|Fragments from Dead Sea Scrolls from Jerusalem. courtesy yeshiva university|
Throngs of Jews walk past St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck every Shabbat on their way to shul, unaware that the church is the caretaker of an ancient and precious piece of Jewish history.
When Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel arrived in New Jersey in 1949, he brought with him four scrolls and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the earliest known texts of books of the Bible. Although the scrolls were later sold to an Israeli archeologist, Samuel kept the fragments and they are to this day under the care of the Eastern Diocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church, headquartered in Teaneck.
“His eminence was really firm he wanted [the fragments] to stay with the church because it’s been a privilege for our church to have those fragments and to make them again available,” said the church’s Very Rev. John Meno, who served as Samuel’s secretary from 1971 until the archbishop’s death in 1995.
Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, Samuel’s successor, is the official caretaker of the fragments, but could not be reached for comment. One fragment is on loan to the Milwaukee Public Museum. (The fragments have been lent out over the years to various libraries and museums.) In 2009, researchers from the West Semitic Project photographed the fragments in Teaneck for a project based at the University of Southern California. (See page 24.)
The Milwaukee exhibit is the first time the fragments have left Teaneck since they were returned in 1995 after a 25-year exhibition at the American Bible Society in New York City. Concerned for the fragments’ security and proper care, Karim personally escorted them to Milwaukee. A number of archeological organizations have approached the church about selling the fragments, but, Meno said, Samuel had been adamant that they remain in church hands.
|Archbishop Athanasius Yeshue Samuel brought fragments from Dead Sea Scrolls from Jerusalem to Teaneck. courtesy st. mark’s syrian orthodox cathedral|
“I hope we’ll always be able to keep them and maintain them as they should be properly kept and that they will always be available for scholars, old and young,” he said.
The story of how the fragments ended up in Teaneck dates back to their initial discovery more than 60 years ago. In 1947, Bedouins stumbled upon a number of scrolls in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea. Unfamiliar with the language on the parchments (Hebrew), a group turned to St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem after somebody told them the writing looked Aramaic – the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Samuel, then the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan – archbishop – of Jerusalem, instantly recognized the scrolls for what they were, said Meno.
“His eminence told me a number of times, ‘As soon as I put my eyes on the pieces, I knew it was something very, very special,'” Meno recalled. “He was one of the first really, I think, to sense the value and importance of the scrolls.”
When Samuel came to the United States in 1949 to collect funds for Syrian Orthodox Christians affected by Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, he brought the scrolls with him. In 1952, the church appointed Samuel patriarchal vicar to the United States. In 1957 he was appointed the Syrian Orthodox archbishop of the United States and Canada and established St. Mark’s in Hackensack before it moved to Teaneck. Samuel died in his Lodi home on April 16, 1995, and Karim was appointed a year later.
Meno grew up hearing stories that the church housed the scrolls, but they had long been sold when he came to Teaneck in 1971. Still, as Samuel’s secretary he frequently saw the fragments.
“It’s an awesome thing to be able to hold in your hands documents of that age,” he said, “documents of the recorded word of God, documents that have played such a crucial and important role in biblical research and scholarship since they’ve been discovered. It’s a very special thing.”
The archbishop, Meno said, created a trust fund upon his arrival in the United States to ensure that the scrolls could be properly cared for.
“He hoped the scrolls would remain here in the United States in proper housing and would be made accessible to scholars and to anyone who wanted to view them,” he said.
In 1954, Samuel made what Meno said was a very difficult decision. To raise funds to restore a parish devastated by fire in Central Falls, R.I., Samuel put the scrolls up for sale. Israeli archeologist Yigal Yadin bought the four scrolls for $250,000 and they are now in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Samuel held on, however, to three fragments, which are kept in airtight containers in a bank vault when not on display.
|The Very Rev. John Meno, secretary to the late Archbishop Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, tells of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments’ sojourn in Teaneck. Jerry Szubin|
“He really did not want to sell the scrolls but he was in a situation where the community here was in need of assistance,” Meno said. “So he prayed a lot on the matter and felt it would be best to sell them. He did it with a lot of reluctance. I know that he was always grateful that at least he held on to those few fragments.”
St. Mark’s, named for the monastery in Jerusalem built on the site where the apostle Mark is thought to have lived, plans to build a new facility in Paramus, where it owns five acres on Midland Avenue. No construction start or completion date has been set, but the proposed facility will include a section to display the fragments.
“God willing, if the center works out in Paramus, the scrolls will be on display there under proper circumstances,” Meno said.