Decision to Buy Scrolls from Bedouin Reflects “Greatness”
Père Roland de Vaux, the brilliant French Dominican priest who was director of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem in the 1940s and codirector of the Qumran excavations in the 1950s, is often given the lion’s share of the credit for the early collection and study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In a recent review (to be published in Revue Biblique; excerpted below), of Weston Fields’s new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History (Brill, 2009), however, Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, also of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, celebrates the recognition of another, sometimes-forgotten champion of the scrolls.
In his new book, Weston Fields rightly restores to Gerald Lankester Harding the pivotal role in every aspect of early [Dead Sea Scroll] research that popular legend assigns to Roland de Vaux. The situation in Jerusalem was so chaotic that Harding, then Director of Antiquities of Jordan, learnt of the first scroll cave only through the April  issue of BASOR [Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research], which arrived in Jerusalem in November 1948 … After [the first scroll cave] had been inspected by Harding, it took him only two weeks to organize the official excavation of the cave. Realizing that he could not devote full time to the scrolls, because he had to fight the bureaucratic battles involved in setting up the fledgling Department of Antiquities in Amman, Harding invited de Vaux [of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française] to share the direction of the dig. In addition to this professional relationship, at that time de Vaux was president of the board of trustees of the PAM [Palestine Archaeological Museum], whose secretary was Harding.
Sometime in early 1950 these two came to a momentous decision. The PAM would pay for scrolls and for information as to where scrolls were to be found. It is easy to forget how extraordinary this decision was. Jordan owned all the antiquities found on its territory, and unauthorized excavation was illegal. Though trained as an archaeologist by Flinders Petrie, Harding had been a bureaucrat for most of his adult life. A rigid administrator should react with indignation at the idea that he should pay for what was his by right. The correct response was to arrest the offenders and to police the desert to ensure that it would not happen again. Harding, however, was very close to the bedouin, and realized that they could not be intimidated. They, after all, had discovered the scrolls and they were desperately poor. Moreover, law does not always serve the cause of justice. Such flexibility of mind is an attribute of greatness.
Once the decision had been made, the simplest procedure was put in place. Kando collected what fragments the bedouin brought to him and offered them to the PAM, which was represented by de Vaux, who could draw on it for funds. There was no bureaucratic machinery to wade through; no oversight committees to satisfy. Fragments brought immediate cash. Very quickly the price was fixed at one pound sterling (then equal 076to 1 Jordanian dinar = $2.82) per square centimeter. This was a clever device to prevent the bedouin from tearing fragments into smaller pieces to inflate prices. The policy was reinforced by baksheesh for unusually large fragments.
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By September 1952 the PAM/Department of Antiquities had exhausted its resources, and the Cave 4 fragments were just beginning to pour onto the market … One might have thought that it would be easy to raise funds for documents important to so many people throughout the world. Over many years the opposite has proved to be true. It is one of the leitmotifs of Fields’ book that the lack of funds caused Harding and de Vaux consistent anxiety and crippled the speed of publication. It is noteworthy that none of those who cried most loudly for access to the scrolls ever offered to put their hands in their pockets. In this connection Fields makes a startling revelation. “As I write this there are as many as 16 Hebrew biblical fragments and one fragment of Enoch languishing in a vault in Switzerland, 140 Greek fragments in Jerusalem, and a large fragment of Genesis elsewhere, for whose purchase I have not been able to get one penny despite four years of work, scores of letters and meetings, and hundreds of dollars’ worth of phone calls.” Fields estimates that between 1988 and 2005 alone, at least $4 million was spent on publishing the scrolls.
Père Roland de Vaux, the brilliant French Dominican priest who was director of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem in the 1940s and codirector of the Qumran excavations in the 1950s, is often given the lion’s share of the credit for the early collection and study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In a recent review (to be published in Revue Biblique; excerpted below), of Weston Fields’s new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History (Brill, 2009), however, Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, also of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, celebrates the recognition of another, sometimes-forgotten champion of the […]