Not long after the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed in a middle eastern cave in 1947, writer Edward L. Fiske pointed out the North Carolina connection.
One of the most exciting and dramatic Biblical discoveries ever to come to light was made recently in war-torn Palestine when four of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts thus far known and estimated to be over 2,000 years old were found in a cave near the northern end of the Dead Sea.
Sharing in the discovery and identification of these priceless scrolls was Dr. William H. Brownlee of the Department of Religion at Duke University, who has recently returned to the campus from the Holy Land, where he studied at the American School for Oriental Research in Jerusalem.
These well-preserved but brittle leather and parchment scrolls miraculously came to light under more dramatic circumstances than a Hollywood plot could conjure, complete with cloak and dagger, smugglers and war.
The story began last winter when Bedouins, who are engaged in smuggling goods between Transjordan and Palestine, hid out in a cave near the Dead Sea. Far back in the cave they discovered pottery jars containing scrolls wrapped carefully in linen and evidently untouched for over twenty centuries. After consulting some monks in Bethlehem, the Bedouins turned their find over to Syrian monks in Jerusalem ....
As the Jewish-Arab war spread and the situation became increasingly dangerous in Jerusalem, these monks decided to have their mysterious parchments studied and identified at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. At that time there were only two scholars present, Dr. John C. Trevor, ... and Dr. Brownlee of Duke University. All others were either en route to America or away on an expedition to Iraq.
The Americans who were startled by what they recognized to be one of the most important Biblical discoveries in history quickly obtained permission from the Syrian Monks to photograph all of the scrolls. These scrolls have now been put away for safe keeping by the Monks in a secret repository somewhere in the Near East.
Dr. Brownlee states that it is believed that the scrolls were left in the cave by a monastic group, probably living in the wilderness of Judea as refugees from persecution by the religious majority and priests in Jerusalem the first or second century before the birth of Christ.
The scrolls not only include the Book of Isaiah but the written views of this ancient order and a commentary on Habbakkuk which Dr. Bronwlee was first to translate and identify. These scrolls are particularly valuable, according to Dr. Bronwlee, because they have words with new meanings rarely used in the Bible.
"We will also learn more about pronunciation of ancient Hebrew as a result of the discovery," said Dr. Bronwlee. He points out that Hebrew originally had no vowels, but only written consonants. Since these scrolls have an unusually large number of vowels, there will be new keys to pronunciation.
This discovery then provides a new bridge across the gap between the old and new testaments and is especially important since it is the first and only discovery of ancient manuscripts made in Palestine. All other Biblical documents have been found in monasteries scattered around the world, with some doubt therefore as to their origins. Biblical scholars the world over are already hailing this find as a great contribution to our understanding of the Bible. -- The News & Observer 11/14/1948
Dr. Brownlee may have been impressed with the importance of the discovery, his university didn't necessarily share his vision and passed on the chance to buy a portion of what is now considered the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century, as reporter Yonat Shimron reported when the traveling exhibit came to Raleigh several years ago.
Three years later (in 1950), four scrolls traveled to Duke, where they were seen by 30,000 people during a one-week exhibit in the university's chapel. According to legend, one elderly man promptly fainted when told the Isaiah scroll he was looking at was written during the time of Jesus.
But though the public was enthusiastic, university officials were less so.
"No one in the U.S. was prescient enough to know what they were and how important they were, " said Eric Meyers, professor and director of the Judaic Studies Center at Duke. "It was a missed opportunity." -- The News & Observer 6/28/2008