Holy Land Pilgrimage with Gila




ISAIAH 1:1       

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Shepherds, Scholars and the Dead Sea Scrolls


It was a stray goat which led to what is considered to be the most important manuscript find of the 20th century.  In January of 1947, Mohammed ed-Dib, a Beduin goat herder from the Ta’amireh tribe, threw a stone inside a cave.  When he heard the stone clink against a clay jar, he may have thought "gold??"  The next day he returned with his cousin to investigate.  To their chagrin, the jars contained not gold coins, but old bundles of leathers.  Nevertheless, they collected them and brought them to a cobbler in Bethlehem.  Luckily for us, the cobbler inspected the leathers, identified writing on them and advised the Beduin to show the leathers to Khalil Eskander, an antiquities dealer nicknamed Kando, down the street.

When Kando, a Syrian Orthodox Christian, expressed interest in the scrolls, the Beduin returned to the same cave overlooking the Dead Sea in the Judean cliffs to search for more leathers.  They discovered several earthenware jars, some still covered with upturned dishes.  Inside were another four scrolls.


Kando, the famed antiquities dealer

In July 1947, the Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem’s Old City, Mar Athanasius Samuel, purchased four scrolls from Kando, for the sum of $97.20.  Kando pocketed one third and the Beduin two thirds.  Thereafter for the next half century, decked in his trademark cranberry-felt tarbush (hat), Kando would become an icon of the antiquities market.

In the 1980s, when I would bring pilgrims keen on collecting antiquities to his shop not far from the Garden Tomb, Kando, after haggling an attractive price, would allow the buyer to take his photograph.  Then, his sons would lead us up to the loft, where we could actually touch one
of the original jars that he hadn’t sold.  The first time I touched a jar which had stored the two-thousand-year-old
manuscripts, I felt goose bumps and chills

Courtesy of William Kando

up my spine.

Kando, the famed Antiquities Dealer

It was only in November 1947, 11 months after the initial discovery, that the true date and worth of the scrolls was recognized. Professor Eleazar Sukenik, head of Hebrew University’s Department of Archeology, was shown a scrap of leather by a friend of his, an Armenian antiquities dealer.  Immediately Sukenik realized that this scrap of leather might be 2,000 years old, for the Hebrew letters were similar to letters he had found carved on ossuaries (limestone bone burial boxes) he had discovered in and around Jerusalem in tombs dating back before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Professor Eleazar Sukenik examining one of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Professor Eleazar Sukenik studying one of the Dead Sea Scrolls

At this time, the newly-formed UN was concluding its debate on the future of Palestine and it was clear that war was imminent.  The UN vote about whether to partition Palestine was to have been taken on November 28th.  When it was postponed for a day, Professor Sukenik decided this was positively his last chance to go with his Armenian friend to the Bethlehem dealer holding the scrolls.

In a tense threatening atmosphere the next morning, the two men made the journey by bus to Bethlehem.  In a musty attic not far from the Church of the Nativity, they sipped cardamom-flavored Turkish coffee and chit-chatted with the dealer in the polite, round-about Oriental way, while the fateful moments before the UN vote ticked away.  Finally, Professor Sukenik was shown two scrolls in the jars in which they had been discovered.

When he began reading the Hebrew, Sukenik noted that the language was in a style similar to the Psalms, but the text was unknown to him.  He brought the scrolls home to Jerusalem to study and several days later bought them.  One was a collection of psalm-styled poems, later named the Thanksgiving Scroll and the other was an apocalyptic description of a war in the end of days between the sons of light and the sons of darkness.  The price of the scrolls was $324.00.  Later Sukenik raised additional funds and bought a partial text of Isaiah (called Isaiah Manuscript 2) as well as two jars.

2,000-year-old earthenware jar

In the meantime, Sukenik learned that the previous summer when he was on sabbatical, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan had asked Hebrew University scholars for their opinion on the age and contents of four old scrolls.  The “experts” had examined the scrolls and declared them to be “not particularly significant.”

When word reached the Metropolitan that Sukenik, a Jew, had risked his life to travel to Bethlehem to buy leather manuscripts, perhaps similar to the ones in his possession, he decided to seek a second opinion himself.  He contacted the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem.  A student named John C. Trever photographed the scrolls and sent a copy on to headquarters in the U.S. America’s top archeologist, William F. Albright, immediately wired back,

Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

“Congratulations.  You have in your

For 2,000 years, the scrolls were

possession, the most important manuscript

preserved in earthenware jars

find of the 20th century.”

