In 1948, famed archaeologist and leading biblical scholar William Albright made the extraordinary claim that the Dead Sea Scrolls were “the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls are priceless today (a scroll facsimile will cost more than $65,000), which makes it even more mind-boggling to consider the scrolls were once advertised for sale in the Wall Street Journal in June of 1954 and eventually purchased for a mere $250,000.
Bedouin shepherds in a cave near Khirbet Qumran made this amazing discovery in 1947, about one mile inland from the western shore of the Dead Sea.
By 1956, a total of eleven caves had been found at Qumran; however, no caves have been discovered since, until now.
Now, archeologists Oren Gutfeld and Randall Price have made “one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries, and the most important in the last 60 years, in the caves of Qumran,” near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.
For 60 years archaeologists and looters have been searching for additional caves. Would another one ever be found? Most didn’t think so. And that’s why it is hard to overestimate the significance of the astounding discovery announced by Hebrew University Wednesday: A twelfth cave has been discovered!
Our friend and colleague, Cary Summers, president of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. which will open later this year, was volunteering at the dig site for this historic discovery in January of 2017, where no less than six Scroll jars were discovered in what is now being called “the twelfth Qumran cave.” The discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls historically is part of a continuing saga, full of drama fit for the big screen (the scrolls were once sold on the black market and the Judean desert continues to attract treasure hunters). This latest discovery will likely be no different. Why?
This “most important” discovery will also ignite controversy: who owns the Dead Sea Scrolls? Do they belong to Israel (when first found, Qumran was part of Jordan), or do they belong to the Palestinians? More scrolls were discovered at other locations in the region of the Dead Sea, especially Wadi Murabba‘ât (1951-52), Nahal Hever (1951-61), and Masada (1963-65).
We believe the Dead Sea Scrolls and related artifacts belong to Israel. Here are three reasons why:
1. The Judean desert vicinity where the Scrolls continue to be discovered is part of the historic land of Israel. Indeed, the discovery of Hebrew and Aramaic texts in the region of the Dead Sea proves that the Jewish people lived here and this treasured area was part of their homeland.
2. The Dead Sea Scrolls are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the three languages of the Bible. Hebrew, of course, is Israel’s historic language. Unfortunately, many people are historically and biblically illiterate so they do not even understand what the original languages of the Bible are. For example, the scrolls are not written in Arabic. It is also important to remember the earliest scrolls found at Qumran date from about 250 B.C.E. (Islam, for example, begins some eight hundred years later).
3. Israel has properly cared for these priceless artifacts.
The last time we were in Israel, our friend and fellow Bible scholar, Adlfo Roitman, curator of the Shrine of the Book, gave us a behind-the-scenes-tour of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. What we can divulge is that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, the Dead Sea Scrolls in their collection would survive, so advanced is their security technology and infrastructure.
By way of example and comparison, observe what is happening to historic artifacts elsewhere in the Middle East, where they are looted and in many cases destroyed. According to Business Insider, the Islamic State has made more than $200 million dollars selling artifacts on the black market.
It is our hope that scholars, archeologists and popular media recognize what we already understand, that the scrolls belong to Israel.
Jeremiah J. Johnston, Ph.D., is president of Christian Thinkers Society, a Resident Institute at Houston Baptist University where he also serves at Associate Professor of Early Christianity.
Craig A. Evans, Ph.D., is the John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of several books on Jesus, archaeology, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.