Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Geography



The spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor”

Holy Sites -- Gila's HighlightsLet's inspect the ancient scroll of Isaiah

It was in the Nazareth synagogue that Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah and began to read chapter 61.  His 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.

During our visit to the Nazareth precipice, we read Luke 4 as we look down into the Jezreel Valley.  Nazareth’s synagogue, however, has not survived the ravages of 2,000 years.  But a scroll of Isaiah has.  It was hidden in a very dry area, in the cliffs towering over the Dead Sea, some 100 miles south of Nazareth.

View of the Jezreel Valley from Nazareth's "precipice"

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Looking down onto the Jezreel Valley from the Nazareth precipice


Judean wilderness above the Dead Sea

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The Judean wilderness above the Dead Sea where the Isaiah scroll was found

Of course, it wasn’t the very scroll that Jesus unrolled, yet we believe that it’s virtually identical to that scroll.  And as testimony to the scribes’ meticulous attention in copying Holy Scripture, the 2,000-year-old scroll of Isaiah matches the Hebrew text transmitted to us over the centuries which we read and study today in English translation.

Altogether, some 20 copies of Isaiah were found hidden in caves in the Judean desert.  Luckily, the Judean birds, who loved to stuff their nests with biblical manuscripts, overlooked one scroll of Isaiah which was found in its entirety -- with
all 66 chapters.  Today, we can inspect a portion of that Isaiah scroll, on view in Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book.  The Shrine of the Book, located in the Israel Museum, has just reopened after extensive renovations over the past year to make it more “scroll-friendly.”

Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem has become more "scroll-friendly"

Our visit opens with some great photographs documenting the story of the discovery, identification, dating and preservation of the scrolls, considered by many scholars to be the most significant manuscript finding of the twentieth century.

If you recall, it was a wayward goat that led shepherds of the Ta’amireh tribe to the cave where they found leathers inside clay jars.  One of the photographs is of the famed antiquities dealer Khalil Eskander, nicknamed Kando.  With his trademark cranberry-felt tarbush (hat), Kando became an icon of the antiquities market, with one-eyed General Moshe Dayan his most famous customer.

In the 1980s, when I would bring pilgrims keen on collecting antiquities to his shop, not far from the Garden Tomb, Kando would allow serious buyers to take his photograph.  Afterwards, his sons would lead us up to the loft, where we could actually touch two of the original jars, those he hadn’t sold.  I have to admit, the first time I touched a jar which had stored the two-thousand-year-old leather manuscripts, I felt goose bumps and chills up my spine.

Besides Kando, the photo collection includes other famous personalities of the Dead Sea Scroll saga: the Metropolitan (archbishop) of the Syrian Orthodox Church who bought the first scrolls, Professor Eleazar Sukenik who first realized their antiquity, Professor Biebenkraut, a restorer of old paintings in pre-Nazi Germany, who figured out how to unroll the scrolls without destroying them, J.C. Trevor of the American School of Archeology who was the first to photograph the Isaiah scroll, and the team of 8 international scholars who worked in the “Scrollery” at the Rockefeller Museum opposite the Old City’s Flowers Gate to decipher and interpret the content of the scrolls.

Scrollery in the Rockefeller Museum

Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The "Scrollery" at the Rockefeller Museum where the Dead Sea Scroll
fragments were sorted and studied

As we walk towards the main exhibition area, we see artifacts found at Qumran, belonging to the ancient community whom most scholars believe were Essenes, a group of protestors against the Jerusalem Temple leadership and practices.  This is the way they interpreted Isaiah 40:3: “A voice is crying out, ‘IN THE WILDERNESS PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD’.”  So, there they were, like birds in the wilderness, a mere five miles from the center of John the Baptist’s ministry, waiting for redemption.

Artifacts include a calendar, sundial, oil lamp with original wick, combs, beads, charred dates, fragments of a prayer shawl, and first century BC coins.  One of the minutest finds exhibited is a collection of sandal nails found in 1995 on the surface of trails leading from Qumran up to the caves.  Some scholars believe that this “nails” the theory that the people in the settlement we call Qumran were the ones who not only hid, but also wrote the scrolls.

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The first excavator at Qumran, Father Roland de Vaux, surmised that most of the sect members lived in the surrounding caves and came to the motherhouse at Qumran to dine and serve God.  The 1995 excavators Hanan Eshel and Magen Broshi (retired curator of the Shrine of the Book) found some 60 iron nails from sandals worn 2,000 years ago as well as first century AD coins and broken pottery, attesting to substantial foot traffic between the caves and the settlement at Qumran.

Excavator Roland de Vaux at Qumran

Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Excavator Roland de Vaux examining plates, bowls and goblets at Qumran

Moving into the “shrine,” the most important exhibit displays a section of the Isaiah Manuscript 1, the Isaiah scroll of 17 leather sheets, intact with all 66 chapters.
Isaiah Manuscript 1 is one of the four scrolls originally bought by the Metropolitan in July 1947 for $97.20.  Seven years later, in June 1954, in an advertisement appearing in the Wall Street Journal, the Metropolitan offered to sell all four scrolls.  Closing a circle, the son of Professor Eleazar Sukenik, Yigael Yadin, then on the U.S. lecture circuit as an archeologist, purchased the four scrolls for the State of Israel for the nifty sum of $250,000.

