.

The story of the three other scrolls from Cave 1 in Qumran was far more heroic. On the eve of the United Nations declaration of the creation of the State of Israel, Professor E.L. Sukenik, Professor Yadin’s father, was informed that the three scrolls were located in the shop of an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem. Through some daring and very unorthodox means Sukenik was able to establish their originality and negotiated the purchase of the scrolls for the future State of Israel. And thus, in 1954, all seven of the scrolls came to be in Israel. These include two scrolls of the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Habakkuk, the Thanksgiving Scroll, the Community Rule Scroll (the Manual of Discipline), the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness and a Genesis Apocryphon scroll. The assembly of this group of scrolls is representative of that which was later discovered in Qumran: a combination of biblical writings and Apocryphal texts, mostly writings that characterize the Judean Desert sects and the concept of their dualist world.

In early 1949, Pere R. de Vaux, of the École Biblique et Archeologique Française in East Jerusalem and the director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, L. Harding, went out to ‘Cave 1’ at Qumran where they excavated what the Bedouins had left behind and discovered the Qumran site and other caves. In the wake of these discoveries they organized a large archaeological expedition that excavated there between 1951 and 1956. At the end of the first season Harding left the expedition and was replaced by the Polish scholar Milik who became de Vaux’s right-hand man. At the site they discovered the center of a very religious Jewish sect that meticulously upheld the laws of purity and defilement. The site reached its zenith at the end of the first century BCE and in the first century CE, at a time when the scrolls were also written. The site was destroyed during the Great Revolt, shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Eleven caves were discovered in the vicinity of the site. Numerous finds and scroll fragments were recovered from within the caves, among them the Copper Scroll from Cave 3 and thousands of scroll fragments from Cave 4, which probably served as a archive for the residents of Qumran. Despite all their efforts, the Jordanians were unsuccessful in safeguarding the caves and in between excavation seasons Bedouin antiquity robbers carried out their own illicit excavations in them. In 1956 these robbers discovered the Temple Scroll in Cave 11; this is the largest and most complete of the Qumran scrolls and was sold by the robbers to an antiquities dealer. Immediately following the Six Day War Professor Y. Yadin purchased the Temple Scroll from the antiquities dealer and after studying the text he published it. As I mentioned, Pere de Vaux and his staff carried out a comprehensive survey of the caves in the northern Judean Desert, during which the Bedouins showed them the three caves in Wadi Murabba'at, located in the upper part of Nahal Dragot, which empties into the Dead Sea, near Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem. In 1953, various scrolls were discovered in the caves in Wadi Murabba'at where for the first time letters were discovered that relate to the Bar Kokhba revolt and even mention the name of the leader of the uprising – Shimon Ben Kosiba.

The thought that such thrilling discoveries concerning the history of our people, which were coming out of Qumran and Wadi Murabba’at, were being made by Christians and Muslims outside the borders of the State of Israel greatly distressed the country’s senior archaeologists. Thanks to the inexhaustible energy of J. Aviram, the director of the Israel Exploration Society (both then and now) and the connections of Professor Yadin, the survey project of the caves in the southern Judean Desert was undertaken in 1960 and 1961. Ben Gurion was convinced of the importance of the endeavor and instructed the Israel Defense Force to lend its full support to the success of the project. Four expeditions led by Professor N. Avigad, Professor Y. Aharoni, Pesach Bar-Adon and Professor Y. Yadin carried out the survey and it was not long before numerous finds were revealed. In a cave in Nahal Se’elim they uncovered many papyrus fragments and an ancient tefillin scroll; in Nahal Mishmar the hoard of copper implements dating from the Chalcolithic period was found; In Nahal Haver, the Cave of Horrors was excavated where many artifacts were discovered dating from the time of the Bar Kokhba uprising, including numerous skeletons that belonged to the last of the rebels; in the Cave of  Letters located in Nahal Haver, scroll fragments were uncovered, but by far the most important find from there is an archive of the residents of Ein Gedi that included a packet of fifteen documents of Bar Kokhba and the personal letters of Babata Bat Shimon that have contributed so  much to our understanding of daily life in southern Judea and Transjordan during the period between the two revolts. And finally, in the extensive excavations conducted by Professor Yadin on Masada, they discovered scrolls in the different excavation areas, among them parts of the Books of Genesis, Leviticus, Chronicles, Ezekiel, Psalms, the Ben Sira Scroll, the Thanksgiving Scroll and the Book of Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.

I will conclude with ‘Operation Scroll’, which was initiated and directed by A. Drori in November 1993. We, the archaeologists of the Antiquities Authority, resurveyed the entire northern fault cliff in the Judean Desert. Although we found no scrolls, we did excavate the Cave of the Warrior and discovered other archaeological finds that will be published shortly. We still hope and believe there are other scrolls still buried in the arid soil of the Judean Desert that are awaiting redemption.


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