Science and the Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Part 3)

Who found them and where were they?

From 1947 to 1956, the Qumran Library of about 100,000 fragments written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic dating back to 200 BC was discovered by the Dead Sea in Israel. In 63 BC, the Romans occupied Palestine. The Temple and Roman authorities co-existed in a manner that some Jews felt betrayed their religion. Various sects rejected Temple Judaism in Jerusalem, among them were the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). Today, most scholars assume they were Essenes, a Jewish sect who worked and lived at Qumran. In 1952, an editorial team was appointed to sort out this jigsaw puzzle. In 1991, the first volume of the texts was published. The scrolls are divided into three categories: biblical (orthodox), sectarian (non-orthodox) and others.

In the Spring of 1947[1] a Bedouin shepherd boy from the Ta’amire tribe named Muhammad Ahmed el-Hamed, nicknamed ‘edh-Dhib’ (‘the wolf’) crawled into a cave near Qumran along the Dead Sea and emerged with the oldest Bible manuscripts ever discovered. Inside a cave at Khirbet Qumran, nine miles south of Jericho, he discovered ten clay jars, eight of which had ancient scrolls. He took three scrolls to sell. They turned out to be the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Habakkuk Pesher and the Manual of Discipline (later renamed as Rule of the Community). [2] The large, cylindrical, wide-necked jars standing in rows[3] were hidden from the advancing Roman army around AD 68, to be retrieved when the Messiah came to destroy the Romans. The Romans prevailed, and the scrolls remained hidden for almost 1900 years.

Eventually, thirteen[4] caves yielded over 100,000[5] fragments from 930 scrolls dating from 200 BC.[6] The scrolls and fragments were written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. There were over 200 representing the Hebrew Bible except for the book of Esther. In addition, there were extra-biblical manuscripts that included commentaries, prayers, the Temple Scroll, the Copper Scroll and the War Scroll, the Damascus Document and the Manual of Discipline.

Initially, Muhammad ran away from what must have been ‘a djinn-infested cave’[8], since the entrance was too small for normal human dwelling. His older companion urged him to return to the cave to investigate further. They recovered several leather scrolls and found a buyer in Bethlehem. Khalil Iskandar Shahin or Kando, a cobbler, antiquities dealer and member of the Syrian Orthodox Church bought the seven scrolls from this first cave. He later realized that these scrolls were not ordinary recyclable leather for shoes. Kando sold four of those scrolls to Mar Athanasius Yeshua Samuel, the Metropolitan at St. Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem,[9] for £24 and three to Professor E. L. Sukenik, a paleographer at the Hebrew University. On November 29th 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine to create a Jewish State,[10]and Sukenik became the first modern person to “read” the recovered scrolls.

On February 18th, 1948, Metropolitan Samuel showed the scrolls to the young scholar and photographer, John C. Trever of the American Schools of Oriental Research. On February 25th, Trever sent photographic prints of the scrolls to William F. Albright, a leading paleographer and archaeologist, who confirmed that it was the oldest manuscript of the Bible ever found, the Great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran.

Announcement: The Times of April 12th, 1948 — “Yale University announced yesterday the discovery in Palestine of the earliest known manuscript of the Book of Isaiah. It was found in the Syrian monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem, where it had been preserved in a scroll of parchment dating to about the first century BC. Recently it was identified by scholars of the American Schools of Oriental Research at Jerusalem.”[11]

Recovery: In 1954, Sukenik’s son, Yigael Yadin,[12] purchased the four scrolls from A. Y. Samuel through an intermediary in New York City for US$250,000[13] and reunited them with his father’s three scrolls. This transaction was concluded on 1 July 1954 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City after an advertisement was made in the Wall Street Journal.

The seven scrolls included two Isaiah Scrolls, a Genesis Apocryphon, a Commentary of Habakkuk, the Community Rule, the Thanksgiving Hymns, and the War Scroll. He then presented all seven scrolls to the State of Israel. Today, they are housed in a special building called the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Recap — The Story of the Seven Scrolls: Muhammad Adh-Dhib discovered seven scrolls in Cave 1 and sold them to Kando, who resold four to A. Y. Samuel and three to E. L. Sukenik. Samuel sold them to Y. Yadin, who gave the three scrolls to his father, E. L. Sukenik. All seven scrolls were donated to the State of Israel. G. Lankester Harding, Chief Inspector of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, suspected that there might be more scrolls in other caves and gave Kando £1000 to reveal his source.[14] An expedition and full-scale excavation of the Qumran site took place from November 24th to December 12th, 1951, headed by Father Roland de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique and G. L. Harding.

