The Many Homes of the Dead Sea Scrolls

During the mid-20th century, over 900 Jewish texts were discovered at Qumran, which is located in present-day Israel’s Judean Desert.  These scrolls are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, because of Qumran’s close proximity to the Dead Sea.  They date to the last few centuries B.C. and first few centuries A.D., and are primarily written in Hebrew, with several texts in Aramaic and Greek.  The scrolls’ content includes Old Testament books, the books of the Apocrypha, and texts written by the Essenes, a Jewish sect of the time.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest Biblical texts ever discovered (not including the Ketef Hinnom scrolls) and include fragments from every Old Testament book except for the book of Esther.  However, the book of Isaiah is the only complete Old Testament book found in the collection.

In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd accidentally found seven of the Dead Sea Scrolls in clay jars in a cave in Qumran.  During this time, Israel was part of the British Mandate of Palestine.  Since the Bedouins could not read Hebrew, they did not know what to make of the scrolls.  Eventually, a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church who lived in the area learned about the scrolls.  He thought that the script might be in Syriac, the script used for modern Aramaic.  Since Syriac is the script used in the Syrian Orthodox Church’s liturgy, he brought the scrolls to his archbishop, Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, who oversaw the Monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem.  (For more information about the Monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem, see my Previous Post.)

After Mar Samuel looked at the seven Dead Sea Scrolls, he immediately realized that they were written in Hebrew, not his cognate language of Aramaic.  He ended up buying four of the scrolls, including the one containing the full book of Isaiah, and took a few fragments as well.  Eleazar Sukenik, an archaeology professor at Hebrew University, purchased the other three scrolls.  When Israel’s War for Independence began in 1948, Mar Samuel fled to New Jersey, where he eventually posted an ad in The Wall Street Journal offering to sell the scrolls.  Sukenik’s son, the archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, learned about the ad, and ended up purchasing Mar Samuel’s scrolls in 1954.  However, Mar Samuel kept his few fragments.  To this day, the fragments remain at St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey, under the ownership of the Syrian Orthodox Church (Home #1).

The publication information of this 1950 book describes what Mar Samuel’s position was when he owned the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Yigael Yadin’s scrolls and Mar Samuel’s scrolls ended up going into the new Israel Museum, an archaeology museum built in West Jerusalem in 1965.  However, the Dead Sea Scrolls are not in the main building, but in their own climate-controlled building called the Shrine of the Book (Home #2).  The building is shaped like the clay jars that originally housed the scrolls.  Today, visitors to the Israel Museum can still see the first seven scrolls, as well as most of the others ever found, on display there.  Only a few scrolls are displayed at a time, though, in order to minimize the amount of light exposure that they receive. Some of the scrolls have been digitized and can be viewed online here:

The Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum

In 1938, when Israel was still under British rule, the British built the Palestine Archaeological Museum to house the discoveries of the archaeological digs that were being conducted at the time.  The American philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. helped finance the museum, so today, it is known as the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum.  When Israel gained its independence in 1948, the city of Jerusalem was divided in half.  Israel owned West Jerusalem and Jordan owned East Jerusalem.  The Rockefeller Museum fell into the jurisdiction of the Jordanians.  However, an international team of archaeologists managed the museum.  As more Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956, they were added to the Rockefeller Museum.

During this time, a few of the Dead Sea Scrolls were moved to the Jordan Archaeological Museum, which was built in Amman, Jordan in 1951.  This included the “Copper Scroll,” which is made of copper instead of parchment or papyrus and contains a mysterious treasure map.  When I visited Amman in 2010, I saw the Copper Scroll at the Jordan Archaeological Museum.  However, when Jordan built the Jordan Museum in 2014, the Copper Scroll was moved there instead (Home #3).  I am thankful for this, because the Jordan Archaeological Museum’s displays looked outdated, lacked descriptions in some areas, and had questionable climate control.

After Israel took control of East Jerusalem in 1967, during the Six-Day War, it also took control of the Rockefeller Museum, which is now owned by the Israel Museum.  Any Dead Sea Scrolls found there were transferred over to the Shrine of the Book.  You can still visit the Rockefeller Museum today, free of charge, to see archaeology found during the British Mandate era.  However, it does not house anything particularly famous.  Additionally, the building’s age shows, and the displays are not as impressive as the displays at the Israel Museum.

