Today in History: Photographs of Dead Sea Scrolls Made Public for the First Time

Today in History: Photographs of Dead Sea Scrolls Made Public for the First Time

by M.C. Millman

On September 21, 1991, the Huntington Library in California ended a bitter dispute amongst biblical scholars by publicizing its complete set of 3,000 photos of the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls are considered one of the most remarkable archeological finds of the 20th century. As the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide immeasurable historical, religious, and linguistic significance. 

In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd was looking for a stray sheep on the northern shore of the Dead Sea. He tossed a stone into a Qumran cave and heard the sound of breaking pottery. He decided to investigate the cave and found large clay jars. While some jars were empty, others had lids containing old scrolls wrapped in linen cloth.

The young shepherd found a total of seven scrolls. He sold three to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem, which Professor E. L. Sukenik, head of the Archeological Department at the Hebrew University, acquired. The remaining four ended up in the hands of Mar Samuel, the archbishop of Jerusalem. Samuel traveled to the U.S. with the scrolls during the conflict of the War of Independence. 

Five years later, on June 1, 1954, Mar Samuel advertised in the Wall Street Journal offering "Four Dead Sea Scrolls" for sale. Yigael Yadin, the son of Professor Sukenik, purchased the scrolls for $250,000. D. S. Gottesman also contributed part of the purchase.  

By 1954, all seven scrolls were in the hands of the State of Israel. The search continued between 1947 and 1956 in eleven nearby Qumran caves, unearthing fragments of around 950 other scrolls. 

The scrolls are approximately two thousand years old, dating from the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. They contain all books of Tanach, except for Esther. Several copies of the same books were found, such as thirty copies of Devarim. While most of the scrolls are in Hebrew, there are also a few in Aramaic and Greek.

A small committee of scholars appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority was in charge of the manuscripts. While a few well-preserved, more complete scrolls were published soon after their discovery, many claim that scholars monopolized access to unpublished scrolls. Others say that the committee's small size slowed the publication of the texts. 

The Huntington Library explains they acquired the negatives from Elizabeth Bechtel, president and founder of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center (ABMC) in Claremont, California.

In 1980, Bechtel hired a photographer to document the scrolls. She persuaded Israeli officials to duplicate the materials to ensure the information in the scrolls would not be jeopardized by war or natural catastrophes. She financed and oversaw the operation. ABCM kept one set of negatives and stored the other set securely elsewhere. 

When Betchel had a falling out with ABCM, she took the master set to the Huntington Library, donating almost $100,000 for a special vault to hold the negatives. After she died in 1987, the master set became the library's property. 

After 40 years, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, freed the scrolls, giving researchers unrestricted access to the library's complete set of photographs of the scrolls. 

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