George Gunn, PhD
The recent discovery of a twelfth Dead Sea Scrolls cave in the cliffs west of Qumran has sent a shock wave through the Biblical Studies and Antiquities worlds. The early days of Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries in the mid 1900s had revealed eleven caves containing some 972 manuscripts and 15,000 manuscript fragments. No new caves had been discovered for 60 years (since 1956). However, Dr. Randall Price from Liberty University, along with two archaeologists from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia) recently discovered a long sought after twelfth cave. Unfortunately, this cave did not yield any new scrolls or fragments; although, it is obvious that some had been there at one time. 2,000-year-old storage jars and lids were found – all of them broken, and almost all of them empty. A couple of iron pickaxe heads from the 1950s discovered in the cave’s tunnel told the story – the cave had been previously looted, and anything of value removed. The archaeologists did manage to find:
- the jars in which the scrolls and their covering had once been hidden
- a leather strap for binding a scroll
- a cloth that wrapped the scrolls
- a rolled up parchment, evidently prepared for writing, but still blank
What does this mean for Biblical studies? Directly, we do not learn anything new about the Biblical text or the Essene sect that created the scrolls. Indirectly, we certainly have further confirmation that many such scrolls did in fact exist. In addition, by implication, we can suspect that there is good likelihood that continued archaeological effort might yet turn up additional scrolls.
The absence of actual scrolls from this cave sounds a caution to those who visit the Holy Land about picking up archaeological artifacts. Having led numerous tours to Israel on behalf of Shasta Bible College, I can attest that one is free to walk around many archaeological sites. Erosion from foot traffic and rain sometimes unearths some treasure formerly hidden beneath the ground. It could be tempting simply to stoop down, pick up something that looks valuable, and take it home in your luggage. After all, who wouldn’t love to have an authentic piece of Biblical archaeology to show off to friends and listen to them “ooh” and “ah” at the fine piece you have in your private collection. But consider this – wouldn’t it have been better for an archaeologist to have examined the specimen in its original context, so that the find could be properly recorded, evaluated, and published for the benefit of the entire scholarly community? The scrolls removed from Cave 12 were likely sold on the black market and are now in someone’s collection, or even possibly in a museum. But once removed from the original site of discovery such artifacts lose much of their archaeological value. The looters may have made off with some cash, but the world of scholarship has been robbed of precious historical information.
The problem of looters in the Judean Desert is a real problem. The terrain is rugged and somewhat isolated. This makes it difficult to police. Who knows how many other caves have been violated? The Israel Antiquities Authority has recently begun what they call “Operation Scroll.” In fact the discovery of this twelfth cave was actually part of Operation Scroll. It is hoped that this new effort will result not only in new discoveries, but in increased policing activity in the Judea Desert.
All of this brings up a political issue (What doesn’t involve political issues in the Middle East?). The need to protect the freedom of archaeologists to continue excavating must be guarded at all costs. But here’s where the political problem comes in. What would be the result for archaeology were a “two-state solution” for Israel and the Palestinians to be imposed on the area? Controversy has hovered for years around the excavation of Dead Sea Scroll sites, since Qumran is located in the West Bank, a territory Israel won back from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. Jordan has asserted on different occasions that it is the rightful owner of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Palestinians (and the United Nations), on the other hand, consider the West Bank to be their own territory. If the hundreds of caves remaining to be examined were to fall under the hegemony of either Jordan or the Palestinians, how likely is it that archaeologists from either the Hebrew University, or a Christian University would have the freedom to carry out unhindered excavations in the Judean Desert? Both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority officially deny any Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Yet archaeological discoveries in Israel provide very strong proof of Israel’s ancient connection to the land. I do not foresee either Hamas or the Palestinian authority favoring Jews and Christians poking about in caves that may contain artifacts that undermine the Palestinian narrative. Whatever future political agreements come about in Israel, my prayer that the Israelis retain sovereignty over these precious archaeological sites.