Page 6, 14th April 1949

14th April 1949
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Locations: Jerusalem


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The Earliest Text of Isaias

By Hugh Montgomery

WHILST munerous religious, historical and other texts have been discovered during the past century in the countries surrounding Palestine — Egypt, Iraq and Syria it is extraordinary bow rare such finds have been in the Holy Land itself. Palestine. the centre of Revelation, has been silent, and only a little over a year ago, it would have been true to say that, with the exception of a tiny fragment of Deuteronomy known as the Nash Papyrus, which dates from the late Maccabean period (it is preserved in the Manchester Library) no complete Hebrew MS. of the Old Testament dating from earlier than the ninth century A.D. was in the hands of scholars. Now the silence has been broken; and, albeit at the most unpropitious moment possible and while civil strife was desolating and desecrating Palestine, a number of pre-Christian manuscripts, including the whole text of Isaias, have suddenly been dragged into the fight of day from the obscurity of their hiding-place in the cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea. The fact that the scrolls now discovered appear to be at least a thousand years older than any Hebrew writings hitherto known to us gives some inkling of the phenomenal character of the discovery which is described by Professor Albright, of the Johns Hopkins University, as " the greatest manuscript find of modern times." It was announced to the world on April 11, 1949, by Dr. Millar Burrows, Director of the American School of Oriental Research at Jerusalem; and the facts that emerge from his statement, from the reports and articles in the Bulletin of the American School and from a few other sources may be summarised as follows: The Discovery On February 19, 1948, Fr. Butros Sowry, a monk of the Syrian Orthodox Conveusalem, who was accompanied by his brother, a Customs official, called by appointment on Dr. Trever, of the American School of Oriental Research, the Director (Dr. Burrows) being absent in Iraq. With them, in a small suitcase, they brought five scrolls, regarding the nature and origin of which they desired to obtain expert advice. Three of these scrolls were in parchment and two in leather: the largest, which was of coarse yellow parchment and which measured nearly eight metres in length being the best preserved. With the permission of his visitors. who could only make a short stay and would not be parted from their scrolls, Dr. Trevor copied several lines by hand from the largest manuscript and after the Syrians had gone he was able, with the aid of his Hebrew dictionaries, to identify it word for word with the first verse of Isaias lxv. What took his breath away. however, was the shock of realising that the text, if genuine, was of an earlier date than the Nash papyrus, was in fact the oldest Hebrew document extant. Whilst Dr. Trever had been copying out the passage in question, Fr. Butros Sowry, who had hitherto been evasive about the manner in which the documents had come into the possession of his community, recounted to his host the story of the find. It seemed that a Bedouin, a memberof the Tamireh tribe, which inhabits a somewhat restricted area