Politics: The British, American, German and French institutions appointed a team of eight editors, most of whom were Roman Catholic, to decipher the material.[15] They were Pere Roland de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique in East Jerusalem, Frank Cross of McCormick Seminary, Pere Jean Starcky of Centre Nationale de la Recherché Scientifique, Claus-Hunno Hunzinger (replaced by Pere Maurice Baillet), Pere Josef T. Milik of the Ecole Biblique, and John Allegro, from Oxford (replaced by John Strugnell). At the death of de Vaux in 1971, leadership of the team was ‘bequeathed’ to Pere Pierre Benoit. He was succeeded by John Strugnell and later, by Emanuel Tov. By 1956, 11 caves with written remains had been discovered. The material was to be published in a series of books named the Discoveries in the Judean Desert (DJD), with de Vaux as the editor-in-chief. DJD 1 was published in 1955 and DJD 40 in 2009.[16] After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel’s General Moshe Dayan captured East Jerusalem and confiscated the Temple Scroll as “spoils of war.” In 1980, Emanuel Tov and Elisha Qimron became first Israeli scholars to work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1983, Yadin published The Temple Scroll from Cave 11.

Delay: In 1987, the philanthropist Elizabeth Hay Bechtel[17] donated her private microfilm collection of the scrolls to the Huntington Library in California shortly before her death. That same year, Geza Vermes of Oxford convened a London conference on the 40th anniversary of discovery of the scrolls and called for the immediate publication of all photographs without transcription, commentary or editorial notes. By the early 1990s, although all full-length scrolls had been published, the bulk of the work of the editorial team involving thousands of fragments from approximately 600 documents remained unpublished.[18]

Dilemma: In 1988, an American doctoral student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati named Martin G. Abegg, Jr. was given unpublished material by the then editor-in-chief of the editorial team, John Strugnell. It was a secret DSS concordance the editors were using at the time. The transcription was completed as far back as the 1950s but never published. It listed all words in the non-Biblical texts found in Qumran 4, containing fragments of more than 500 different scrolls. It identified the various texts in which each word is found. For each word listed, the concordance gave adjacent words. With the aid of a computer, Wacholder and Abegg were able to reconstruct texts kept secret by the editors. The concordance proved that the texts of the documents were transcribed years ago and could have been made available to scholars as early as 1960. Abegg reconstructed the secretly held texts from 3”x5” cards[19] onto his computer. He reverse-engineered the concordance to make out the original texts for his own PhD work and realized he could use a computer program to reconstruct the rest of the hitherto unpublished scrolls. He created a computerized database for the DSS texts using Apple’s Hypercard as a search engine.[20] Abegg struggled with the dilemma; to continue the deception, or release the material to the world, as his dissertation adviser, Ben Zion Wacholder, suggested. They published the reconstructed texts in 1991 with the Biblical Archaeological Society. This broke the monopoly of the editorial team and accelerated DSS research by allowing other scholars to use database software to tag words in the various texts for translation and interpretation. This is an example of how science and technology made a significant difference in providing correctives and new insights to the faithful.

Release: On September 1991, the first volume of the texts was printed, and photos of the manuscripts were published without the permission of the editorial team.[21] This prompted William A. Moffett, director of the Huntington Library to announce that henceforth, any scholar would be allowed access to the library’s entire cache of 3000 photographs of unreleased Dead Sea Scrolls. In November 1991, the Biblical Archaeological Society published an edition of photographic plates prepared by Robert Eisenman and James Robinson, whose source remains a secret to this day. That same month, after initially threatening legal action, Emanuel Tov announced that all scholars would have free and unconditional access to all the photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was now open for all to see. In the Spring of 1992, the entire ‘list’ of all unpublished texts from Caves 4–11 was published for the first time in the Journal of Jewish Studiesunder the invitation of Geza Vermes at Oxford. The critical edition of the non-biblical DSS was prepared by the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project under the direction of James Charlesworth.[22]

