On This Day: Israel reveals it has all the Dead Sea Scrolls after secretly buying them from Arabs

Julian Gavaghan

FEBRUARY 13, 1955: All seven ancient Dead Sea Scrolls were presented to the world on this day in 1955, after Israel secretly bought them from hostile Arabs using a mysterious middleman.

The 2,500-year-old biblical manuscripts, including an early copy of the Ten Commandments, were discovered in West Bank caves by Bedouin shepherds in 1947.

But attempts to track down and study the Jewish writings were halted when war broke out a year later in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine.

Professor Eleazar Sukenik, of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, was able to buy three prior to the Israeli War of Independence, which is known to Palestinians as the Nakba ('catastrophe' in Arabic), and take them to the newborn Jewish state.

Afterwards, the Polish-born Jew, who settled in the Holy Land in 1911, then set about trying to buy the other four.

But Palestinians, whose homeland had been wiped off the map with Israel taking the lion’s share and the West Bank seized by Jordan, wanted nothing to do with Israelis.

Other archaeologists learned that these scrolls had been purchased by Metropolite Archbishop Mar Samuel of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.



Samuel, who took them with him to the U.S. in 1949 when he served as head of the North American Syriac archdiocese, eventually became interested in selling them.

But he was not willing to trade with Jews, who he considered the enemy of his fellow Arabs - both Muslims and Christians - who had lived for centuries in Palestine.

American archaeologist William Albright revealed this to Sukenik’s son, Lieutenant General Yigael Yadin, the ex-Israeli military Chief of Staff, while he was in the U.S.


















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Yadin 'made contact with an American Christian who served as a middleman', Israel’s then Prime Minister Moshe Sharett claimed at a 1955 press conference.

'Finally, the Metropolite sold the scrolls without knowing that he had sold them to the Hebrew University.'

They paid $250,000 – a quarter of what Samuel originally wanted and a 'bargain' according to Albright – after receiving a donation from the American Fund for Israel.



However this was still vastly more than the £7 the discovering Bedouin shepherd sold three of the scrolls for, after doing a deal with a back street antiques dealer.

A News of the Day newsreel shows scholars painstaking restoring the many pieces of the scrolls, which were found a mile from the Dead Sea, hence their name.

The identity of the mysterious 'American Christian' who handled the negotiations and verified them was later revealed to be Canadian-born Jew Harry Orlinsky.










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The scholar pored over them in a Manhattan bank vault, using the pseudonym Mr Green to mask any Israeli connection.

He even used a code word to indicate that the scrolls were the genuine article before buying them from Samuel.

The remaining fragments and pieces of the scrolls were discovered by Bedouin and other treasure hunters by the early 1960s.



Thousands of high-quality photographs of the 972 texts – written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Nabataean – can now be freely accessed in an online archive.

The manuscripts, which were written between 408 BC and 318 AD on parchment, papyrus and bronze, sheds light on Judaism and the origins of Christianity.

Among the scrolls is an early copy of the book of Deuteronomy, which includes the Ten Commandments.










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Others include a 1st century BC replica of the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which describes the creation of the world, and copies of psalms.

They also include letters hidden by those fleeing Roman forces and hundreds more secular letters and debates about different Jewish sects and practices.

'The scrolls provide an unprecedented picture of the diverse religious beliefs of ancient Judaism, and of daily life during the turbulent Second Temple period when Jesus lived and preached, on biblical studies, the history of Judaism and the origins of Christianity,' according to the Israel Antiques Authority website.





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