to the nor-west of the Dead Sea, had in the previous summer (1947) been making his way, painfully enough no doubt, up one of the steep rocky paths whereby one climbs the 3,000 feet ascent from the Jordan to Jerusalem. As he trudged, probably in the wake of a donkey carrying merchandise, up one of the rock-strewn wadis. he came upon a cave, the mouth of which was all blocked with debris, part of the roof having fallen in. A narrow aperture remained, and, having scrambled through this, the Bedouin found himself inside the cavern where—as his eyes got used to the darkness he could see, scattered here and there on the soil or protruding from the debris, earthenware jars sealed with black wax, but now for the mostpart smashed so that the contents were clearly visible—not gold and jewels, as in an Arabian Nights tale, hut ancient scrolls wrapped up in coverings of worm-eaten and tattered cloth. The Bedouin collected the scrolls—a total of eleven in all --and having chosen from amongst the broken jars some which were in relatively good condition, he emerged from the cave and, little dreaming of the priceless value of his new acquisitions, one of which at least was worth its weight in diamonds, he loaded them on his donkey and proceeded on his way. Exactly what steps he took, on arrival at Bethlehem, to obtain a market for his wares is not quite clear. According to Fr. Butros, he went first to a Moslem Sheikh who, taking the script to be Syriac, ad, wised him to apply to the Syrian Orthodox monks. The monks on being approached called their Metropolitan (Athanasius Yoshue Samuel) front Jerusalem, and he eventually bought the documents—or at least the five of them of which we have heard; but not (it appears) until after one of his monks had—in August, 1947—visited the scene of the discovery and seen with his own eyes pieces of cloth scattered about the cave. together with fragments of manuscripts, broken nieces of jars in ancient graves nearby, Opportunity Missed It subsequently transpired that Dr. Sukenik. of the Hebrew University, was told in January, 1948, by a Moslem dealer of antiquities at Bethlehem of the existence of the eleven scrolls discovered by the Bedouin. Dr. Sukenik appears to have actually had all the documents in his hands at one time and, if conditions had been normal and he had been in a position to check the genuineness of the discovery by a visit to the cave. a deal would probably have been concluded at that time between the Syrian Convent and the Hebrew University. In that case. all eleven manuscripts would have passed into the possession of the University. As things were, Dr. Sukenik hesitated to buy and thereby lost a precious opportunity, for though he did eventually purchase six of the eleven documents, the Syrians, who in the meantime had presumably become aware of their value, refused to part with the other five. We now return to Dr. Trever, who, full of excitement at his great discovery, was burning with the desire to examine more closely the five documents which Fr. Butros had taken home with him. On February 20, therefore, making light of the risks which at that time were inseparable from any visit to the Old City, he succeeded in obtaining an Arab pass and sought out the Syrian monks at their convent. He was there introduced by Fr. Butros to the Metropolitan, Athanasius Yoshue Samuel. and the three men proceeded to look carefully through the Isaias manuscript, with the result that Dr. Trever's last misgivings vanished: he had before his eyes a complete and, as it would seem, an unquestionably genuine text of Isaias, consisting of fiftyfour columns of script and ending. like the Massoritic text. at chapter lxvi, 24. The calligraphy indicated a date in the Maccabean period, probably previous to that of the Nash papyrus, and the book was sub-divided, not into chapters and verses, but into paragraphs and sections On February 21 the Metropolitan and Fr, Butros brought the five scrolls to the American school to be photographed—a task which, in spite of many difficulties resulting from wartime conditions—was successfully accomplished. Two of the scrolls, after being unrolled and examined by Dr. Trever and his colleague, Dr. Brownlee, fitted perfectly together to make a complete scroll of eleven columns. This turned out to be a manual of a comparatively obscure sect or monastic order possibly identical with the Essenes, who are known to have inhabited the desert of Jude, and is generally called the " sectarian document." Of the two remaining scrolls, one is a " Midrash " or commentary on the Book of Habacuc, whilst the other which, from external indications, would appear to be in Aramaic. has not yet been identified. It is a tightlyrolled scroll, very brittle, of which the unravelment would, in the eyes of the Syrian monks, have entailed undue risk; it therefore had to be left and photographed as it was. The script of all the manuscripts appeared to be of the same period (i.e., contemporary with, or prior to, that of the Machabees) though the different size and shape of the lettering was noticeable.

