Fragments for Sale: Dead Sea Scrolls

Årstein Justnes on selling scripture

Since 2002 more than 75 previously unknown Dead Sea Scroll fragments have surfaced on the antiquities market, and recent developments give us reasons to believe that there will soon come a new flood of fragments. In 2013 The Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation introduced a new Brill series on its website mainly devoted to publishing 80 new fragments that have “been sold or put up for sale” since 1998. However, between November 2016 and April 2017 the number of new fragments on the site almost doubled. It went up from 80 to 150.

The so-called post-2002 fragments are all non-provenanced, but they bear impressive stories, often crafted and told by scholars, and used as a means to authenticate them. In this piece, I recount some of these stories and discuss their hidden message. Let me, however, start with two snapshots from the time when our story was just about to begin, in 2002:

A Collector, an Editor, a Vault, and a Dealer – and Things Unheard of in a Swiss Hotel Room

If you have a Dead Sea Scroll for sale, you should get in touch with Martin Schøyen […] in Oslo. He is a prime prospect. He already owns several Dead Sea Scroll fragments—making him one of the few individuals in the world (I can think of only one other) who owns Dead Sea Scroll material. (Hershel Shanks, “Scrolls, Scripts and Stelae: A Norwegian Collector Shows BAR His Rare Inscriptions”)

Early in the autumn of 2002, a call went out from Hershel Shanks, the (then) powerful editor of Biblical Archaeology Review: “If you happen to have a Dead Sea Scroll there is a collector who is willing to buy.” Shanks even knew where prospective owners may want to search for scrolls: “Schøyen cannot dismiss the idea that there may yet be some scrolls locked away in a vault, increasing in value each passing day” (p. 34).

Only a month later, something unprecedented and unheard of occurred in a Swiss hotel room:

It was October 2002. Lee Biondi was in a Swiss hotel room when he received the most scintillating phone call of his life. The caller’s question was simple, but astounding: Was Biondi interested in buying fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls? At the time, Biondi was an antiquities dealer. He was in Basel, Switzerland, exhibiting items as part of Cultura, an antiquities and art fair. He could scarcely believe what he was hearing. Acquiring even one Scroll fragment would be a crowning career achievement.

“This is unheard of, unprecedented,” he said. “No American dealer had ever purchased a Dead Sea Scroll collection” (Robert Boyer, “Making Scrolls Accessible”)

In journalist Amanda Green’s version of this story some of the details are changed and others are elaborated. To the easily triggered envy of Indiana Jones, Biondi receives the phone call before he boards the plane to Switzerland, allegedly from a Scottish man:

It was the kind of phone call that would make Indiana Jones green with envy. “Are you interested in buying pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls?” said a man from Scotland. Rare books and manuscripts collector Lee Biondi tried to curb his enthusiasm. “But, of course, I was dying for them,” he said. Before long, Mr. Biondi was in a room in Switzerland poring over pieces from the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents (some in scroll form and some as deteriorated fragments) found in 11 caves in Qumran, Jordan, in 1949 that are the earliest known examples of the Hebrew Bible. After having the fragments authenticated. Mr. Biondi and a few other collectors of Biblical rarities bought the scroll fragments in October 2002.

These snapshots present some import catchwords characteristic for most of the stories about the post-2002 fragments: vault, Switzerland, authentication, market, and Dead Sea Scrolls. And since the first incidents in 2002, the stories and “traditions” about the origins of these new “Dead Sea Scrolls” fragments have continued to evolve and develop, not the least thanks to James H. Charlesworth, Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Weston W. Field, Executive Director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation.

Princeton Theological Seminary, 2009

In his publication of the sensational Deuteronomy 27:4–6 fragment (first announced in July 2008, and now in the holdings of the Azusa Pacific University), Charlesworth presents a quite suggestive, and yet allusive, background story:

The Arab who formerly owned the fragment belongs to the family through whom the Dead Sea Scrolls have come to scholars. He claims it is from Qumran Cave IV… The fragment of Deuteronomy was among at least forty unknown Qumran fragments that I have examined in Europe; some of them are with those who are now making them available to all. These fragments were sent out of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. They were selected by the Arabs for saving because of their importance, according to experts like Roland de Vaux. (Charlesworth, “What Is a Variant? Announcing a Dead Sea Scrolls Fragment of Deuteronomy”)