Celebration: From 20–25 July 1997, the government of Israel celebrated the 50th anniversary of the DSS’ initial discovery, which coincided with the proclamation of the modern Jewish State of Israel. The ceremony mentioned that the scrolls were vital for Jerusalem. However, the reason the scrolls were stored in the desert was precisely because the pious writers considered the Jerusalem priesthood incorrigibly corrupt. They would never have wanted their writings placed in Jerusalem. On February 2017, Oren Gutfeld and his team discovered an emptied-out Cave 12.[23] In 1955 the New Yorkermagazine published a write-up.[24] Here’s the Who’s Who of DSS discovery and research.[25]


This remarkable find is both surprising and disturbing. Had the DSS been discovered earlier in time, we may not have had the science and technology to analyze its significance. If it were never found, there would always be a cloud of uncertainty over the authenticity of the modern Bible. History, politics, economics, and science contributed to our understanding of God and the Bible.

[1] Although no one knows when the scrolls were first discovered, 1947 has been designated the official year of discovery. See Timothy H. Lim, The Dead Sea Scrolls, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 34.

[2] In Cave 1, two of the eight jars contained seven scrolls: One contained the complete Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule and the Habakkuk Commentary (an interpretation of the book), and another jar contained a second version of the Book of Isaiah, the War Scroll, the Thanksgiving Scroll with 40 psalms and the Genesis Apocryphon written in Aramaic and expanding on the Genesis stories. The writers of these scrolls had not yet developed the concept of a canon, or fixed authoritative scripture, since at least two versions of Isaiah were recovered, and the book of Genesis was even expanded upon.

[3] Brian Fagan, ed. Eyewitness to Discovery, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 151.

[4] The thirteenth cave with texts was discovered in 2021.

[5] The counting depends upon the definition of a fragment. An intact piece of papyrus or parchment when first recorded by the editors undergoes subsequent deterioration. Fragments, once intact, can be counted as two or more pieces.

[6] The 12th cave was discovered in February 2017 by Oren Gutfeld, with no written scrolls inside.


[8] Genies or Spirits popularized in the Tales of the Arabian Nights.

[9] Yigael Yadin, The Message of the Scrolls, edited by James H. Charlesworth, The Christian Origins Library (New York:Crossroad Publishing, 1992), 31.

[10] The first unified, independent nation of Israel since 701 BC, when the northern kingdom of Israel fell to theAssyrians and Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Israel fell to Babylon in 586 BC.

[11] James H. Charlesworth, Caves of Enlightenment: Proceedings of the American Schools of Oriental Research Dead Sea Scrolls Jubilee Symposium, 1947–1997 (North Richland Hills, TX: Bible Press, 1998), xiv.

[12] He became an archaeologist, a General in the Israeli Defense Forces, and Deputy Prime Minister.

[13] Baigent, Michael and Leigh, Richard. The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991), 24.

[14] Fagan, 162.

[15] This 1952 appointment did not include any Israeli. Until 1967, there were two separate teams of editors, the Non-Israelis were working on the materials at the Rockefeller Museum (Palestine Archaeological Museum) in East Jerusalem while the Israelis were working on the seven scrolls in West Jerusalem, with no apparent contact between them.



[18] J. H. Charlesworth, “The Dead Sea Scrolls Controversy” in The Christian Century, 101. 4 Jan 1992, 93

[19] These cards were the preliminary work of the late Father Raymond Brown, S.S., Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., W. G. Oxtoby and Javier Teixidor from the 1950s and 1960s.


[21] ‘A Preliminary Concordance to the Hebrew and Aramaic Fragments from Qumran Caves II-X: Including Especially the Unpublished Material from Cave IV’.

[22] James Charlesworth, “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: What Do We Know After Fifty Years?” The 14th Annual Joy H. Witherspoon Lecture in Religious Studies, April 20th, 1998, 8.

[23] See






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Ron Choong

I am an independent, interdisciplinary investigator of the geohistory and philosophy of science and religion