Deteriorating Condit ions Dr. Burrows returned to Jerusalem on February 28 and was apprised by his colleagues of the discovery. Meanwhile conditions in Palestine were growing steadily worse as the hour for the conclusion of the British Mandate approached, and the members of the American school had to make arrangements for their early departure from Palestine. In March. 1948, Fr. Butros Sowry left Jerusalem with the five MSS and deposited them in a place of safety in one of the neighbouring countries where, so far as is known, they still are. With the co-operation of Arab friends. an attempt was made to arrange a visit by the members of the American school to the scene of the discovery. but in view of the steadily deteriorating conditions this project had to he abandoned. Instead, they were obliged to turn their attention to packing and passports, and by April 4 they had all left for the United States. Poor Fr. Butros was less fortunate, for having returned to Jerusalem after the successful accomplishment of his mission, he was killed during the heavy fighting in the Old City when St. Mark's Convent was badly damaged. We have seen that five of the scrolls in question (containing four MSS.) now belong to the Syrian Orthodox community and six to the Hebrew University. These six scrolls turned out to contain four documents only. three of them being in fast the separate sheets (which would in the normal course have been sewn together) of a single The e Scroll of Thanksgiving Songs." A second scroll contains a document concerning " The War of the Children of Light with the Children of Darkness "; whilst the two other scrolls had not yet been unrolled at the time of Professor Sukenik's last report. It seems clear that the two documents already unrolled were produced at about the same time and perhaps by the same band as the ..sectarian document," and it is probable that, when it has been possible to study the latter more thoroughly, its contents may throw light on the purpose and character of the scroll about the Children of Light and Darkness. For the moment it is difficult to assess the literary genre of the latter document but, although it may be apocryphal there seems to be a distinct possibility that, on the contrary, it is a highly practical guide or " protocol," containing precise directions as to what rubrics are to be recited and what trumpet notes sounded by the priests of the Lord during a battle. The ceremonial for celebrating a victory on the field of battle is very beautiful and we are told how, " having washed themselves and their garments clean of blood, the victors are to assemble at their original rallying point and are to cry out " Blessed be the Lord God of Israel who is loyal ;o His Covenant and gives testimony of salvation to the people redeemed by him." Should the above hypothesis be correct, the Thanksgiving Scroll is probably in the nature of an appendix to the other; and the canticles which it contains and which bear a family resemblance to the Psalms of David, are doubtless intended to be sung by the survivors of victorious battles fought against the enemies of the Lord's Covenant. An archwological survey of the site may also provide useful information. particularly if it be true that (as has been stated). there are many tombs in the neighbourhood Hidden in the Reign of Antiochus Epiphanes ? There would seem to be no doubt the e intention of those who scaled the documents in jars and buried them in the masonry of the cave was concealment, whilst the precautions taken to guard the documents against the ravages of time, climate and human curiosity suggest that the scrolls were hidden at a moment of great tribulation for the Jewish people and when no end to their troubles was in sight. Such a period might well have been the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, the tyrant who desecrated the Temple and banned the practice of Judaism. When the Jewish resistance began to weaken, it would have been perfectly natural for priests or rabbis to secrete in this manner, and in an outof-the-way spot, some of the religious and literary treasures of their nation; but the fact that the Book of Isaias and the commentary on Hahacuc were found together with the " sectarian document " and the two scrolls of which we have been speaking makes it more probable that the documents were all the property of the Essenes or some other sect who lived in thisregion. Assuming that. as seems practically certain. the documents are genuine, what consequences may we expect to result from this discovery? In view of the relative antiquity of the scrolls some scholars may be inclined at first to think that they can draw from their existence an argument for the unity and authenticity of the whole book of Isaias. This would, however, be going too far. After all, even if the documents date from the second century before Christ, we are still six centuries from Isaias. It is true, none the less, that the general effect of the discovery will he one of great encouragement for Catholics and conservative Protestant scholars; and those critics who have been accustomed to date some of the closing chapters of Isaias as late as the second century will have to confess to being utterly mistaken. The discovery will certainly have far-reaching effects in the domain of textual criticism and Hebrew philology. Perhaps the most


significant point about e Isaias MS. is the extent to which it agrees with the traditional Hebrew text, for in spite of certain differences in orthography and grammar, it contains no major omissions or additions at all comparable with those in the Septuagint. The other (non-Biblical) texts dealing with Jewish wars and religious sects will open new horizons in Jewish history and religious life during the last years of their independence and will provide much material for the better understanding both of the text of the Old Testament and of the historical events which took place during the period between the Testaments. The Life of Blessed Marie Goretti. Martyr for Purity (Clonmore Reynolds: wrapper, 3s. 6d.) is simply recounted by Fr. John Carr, C.SS.R. from the documents of her Beatification. Her heroic resistence to an aggressor who lived to repent and to know of her Beatification is indeed remarkable—and we are glad to note that Alessandro wants no visitors, idle talk, publicity or morbid curiosity. Pope Pius XII acclaimed the little saint as " a ripe fruit of the home where prayers are said, where children are brought up in the fear of God, in obedience to their parents, in the love of truth, in modesty and sinlessness."

The Long Walk by Betsey Barton (Gollancz, 10s. 6d.) is a novel built up of courage—not only in its theme (that of the rehabilitation of the partially paralysed) but also in its treatment The author (herself, since the age of 16, paralysed from the waist downwards) knows her subject in all its bitterest implications, and so is enabled to write without the sentimentality that so often cloys the presentation of suffering. She shows, not only the helplessness of body and despair of mind of patients in a big military hospital, but also the spiritual struggles of those helping them back to life.

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