If the proverbial opinion pollster accosted passers-by in London or New York, asking them for a definition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, apart from the don't knows, half of his clients would mutter: "The Scrolls...Hmm...Aren't they old religious books kept locked away in the Vatican?" More than 60 years after their discovery in 1947, the Scrolls still have not made their full impact on the general public.
I was enormously privileged to witness from its initial stages the story of the Scrolls and to play an active part in their investigation and in their communication to the world. I first learned about them in 1948, the year after an Arab shepherd accidentally stumbled on seven rolls in a cave by the Dead Sea in British mandatary Palestine, not yet divided into Israel and Jordan. I was reading biblical studies in Louvain (Belgium) and keenly followed the press reports about Jewish manuscripts purported to date to the end of the pre-Christian era. The story seemed unbelievable: it flatly contradicted the accepted wisdom according to which no ancient document written on leather could survive in the Palestinian climate.
The decisive moment came one sunny morning, still in 1948. My professor of Hebrew turned up in class with the photograph of one of the manuscripts: it arrived that morning from Jerusalem and represented chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah. I stared at the picture, slowly deciphered the strange script, and felt in my bones that the document was genuine. At once I became captivated, and after tasting sweet novelty for a few months, I decided with youthful recklessness to devote my life to the study of what was immediately proclaimed "the greatest ever Hebrew manuscript find of all times". Against advice, I resolved to write my doctoral dissertation on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ever since then they and my life have been intertwined.
The scrolls, discovered by the Bedouin Mohammed the Wolf, were acquired for peanuts by the Syrian monastery of St Mark in Jerusalem and by Eleazar Sukenik, the Hebrew University's professor of archaeology. On the eve of the outbreak of the first Jewish-Arab war in 1948, the Syrian archbishop, head of St Mark's, smuggled his scrolls to America and advertised them in the Wall Street Journal. In due course, an anonymous buyer, secretly representing the new State of Israel, purchased them for $250,000, a quarter of the asking price. Thus, all seven scrolls were reunited and housed in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Their publication (facsimile edition of the original text with facing transliteration, but without translation or commentary) swiftly followed. American scholars, commissioned by the Syrian monastery, issued in 1950-1951 the complete manuscript of Isaiah and two unknown documents, a Commentary on the Book of Habakkuk and the Community Rule, giving the regulations of an ancient Jewish sect. They were followed in 1953 by Professor Sukenik's posthumous edition of a fragmentary Isaiah Scroll, a collection of Hymns and the Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. The most legible parts of the poorly preserved seventh scroll, an apocryphal paraphrase of the Book of Genesis written in Aramaic, was published in 1956 by Sukenik's son, Yigael Yadin. By the mid-1950s, literary Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship was successfully launched.
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