Filming the Mystery of The Dead Sea Scrolls

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Filming the Mystery of The Dead Sea Scrolls


Filming the Mystery of The Dead Sea Scrolls

Sharon Schaveet, producer and expert on film production in Israel, talks about the Dead Sea Scrolls. “I have investigated the subject of the Dead Sea Scrolls for many films. This topic is intriguing and has infinite potential to be transferred onto film. The discovery of the scrolls has taught us much and yet we sense that there are many secrets still to be revealed.”

“During my thorough research for various productions, I interviewed many scholars and experts who passed on their thoughts and ideas about the scrolls. This article will focus on their different perspectives and give you some suggestions for filming.”

Many biblical dramas unfolded in the desert, making it a favorite setting for those filming on location in Israel. In the Judean wilderness, a stark, barren place, with deep wadis (ridges) and dramatic views, the inhabitants of ancient Jerusalem fled from advancing armies. They sought safety for themselves and their possessions, finding cover in the mountain caves.

According to the New Testament, John the Baptist lived here, surviving on a diet of wild honey and locusts. Jesus too reportedly found solitude in the silence of the Judean Mountains – drawing strength to deny the temptations of the devil.

Today the Judean desert draws those seeking something other than peace and solitude – archaeologists who excavate the hillside caves, searching for relics of the past. Half a century ago, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries was found here, buried beneath the sands of time. A treasure that is as much a mystery today, as when it was discovered sixty years ago, the Dead Sea Scrolls. These ancient relics offer an intriguing glimpse into the past and provide an interesting topic to film in Israel.

A Timeless Treasure Unearthed

Although commencing in biblical times, the story of these scrolls continues to unfold today. The most recent episode in this biblical blockbuster started with the humblest of beginnings. In the early hours of the dawn, one spring day in 1947, a Bedouin shepherd was watching over his grazing herd. Muhammad al Hamid – nicknamed the Wolf – spotted a crevice his sheep could easily fall into. Before blocking it up, he idly threw in a rock – and was stunned by the sound of a breaking pot.

Tearing away the rocks to enlarge the entrance, Muhammad dragged himself into the darkness. Eagerly scouring the floor for fabulous jewels or gold coins and still getting used to the dark, he found several pots, still intact. Muhammad noticed that there was something rolled up inside the pots. Removing the bundles, excited to find out what they held inside, he rushed outside – only to look down in disappointment at rolls of old and rotting leather.

Production Note: The discovery of the scrolls can be recreated using pot and scroll props.

Identifying the Texts

Cursing his luck and stuffing the bundles into his shirt, Muhammad continued on his way to Bethlehem. Encouraged by friends he met at the market, Muhammad told his tale to a local antique dealer, Khalil Eskandor Shahin – known as Kando. Kando was the first to suggest that the scrolls might be ancient parchments and perhaps worth something after all.

Kando sent Muhammad back to search the cave again while he himself went up to Jerusalem. Here at St. Mark’s Monastery, Kando sold the scrolls to the Bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Mar Athanasius Samuel.

Mar Samuel fervently hoped he’d purchased early Christian texts, but wherever he went he was met with skepticism and suspicion – even at Jerusalem’s prestigious Ecole Biblique, the French Biblical and Archaeological School.

Production Note: The Ecole Biblique Library is a great place to conduct interviews whilst filming in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Muhammad returned from the desert with more scrolls, which he later sold to a second Bethlehem dealer – for 7 Palestinian Pounds – to Hebrew University professor, Elazar Sukenik. Was shown a tiny piece of parchment across the barbed- wire of a divided Jerusalem; what he saw sent shivers down his spine. Sukenik immediately confirmed it as part of an original text from the time of the Second Temple, over 2,000 years ago. To buy them, he was told he must go to Bethlehem.

Production Note: Footage of Bethlehem at this time, obtained from our archives could be used here.

The Mystery Unravels

Although just a bus ride away, a journey to Bethlehem was unthinkable. After years of British rule, Palestine was about to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews. Snipers were attacking vehicles on the roads every day. Despite the obvious dangers and ignoring the warnings of his son Yigal – head of intelligence in Israel’s fledgling army – on November 29, 1947, Sukenik boarded an Arab bus disguised as a worker.

