How the Dead Sea Scrolls Work

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Israel
Archaeologist Yigael Yadin (left) and Israeli professor James Biberkraut study samples from the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1965. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Eleazar Sukenik's eldest son, Yigael Yadin, was an important figure in the Israeli Defense Force and eventually went on to win the Israel Prize in Jewish studies for his doctoral thesis on the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. When Sukenik consulted Yadin about traveling to Bethlehem, his son strongly advised against it. Later, when the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been established, Yadin admitted that it was a good thing his father ignored his advice.

Sukenik got his paperwork in order and made his way to Bethlehem. There, following local traditions, he mastered his impatience and made pleasant small talk with Feidi Salahi, the antiquities dealer. At last, Feidi brought out the scrolls and showed them to Sukenik. Although he couldn't yet decipher the text, the archaeologist was almost certain that he was looking at extremely ancient Hebrew writing, possibly the oldest yet found. He convinced Salahi to let him take the scrolls back to Jerusalem for a closer look.

Sukenik was at home poring over the ancient writing on the evening of Nov. 29, 1947 while his son was tuning the radio to catch a report on the results of a United Nations vote. It was after midnight and Sukenik was still bent over the scrolls, becoming more and more convinced that he was looking at something of incredible historic importance, when his son came racing into his room shouting that the United Nations Assembly had passed Resolution 181, effectively recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

The Palestinians who comprised the majority population in the region did not agree with the resolution and, in fact, its passage triggered a bitter civil war. But forever afterward, Sukenik would recall the remarkable coincidence that he was rediscovering written artefacts dating back to the destruction of Israel at the precise moment of its re-creation [source: Yadin].