The Metropolitan’s scrolls were taken out of Israel to the U.S. and offered for sale in 1949, but no buyers stepped forward.  At the same time, permission had been given to scholars at the American School of Oriental Research to publish facsimiles of the scrolls.  Since the texts were available to scholars for study, no one felt a pressing need for the original manuscripts.

Professor Sukenik, who had dreamed of buying the four scrolls for Israel, died in 1953. A year later, his son, archeologist Yigael Yadin, while on a lecture tour in the U.S., learned of the difficulties the Metropolitan was having in finding a buyer.  He decided to purchase the four scrolls for Israel, but the task demanded delicacy, for the Jordanian government had already denounced the Metropolitan as a traitor for taking the scrolls out of the country.  Yadin would have to buy them anonymously.
By coincidence, a few days after Yadin had determined to search out the scrolls, a small notice in the Wall Street Journal offered the four Dead Sea scrolls for sale.  With a banker serving as intermediary, a sale price of $250,000 was agreed upon. (Remember the original purchase price was $97.20!)  Today scholars consider this one of the greatest antiquity bargains ever struck. A single fragment from the Dead Sea caves – not to mention complete scrolls – is insured for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The Shrine of the Book, built in Jerusalem to house the scrolls,
was designed to resemble the lid of one of the earthenware jars

The scrolls can be divided into four categories: a) biblical manuscripts (the Isaiah Manuscript 1 and Isaiah Manuscript 2); b) biblical manuscripts with commentary (the Habakkuk commentary); c) apocryphal manuscripts or an alternate biblical text (the Genesis Apocrypha) and d) extra-biblical literature (Thanksgiving Hymns, Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, and the Manual of Discipline).

By far, the most important is the complete manuscript of Isaiah, with all 66 chapters. As recorded in Luke 4, Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue and read from the 61st chapter of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  Jesus’ interpretation of the Scripture first astonished and then angered his neighbors, so much so, that they conspired to push him off the precipice of the closely-knit conservative Galilean village.

View from the Nazareth precipice

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

View from the Nazareth precipice

During our pilgrimage around the Holy Land, we visit the Nazareth precipice and read Luke 4 as we look way down to the Jezreel Valley. The synagogue has not survived the ravages of 2,000 years, but a scroll of Isaiah has, because it was hidden in a cave in the dry cliffs towering over the Dead Sea, some 100 miles south of Nazareth.

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If there were a best-seller booklist in the time of Jesus, the Book of Isaiah would undoubtedly top the charts.  In addition to the two Isaiah scrolls, another twenty-odd partial copies of Isaiah plus six commentaries were found hidden in the Judean wilderness caves.  Luckily, the Judean birds, that loved to stuff their nests with biblical manuscripts, overlooked the Isaiah hidden in Cave Number 1, so we do have a copy intact with all 66 chapters.  That copy is dated to the first century B.C. and is referred to as Isaiah Manuscript 1.  It is among the most valuable manuscripts in the world.

Partial view of Isaiah Manuscript 1

Photocopy of a photo of Isaiah Manuscript 1

First fifteen lines of the Isaiah scroll found by Beduin shepherds in 1947

This manuscript is made of seventeen leather sheets, sewn together with linen thread.  Its fifty-four columns are ruled horizontally with the writing dangling below the lines.  According to Yigael Yadin who wrote Message of the Scrolls, the scribe of this scroll made many minor mistakes while copying it, most of which he corrected himself.

Another scholar compared Isaiah 53, the chapter about the “suffering servant,” in
the 2,000-year-old text of the Isaiah Manuscript 1 with the Masoretic (traditional) text and found a difference in only seventeen letters.  Ten are differences in spelling like the American ‘color’ and the British ‘colour’.  Four are very minor grammatical changes, like adding “and”. The remaining three letters are the Hebrew word for “light” in verse 11 which was obviously added by a later scribe.  None of these variations change the meaning of the text.

In the early 1990’s I heard from Brigham Young University groups that a number of BYU professors had partnered with Dead Sea Scroll scholars to research the DNA of the scrolls.  And that they had concluded, in addition to goat, calf and sheep leather, some scrolls were written on ibex hide.  Nubian ibex (yaelim in Hebrew) are native to the cliffs above the Dead Sea.  During our walk through the Ein Gedi oasis 18 miles south of Qumran, we mingle with ibex who come to nibble on acacia leaves.