In addition to the Shrine of the Book, the Jordan Museum, and the Syrian Orthodox Church in Teaneck, NJ, a small number of Dead Sea Scrolls are located in several academic institutions in the United States, as well as in a private European collection.  When the Museum of the Bible opened in Washington D.C. in 2017, it allegedly had 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments on display.  However, since then, investigations have revealed that the Museum was deceived, and that the fragments are all forgeries.

Although Qumran no longer has any known Dead Sea Scrolls there, people can visit the archaeological site today.  It is owned by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and has some interesting videos that you can watch at the visitor center, if you want to learn more about the scrolls and the group (possibly the Essenes) who may have written them.  The site itself contains the archaeological remains of the mysterious group who wrote the scrolls.

This is one of the caves in Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Sources and Further Reading

Cohen, Jennie. “6 Things You May Not Know about the Dead Sea Scrolls.” History Channel. August 29, 2018. (accessed September 12, 2020).

“The Dead Sea Scrolls.” The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. (accessed September 13, 2020).

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls. (accessed September 12, 2020).

Drori, Amir. “The Completion of the Publication of the Scrolls.” Israel Antiquities Authority. (accessed September 12, 2020).

Greshko, Michael. “’Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible Are All Forgeries.” National Geographic. March 13, 2020. (accessed September 12, 2020).

“Isaiah Scroll on a Timeline.” The Israel Museum. (accessed on September 13, 2020).

“Jordan Archaeological Museum.” Universes in Universe. (accessed September r12, 2020).

The Jordan Museum. (accessed September 19, 2020).

Lipowsky, Josh. “From Qumran to Teaneck.” Jewish Standard. August 5, 2010. (accessed September 13, 2020).

McGregor-Wood. “Who Owns the Dead Sea Scrolls? ABC News. January 14, 2020.  (accessed September 13, 2020).

“Museums in Jerusalem: The Rockefeller Archaeological Museum.” Jewish Virtual Library. (accessed September 13, 2020).

“Qumran Park.” Israel Nature and Parks Authority. (accessed September 13, 2020). Wilson, Edmund. “The Scrolls from the Dead Sea.” The New Yorker. May 7, 1955. (accessed September 12, 2020).

Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem

The city of Jerusalem has a 16th century Ottoman wall surrounding its Old City.  The area within these walls is allotted into four sections: the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter.  Although Armenians are Christian, they were the first country to nationally convert to Christianity, so they have kept a presence in Jerusalem for centuries.  That is why they have their own quarter.  Despite the name, none of the quarters are solely made up of one group of people.  In fact, hidden away in a narrow street of the Armenian Quarter is St. Mark’s Monastery.

St. Mark’s Monastery is not Armenian but Syriac Orthodox.  When people hear of the Syriac Orthodox Church, they assume that it is connected with the country of Syria.  However, that is not the case.  Syria gained independence from France in 1946, but the Syriac Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in the world.  According to an article (“National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 5-22) by the Finnish Assyriologist, Simo Parpola, the words “Assyrian,” “Syriac,” and “Syrian” all derive from the word Ashur, the name of the Ancient Assyrian Empire.  Since the Assyrian Empire once dominated the Middle East, its name influenced the region.

During the first few hundred years of Christianity, before the Catholic and Orthodox churches even split, churches from across the globe held ecumenical councils.  During the fourth ecumenical council in A.D. 451, called the Council of Chalcedon, the churches excommunicated those adhering to monophysitism, which states that Jesus only had a divine, not human, nature.  Those expelled included the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church.  Today, these latter churches claim that their theology was misrepresented at the Council, and that they did still believe in Jesus’ humanity.  Regardless, because of this early split, these Eastern Churches developed on their own.

This is the Syriac inscription over the entrance to Saint Mark’s Monastery.

