Saturday, November 14, 2009

From the Dead Sea to McGill

Saga of the scrolls

, The [Montreal] Gazette November 14, 2009 10:20 AM

“In the early summer of 1947, where the hot sun beat down relentlessly on the grim and silent cliffs overlooking the northern end of the Dead Sea, the casual act of an Arab shepherd led to the finding of a treasure trove of manuscripts from the time of Christ and earlier.”

– R.B.Y. Scott, Treasure from Judean Caves: The Story of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1955

MONTREAL – It is nearly 9,000 kilometres from McGill University's Roddick Gates to the desert caves at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered from 1947 to 1956.

But the distance is not as great as it might seem, according to a forthcoming book chronicling McGill's role in one of the greatest archaeological sagas of all time.

In 1954, the university became the first institution outside the Middle East to buy a share of the biblical manuscripts. Its $20,000 purchase rescued the scrolls from being scattered on the market and represented the largest collection of the biblical treasures outside government hands.

But McGill's "Big Biblical Bargain," as the Toronto Star Weekly dubbed it, would never reach Montreal. In 1961, Jordan cancelled the sale and barred the priceless manuscripts - which had remained in Jerusalem for study - from leaving the country. McGill's footnote to the history of the scrolls was soon forgotten.

Jason Kalman and Jaqueline du Toit seek to remedy that in Canada's Big Biblical Bargain: How McGill University Bought the Dead Sea Scrolls, to be published next spring by McGill-Queens University Press.

The story also receives a mention in the popular exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls on until Jan. 3 at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

Read on for a short version of the whole story. Note also this 2005 Dead Sea Discoveries article by the same authors.