From Qumran to Teaneck
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From Qumran to Teaneck

The Dead Sea Scrolls: Scenes from a tragicomedy

The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery and fate – and how fragments ended up in Teaneck – “is enormously interesting,” said Hershel Shanks, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.

The author of several books on the scrolls, he was instrumental in widening scholars’ access to them. (And that is a story in itself.)

The story “goes back to 1947,” he said in a telephone interview from Rehovoth Beach, Del., “when the first scrolls were found by the Bedouin” in a cave in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. More than 900 were eventually discovered in the Judean desert, in 15,000 fragments.

They are “the greatest manuscript discovery in the 20th century, certainly as concerns biblical studies,” he wrote in his 1992 book “Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

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Hershel Shanks, an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, says they are “enormously important to the Jewish people.” Courtesy Biblical Archaeology Review

This makes the fragments’ journey to a church in Teaneck, called “the Jerusalem of the West” by The New York Times, all the more fascinating.

Even how four scrolls came to “Mar Samuel,” as Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan (archbishop) of Jerusalem was called, is something of a comedy of errors – almost a tragicomedy.

As Shanks told the tale in his book, two Bedouin had arranged with Samuel to bring some of the scrolls from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. It was July 1947. “The tide of violence between Jew, Arab, and Briton,” which would culminate in the War of Independence, “was swelling. Jewish terrorism, mostly directed against the British, was beginning to be heavily felt in certain Arab areas…. In this atmosphere Samuel became anxious when the Bedouin and their scrolls had not appeared by noon.”

What happened? They had been turned away by a monk who saw, in Shanks’ words, that the scrolls they brought were “[p]robably old Torahs from somewhere, but filthy and covered with pitch or something else that smelled equally bad. These he steadfastly refused to allow within the monastery walls, still less into His Grace’s presence as the bearers demanded.”

The Bedouin had gone back to Bethlehem, and it took two weeks before they and the scrolls could return to Jerusalem and Mar Samuel, who bought them, according to Shanks, for what amounted to $97.

Samuel then sought authentication and scholarly help and eventually made his way to the United States in 1949.

“He tried to sell them and couldn’t,” Shanks said. Samuel exhibited them in the Library of Congress and then advertised them in The Wall Street Journal in 1954. (The ad has achieved a certain believe-it-or-not fame. Headed “The Four Dead Sea Scrolls,” it went on to say that “Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” A box number at the WSJ was provided.)

The sale of the four scrolls to archeologist Yigal Yadin for $250,000, for Israel, was arranged through a front man, Shanks said, the scholar Harry Orlinsky of Johns Hopkins University posing as “Mr. Green.”

“One of the odd things that fascinate me” about the scrolls, said Shanks, is “whether Mar Samuel knew that he was selling them to Israel. The only reason Yadin got them so cheap,” he added, “is that Jordan,” which controlled the west bank when the scrolls were discovered, “asserted a claim to them.”

The epilogue to the tragicomedy of the sale of the four scrolls is that while the proceeds were to go to Samuel’s church, the legal papers were poorly drawn and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service wound up with the lion’s share.

‘Enormously important
to the Jewish people’

The Dead Sea Scrolls are “enormously important to the Jewish people,” Shanks went on. “They contain about 200 biblical manuscripts that go back to the Second Temple period…. They include every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther and the Song of Songs.”

The scrolls also include “three books quoted in the New Testament – revealing the Jewish roots of Christianity.”

It’s particularly noteworthy that the scrolls reveal “a highly developed code by this time – 200 C.E. – materials that can tell us about the development of halacha,” Jewish law, “and its variations.”

In his 1998 book “The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Shanks wrote of the stringency of the halachic rulings in the scrolls: “Take the law regarding what I call the Backward-Jumping Impurity Up a Stream of Liquid. To understand this law, start with a pitcher of water, both the pitcher and the water being pure. Now pour some of the water into another vessel that is impure. Clearly the water in the second vessel is now impure by virtue of its contact with an impure vessel. But what about the water still in the pitcher? And what about the pitcher itself? Did the impurity of the water in the second vessel render the water remaining in the pitcher (and the pitcher itself) impure? The Qumran sectarians … said yes…. Other Jews … said no.”

Another noteworthy difference is that the Qumran Jews used a solar calendar, while the rest of us use a lunar calendar. Thus, for example, “they would be celebrating Yom Kippur on a different date and yet be Jewish.”

The scrolls, Shanks said, shine “a light onto the variations of a different Judaism of the time, of different movements. The roots of rabbinic Judaism are here.”

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