Most people from the Syriac Orthodox Church (also known as the Jacobite Church, because of one of their bishops, Jacob Barradaeus) lived in what is present-day Turkey.  They built a church in Jerusalem in the sixth century A.D., which became St. Mark’s Monastery. According to Syriac Orthodox tradition, it was built over the Upper Room where Jesus had his last supper.  Today, anyone can visit the church and have a tour with the caretaker.  Fortunately, when I visited the church, the caretaker allowed me to go downstairs to the site of the earliest church.  The current church was built on top of it.  Archaeologists did not discover this earlier church until 1940.

The authenticity of this Syriac inscription found at St. Mark’s Monastery is debated.

The Syriac Orthodox Church’s liturgy is in a modern dialect of Aramaic.  That is because, prior to the Islamic invasion of the Middle East in the seventh century A.D., the Middle East’s lingua franca was Aramaic.  After the Islamic invastion, those who did not convert to Christianity kept their Aramaic language and did not replace it with Arabic.  The modern Aramaic script is called Syriac.  If you attend a service at St. Mark’s Monastery, you can hear the Aramaic liturgy and see the Syriac prayer books used.

If the Syriac Orthodox Church is not confusing enough, I would like to add one more confusing element to it.  Today, many adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church consider themselves ethnically Aramean, because they speak the Aramaic language.  Since they lived in the Middle East before the Islamic conquest, they are certainly not Arab, even if most of them can speak Arabic today.  However, it is only in the 20th century that the Syriac Orthodox Church adopted the Aramean identity.

St. Mary’s Assyrian Apostolic Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, mentioned on this commemorative bookmark, is now called the Syriac Orthodox Church in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

The identity of the Syriac Orthodox Church remains a controversial topic today.  Whereas some, but not all, from the Syriac Orthodox Church consider themselves Aramean, others call themselves Assyrian.  In fact, one of the founders of Assyrian Nationalism in the early twentieth century, Naum Faiq, was born into a Syriac Orthodox family.  Assyrian nationalists claim that they are descended from the ancient Assyrians and want to build an Assyrian homeland.

Members of the Assyrian Church of the East also believe that the Syriac Orthodox Church is descended from the ancient Assyrians.  Similar to the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East is an ancient Middle Eastern church that speaks Aramaic (although an Eastern dialect, unlike the Syriac Orthodox Church’s western dialect).  It was excommunicated from the mainstream church at the third ecumenical council in A.D. 431 (the Council of Ephesus), because its members were associated with the heretic Nestorius.  According to those from the Assyrian Church of the East, who also identify themselves as descendants of the ancient Assyrians, the reason why the Syriac Orthodox Church stopped calling itself Assyrian in the twentieth century was because it wanted to distance itself from the Assyrian Church of the East.  This was not only for religious reasons, but primarily because they did not want to experience the same fate as the Assyrians, who were massacred in Simele, Iraq in 1933.  At Simele, between 3,000 to 6,000 Assyrians were killed by the Iraqi government, both for political and religious reasons.

This photo is in the public domain and taken from Wikipedia. It explains the splits in the churches that use Aramaic liturgy.

Although the Syriac Orthodox did avoid its own massacre, it did not escape massacre earlier in the 20th century.  Approximately 200,000 members of both the Assyrian and Syriac Orthodox churches were massacred during WWI, along with the one million Armenians murdered during the Armenian Genocide.  Many Syriac Orthodox people moved to Israel after that, and still live there today.  Throughout the 20th century, many others moved to Sweden and the United States.  If you are interested, a Syriac Orthodox Group in New Jersey has recently uploaded over 2,000 Syriac Orthodox and Assyrian books online here:

St. Mark’s Monastery has a connection with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.  I plan to write about that soon. (September 20 Update: Here is the Post about the Dead Sea Scrolls.)

Sources and Further Reading

“Dayro d-Mor Marqos.” Syriac Orthodox Resources. (accessed September 13, 2020).

Donabed, Sargon and Ninos Donabed. Assyrians of Eastern Massachusetts. Charleston: Arcadia, 2006.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Monophysite.” (accessed September 13, 2020).

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Nestorianism.” (accessed September 13, 2020).

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.” (accessed September 13, 2020).

Parpola, Simo. “National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Assyrian Identity in Post-Empire Times.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 5-22. (accessed September 13, 2020).