Although Charlesworth’s language is extraordinarily vague, his periphrasis manages to answer the question of ownership and provenance with great precision, at least for prospective buyers, collectors, and scholars. The first paragraph implicitly links the fragment to the Kando family, heir of legendary Khalil “Kando” Iskander Shahin who traded the original Dead Sea Scrolls, and to Cave 4 at Qumran, where most of the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments were found. The second paragraph then communicates that there were, in addition, “forty unknown fragments” sent out of Israel before 1978 (meaning that the fragments were not taken out of Israel illegally, as they left before the passage of the Israeli Antiquities Law, 5738, of 1978). The last sentence then links the fragments to the first team of researchers who were able to study the previously known Dead Sea Scrolls by suggesting that the “new” fragments were originally among the lot of authentic scrolls. Charlesworth goes even further, claiming that the new fragments exceed the previously known Dead Sea Scrolls in importance: “They were selected by the Arabs for saving because of their importance according to experts like Roland de Vaux.”

A few years later Charlesworth published a more elaborate, but still vague version of this story:

This popular publication announces the recovery of a Dead Sea Scroll. Along with approximately 40 other Dead Sea Scroll fragments, some relatively large, it was taken from the Holy Land to Europe by Arabs, notably those related to the man who served as mediator between the Bedouin who found the Dead Sea Scrolls and scholars who proved their antiquity and edited the early discoveries. The fragments were taken to Europe, often through Lebanon, in the sixties (whether before or after the so-called Six-Day War I am unable to ascertain).

… Most of them [the Dead Sea Scrolls] were sold and subsequently hailed as the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times; others (unknown to most specialists on the Dead Sea Scrolls) were hidden and taken to Europe before or after some of the wars between the Arabs and the Israelis. Why? These fragments had been judged in the 1950s and 1960s as the most valuable biblical texts, according to internationally renowned biblical scholars who lived in Jerusalem. The Arabs wanted to preserve the Dead Sea Scrolls for economically challenging times and sell them for millions of dollars.

This version adds at least three more details: First, there is the motif of recovery, the understanding that manuscripts need to be saved from the hands of dealers. This notion is used by antiquities dealers and collectors, sometimes even by scholars, and is an effective method of legitimating illicit trade of antiquities. Second, Charlesworth frames parts of his narrative as inside information by presenting essential elements as “unknown to most specialists.” Third, the new fragments are presented as the crème de la crème of Dead Sea Scrolls, reserved for economically challenging times. The two last elements serve to explain why the fragments have only surfaced recently.

Lanier Theological Library, April 2011

On April 16, 2011, Fields, author of The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History, held a popular lecture at the Lanier Theological Library. (The lecture is now accessible on YouTube.) Although Fields’s lecture was pitched as dealing with the Dead Sea Scrolls generally, he nevertheless placed the new post-2002 fragments center stage:

[1:08–3:22]  …tonight, as we sit here, about four hours away driving, in Dallas, Forth Worth, there are eight fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls locked in a safe at the South Western Theological Seminary. In Oklahoma City tonight, there are another eight fragments locked in a safe, at the headquarters of Hobby Lobby…. Fifty miles north of Norway on a deserted, very deserted farm, desolate I should say maybe, there are another thirty fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls locked in a safe. On the campus of Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, there are five more fragments locked in the rare book room of the library. And in Zurich, Switzerland, in a bank vault there are an unknown number of Dead Sea Scroll fragments locked in a safe.

Now you have to ask, how has all this happened? I just mentioned more than fifty fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls that were unknown less than a decade ago, and many of them unknown two years ago, and still a group in Zürich in a vault, and we don’t know how many are there. I’ve seen photographs of a lot of them, … I sat with William Kando just a week ago, Tuesday in Jerusalem, and he described to me some of the fragments that he still has in a vault. But the question is, and here is what I’d like you to join me in thinking about tonight: How did that happen? … And we won’t know, for who knows, maybe years, how many more fragments are going to come out.

Fields provides an overview of the situation back in 2011. He lists 51 fragments – ten more than Charlesworth – and mentions “a vault” in Zurich with an unknown number of scrolls fragments. His project this night at Lanier’s place is to weave the new fragments into the official story about the (authentic) Dead Sea Scrolls:

[4:58–5:31]  … I wanna try to help you understand how it is that among the fragments that are in this vault in Zurich, Switzerland, there is a piece of Genesis that’s about like this [gesture with his hands]. It’s three columns, twenty-two lines to the column, it’s Genesis 37, and the new, lowered sale price, lowered from fifty million to forty-two million, is all you need to spend to get that. I’m serious.

[26:38–27:20] How is it that so many fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown up on the market in the last eight years? It all started in 2002. As a matter of fact, I know exactly the date that it all started, because out of the blue, about six weeks ago, somebody sent me scans … of all kinds of faxes from 2002/2003 that went between the Kando family and antiquities dealers in California.

