July 22, 2009

Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition gives

long-awaited nod to Canada’s contribution, says scholar

Hamilton, ON. July 22, 2009 –A leading scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls says the hugely popular exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is helping to foster an appreciation of Canada’s role in the saga of one of the greatest archeological finds in modern times. 

Eileen Schuller, professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University, has researched Canada’s involvement and says that from the moment the Scrolls were discovered Canadians have provided money and expertise toward the acquisition and eventual publication of the Scrolls, earning Canada an international reputation in Scrolls study.

Schuller herself has, since 1980, worked on and catalogued a series of thanksgiving prayers and psalmic texts from Cave 4 as well as published the reconstruction of the Hodayot scroll from Cave 1. An author of numerous academic papers on the Scrolls, Schuller is part of the ROM’s lecture series being held in conjunction with the exhibit. She has written extensively on women in the Scrolls and published a more popular series of lectures, The Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned (2002). Her colleague at McMaster University, Daniel Machiela is publishing a new edition of the Genesis Apocryphon this Fall. Their research has made McMaster a centre for Scrolls study.

“The wonderful public response to this exhibit,” says Schuller, “shows that it speaks to many people—Christians, Jews, Muslims—and even to those who don’t have any religious affiliation but are nonetheless interested in the historical context of these documents and in the intersection of mutual influences between religious groups.” 

One Canada-Scrolls connection that Schuller found concerns scholar Harry Orlinsky, a native of Owen Sound, Ont., who was living in New York. “In the summer of 1954,” says Schuller, “four Dead Sea Scrolls were advertised for sale in the Wall Street Journal and were being purchased by Yigael Yadin on behalf of Israel. Orlinsky was just leaving for a holiday in Toronto—literally he had come back into the house one last time to get a suitcase—when his phone rang. He was given an alias and immediately taken to a bank vault to verify—and subsequently confirm—the authenticity of the Scrolls.”

In addition to Orlinsky, Schuller cites such early-years scholars as R.B.Y. Scott (McGill University), Fred Winnett and John Revell (University of Toronto), Douglas Tushingham (ROM), as well as numerous researchers and doctoral students currently active in Scrolls work across Canada. In 1995, Trinity Western University established the Canadian Institute for the Dead Sea Scrolls, under the direction of Peter Flint, the Canada Research Chair.

Schuller’s research uncovers the fact that in the early 1950s jewelry retailer Henry Birks and his wife Isabel put up nearly $20,000 to contribute to the Kingdom of Jordan’s urgent request for help in purchasing the thousands of fragments being found by the Bedouin in the desert caves near Qumran, Israel. The original intent was that the scrolls would be studied in Jerusalem and then come to McGill University, but in 1961 Jordan decided not let the scrolls leave the country.

However, a piece of the Scrolls did eventually end up in Canada, confirms Schuller.


“When R.B.Y. Scott was in Jerusalem in 1955, he bought from the Bedouin a matchbox containing 17 fragments and some coins, for which he paid 17 dinars [the equivalent of $26 Canadian in today’s dollars]. When he dutifully handed his purchase over to Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, they gave back to him the coins—they were of no special value—and a small piece of papyrus that seemed to be blank. In 1978, when Scott donated his books and archaeological collection to McGill University, this piece was examined more closely and found to be two layers, made up of five Scroll fragments, with some remains of letters.”


Now part of the collection of the Redpath Museum, they are on display for the first time in the ROM’s: Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World.


Schuller worked closely with two young scholars—Jason Kalman and Jacqueline du Toit—on a book to be published this Fall: Canada’s Big Biblical Bargain: How McGill University Bought the Dead Sea Scrolls.

For further information:

Jane Christmas

Manager, Public and Media Relations

McMaster University

905-525-9140, ext. 27988



Michelle Donovan

Public Relations Manager: Broadcast Media

McMaster University

905-525-9140 ext 22869