Sales stir up a modern-day fuss over fragments from Dead Sea Scrolls

Dan Balilty / AP

A damaged fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls lies in Israel’s scriptural repository.

 

For years, fragments from the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls have been sold quietly to evangelical Christian collectors and institutions in the United States — even though Israel regards those sales as illegal. Now the transactions, and the frictions associated with them, have come under an international spotlight.

One big reason is that the scraps are so valuable, in financial as well as archaeological terms. The reported price tags for the fragments range up to $35 million or more. All those texts could shed new light on the origins of Jewish scriptures, ranging from Genesis and other books of the Bible to the messianic rules that were laid down by the mysterious community behind the scrolls.

 

“They are really small pieces, but they are important because you may have two or three lines that may have not been found anywhere else. And suddenly it adds a lot to the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is at least one rather amazing discovery in one of them,”  Jerry Pattengale, who oversees 12 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the privately held Green Collection, recently told The Associated Press.

 

Pattengale declined to discuss the discovery further, saying that he had to wait until the finding was published.

Many of the fragments sold on the private market come from William Kando, a Palestinian Christian whose family has held onto a collection of pieces from the Dead Sea Scrolls for decades. Kando’s father, Khalil Eskander Shahin, was a Bethlehem cobbler and antiquities dealer who bought and sold some of the Dead Sea Scrolls after the initial discovery by Bedouin shepherds in 1946.

During the 1967 Middle East War, Israel seized thousands of scroll fragments that were held in east Jerusalem. Under pressure from Israeli authorities, Shahin (who came to be known by his nickname, “Kando”) sold the Israelis a 26.7-foot-long (8.15-meter-long) scroll of parchment that was hidden in a shoebox beneath a floor tile in his bedroom. That manuscript, which describes the construction and operation of an idealized Jewish Temple, is known worldwide as the Temple Scroll.

Dan Balilty / AP

An Israel Antiquities Authority employee works on fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem on May 10. Written mostly on animal skin parchment about 2,000 years ago, the manuscripts are the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible ever found, and the oldest written evidence of the roots of Judaism and Christianity in the Holy Land.

Dan Balilty / AP

Lena Libman, right, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Lab, holds fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem.