A Look Back at the Dead Sea Scrolls as Possible Second Author Revealed

discovery of ancient hebrew manuscripts revisited as clue to origins revealed

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls have intrigued historians for 70 years. Their origins have yet to be fully revealed, though they contain the oldest known transcription of the Hebrew Bible to date. Researchers believe the Scrolls may have had a second author.

Model of the jar that held the Dead Sea Scrolls
The first set of Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd who found them inside a set of jars inside a cave. Photo By Lakeview Images / Shutterstock

The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves sound like the setup of a blockbuster adventure film. The oldest of the Scrolls contain copies of the book of Isaiah and predate the next earliest transcription of Isaiah by 1,000 years. The Scrolls were found in a cave in Israel in the 1940s and scholars have spent the subsequent decades trying to unravel their mysteries and understand their origins.

A newly developed computer algorithm may have discovered a clue to the mystery behind the Scrolls—a second author. The algorithm compared and contrasted repeated characters that appear throughout the Scrolls to see if a second set of handwriting may have been used in their inscription.

In his video series The Dead Sea Scrolls, Dr. Gary A. Rendsburg, the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, explained how the Scrolls were discovered.

A Boy and His Flock

Sometime in the spring of 1947, the local Bedouin—they are the only inhabitants of this region around the Dead Sea—were shepherding their flocks, comprised of sheep and goats, somewhere along the shore of the Dead Sea,” Dr. Rendsburg said. “One of the goats strayed from the herd and climbed up—goats being great climbers—on the cliffs above Qumran [and] entered into one of the caves.”

The shepherd lad tending the flock opted to throw a rock into the cave to scare the goat out, rather than climb after the goat. Instead of a thud, he heard a pinging sound when the rock landed, so he tried another rock and got the same result. He was curious enough that he climbed into the cave and found two clay pots. Inside them were the first seven Dead Sea Scrolls.

“The Bedouin kept the Scrolls with them for a few weeks or so,” Dr. Rendsburg said. “The Bedouin typically are not able to read or write any language; they speak Arabic, and they certainly would not have been able to recognize the script or the language presented in the script of these seven ancient documents that they now held in their hands.”

However, the Bedouin were traders, frequently visiting the nearest city to trade goat skins, wool, and so on. In this case, the nearest city was Bethlehem.

The Separation of the Scrolls

According to Dr. Rendsburg, the next time the Bedouin went to Bethlehem, they sold the Scrolls to an individual named Kando. For reasons that remain unknown, Kando split the Scrolls up into two groups—one with three Scrolls, the other with four—and decided to sell each group.

“Kando, very quickly in July 1947, sold four of the Scrolls to an individual named Mar Samuel, the Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem,” he said. “Kando also contacted Professor Eliezer Sukenik of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem sometime in November 1947, in order to determine whether Professor Sukenik was interested in purchasing the other three Scrolls.”

Due to political and religious tensions, Sukenik traveled in disguise to meet Kando and bought the three Scrolls with money supplied by his university, returning to the opposite end of Jerusalem as Mar Samuel. The two met and compared their treasures, but shortly after they each returned home, the Israeli War for Independence broke out and made travel impossible.

“Mar Samuel turned to American and British scholars associated with an institution in East Jerusalem called the American Schools of Oriental Research, or ASOR for short,” Dr. Rendsburg said. “Mar Samuel turns to the ASOR scholars present and he doesn’t sell them the documents, but he grants them permission to publish these four documents.

“What you have here is Professor Sukenik publishing three documents and the ASOR scholars publishing four.”

All seven scrolls were published by 1951 with high-quality photographs and clear typeface. Now, almost all of the Dead Sea Scrolls are held in the Israel Museum at the Shrine of the Book Complex.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily