In the spring of 1947 a Bedouin boy known as Muhammed the Wolf was herding his goats on the western shore of the Dead Sea near the desolate ravine the Arabs call Qumran.
This may seem a strange place for the boy to have been, but he was among a group of contrabandists smuggling goats out of Transjordan to Palestine, detouring south to skirt the customs officers at the Jordan Bridge and to get water from the spring of Ain Feshkha.
On this particular morning, one of Muhammed’s goats strayed. The boy scrambled up a cliff after it, and there caught sight of a cave. Hesitant to explore it, Muhammed threw a stone into the dark opening and immediately heard the sound of something cracking, whereupon he fled. But curiosity nagged the goatherd, and he returned later, this time with a friend.
The two boys entered the cave and found several tall clay jars and fragments of others. On lifting off the bowl-shaped lids, they were struck by a terrible smell. Inside were mysterious packages, dark and oblong. These they took out into the blazing sunlight and opened. First there was a layer of black wax or pitch, and beneath it strips of linen. Unrolling the cloth, the boys found long manuscripts, made up of thin sheets sewn together.
Although the scrolls were faded and crumbled in spots, the parallel columns were in general very clear. The strange script was not Arabic, however, so the boys had no inkling of the nature of their find, but figured it might bring something on the black market in Bethlehem.
The first merchant the boys approached refused to pay their asking price of £20. The second was a Syrian, who suspected that the language was ancient Syriac, and sent word to the Syrian Metropolitan at the Monastery of St. Mark in Old Jerusalem. This dignified gentleman, Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, with his large black beard, voluminous black robes, and onion-shaped satin miter, expressed immediate interest in the find from the isolated region where no one had lived since the early Christian centuries.
Upon examining a sample, the Metropolitan determined the manuscripts were leather or parchment, and the script Hebrew. He sent word that he was eager to buy the entire lot, but the contrabandists were already on the road again. They returned in several weeks and the Metropolitan arranged for the scrolls to be delivered. All morning he waited. Finally despairing, he went to lunch. It was then, of course, that the Bedouins appeared. The priest who greeted them noted their shabby appearance, doubted their claims, and turned them away.
On hearing this, the Metropolitan was irate. He kept on the trail of the Bedouins and learned that a Jewish merchant had arranged to buy the manuscripts and had invited the boys to his office in the New City, which was largely Jewish.
At this time the Arabs and Jews were in conflict in Jerusalem. The city was divided and the Jewish sections were under martial law. The clever Syrian who had arranged the sale to the Metropolitan thus easily convinced the Bedouins that this Jewish merchant was out to trap them, that he would rob them and throw them in jail. The fearful Bedouins left five scrolls with the Syrian right there and then. Later they took them, along with other fragments, to the Metropolitan, who bought them for a reported £50.
The Metropolitan proceeded to send a merchant and a priest out to the cave to verify the Bedouins’ story. The two men spent an uncomfortable night in the stifling August heat, found the pottery fragments and linen, but soon retreated, bringing no samples of their finds. The Bedouins, it was discovered later, had been using two of the ancient jars to carry water.
At this point the Metropolitan Samuel launched a long search for the identity of his scrolls, and in the face of uninterest, discouragement, and ridicule, he maintained an absolute faith in their ancient origins. He approached a Syrian in the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and a French priest at the Dominican Ecole Biblique, a center of archaeological research in Old Jerusalem, but neither expressed much interest.
The two most prominent archaeologists in the region, G. Lankester Harding of the Department of Antiquities of Transjordan and Pere Roland de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique, proved inaccessible. Others at these institutions insisted that the manuscripts could not possibly be 2,000 years old. Nor did they pursue the matter even after a Dutch scholar, Father J. van der Ploeg, read one scroll and recognized it as the book of Isaiah. When the professor of Hebrew at the American University in Beirut was found to be away, the persistent Metropolitan got his own Hebrew dictionary and attempted to read the text himself. At this time, a Hebrew scholar, Tovia Wechsler, had a look at the manuscripts and decided they dated only from 1929, that they had been stolen from a Palestinian synagogue during Arab riots against the Jews.
