Any discussion about archaeological looting and unprovenanced Biblical artifacts, which are Bible artifacts found outside of a professional excavation, must include the case of the most important Biblical artifacts found in the Middle East: the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery. Although the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) have banned the publication of articles and the presentation of papers about unprovenanced objects and Biblical artifacts in a recent attempt to curb archaeological looting and forgery of Bible artifacts found in Israel and Jordan, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery shows that Biblical artifacts found without a stratified context are by no means worthless. Study of these oldest biblical manuscripts has contributed enormously to scholarship.
The Dead Sea Scrolls discovery is so widely celebrated by the scholarly community and the scrolls have played such an important part in Biblical scholarship as the oldest biblical manuscripts that it is sometimes easy to forget that most of them are in fact Bible artifacts found during archaeological looting by Bedouin. Yet the provenance of these Biblical artifacts has been established with reasonable certainty, and their authenticity was never doubted.
In early 1947 (or late 1946) an Arab shepherd searching for a lost sheep threw a rock into a cave in the limestone cliffs on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Instead of a bleating sheep, he heard the sound of breaking pottery. When he investigated, he found seven nearly intact ancient documents that became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although seemingly innocent, this kind of nonscientific removal of Biblical artifacts is still considered archaeological looting.
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Three of the scrolls, including the Book of Isaiah, were acquired in Bethlehem by Eleazar L. Sukenik of The Hebrew University, who recognized the potential of these Bible artifacts found during the Bedouins’ archaeological looting to be the oldest biblical manuscripts in existence.
The other four scrolls were acquired by the Metropolitan Samuel, the Jerusalem leader of a Syrian sect of Christians. When he was unable to sell them in Jerusalem, he took them to the United States, where they were displayed in the Library of Congress. Still unable to sell them, he placed a classified ad in The Wall Street Journal offering them for sale. Through fronts, thesewere purchased for Israel by war hero and archaeologist Yigael Yadin, Sukenik’s son.
Père Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem, together with G. Lankester Harding, the British-appointed head of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, mounted an archaeological excavation early on at Khirbet Qumran, near the cave where the scrolls had been found. Since then, a debate has raged among scholars as to the relationship of the Qumran ruins to the scrolls. The majority of scholars believe Qumran was the monastery-like settlement of a Jewish sect known as Essenes, to whom the scrolls belonged. Other suggestions range from a caravanserai to a pottery factory.
Ultimately a total of 11 caves were found (mostly by the Bedouin) containing ancient manuscripts. Scholars date the scrolls between about 250 B.C. and about 68 A.D., when Roman legionaries overran the Judean Desert on their way to destroying Jerusalem and the Temple (which they did in 70 A.D.).
The most famous, or infamous, of the caves is Cave 4, found by the Bedouin practically under the noses of the archaeologists digging at the adjacent ruins. Cave 4 contained more than 500 different manuscripts, but all in tatters. About 80 percent of them had been looted by the Bedouin before the archaeologists discovered the cave.
The publication of the Cave 4 fragments was assigned under Jordanian auspices to eight scholars. Over the years the publications of this team gradually dwindled to a trickle and finally disappeared. In the meantime, the unpublished texts were unavailable to the public or to other scholars.
In the late 1980s, BAR took up the call, publicly demanding the release of the scrolls so that all scholars could study them. The scrolls remained under the control of the small, non-Jewish, practically nonfunctioning scroll-publication team.
The first break in the release of the scrolls came when the Biblical Archaeology Society published some unpublished texts that had been reconstructed with the aid of a computer, based on a private concordance of the Cave 4 fragments.
Then the Biblical Archaeology Society published a two-volume work of photographs of the unpublished scrolls, obtained in a still-mysterious way by Professor Robert Eisenman of California State University.
Finally, director William Moffett of the Huntington Library in California decided to release images of the unpublished scrolls on a microfilm strip that had been deposited in the library as a security measure in case the originals were lost. Although Israel first considered suing the library (and the Biblical Archaeology Society), saner minds eventually prevailed, and the scrolls were declared open and available to all.
These thousands of fragments constitute almost 900 documents dating between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D. They contain the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible by nearly 1,000 years, and they continue to change our understanding of first-century Judaism, the origins of Christianity, the development of the Biblical canon and Hebrew textual traditions.