The Dead Sea Scrolls of New Jersey

It is well known that a few of the best preserved Dead Sea Scrolls spent some time in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.  The Syrian Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel brought four scrolls to the US in 1949: the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa), the Rule of the Community (1QS), the Habakkuk Pesher (1QpHab), and the Genesis Apocryphon (1QgenApoc). Mar Samuel took the scrolls on a publicity tour and then famously placed an ad in The Wall Street Journal (1 June 1954) in order to sell the scrolls. And he did sell them (unwittingly) to the state of Israel, through Yigael Yadin, who saw to their return to Jerusalem.

It is less widely known that Mar Samuel retained a few fragments of scrolls for himself. He is said to have acquired these small pieces on a different occasion, perhaps around July or August of 1948, (allegedly) through the illicit excavations of George Isha’ya. Most of the fragments were mashed together in a clump and stored in a cigarette box. The clump was disassembled and the fragments photographed by John Trever at Yale University in February of 1949. When Mar Samuel died, these fragments passed into the care of the Syrian Orthodox Church in New Jersey. In 2009, these fragments were photographed by the West Semitic Research Project. In connection with my work on the scrolls usually associated with Qumran Cave 1, I wanted to check on the status of these fragments to make sure they were still in New Jersey (since it was in 2009 and 2010 that sales of “Dead-Sea-Scroll-like-fragments” really began to intensify, when Hobby Lobby and other institutions were buying them up). Unfortunately, I was never able to get a response from officials at the church despite several attempts at communication.

But I recently came across a decade-old article in The Jewish Standard, “From Qumran to Teaneck,” that discusses these fragments and even provides a nice picture of one of them:

A portion of 1Q34bis; image source: The Jewish Standard

This is one part of a group of fragments known as 1Q34bis, a fragmentary scroll containing what is usually called a liturgical prayer. If we place this image next to one of the images taken by John Trever when he first separated this fragment from the clump, it appears that a piece bearing the letters שמח in the upper left corner has been lost (or is no longer framed together with these fragments):

A portion of 1Q34bis in 1949 and circa 2010; image sources: upper image adapted from John C. Trever, “Completion of the Publication of Some Fragments from Qumran Cave I,” Revue de Qumrân 5 (1965), plate IV; lower image: The Jewish Standard

This kind of deterioration is always a possibility with manuscripts copied on ancient animal hides, especially those that have at some point been exposed to moisture.

This particular part of 1Q34bis is one of the more intriguing pieces among Mar Samuel’s fragments. It actually seems to join to one of the fragments excavated by de Vaux and his team from Cave 1, 1Q34:

1Q34 and a portion of 1Q34bis; image adapted from John C. Trever, “Completion of the Publication of Some Fragments from Qumran Cave I,” Revue de Qumrân 5 (1965), plate IV

This fact has been taken as evidence that the whole clump, and indeed all of Mar Samuel’s loose fragments, must have come from Cave 1. Trever, who had the advantage of examining the clump before separation, had no doubt that the fragments had been in such a clump since antiquity, and he even offered a surprisingly detailed story of how they came to be in just such an arrangement:

“With the Roman antipathy toward the Jews and the latter’s devotion to sacred writings, it is not difficult to imagine some Roman soldier ripping apart some scrolls found in the Community Center during the attack (or perhaps snatching some scrolls from a member of the community as he sought to flee with them to a place of safety). Once torn apart, these pieces appear to have been cast down and deliberately trampled upon. Seeing such desecration, some member of the community may have gathered up the trampled fragments and succeeded in carrying them to the cave for a hasty deposit.”

Such an origin is, of course, possible, but the theory is not without problems. For instance, one of the fragments of the book of Daniel extracted from the clump, 1QDana (=1Q71) seemed to Trever to be copied in a script that suggested a rather late date, “perhaps as late as A.D. 60,” which is considerably later than the dates assigned to most other material from Cave 1. The most recent editors of this fragment have gone further, concluding that “the late palaeographical features of 1QDana would be more readily understood if this scroll belonged to a post-70 deposit” (Torleif Elgvin and Årstein Justnes in Gleanings from the Caves, p. 250). Another way of describing this situation would be to say that, in terms of its estimated age, 1Q71 doesn’t really fit the profile of the items that archaeologists excavated from Cave 1. I wonder how confident we can be that all the parts of this clump had been together since antiquity. Might some of the fragments have simply been crushed together due to rough handling in 1948? How sure are we that the contents of Mar Samuel’s cigarette box represent the results of a single trip to a single location? I am reminded of the way Trever introduced his edition of these fragments. His parenthetical question really seems quite important.

“Not long after July 18, 1948, the beginning of the second truce in the Arab-Jewish conflict of 1948, Cave I was again visited by George Isha’ya who picked up some (or all?) of these fragments and delivered them to the Syrian Metropolitan of St. Mark’s Monastery.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls of New Jersey still present some puzzles.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Archaeological context, Dead Sea Scrolls. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Dead Sea Scrolls of New Jersey

  1. Matthew Hamilton says:

    You may already be aware of these online and print publications from 2006
    Some images by Robert Johnston under the title “Mar Athanasius Samuel Fragments” see https://www.cis.rit.edu/people/faculty/easton/samuel_fragments.html
    See also “Digital Miracles: Revealing Invisible Scripts”, by K.T. Knox, R.L. Easton, Jr., and R.H. Johnston, The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. J.H. Charlesworth (Waco: Baylor University Press), vol.2 p.1-16

  2. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival #187 (September 2021) – The Amateur Exegete

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