In November 1947, the head archaeologist of the Hebrew University, E. L. Sukenik, returned to Jerusalem and learned that a dealer in Bethlehem had some manuscripts from a cave near the Dead Sea. This dealer was the first merchant the Bedouins had approached; he had learned later that the scrolls might be valuable and had managed to get hold of three.
Throughout late November and December, Sukenik visited the dealer and examined the scrolls. “The script seems ancient to me” he wrote in his diary on November 27. “Is it possible?” That evening news of the partition of Palestine was announced. The situation was extremely tense, but Sukenik nevertheless made the treacherous journey to Bethlehem and brought back three scrolls and some fragments. On December 21, he obtained another. Amid the shelling of the offices of the Jewish Agency in New Jerusalem, Sukenik held a press conference there at which he announced the magnitude of the discovery. He held these scrolls to be the first ancient Hebrew manuscripts ever revealed, and he dated them to the 1st or 2nd century B.C.
The Metropolitan Samuel, meanwhile, was still searching. In February 1948 he took his scrolls to the American Schools of Oriental Research and showed them to Dr. John C. Trevor, who was acting director. Trevor could not make an immediate estimate of their age, but he did compare the texts with other samples of early Hebrew script. “One glimpse at the picture of the British Museum Codex from the ninth century,” recalled Trevor in the Biblical Archaeologist, “assured me that these scrolls were far older. The next slide was of the Nash Papyrus, a small fragment in the University Library at Cambridge containing the Shema and the Ten Commandments. . . . The similarity of the script in the papyrus and the scrolls was striking.”
This Nash Papyrus was generally believed to be the oldest extant Hebrew manuscript, dating from somewhere between the 2nd century B.C. and the end of the 1st century A.D. The exhilarated Dr. Trevor, the Metropolitan, and other Syrians anxiously waited out a power failure and eventually managed to photograph a good part of the scrolls. Prints of the Isaiah scroll were sent to Dr. W. F. Albright bf. Johns Hopkins, an outstanding archaeologist and expert on the Nash Papyrus. By return mail, Dr. Albright sent the confirmation that the Metropolitan had long awaited and expected: “My heartiest congratulations on the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times! There is no doubt in my mind that the script is more archaic than that of the Nash Papyrus. . . . I should prefer a date around 100 B.C. . . . What an absolutely incredible find! And there can happily not be the slightest doubt in the world about the genuineness of the manuscript.”
The aftermath of this discovery was equally extraordinary. Once the war was over, Pere Roland de Vaux and G. Lankester Harding undertook a thorough search of the cave in which the scrolls had been found. In February 1949 they turned up fragments of a Roman lamp and a Roman cooking pot, as well as Greek pottery, which indicated the scrolls must be at least as old as the 1st century A. D. The mass of shards suggested that the cave might once have held some 200 scrolls.
Three years later, the two archaeologists returned to the Dead Sea along with the Bethlehem chief of police and some Bedouins, who led them to four large caves, 15 miles south of the first. Bedouins came scrambling out of these caves, and the team found traces within of human habitation from the 4th millennium B.C. Objects of the Bronze and Iron ages were found alongside many Roman artifacts—lamps, combs, buttons, spoons, bowls, and coins. There were fragmentary manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Pere de Vaux concluded that the caves had once been a base of Jewish resistance against the Romans.
There seemed little connection with the first discovery, however, so Harding and De Vaux moved nearer to Qumran and explored the myriad caves in its vicinity. Out of 267 caves, they discovered pottery and vestiges of human habitation in 37. And in 25 of these, the pottery found was precisely the same as that in which the ancient sacred writings had been stored. Scrolls were found buried in dirt, but thus exposed to the elements, most had disintegrated badly. Thousands of pieces were collected, and the world grew increasingly excited.
For here, it became clear, an ancient people had hidden not one isolated document, but an entire library, including nearly all the books in the Bible, several apocryphal works, and literary writings, all of which might still lie concealed from the modern world had it not been for one wayward goat.