Owning the Scrolls

How a Canadian University Purchased the Biggest Cache of Qumran Cave 4 Fragments Outside Jerusalem

Essay adapted from Canada's Big Biblical Bargain: How Mcgill University Bought the Dead Sea Scrolls (McGill-Queen's University Press May 2010).

By Jaqueline S. Du Toit
Professor in the Department of Afroasiatic Studies
Sign Language, and Language Practice
University of the Free State
Fellow of the McGill Centre for Research on Religion

Jason Kalman
Assistant Professor of Classical Hebrew Text and Interpretation
Hebrew Union College and University of the Free State
Fellow of the McGill Centre for Research on Religion
May 2010

Former McGill and Princeton Professor Robert Balgarnie Young Scott, died on the first of November 1987. His New York Times obituary mentioned that he had "helped recover fragments of the scrolls in 1951. They had found their way into the hands of private dealers in Bethlehem and Dr. Scott bought them on behalf of McGill."[1] This summary of a complicated history was almost entirely devoid of truth. It nevertheless hinted at the heroic actions of one Canadian scholar in the quest to preserve the unity of the invaluable Cave 4 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments for posterity.

The Director of Antiquities in Jordan, G. Lankester Harding, was first informed of the discovery of ancient manuscripts by Bedouin in a cave adjacent to the Dead Sea in November 1948. This resulted in a search for the source of the scrolls and the first of eleven caves was found by archaeologists in January 1949. Meanwhile, the Bedouin found more caves and more manuscripts including the most significant cache in 1952, and named it cave 4. By September 1952, these ancient fragments began appearing on the antiquities market and were swiftly acquired by the Palestine Archaeological Museum (PAM) in East Jerusalem. The museum's funds dwindled quickly as the fragments kept pouring in and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan stepped in to provide 15,000 Jordanian dinar (JD) for the purchase of more fragments. With no end in sight, Harding also approached international museums and libraries (the Library of Congress and the British Museum among others) to solicit funds. Yet, by August 1953 no new donors had emerged and the funds received from the government were nearly depleted and the flow of discovered fragments to be brought to the PAM, showed no sign of diminishing.

By 23 November 1953, the PAM's luck had changed. R.B.Y. Scott, then professor of Old Testament in the Faculty of Divinity at McGill University in Montreal, received a cable from Harding reading: "Government have agreed to scheme please send your contribution earliest possible."[2] The previous August Scott had attended the first conference of the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT) in Copenhagen. Scott later told how, Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, responsible for coordinating the editing of the cave 4 material made an impromptu plea to the conference attendees:

This announcement was to the effect that funds had run out before it had been possible to recover from the Bedouin by purchase all the manuscripts [from Cave 4] which they have found; and that, if any institution would provide the additional funds required, the right of export and possession would be guaranteed, on certain conditions. The conditions [were] that the material thus obtained would be kept in Palestine until it could be studied, compared and matched with the other finds, and published, -- in the interest of scientific control of the total discovery. This, said Père de Vaux, might take two or three years.[3]

Upon his return to Montreal, Scott wrote to McGill's principal, F. Cyril James, mentioning an amount of $12,000 to $15,000 (CDN) to purchase Cave 4 material (approximately $96,800 to $121,000 CDN today). Although the tone of Scott's letter was very enthusiastic, he unknowingly predicted the difficulties which lay ahead by mentioning his concern for the length of time before the fragments would reach Montreal. In his letter, Scott also stressed the rare opportunity for McGill to contribute to the benefit of international scholarship:

This seems to me a remarkable opportunity for McGill to obtain a collection of documents of the utmost value for Biblical research and for the history of Judaism … The documents, though fragmentary, are priceless. It is only the fact that the archaeological authorities can deal directly with the finders, and must do so urgently before the material gets into the hands of dealers, that makes it possible to obtain such precious material for such a sum. When one considers that a few years ago the British Museum paid the Soviet Government ₤100,000.  for the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus of the Greek Bible, the sum now needed seems small indeed. … With such a wealth of material available all at once, the exhaustion of funds calls for help from outside, and provides an opportunity which may not recur.[4]

Scott emphasized de Vaux and Harding as trustworthy and competent in negotiating a fair price and guaranteeing the authenticity of the finds. But Scott also conceded that there may be, "some delay in obtaining possession of the purchases." He countered this by responding that "the value of such an acquisition to McGill would be very great, both as study material and in terms of prestige. The possession of a collection of documents, even in fragmentary condition, from the epoch of the beginnings of normative Judaism and the rise of Christianity, would attract research scholars for many years, and put the name of McGill into many scholarly publications." The challenge for Scott was to secure the funds in the difficult post war years. And his correspondence shows how effectively he made use of the media to reach out to the general public and prospective donors in order to make this possible.[5]

In a 1 February 1954 letter to James, Scott explained: "I wrote a short popular article (copy enclosed) for the Saturday 'Design for Living' page in the STAR, and indirectly this opened the way … I went to see Mr. Henry Birks who is one of my fellow elders at Erskine Church … Mr. Birks was genuinely interested in the STAR article… and said he would approach two people whose names occurred to him. A few days later he phoned and said: 'I think I have $15,000 for you.' The prospective donor is Mrs. J. Henry Birks."[6] The Birks family would ultimately make $20,000 available for cave 4 purchases and related expenses.

The first purchase took place on 4 March and 8 April 1954. The early date emphasizes how heroic the decision was at a time of great uncertainty about the worth, age, extent, and nature of the finds. But the Scott Papers indicate that in January already Scott had confirmed to Harding that McGill would contribute to the cave 4 purchase. McGill's negotiations coincided with the crucial stages of the constitution of the cave 4 editorial committee. Harding, for example, issued an open invitation to McGill to appoint a scholar to the committee as early as October 1953 when only Cross and Milik had started their work in the scrollery in Jerusalem. The March 1954 purchase date also means that McGill bought its fragments sight unseen. Scott trusted de Vaux and Harding in the midst of Solomon Zeitlin and others' unrelenting campaign against the authenticity of the scrolls.[7] Only on 17 April, a week after the second payment, did Wilfred Cantwell Smith, director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, become the first university representative to see the fragments in Jerusalem when he met with Harding.

Smith reported: "Dr. Harding was very enthusiastic indeed about the whole matter...He stated quite flatly that McGill's collection would be…the finest in the world next to that of the Jordan Government which would remain in the Jerusalem Museum…."[8] McGill's consequent status as the owner of this collection is at most cursorily mentioned in later histories of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, along with Manchester University, the University of Heidelberg, the Vatican Library, and McCormick Theological Seminary. This represents an obvious discrepancy between the initial enthusiastic international response to the purchase and the subsequent anonymity of the events to follow and begs the questions: What happened or didn't happen between the time when cave 4 was dubbed "McGill's Cave" by the local media?; when the acquisition was called "Canada's Big Biblical Bargain"?; and the present time, when only a casual reference to McGill's role in preserving the cave 4 cache can be expected in the scholarly literature?[9]

In hindsight the answer to all these questions is partly explained by Scott's absence from McGill (he left for Princeton in August 1955) and partly by the advice offered to McGill by de Vaux on the management of negotiations with the Jordanian Government.

Scott himself saw McGill's collection for the first time in the summer of 1955. "I am beginning to hope," wrote Scott to de Vaux in March 1954, "that I may be able to come out to Jordan myself about a year from now, to work for two or three months under the experts who are examining all this material, and thus to be in a better position to continue co-operation with them after the material has come to McGill…"[10] It appears from de Vaux's response that Scott understood this as an acceptance of Harding's earlier offer to join the cave 4 editorial team: "We will naturally be very happy to welcome you to Jerusalem as part of the team preparing the edition of the manuscripts, but I doubt that a stay of two or three months will be sufficient for effective work: you'll have just the time to learn how we manipulate the fragments and to begin to assemble them and to read them. Guided by experience, we ask of our collaborators at least a year of work in Jerusalem."[11] Scott's visit was even further curtailed to a month as he moved to Princeton University in the fall of 1955. So it came about that McGill never appointed a representative to the exclusive editorial team.

Scott's correspondence makes it clear that he was keenly aware of the responsibilities of housing such an ancient collection in Montreal. For McGill, this meant a significant financial outlay that would need a local private donor, on the one hand, and, on the other, the encouragement of potential students and scholars interested in studying the "Birks Collection." Scott anticipated such needs by yet again availing himself of the media as a device by which a continuous awareness of McGill's connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls could be created in the public and scholarly mind. Although Scott consequently hoped to acquire scrolls material for Princeton, this did not stop his efforts to help McGill make an additional purchase after his departure. A second and quite substantial purchase of $4,200 (USD) was made on 29 December 1955, to bring the total to nearly $20,000 spent by McGill on nearly 500 fragments from cave 4.

Soon after, by late 1956, the fragile status quo in the management of the Scrolls changed. Harding was dismissed effective 30 September 1956. He later wrote to Scott from exile in Harissa (Lebanon) counselling him to wait things out; that any attempt to export the material would simply antagonize the Jordanians.[12] De Vaux agreed when he met with Scott at the 1956 IOSOT meeting in Strasbourg. But on 7 March 1957, Scott wrote to de Vaux, upon receipt of disquieting news via Professor H. H. Rowley in Manchester indicating that the Jordanians planned to retain the scroll fragments purchased by foreign institutions. De Vaux advised the lodging of a formal claim to the material with the Jordanian Government via the Canadian or American Embassy. His advice was explicitly followed. The James and Scott Papers preserve correspondence over the next year and a half with the American and Canadian diplomatic corps  and the Jordanian Government. Still believing that the Scrolls would reach Montreal imminently, Scott's correspondence for this time is rife with inquiries on proper conservation techniques, insurance, and shipping of ancient antiquities. By comparison, the James Papers reflect the frantic diplomatic tussle leading up to a formal letter by the Jordanian Government, dated 13 June 1961, informing McGill, along with the University of Manchester, Heidelberg University, the Vatican Library and McCormick Theological Institute, that the Scrolls would be kept in Jordan. The contributing institutions would be reimbursed, and financial assistance for the collection of the Scrolls in the Kingdom shall henceforth be accepted as free offer in exchange for such facilitation as the Government may grant to the giver for the study of the scrolls, their photography or their publication in general service to history and knowledge … The reason for this is that these scrolls constitute an indivisible part of the history of Jordan in particular and of the spiritual legacy of all mankind. This being the case, neither the antique treasure as a whole nor any part thereof shall be allowed to be lost through transfer of property rights to any party.[13]

Stanley Frost, Scott's successor at McGill, replied to this announcement by requesting a compromise: the Jordanian Government would retain full legal possession of the fragments but in exchange would allow the fragments to come on long-loan to McGill. Receiving no response to this suggestion, on 19 March 1962 Frost concluded: "I have not received any reply … and therefore I have no alternative but to request the return of the monies paid by this University."[14] Eventually, on 20 June 1962, Frost informed Scott of the final outcome: "I know that you will be disappointed to know that the fragments will not come to McGill but there does not now seem to be any possibility of obtaining them, and we can put the money to good use in other ways."[15]

One can only imagine the personal disappointment this was for Scott. But a note he received from Frost provides some insight. After final receipt of McGill's refund from the Jordanians in April 1963, Frost wrote to Scott: "Thank you very much indeed for all the care and trouble you have taken about this. We know in some ways it represents a personal disappointment that the fragments never came to McGill but the initiative you took … meant a very great deal for the Scrolls' project at that time…"[16]

This then is the story of McGill's purchase of Dead Sea Scrolls in a nutshell.[17] Two questions remain: Why did McGill rush to make the purchase in 1954 after major institutions bowed out?; and why did the Jordanian Government renege on the deal first proposed by its own representatives?

First, Scott's argument was in favor of the scholarly opportunities owning scroll material would create: "The possession of a collection of documents, even in fragmentary condition, from the epoch of the beginnings of normative Judaism and the rise of Christianity, would attract research scholars for many years, and put the name of McGill into many scholarly publications."[18] Also, given the financial challenges faced by the university following World War II, the publicity from the purchase would have been welcome, along with the resultant international exposure, as means of encouraging donations for McGill. Scott understood the purchase of the scrolls to help McGill in three ways. First, it could aid in the expansion of graduate studies and would help in securing the faculty's reputation and the study of religion as legitimate academic enterprise. Second, among the concerns raised by McGill's governors and staff at the time of the establishment of the Faculty of Divinity was the possibility that it would remain an essentially Christian confessional institution. The scrolls' purchase could create the opportunity for the faculty to reach out to non-Christian communities, particularly Montreal's well established Jewish community. Finally, Scott argued the purchase aided in the university's obligation to inspire discourse on religion in the public sphere. Scott understood that the public fascination with the scrolls could be used to attract students and the public to the study of religion. Given the important moral and ethical questions raised by the Second World War and especially the use of the atomic bomb, the discourse was considered essential.[19]

As for the Jordanian nationalization of the scrolls, at first blush it appears that the wave of Arab nationalism fomented by Gamal Nasser in Egypt beginning in the 1950's, which led to the dismissal of John Bagot Glubb as chief of the Arab legion and Harding as director of Antiquities, may have played a role in the Jordanian decision to retain the materials. But other less honorable motives were also in play.

The minutes of a PAM committee meeting from March 1957 hint at another important factor in favour of nationalization. The Lebanese ambassador approached the Jordanians with a request to supply fragments for short-term exhibit at the Beirut Museum beginning on 1 April 1957. The committee agreed to share the fragments at the request of the royal family. Considering the matter, they adopted three principles: that unstudied fragments could not leave the country under any circumstance; that short term loans of studied and preserved fragments were permitted; and that future policy would prevent exhibit of the material outside of Jordan because this undermined their value as tourist attractions and risked their damage during shipment.[20]

The earliest moves toward Jordanian nationalization of the fragments were reversed because the government could not afford reimbursement. By 1960, this situation appears to have changed. Earlier the Jordanians expressed concern about loaning the material for foreign display as it was an attraction that could increase tourism. They recognized the global public's willingness to pay to see the material, but it was only in1960 that they truly came to understand the financial potential inherent in unique ownership of the scrolls. A November 1960 article in the London Times records an announcement by the Jordanian director of Antiquities, Awni Dajani that the PAM had, "agreed in principle to exhibit the Scroll of 'Psalms' at the Washington National Gallery in exchange for £21,000, while another scroll would be shown at a Dutch Museum for £20,000. Others would be loaned to the British Museum for £25,000."[21] Thus it was realized that national treasures could fill the national coffers. Under such circumstances, how could they afford not to reimburse McGill and the other institutions?

Since the Six-Day War and the capture of the PAM, now the Rockefeller Museum, by Israel in 1967, "McGill's scrolls" have remained in Jerusalem but for infrequent global exhibits. Their preservation as a unit is due in large part to the quick actions of a few dedicated individuals at McGill who saved the integrity of the collection of the greatest manuscript discovery of the twentieth century for generations of scholars to come.


*This essay consists of adapted extracts from my book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

[1] "Rev. R.B.Y. Scott, 88, Old Testament Scholar," New York Times, 5 November 1987, 10(B).

[2] Harding to Scott, 23 November 1953, McGill University Archives, Montreal, RG34, Container: 0001, File 6: Dead Sea Scrolls.

[3] Scott to James, 28 September 1953, McGill University Archives, Montreal, RG34, Container: 0001, File 6: Dead Sea Scrolls.

[4] Ibid.

[5] On Scott's use of the media in his campaign to find a donor see J. Du Toit and J. Kalman, "Great Scott! The Dead Sea Scrolls, McGill University, and the Canadian Media" Dead Sea Discoveries 12:1 (2005) pp. 6-23.

[6] Scott to James, 1 February 1954, McGill University Archives, Montreal, RG34, Container: 0001, File 6: Dead Sea Scrolls.

[7] See, for example, "When Were the Hebrew Scrolls 'Discovered' – in 1947 or 1907?" Jewish Quarterly Review 40, no. 4 (April 1950): 373–8; "More Hebrew Scrolls." Jewish Quarterly Review 43, no. 4 (April 1953): 406–8; and "The Fiction of the Recent Discoveries near the Dead Sea." Jewish Quarterly Review 44, no. 2 (October 1953): 85–115.
– "The Antiquity of the Hebrew Scrolls and the Piltdown Hoax. A Parallel." Jewish Quarterly Review 45, no. 1 (July 1954): 1–29.

[8] Wilfred Smith, Memorandum, 20 May 1954, McGill University Archives, Montreal, RG2, Container: 0179, File 6243: Divinity: DSS & Birks Donation.

[9] Weston Field's worthwhile The Dead Sea Scrolls – A Full History: Volume One, 1947–1960 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2009), the most recent and most thorough account of the discovery, study, and preservation of the scrolls makes only a few passing references to McGill.

[10] Scott to Harding, 27 March 1954, McGill University Archives, RG34, Container: 0001, File 6: Dead Sea Scrolls.

[11] De Vaux to Scott, 23 April 1954, McGill University Archives, RG34, Container: 0001, File 6: Dead Sea Scrolls.

[12] Harding to Scott, 9 July 1956, R.B.Y. Scott Papers, 89.112c, file: 1–7, United Church of Canada Archives, Toronto, Ontario.

[13] Minister of Education to McGill University, 13 June 1961, McGill University Archives, Montreal, RG2, Container: 0274, File 8260: Divinity: Dead Sea Scrolls.

[14] Frost to Minister of Education, 19 March 1962, McGill University Archives, Montreal, RG34, Container: 0001, File 6: Dead Sea Scrolls.

[15] Frost to Scott, 20 June 1962, McGill University Archives, Montreal, RG34, Container: 0001, File 6: Dead Sea Scroll.

[16] Frost to Scott,  8 April 1963, McGill University Archives, Montreal, RG34, Container: 0001, File 6: Dead Sea Scrolls.

[17] For the full story see our Canada's Big Biblical Bargain: How McGill University Bought the Dead Sea Scrolls (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010).

[18] Scott to James, 28 September 1953, McGill University Archives, Montreal, RG34, Container: 0001, File 6: Dead Sea Scrolls.

[19] For Scott's understanding of the scrolls' significance and a survey of his scholarship on them see our forthcoming article "Robert Balgarnie Young Scott: Canada's First Dead Sea Scroll Scholar?," in Jean Duhaime, Peter Flint, and Kyung Baek, eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls at Sixty Years (SBL / EJ Brill).

[20] First Ordinary Meeting, 23 March 1957, Israel Antiquities Authority Archives, Jerusalem, Israel, Box 73, PAM 1117: Dead Sea Scrolls (cave no. 4), jacket 1.

[21] "Dead Sea Scrolls for London?" Times (London), 29 November 1960, 12.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.