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An Ancient Bible That Has No Moses

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An Ancient Bible That Has No Moses

The weird tale of the Temple Scroll

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One-sheet promo poster for “The Ten Commandments” (1956)

In 1955, one of the most remarkable manuscript discoveries in history had been made, or would be shortly. One of the key figures in its emergence, the Reverend Dr. Joe H. Uhrig, knew only that he was going to the ‘Holy Land’, to learn more about the Bible.

Returning to America, he resumed his career in the exciting new field of ‘televangelism’. His T.V. program, Hand to Heaven, wasfilmed in a ‘little country church’ in Alexandria, Virginia. He’d built it as a studio set. The cemetery outside was fake.

A nice touch — on the tombstones, rather than names, there were selections from the ‘Ten Commandments’.

It was a perfect expression of Christianity of the time, as much as the movie of The Ten Commandments which came out in 1956. The rugged, handsome actor playing Moses, the prophet of God, receives “the Law.” However Hollywoodized, this was the Bible that people loved. A show.

But the idea of a ‘new’ divine revelation was in the air, to the media-saavy showman at least. By early 1960, the Rev. Uhrig’s T.V. church was “padlocked by angry creditors,” the newspaper notes, as word spread that he “had gone to Beirut, reportedly to search for Dead Sea scrolls.”

He’d come into contact with the famous Kando

The tiny Syrian man in Bethlehem had become a dealer of the scrolls being dug up from caves in the desert. The lost library of the ancient ‘Essenes’ was coming back into the world. And from a friend of a friend made on his 1955 trip, Uhrig had learned of a scroll that Kando was keeping secret.

This was no brown and crumbling scroll, withered by time, like most of the others. It was huge, nearly twenty-seven feet long when unrolled. The parchment was thinner, its color described as ivory white.

In later years, scientists would study the preservative of its unique salt coating. But when Uhrig saw the scroll in 1960, it must have seemed like a miracle.

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The Temple Scroll by David Harris. Courtesy of Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Uhrig couldn’t read the Hebrew text

His doctoral degree was from a diploma mill. The scroll’s contents were unknown. But he learned he could be of assistance in other ways. Kando didn’t exactly own the scroll. A found antiquity belonged to the state, which at the time was Jordan.

He could have handed it over for the usual payment, but Kando had a feeling that Israel might offer more? He couldn’t be caught making such a suggestion himself.

On terms of great secrecy, the Rev. Uhrig, on Kando’s behalf, approached Yigael Yadin, the archaeologist and Israeli military leader who had overseen the country’s involvement in the scrolls, and showed him a piece of the scroll.

Uhrig narrates later:

“I pulled it off. And I said, ‘I want to take this with me. This is the only way to prove to Yadin that this is genuine. He’s got to know what it is.’”

Uhrig had a clandestine meeting with Yadin, and named his price: $750,000. Bringing out the fragment, Uhrig recalled, Yadin’s “eyes popped”—but then the archaeologist handed it back?

“This is a deed to some property,” Yadin said, with little apparent interest. He would pay $130,000. That was all.

Only by comparing accounts later does the gamesmanship become clear. Yadin read the fragment to speak of the role of the High Priest of a Jewish temple—in a sacred text that was utterly unique.

He’d made a play to get it for less money.

Whatever benefit Uhrig saw for Israel, he also saw some for himself

He was to receive a commission from the sale. But then, maddeningly, Kando decided to wait for the price he’d really wanted: a million dollars.

“He had illusions that there would be some multimillionaire in the United States,” Uhrig later tells Biblical Archaeology Review. Disappointed, he returned to America to launch other schemes, eventually doing a stint in prison for mail fraud, before retiring to Florida.

Kando kept trying to sell the scroll. By early 1967, he’d engaged a Washington D.C. law firm to help with the matter, and they approached Frank Moore Cross, the scrolls scholar working out of Harvard, who’d be expected to know wealthy Christian contacts.

Cross agreed to discuss the matter, and followed the instructions he was given. He recalls his thoughts when standing on the remote street in Beirut where a meeting was to take place. “It was very dark. Garbage littered the walkways under the arches. One body more or less might not be noticed for days.”

A Mercedes appeared, and inside he sees Kando, and an interpreter, who says that he has “a great scroll to sell worth millions of dollars.” Cross was urged to come to Jerusalem to buy it, but never did.

Yadin hadn’t forgotten the matter

The following June, when the Six-Day War broke out, he sent soldiers to Kando’s home to force him to produce the secret scroll. Lifting a tile of his bedroom floor, Kando removed a shoe box. There it was, wrapped in cellophane.

The scene proved to be something of an international incident. The New York Times reported: “According to reliable sources, Kando was taken to Tel Aviv where he was kept under house arrest for five days.”

The fuss was, perhaps, a means for scholars involved with the scrolls to vent their anger. However anti-Semitic, they’d now have to deal with Israel to continue their work.

Cross, though, suspects Kando’s arrest had been for show. The dealer had to seem to be forced to give up the scroll to the Israelis, or run afoul of his Arab contacts. In reality, Kando had gotten the best deal he could get.

“When the story is revealed of how the scroll was acquired it will sound like one of the Thousand and One Nights,” Yadin says in an October 26, 1967 announcement of the scroll’s existence.

In a few updates, Yadin gives details from the scroll. It concerns a temple which was never built, he says. Just the dream of a sect whose defining idea was being, from exile, the true priests of the real, Jerusalem temple. Then that was destroyed, and no priests were needed any longer.

Toward the end of one news story, a curious detail:

“Yadin said that one of the surprising aspects of this newest scroll was its style, which is given as the word of God, and written mostly in the first person.”

An entire scroll of God speaking? In the Bible, there was nothing like it.

After a year of haggling, Kando was paid $105,000

And Yadin’s four-volume study of the ‘Temple Scroll’, as it was being called, came out in 1978.

This was, he writes, “a veritable Torah of the Lord.” God speaks, apparently from Mount Sinai, giving the instructions for the Israelites upon entering the Promised Land. They’re to build a temple, with procedures and purity laws—echoing language from the Bible.

But something was missing? Like Moses.

As Baruch A. Levine explains:

“The words of the Scroll are represented as God’s own words, and the role of Moses as the teacher of God’s word has been meticulously eliminated.”

A Bible rewritten — without Moses? And without any storytelling around the Exodus. No ten commandments. No walls of Jericho tumbling down. No giants or spies.

But this was a sacred text. It was a Bible. In 1984, shortly before his death, Yadin is out doing publicity for an English version of his book. He says:

“What was the Temple Scroll? It is nothing short of the second Torah, according to the Essenes.”

Perhaps Moses came to seem unnecessary to the plot. God could speak directly? As every hearer, then, becomes — the prophet.

With no worshippers left in that religion, the scroll was put on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where throngs came to see it.

A certain irony came in view, as Richard A. Freund notes in Digging Through History in2016:

“Even with no Temple and no priesthood, the Dead Sea Scrolls and their home at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem became the new Temple of the modern religion of Israel, and the curator became the equivalent of the modern high priest of this secularized society.”

Scholars kept studying the scroll

With several other unexpected finds from the caves, the Temple Scroll was grouped into a category they would call the ‘Rewritten Bible’.

A 2002 paper by Bernard M. Levinson and Molly M. Zahn suggests it was an effort to revise the Bible into a superior work.

“By removing the repetitions and logical inconsistencies that stem from the highly redacted nature of the canonical Pentateuch, by increasing the text’s coherence and consistency, the redactor presents a more perfect Torah — one more worthy of God.”

Little about the Temple Scroll is really known. Why was it treated with a different finish than the others scrolls? Where had it come from? Scholars assumed it was found in ‘Cave 11’, in 1956, though Kando’s son insisted it was from the very first cave, found a decade prior.

Kando himself never spoke of the history he’d lived. Frank Moore Cross notes:

“There were attempts to record his memoirs, but he always refused. Now he is dead, and we shall never know his story. If he had recounted his part in the history of the scrolls, I doubt if any of us would have been able to distinguish between what was true and what was false.”

One is left to reflect on the story of the Syrian smuggler in Bethlehem who’d lived for years with the unknown words of God under his bedroom floor, in a shoebox.

Kando kept the enormous jar in which, he said, the scroll was found. It remains on display in the family’s souvenir store in Bethlehem. Any tourist can pose beside a clay container which, for millennia, held the only copy of a different Bible.

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