Safely completing the round-trip, Sukenik returned to Jerusalem with the scrolls wrapped in newspaper. On his way home that evening, riots broke out across the city.

Production Note: Old footage of the riots can be used here.

With the shooting audible outside, Sukenik opened the ancient manuscripts in his study and was transported into another world. He read the familiar words of the Prophet Isaiah and realized that he was handling the oldest copy of a Bible book ever seen – written when Rome ruled the ancient world 2000 years ago.

The second scroll Sukenik opened told a strange tale of a final apocalyptic war where the ‘Sons of Light’ shatter the power of the ‘Sons of Darkness’ forever.

Production Note: This ‘War Scroll’ is located in the Shrine of the Book a permit is required in order to film inside.

The third scroll contained a set of twenty-five thanksgiving hymns – like the Biblical psalms but in a language all their own.

The Experts Step In

As Sukenik wondered about the identity of the authors of these texts, on the other side of the city, Mar Samuel had finally found someone willing to verify the authenticity of his texts. Scholars at East Jerusalem’s American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) – photographed and published Mar Samuel’s scrolls – which were a copy of the book of Isaiah. He also had a second scroll that detailed the life and practices of a sect that calls itself the ‘Community’, in Hebrew the “yahad”.

Now certain of their antiquity, Mar Samuel promptly left for the United States with his scrolls. At ASOR, not at all sure of what they had stumbled upon, the scholars sent copies of their photographs to leading US scholar, William F. Albright at Johns Hopkins University. A pioneer of Middle-East archaeological study, Albright was among the first to pronounce the scrolls the work of a little-known Jewish sect, the Essenes.

Life During the Time of the Scrolls

First-century Palestine saw the Jews living under the domination of the mighty Roman Empire. Within the wider Jewish community there were four main groups.

  • The Sadducees were aristocrats, and Temple priests who demanded adherence to Jewish Law in religious observation but promoted political compromise with Rome. Adopting foreign ways, they were unpopular within general Jewish society.
  • The Pharisees were interpreters of both oral and written law, a popular movement of the time that lay the foundations for the rabbinic Judaism that lives on today.
  • The Zealots were extreme nationalists who sought to oust foreign power and their puppet rulers. They looked back two centuries to the revolt that drove the Greeks out of the Land of Israel and rededicated the Temple to the worship of the true Jewish God. These Zealots would soon spark a war with Rome that would leave Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed forever.
  • Finally there was a group called the Essenes.

The Essenes

The scroll containing the ‘Manual of Discipline’, now generally known as the ‘Community Rule’, gives a detailed description of the life of this mysterious sect. The community was pious and lived by strict rules, for example:

  • There was a three-year initiation period for anyone wishing to join their ascetic lifestyle of purity and devotion to G-d.
  • Members shared wealth and property
  • Members shared a ritual communal meal conducted by a priest
  • According to the ‘Hymns’ scroll they believed that they shared their homes with the angels of the host.

The obvious similarities to early Christians fired the world’s imagination and led to a flood of theories about the nature of the scrolls – perhaps here were the very origins of Christianity; perhaps even Jesus himself was an Essene.

Decades later the scrolls were still being studied amidst an air of controversy. Some felt the slow progress and continuing delay in publication was a conspiracy by the Vatican. They alleged that access to the material was being limited to only a few select Catholic scholars in an attempt to suppress any connection between the scrolls and Jesus. They claim the Vatican was keen to distance Christianity from the Essenes as it could undermine the uniqueness of Jesus. However, the connection between Jesus and the sect, as well as any conspiracy was always denied by conservative scroll scholars.

The Hunt Intensifies

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the world had pitifully few references to the ancient Essene sect. The longest – a five-page description by historian of antiquity Josephus Flavius – pictures a white-clothed, celibate, wealth-sharing brotherhood, dedicated to God’s Law, practicing healing and prophecy. Josephus even details the long process of acceptance into the ranks of the sect, details that mirror the words of the scroll itself.

