He Who Freed the Dead Sea Scrolls

Hershel Shanks’s legacy within the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls


Fragments of the Covenant of Damascus, including this one (4Q271, fragment 3), were discovered in the Qumran caves. The Covenant of Damascus presents the views of a Second Temple period Jewish sect that fled from Judea.

Thanks in part to Hershel Shanks’s three-year campaign to free the Dead Sea Scrolls, the scrolls are today available in high definition images—infrared and full spectrum color—for free on the internet for anyone to view. Shanks had an influential role within the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Photo: Shai Halevi, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

In 1991, with the support of Hershel Shanks and the Biblical Archaeology Society, Martin Abegg, Jr., contemplated doing something unprecedented that had the potential to derail his academic career: publishing reconstructions of the Dead Sea Scrolls without the permission of the sluggish and secretive publication team. As Abegg, Jr., details in his article “Hershel’s Crusade, No. 1: He Who Freed the Dead Sea Scrolls” in the special 2018 tribute issue of BAR, Shanks’s impact resonates far beyond the honorific.

Abegg, Jr., was a Ph.D. student working on his dissertation when Shanks called him in the summer of 1991:

“Marty, this is Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archaeology Society. I’d like to talk with you about the reconstructions of the Dead Sea Scrolls that you and Ben Zion Wacholder have produced.”

Shanks convinced Abegg, Jr., and his advisor, Wacholder, to publish the first fascicle of the Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls (BAS, 1991). Along with The Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls (BAS, 1991), edited by Robert Eisenman and James Robinson, Shanks and this group of scholars had published a “bootleg copy” of the Dead Sea Scrolls, thus audaciously freeing the manuscripts from a small publication team that had taken 20 years to publish only one volume on the scrolls. As an indication of how sluggish that team had been, a larger team of scholars produced 33 additional volumes in the official Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series over the next 20 years.

Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In the free eBook Dead Sea Scrolls, learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism.


From the annals of the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls: “Breaking the Scroll Cartel” reads the title of this New York Times article from September 7, 1991, announcing the Biblical Archaeology Society’s publication of Abegg and Wacholder’s first volume of the reconstructed Dead Sea Scroll texts.

Happily, Abegg, Jr., did not sacrifice his academic career at the conclusion of Shanks’s three-year campaign to free the scrolls. Trinity Western University offered him a teaching position, and he eventually helped establish there a Biblical studies graduate program that specialized in Dead Sea Scroll research.

According to Abegg, Jr., Shanks’s legacy extends beyond his success in freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls:

[A]mong the direct benefits of Hershel’s campaign is the keen public interest in the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls. As I know that Biblical Archaeology Review can attest to an increased readership during and following Hershel’s campaign, so those of us who make the scrolls our research focus can attest to overflowing public lectures, fully enrolled classes, successful research proposals, and prosperous book sales. In a world where many of my university colleagues in other disciplines often feel that no one cares, the Dead Sea Scrolls continue to benefit from strong public interest.


Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls by Hershel Shanks is fascinating account of an archaeology outsider and his scrapes with governments, nomads and scoundrels.

To learn more about the behind-the-scenes machinations that helped free the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as how the scrolls have become so accessible to the public today, read the full article “Hershel’s Crusade, No. 1: He Who Freed the Dead Sea Scrolls” by Martin Abegg, Jr., in the March/April May/June 2018 issue of BAR.


Subscribers: Read the full article “Hershel’s Crusade, No. 1: He Who Freed the Dead Sea Scrolls” by Martin Abegg, Jr., in the March/April May/June 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest manuscript find of all time. Visit the BAS Dead Sea Scrolls Page for dozens of articles on the scrolls’ significance, discovery and scholarship.


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  • James says

    Would like help to free King Solomon’s Treasure – It is part of the history of the founding of the United States of America. Our family was involved in bringing it for the Revolution. It is currently stored and surrounded by secrecy at Fort Knox. My late brother, Larry Becker signed an Amendment to Secret Treaty Number One. This is a complex story and it should replace the Secrecy that shrouds the Fort Knox Treasury.

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