IN THE SPRING of 1947, on the fringe of the hot, arid wasteland of the Judean wilderness, in what is now Israel, a Bedouin shepherd boy searching for a lost goat threw a stone into a cave and, instead of hearing the clink of rock against rock, heard a shattering sound.
In the cave, the Bedouin discovered seven decaying rolls of leather encased in elongated pottery jars. Realizing they might be valuable, the boy took the leather scrolls to a Bethlehem shoemaker who doubled as a antiquities dealer.
Although the scrolls found in the Qumran precinct of the Dead Sea region would later be declared one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century, nary a buyer could be found for these treasures.
After being rebuffed by several speculators in the open-air market, the shoemaker sold four of the scrolls to the Syrian archbishop in Jerusalem for today's equivalent of about $700. The archbishop's attempts to find a buyer were no more successful, and in 1954 he resorted to selling them through a classified ad in the Wall Street Journal.
Sound unbelievable? Maybe. But it's just one of the many twists of fate that have created the Dead Sea scrolls saga, a provocative epic that is interesting as much for what it says about the scrolls' discovery and handling as for what it reveals about the scrolls' contents.
Thanks to a break-up in the academic monopoly that controlled the scrolls for nearly 50 years, three authors have recently tackled the Dead Sea scrolls, hoping to illuminate both their handling and their contents.
The break-up of the scholarly cabal was accomplished in the early 1990s by the collective but unorganized efforts of frustrated scholars who had been denied access to the scrolls and wanted to work with them before they died.
Their efforts included programming a computer to take the jumbled contents of an official 1957 Dead Sea scroll concordance and assemble it in correct order.
Norman Golb covers the details of the academic battle in "Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?" This heavy, dense polemic excoriates various scroll theories and chastises their proponents.
The Indiana Jones version of the scrolls' handling can be found in Neil Asher Silberman's "The Hidden Scrolls," which is heavy on adventure and intrigue and light on scroll interpretation.
A thorough look at the scrolls' contents is covered in "Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls" by Lawrence Schiffman. He challenges conventional wisdom and claims the scrolls are significant for what they say about Judaism - not Christianity, as has been traditionally thought. …