“He shall admit into the Covenant of Grace all those who have freely devoted themselves to the observance of G-d’s precepts, that they may be joined to the counsel of G-d and may live perfectly before Him in accordance with all that has been revealed…”

Echoing through the passages of time, these words resonated in the ears of French Catholic priest, Father Roland De Vaux. A monk of the Dominican monastic order (and one of Palestine’s most respected archaeologists), De Vaux was a leading scholar at the Ecole Biblique – the same French School of Biblical Archaeology that had dismissed Mar Samuel’s scrolls as fakes only months before.

With the discovery of the scrolls, Father De Vaux and British archaeologist, G. Lankester Harding – head of Jordan’s Antiquities Department – hastily organized a team of archaeologists to investigate the Dead Sea caves. To their surprise, they found the usually deserted wilderness full of Bedouin treasure seekers – furiously digging up every cave they could find. De Vaux and Harding’s professional team lost no time in commencing their own excavations.

A digging frenzy developed, with a whole series of excavations taking place. Bedouins, chasing the thrill of the hunt and the lure of a reward, worked closely with experienced archaeologists. A healthy air of competition emerged between them. You’d have expected the archaeologists to have the strongest sense of where to look but the local knowledge and intuition led to the Bedouins making the majority of discoveries.

In one site alone, Cave 4, Bedouin treasure seekers unearthed about 15,000 fragments – the remains of at least 500 scrolls. Scroll hunting was fast becoming a big business for the Bedouins.

Whilst at the caves, De Vaux and Harding briefly visited Khirbet Qumran – an ancient ruin on a small plateau less than 100 meters from Cave 4. Long believed to be the remains of a Roman fort from the 3rd or 4th century AD, De Vaux and Harding dismissed the site as completely unconnected to the scrolls.

The flood of material from the caves continued to pour into the office of Jordan’s Antiquities Department, housed in East Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum. Carried in every conceivable container, many were brought in the cigarette packs of the period [including cigarette boxes].

At first, Harding paid for each fragment as a separate find, which tragically lead to some Bedouins breaking up many parchments to maximize their income. Eventually, Harding got wise to the trick and began paying a standard price per square inch of parchment.

Putting the Pieces Together

With the authorities at a loss as to what to do with all the material, De Vaux was asked to assemble a team of experts to reconstruct and publish the fragments.

The eight-man team of mainly Catholic scholars worked in a room at the Rockefeller Museum, which they named ‘The Scrollery’. Here the team began the mammoth task of reconstructing the scrolls. Slowly assembling the pieces together needed a scrupulous eye for detail. Gradually they witnessed the pages slowly beginning to take shape; the words so carefully recorded and stored for centuries were about to be revealed. The jigsaw puzzle was nearing completion and an air of excitement pervaded.

While this tight-knit group worked on the fragments in Jerusalem, scholars worldwide were excitedly studying the complete scrolls published by ASOR and Sukenik. Interest in the Essenes intensified and the words of the first-century Roman Geographer, Pliney the Elder were recalled;

“On the western shore of the Dead Sea are settled the Essenes. . .a lonely people, the most extraordinary in the world, living without women, without love and without money, having only palm trees for company.”

These few words were the only clue to the geographic location of the Essene community, and soon growing demand forced De Vaux to re-look at the ruins of Khirbet Qumaran

Returning to the desert, where he was to spend much of the next four years, De Vaux almost immediately found scroll jars identical to those found in the caves.

Khirbet Qumaran

It was soon clear that Qumran was no temporary Roman camp, but a well-established settlement, inhabited between the mid-second century BCE and 68 CE. It was set within a walled enclosure and had a large watchtower guarding the main entrance. The excavations unearthed over 30 buildings, some of which supported second-story wooden rooms.

Armed with the sect’s own words as a guide to the settlement, De Vaux set out to identify the use of the site’s structures.

Around a main block, there was a mill with a baking oven, pottery with two kilns, various workshops and storerooms. Outside the complex, there was a cemetery with over a thousand graves.