After fifty years of display, we are challenged to preserve the Dead Sea scrolls for future generations.  Originally, the scrolls were displayed upright which caused the parchment to become damaged.  Starting in 1997, each scroll fragment underwent special treatment which included thorough cleaning, flattening and mending with Japanese tissue.

The Shrine of the Book is presently experimenting with a new showcase using optic lighting and positioning the scrolls at an angle of no more than 35 degrees.  Scrolls on display are rotated every three to six months, with a different leather parchment of Isaiah being exhibited each time.

The existence of the 2,000-year-old Isaiah scroll is a tribute to the religious devotion of the community and the prodigious skill and love of beauty exemplified in the scribes’ calligraphy.  Comparison of the Qumran Isaiah with the earliest traditional Masoretic which is ONE THOUSAND YEARS LATER proves the antiquity and authority of the Bible we read today.

On your next visit to the Holy Land, come with me to the Shrine of the Book to inspect a portion of the ancient Isaiah, similar to the scroll unrolled by Jesus in his hometown synagogue.

Copyright 2005, 2009 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

While guiding pilgrims throughout the Holy Land for more than a quarter of a century, Gila Yudkin has closely followed the drama of the Dead Sea Scroll saga.  She relishes showing how archeology has enlightened us on so many biblical passages.  Although she considers herself a liberal, she laughingly agrees with one of her favorite Baptist pastors who likes to proclaim, “Every time an archeologist turns over a spade, he buries another liberal!”
More on the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Let's decipher the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran

Dead Sea Scrolls, from A to Z

Shepherds, Scholars and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Cave number 4 at Qumran

Eleazar Sukenik

Original jar still held by Kando

More on biblical archeology:
Let's visit Gezer, Solomon's wedding gift

Let's look for the clay tablet treasure at Hazor

Let's saunter through Solomon's Stables at Megiddo

Gezer & Solomon's wife

Hazor & Joshua

Megiddo & Solomon's Stables

Just after I sent out this highlight, I was at the Shrine of the Book, explaining the significance of ritual objects found at Qumran, when a participant on our pilgrimage nearly knocked my socks off.  Joseph Caulfield from Mount Vernon, Washington stood in front of a showcase, pointed to an ostracon (an inscribed pottery shard) and proclaimed, "Hey, folks, I found this piece.”  The pottery shard, written in Hebrew, is dated to the second year of the revolt (67 AD).

Ostraca found at Qumran in 1996

Joseph was a volunteer at the 1996 Qumran dig led by Dr. James F. Strange.  The area being excavated was too crowded with diggers, so Joseph decided to tackle more virgin territory.  “I heard a clink as the trowel hit a pottery shard which flew about two feet forward,” remembers Joseph.  “I picked it up and when I rubbed off some dust, I noticed the writing.”  When Joseph brought Dr. Strange to the place where he found it, another volunteer, an 80-year-old woman, kicked at the dirt, and asked, “Was it like this one?”  This second ostracon fit perfectly with the one Joseph discovered.

The ostracon, the first piece of writing to be recovered from Qumran since the site was excavated in the middle of the last century, was broken at a critical point. Scholars disagree as to the proper reading

Qumran ostracon

of one letter which completely changes

Joseph Caulfield found the top piece

the meaning of the nature of the

Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University and Esther Eshel of Hebrew University believe that the ostracon records a gift of property in Jericho to the Essene community at Qumran.  The community did not allow private ownership of property.  On the other hand, Israeli paleographer Ada Yardeni (who first identified the “Priestly Benediction” on the silver amulets found by St Andrew’s Church) suggests that the ostracon records an ordinary land transaction.

“The first time I saw the ostracon exhibited at the Shrine of the Book, I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s mine – I found it.  It was way cool’,” says Joseph.  “Especially knowing that the find helps scholars better understand life at Qumran two thousand years ago.”

See Gila’s Recommended Holy Land Books for a thrilling read on the controversy surrounding the scrolls and a neat literary travelogue on the history, politics and myths of the Dead Sea.

Copyright 2005, 2009 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.


Coming to Jerusalem soon?  Would you like to find the venues
where you can quietly be transported back in your imagination to the
time of Jesus?  Isaiah?  David?  Abraham?

Make every minute matter while you "Explore Jerusalem's Soul" with Gila's Unorthodox Guide.  This updated PDF (Adobe Acrobat) 46-page guide gives you ten places to meditate on the Bible, lesser-known churches, most rewarding roof-top views and the top ten places for sampling Middle Eastern food.  And some are within walking distance of the Isaiah Scroll at the Israel Museum!   More on Gila's Jerusalem Guide....




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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin