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The Temple Scroll on Exhibition (2004)

The So-Called “Temple Scroll” is one of the most complete and yet mysterious of the scrolls found in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. The size and contents of the scroll make it unique, and the story of its discovery is intriguing. Like many of the Dead Scrolls, the Temple Scroll was found by Bedouins while systematically looting the caves in the Judean desert and around the Dead Sea. But it was not until 1960 that the retired priest, J. Uhrig offered the scroll for sale to Professor Y. Yadin, at that time a leading archaeologist of the Hebrew University. Uhrig stated that he represented the owner of the scroll who wished to sell it for one million US dollars. When Yadin demanded proof, Uhrig sent him a small fragment through the mail with a stamp fastened to it’s back as well as sticky tape(!). The fragment proved not only that such a scroll existed, but also that it was being kept in poor conditions.

Yadin realized that the sooner the scroll is purchased the better, but the sum the owner was demanding was far higher compared to the previous prices paid for the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1954 the State of Israel had paid US$250,000 for four scrolls.

After a series of letters, Yadin and Uhrig agreed on a price of US$130,000. But after the check was deposited in Uhrig’s account the owner raised the price, and demanded US$750,000 for the scroll. Uhrig sincerely apologized, but did not return the money, and disappeared. Yadin left the matter, and commenced work on his famous excavations in the Bar-Kokhba caves and at Masada.

The turning point came in June 1967. During the Six Day War, Yadin, who was also the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, arranged that an intelligence officer enquire from Kando, a famous antiquities dealer from Bethlehem, if he still had any ancient manuscripts in his possession. Yadin’s instincts were right, forKando gave the officer a shoe box containing most of the temple scroll. After further inquiry Kando also handed in more fragments of the scroll that he had kept in a cigar box.

Kando’s treatment of the scroll had caused a lot of damage. The upper part had absorbed moisture and was badly eroded. Opening the tightly rolled document was a tricky matter. Using experience gained from opening the previous Dead Sea Scrolls, the technique implemented included first raising the humidity and temperature in the room to soften the leather of the scroll. When soft, the scroll was unrolled, and then cooled and allowed to dry again.

The technique was successful. Yadin finally read the contents of the scroll, which proved to be the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 8.14 m long (!), and 24-26 cm high. The text was quite clear on most of the scroll. Certain parts were also recorded in previously found fragments, but only now, with the new and almost complete scroll, could archaeologists better understand its contents and meaning.


In general, the scroll contained instructions on how the temple in Jerusalem should look and function. It was divided into four chapters: the architecture of the temple; the order of the sacrifices; laws of purity; and a commentary of the book of Deuteronomy. Although no historical event was recorded in the text that would indicate its date, the style of the letters was typical of the 2nd Century BCE. At that time the temple in Jerusalem was standing and functioning, but not in the same manner documented in the scroll! This was puzzling – evidently the author was not describing the real temple, but the way HE wanted the temple to look and function!

But why? The answer lies in the general understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Almost all of the Dead Sea scrolls formed the library of a small ascetic Jewish sect known as the Essenes. They practiced Judaism in a unique and quite different way from the mainstream of Judaism. The Temple Scroll is therefore a major contribution to our understanding of the Essenes opposition to the way the Temple in Jerusalem functioned, and in that scroll they expressed the way they would have liked it to function.


The Scroll was fully published in 1977 by Yadin (principio edics), and since then has been revised by various scholars. The most important recent revision was the publication by E. Qimron in 1996, which corrected some of Yadin’s readings. Although Kando held the scroll in explicit contravention to both the Jordanian and Israeli laws regarding antiquities and caused more damage to it during the 11 years he kept it under his floor than the 2000 years it was in the cave, the state of Israelcompensated him with US$105,000. The court decision was made in the hope that other people, who might be holding more of the Dead Sea scrolls, would be motivated to hand them to the Israeli authorities.

The scroll was added to the collection of the Dead Sea scrolls exhibited in the Israel Museum, kept in the specially designed complex called “the Shrine of the Book”. This year the Shrine of the Book was closed for renovations, but the Israel Museum set up a special exhibition at the Museum’s upper entrance, dedicated to theTemple Scroll and related finds and issues. The exhibition displays various items that illuminate ancient local religious rites that are echoed in the temple scroll: cultic stands, altars, and plans of temples in Biblical times. What I found most interesting was the display of actual architectural fragments of the Herodian temple inJerusalem, dating to the first century CE.

These carved stone blocks once adorned the gates and buildings on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The stone is exhibited outdoors, exposed to winds and rain—as well as pigeon “remains”. Thinking about it, these pigeons could be descendants of the birds that were sold as sacrifices near this stone in antiquity. Is this poetic justice for the birds??..

Many people entering the temple saw these stones, including Jesus, when he made his own pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.

The only thing missing in this new attractive exhibition, is – well—the Temple Scroll itself (!!). Out of the 8.14m total length of the scroll, only a section of about 60 cmis presented. Why is only such a small fragment on display?? I could not get an answer. In general the policy of the Israel Museum has been to move the scrolls as little as possible. Each time a scroll is taken out of its ideal conditions inside a climate-controlled, monitored storeroom, it is exposed to potential erosion, even if the exhibition case is also properly fixed. Perhaps the policy is right, but an explanatory sign would have been more appropriate.