From the rubble of a collapsed second-story room in the heart of the complex, a 5-meter-long mud-brick and plaster object was pieced together. Despite the odd and unstable shape, De Vaux labeled it a table, the very one where the sectarians sat copying the scrolls. When excavations unearthed three inkwells De Vaux emphatically labeled the room, the Scriptorium – a name it still carries today.

On one side of the main block was the kitchen, on the other, a dining hall – with a pantry holding over 1,000 dishes, bowls, beakers and jugs in a small ante-chamber. It was here, De Vaux surmised, that the community held its ritual meals.

“When they shall gather for the common table… the Priest… shall bless the first fruits of bread and wine, and shall be first to extend his hand over the bread. Thereafter the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread, and all the congregation of the Community shall utter a blessing”

As the largest room at Qumran, De Vaux was in no doubt that this dining room also doubled up as the assembly hall where members gathered annually to renew their oath to the Community of Everlasting Covenant.

Gathering evidence from the texts of the scrolls, the archaeology of the site and the historian’s descriptions of the sect, De Vaux’s ideas have become so entrenched in scroll studies that they have now known as the consensus view.

Still regarded by many scholars as the only logical association, De Vaux saw the scrolls as describing a monastic community living at Qumran in isolation from the turmoil of the times, far removed from the rise of Christianity. It was these monks of Qumran who composed, copied and finally deposited the scrolls in the nearby caves – and they were, beyond doubt, the peace-loving Essences named by the scholars of old.

But, despite its name, De Vaux’s consensus view was never universally accepted, having bitter critics both during his lifetime and after his death in 1971. One of his most vocal opponents over the last twenty years has been Professor Golb of the University of Chicago.

An Alternative View

Where De Vaux saw monks copying religious texts, Golb questioned how three inkwells could seriously be considered evidence of a community producing scrolls in literally hundreds of different handwriting styles. In his view, any group would have needed at least one scribe to manage its affairs and one scribe could easily have used three inkwells in one lifetime. He did not feel adequate tools had been discovered to link the site to the writing of the scrolls.

Another anomaly related to the writing table. De Vaux’s himself admitted that scribes did not actually begin writing at tables for another two hundred years – during this period they would have sat cross-legged, writing on material stretched between their knees.

It is also thought strange that in all the years of painstaking excavations, not one fragment of parchment was ever been uncovered, either in the so-called scriptorium or in the whole of Qumran settlement. Golb and others see these as just a few of the anomalies indicating that perhaps Father De Vaux built his interpretation upon assumptions and preconceptions.

Golb questioned why De Vaux and his followers had never explained what the Essenes were doing in an obviously fortified settlement immediately prior to the greatest revolt ever organized against the might of the Roman Empire.

It is Golb’s passionately held conclusion that the settlement of Qumran had nothing to do with the writing of the texts and that the scrolls were brought to the desert for safety – mainly from Jerusalem – a time when the war with Rome raged throughout the land.

Others believe that the sectarians themselves played a major part in that war with Rome – war that caused the final destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and saw the end of Jewish independence in Palestine for the next 2000 years.

Filming Inspiration

This remarkable story enthralls and excites from beginning to end. It can be filmed at a variety of locations in Israel; biblical sites, stunning desert views and atmospheric caves. It is also suited to dramatic reconstruction and expert interviews

Biblical Productions can organize your access to theologians, scholars and experts. We can also locate specific material from our archives to meet the needs of your production and, crucially, organize your access to filming sites in Israel. The caves of Qumaran, for example, cannot be accessed without the appropriate permit.

Already established as logistical and industry experts, we also provide specialist services to clients, including an ever-growing data bank filled with a range of experts and historical figures. We work with you to determine who would interview best – in terms of their connection to your story, as well as their presentation skills.

Filming in Israel

Biblical Productions is a leading company in the field of production services, based in Israel. We cover all areas of film and television production, including documentaries, feature films, commercials, music videos and promotional films. Biblical Productions guides you during your shoot in Israel – from the pre-production planning to the post-production wrap. We arrange professional crews, fixers, permits, HD equipment rental, interviews, location scouting and more.