There are reasons to believe that one of the dealers Fields refers to is Lee Biondi, whom I have mentioned previously. Be this as it may, at this point in the lecture there is a sudden shift, and Fields starts to act almost as an auctioneer for William Kando:

[28:26–29:06] If you want William Kando’s telephone number I’ll be glad to give it to you; if you want his cell, his home, or his office, I’ve got it. And if you’re in a market for Dead Sea Scrolls I guarantee you, you can call him up tonight … and you can offer him, say a million dollars for whatever he might have for a million dollars, and you can make a purchase of Dead Sea Scrolls tonight, if you want. That’s how immediate it is.

[31:04–31:25] [William Kando and his son Khalil Kando] are the ones who are selling all the Dead Sea Scrolls in the world, they’ve been responsible for any Dead Sea Scrolls fragment that is legitimate that has been sold in the last ten years, or actually, in the last fifty or sixty years the family has been responsible.   

Towards the end, Fields recounts the famous story of professor Frank Moore Cross’ legendary meeting with Old Kando, but with a new twist:

[48:56–51:51] In March of 1966 he [Frank Cross] got on a plane, went to Beirut. He had an appointment with the elder Kando to meet him, at night, after dark, under a bridge in Beirut, and he was gonna look at the Temple Scroll to see if he could buy it, ok? All sounds very mysterious… So, he came in, found the bridge, was dark, found Mr. Kando in his car, knocked on the window, he opened it, and he didn’t have the Temple scroll with him. But he did have a large box of fragments. Ok? Now, Frank Cross looks through those and, a few years ago he said to me, “you know, when I looked through that box of fragments I saw things that I never saw again,” which means they never came again into the museum. They weren’t part of any future sale at least that Frank Cross had seen. So, a few months ago, when one of the fragments that the South Western Baptist Theological Seminary bought was a Psalms fragment, I got to thinking that maybe that was the Psalms fragment Frank Cross mentioned to me that he had seen under the bridge that night, and it never showed up again.

So, last Tuesday when I was in Jerusalem I said to William, well, and I told him this story again just to remind him. And I said: “William, is it possible that the fragment that South Western Seminary just bought was in that box that your dad showed to Frank Cross in March of 1966 under that bridge in Beirut?” and he said, “yes, it’s possible.” So, that gives you a clue, sorta to the root of a lot of these fragments. Probably from Beirut, to Cyprus, to Zurich, probably in 1966, just before the Six-Day War, and we don’t have any idea how many there are.

So, talk to your friends, we need to buy these, I’m talking to some of my friends, but that’s the situation we have now. And we know how it came about that that big piece of Genesis is still there, we know how it happened and we also know that it’ll take 42 million dollars to buy it.

Last summer two articles were published in the journal Dead Sea Discoveries arguing that several of the post-2002 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments most likely are modern forgeries. In fact,  during the last two years we have seen a growing consensus among Dead Sea Scrolls scholars that the majority of the these fragments most likely are modern fakes. All this puts the stories we have reviewed above in a strange light – as does the anecdote about Schøyen’s last meeting with the elder Kando, published in the 2016 book Gleanings from the Caves:

On visiting Kando’s shop in Jerusalem in March 1993, I found Kando … sitting on a chair in the middle of the room facing the window, wearing his red Turkish fez, as he used to do…. When I asked whether there was any chance of acquiring Dead Sea Scroll fragments from him or anyone else, his answer was short and gruff: “Those days are gone!” That was his final word on the matter; he passed away a month later at the age of 83 (Gleanings from the Caves, 27).

In 1993 the elder Kando had no scrolls or fragments for sale, and seemingly no vault in Switzerland. Now, twenty five years later, Dead Sea Scrolls scholars are faced not only with 150 new fragments and new or rewritten legends about Kando, but also with a situation where prominentent Dead Sea Scrolls actors Charlesworth and Fields are promoting each of their Dead Sea Scroll series partly devoted to the publication of these very fragments, namely “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Texts with English Translations” (Mohr Siebeck) and “Dead Sea Scrolls Editions” (Brill). The fact that a substantial part of the post-2002 fragments now are established as fakes should encourage us to read stories like the ones I have reviewed anew. Somewhat paradoxically, the truth about the fake post-2002 fragments may in fact lie hidden in the stories told in order to authenticate and to create a lucrative market for them.

Årstein Justnes is a professor in the Department of Religion, Philosophy, and History at the University of Agder, Norway.