Nubian ibex at Ein Gedi

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Nubian ibex at Ein Gedi

It’s estimated that the Isaiah scroll is composed of the hides of nine animals.  Tanning the hides and preparing them for writing was a complex and smelly process. Remember: In Acts 10, Peter went up on the rooftop, probably to catch the Mediterranean breeze and escape the stench of dead animal hides in the house, while he was staying at the home of Simon the Tanner.  Tanning was performed by guild craftsmen who closely guarded their “trade secrets.”

First, the fresh animal skin was washed and then soaked in water, causing the hide to swell.  Next, the hair was scraped off with a large, curved knife and the skin was stretched on wooden frames and shaved to make it as thin as possible, yet thick enough to withstand heavy use.  The stretched skin was finally soaked in a solution of salt, barley, flour, gall nuts and lime water for several days and then it was rinsed and dried flat.

Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with carbon soot ink from olive-oil lamps. Honey, oil, vinegar and water were added to thin the ink to the proper consistency. Sometimes gall nuts were added to make it more resilient.  In the 1950s, at Qumran, the settlement between the cliff caves and the Dead Sea, Roland de Vaux, excavator from the French School of Archeology (Ecole Biblique) found two ceramic inkwells and one made of bronze.  A later excavator in the 1960s found a fourth inkwell there.

Cave #4 at Qumran

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Cave #4 at Qumran, excavated by Roland de Vaux in the 1950s


Tufts University archeologist Jodi Magnes notes the importance of finding four
inkwells in one location when she says, “I have worked for many years on pottery reading at various archeological sites, and I have never yet found an inkwell in any of the zillions of baskets of pottery that I have sorted.”  Other archeologists concur.  Nowhere else in the country has anyone ever found more than one inkwell at the same location.  The four inkwells from the “Scriptorium” at Qumran suggest that the scribes headquartered here copied the scrolls found in the caves nearby.

The existence of the 2,000-year-old Isaiah scroll is a tribute to the religious devotion of the community that produced it and to the prodigious skill of the scribes who copied it.  Although separated by more than 1,000 years from the later Masoretic (traditional) text, Isaiah Manuscript #1 is nearly identical to it, boosting our confidence in the care with which biblical texts were transmitted from one generation to the next.  Today we can open our Bibles with assurance that we are reading the same holy text as Jesus did, nearly 2,000 years ago.


After writing this article, I contacted Kando’s son, William, whom I’ve known for many years, and asked if I could photograph the jar for my website.

William immediately invited me for coffee and I jumped at the chance to hear his
story of the discovery of the jar.  When it was found by the Beduin shepherds in the 1950’s, the Temple Scroll was rolled inside.  (Exhibited at the Shine of the Book, the Temple Scroll describes an imaginary ideal temple to be established by the Essenes
in Jerusalem.)

The original jar that once held the Temple Scroll

“The Beduin,” says William Kando, “were more clever than the scholars.  They
knew how to identify caves where people would have lived and found the scrolls easily.”  When the Beduin brought the jar and the scroll to his father, Khalil Kando, he bought them without hesitation.  He offered the Temple Scroll to the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and to the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, but neither could come up with the money.

In 1967 the government of Israel expropriated the scroll as a part of its conquest of East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  The jar, however, remained
in the possession of the Kando family and has been on display in their shop since 1963.  “Since I was 21 years old,” says William Kando, “I stood by my father and learned pottery and glass.  I observed his dealings first hand.  If my father wasn’t

Courtesy of William Kando

100% sure that a piece was genuine, he

The original jar at Kando's shop

would show it to scholar friends and get
  their expert opinion. 

“I was twice with my father at Moshe Dayan’s home,” continues William.  “He was solely interested in pottery and scarabs.  After the Six-Day-War, pieces came from Lebanon and Jordan, because the antiquities market in Israel was thriving.  The best pieces my father offered first to the Israel Museum.  They would say whether they were interested and my father would wait until they found someone to donate the money to purchase the item for display.”

“The Prime Minister’s Office also bought antiquities from us to be given as gifts,” recalls William.  Prominent in the shop is a photo of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at
the Vatican, where he’s presenting a pottery jug from the time of Jesus to Pope John Paul II.  The photo is dedicated to the Kando Brothers (Kando, the old man had died
in 1993) with best wishes from Yitzhak Rabin.

William Kando can generally be found at his new shop opposite Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.  By special appointment, he opens the old antiquities shop near the Garden Tomb.

Copyright 2006, 2010 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

For more about the Dead Sea Scrolls, see "The Dead Sea Scrolls from A to Z."
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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin