The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the world’s most fascinating sagas.
This week’s Looking Back is going way back, over 2,000 years ago or so. Well, OK, only 70 years or so in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, but the topic is an ancient one.
I recently read a story about the passing of Dr. Norman Golb, the University of Chicago professor who uncovered the existence of a previously unknown Jewish community in Medieval France. He was also a contributor to the scholarship of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Reading about Golb, I wondered — what would I find about the Scrolls in the Davidson Archive? I was not disappointed. Beginning in 1952, there are 623 pages with a wide range of topics about the scrolls, including many in-depth articles and reports.
Briefly, the ancient texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be one of the great archeological finds in world history. Calling all of the discoveries “scrolls” might be a bit of a misnomer. Only a few scrolls are largely intact manuscripts; most are fragments of documents. Most important, however, the Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient Jewish religious texts.
The first scrolls were found in 1946-1947 in a cave near the north shore of the Dead Sea by a Bedouin shepherd. Additional scrolls and fragments were found over the years. Eventually, by 2017, 12 sites called the Qumran Caves, were discovered and excavated. Yigal Yadin, an Israeli military hero and politician, was one prominent archeologist who led excavations at the Qumran Caves and played a role in acquiring scrolls, most of which are now held by the Israel Museum.
The pages of the JN hold many articles and discussions about the authenticity of the scrolls. The general conclusion of scholars is that the scrolls date from 2,000 years ago or more, but there are and were dissenters, such as Dr. Solomon Zeitlin, who claimed that the scrolls had “no value for Judaism or early Christianity” (JN, Feb. 24, 1956). Most scholars, such as the first Israeli Director of Antiquities Shmuel Yeivin, supported the authenticity of the scrolls (JN June 29, 1956). Legendary JN Editor Philip Slomovitz devoted a number of his columns to the scrolls and urged keeping an open mind as well as urging scholars to strive for accuracy in their research (for example, JN Aug. 28, 1956; July 17, 1968; Feb. 2, 1973; and Jan. 14, 1977).
The JN also published news about the latest developments in scroll scholarship, such as preservation methods and access to the scrolls. Some stories over the last 70 years are directly related to Jewish Detroit. For example, there have been many lectures and presentations in the community as well as scholarship at local universities regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls.
There is a great feature article about a huge event in the Jan. 17, 2003, issue of the JN. That year, the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, Mich., was the only U.S. venue to host a traveling Dead Sea Scroll exhibit from the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the world’s most fascinating sagas. As an archivist, I can only dream of a find like that!
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at