The Dead Sea Scrolls, A Full History, Vol. 1

by Weston W. Fields

Leiden/Boston, Brill, 2009, 592 pp.
$99 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Charlotte Hempel

This lavishly illustrated volume contains a virtual mini-archive of the momentous events relating to the discovery, acquisition and early publication history of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Fields interviewed all the living major, as well as some minor, players or their family members in different parts of the world. Among them are Arab nomads, local Arab antiquities dealers, scholars, wealthy collectors and librarians. Fields studied the archives of universities and institutions in various countries and reproduces much of what he has discovered word for word.

A major part of the story involves the personalities of the players. Sometimes the situation resembles the present scholarly community: The publication team was international and worked—at least initially—collaboratively. Sadly absent, however, was any dialogue between non-Jewish and Jewish scholars. Some of the most unfortunate quotes in the book reveal openly anti-Jewish sentiments.

Four of the original batch of seven scrolls from Cave 1 reached the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) via the Syrian bishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel. An overzealous guard working for Mar Athanasius, however, mistakenly turned away the Bedouin bearing some of the scrolls. This turned out to be a stroke of luck for Hebrew University Professor E.L. Sukenik; the simple misunderstanding on the part of Mar Athanasius’s guard ultimately led to Sukenik’s acquisition of three of the seven scrolls from Cave 1. (Neither of the teams was aware of the acquisitions of the other.) Sukenik risked his life going to Bethlehem in 1947 to inspect the scrolls he then acquired on behalf of the new State of Israel.

Another noteworthy feature of the story is that it is exclusively of men. The early history of scroll research is a tale of various old boys’ networks in action. Fields even regales us with odd references to pretty females that distracted the worthy cause of scholarship.

One does not have to be a rampant Zionist or a women’s rights activist to recognize that the dissolution of the segregation of male/female scholars and non-Jewish/Jewish scholars has enriched scroll scholarship enormously.

A significant segment of the book is inevitably given to the turbulent relationship between one of the British members of the original team, John Allegro, and his colleagues. Allegro deserves credit for promoting swift access to the scroll material and for bringing the Copper Scroll to Manchester, England, where it was expertly opened by the ingenious Professor Henry Wright Baker. While it is well known that Allegro fell out with his colleagues after they discredited him in an open letter to the (London) Times of 11 March 1956, the full picture offered here adds many nuances. Perhaps most surprising is a voluminous amicable correspondence, at times even banter, between Allegro and his colleagues in subsequent years. Even more revealing is an important letter written by Allegro—who liked to portray himself as an innocent victim of a breakdown in relations—where he forcefully plots with the Jordanian authorities to, in his own words, “cut [Roland] de Vaux [who led the scroll publication team] right out of the picture.” Allegro expresses his hope and aim this way: “It will be popularly recognised that I am the most reliable of scholars to be handling the scrolls!”

Fields is extremely even-handed and very rarely passes judgment on the events he records. If anything, he is perhaps a little too reticent in offering his own take on things, especially given the huge amount of research he has undertaken. All in all this project—to be completed with a second volume covering the remainder of the story—is the result of many years of painstaking work, exhausting travel and devoted research. Fields has done scholars and the public a huge service. We look forward to the next installment.



Charlotte Hempel is a senior lecturer in Biblical studies in the school of philosophy, theology and religion at the University of Birmingham, UK. She cochairs the Qumran section of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, serves as reviews editor for the Journal of Jewish Studies and is a member of the editorial board of Dead Sea Discoveries.

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  • Akash says

    JohnIf you are at all honest you must consefs that you cannot even account for your own seeming appearance here. Because to do so you would have to take into account how the entire cosmos with all of its incomprehensible space-time paradoxes somehow coalesced into creating the body-mind complex that you now identify as you ( where do you begin and end?) And thus indeed how//why , beginning at presumed day one, the entire world process with all of its space-time paradoxes arises and appears in each and every moment (because you are not in any sense separate from that unfathomable/unexplainable process)And yet you presume to know so much about what may or may not have occurred in Palestine approximately 2000 years ago.When and where was Palestine 2000 years ago!Herod the Great ????????????

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