Batshit Stories: New Tales of Discovering Ancient Texts

Eva Mroczek on stories of discovery

In his short story Forevermore, Israeli writer S.Y. Agnon relates the story of a scholar, Adiel Amzeh. Amzeh has spent his whole life studying a destroyed city whose ancient chronicle, the Book of Gumlidata, has been forever lost—or so he thinks. He’s about to publish his life’s work: a reconstruction of the details of how the city’s walls were breached. But as he is about to go meet his publisher, he receives a visit from an old nurse, Adah Eden, looking for old books to take to the leper hospital. It comes out that the lost chronicle of Gumlidata has been at the leper hospital all along; when the city was destroyed, its count, who had the book, was sold into slavery, then left for dead, and taken in by the lepers.

At first, Amzeh thinks that the nurse is telling a tall tale. But in the end he follows Adah Eden to the leper hospital and finds the book. The volume is barely legible, decayed and moldy, and looks as if it was written on the skin of a leper—not with ink, but with pus. Amzeh must put on protective gloves just to touch the contaminated book. He stays there, working forevermore to decipher the book, joining “letter to letter and word to word.” But he will never send his work to the world outside the leper hospital—“the book never reached the hands of the living.” [See the analysis of Ilana Pardes in Agnon’s Moonstruck Lovers]

Why begin with a work of fiction in a forum on real discovery stories? One answer might be to highlight that there is always an element of fictionality, of story-telling, in how we recount the provenance of ancient sources. It is well known now that the story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, like that of the Nag Hammadi codices, circulated in several versions. Scholars are still not clear on exactly when these artifacts were found, and in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even the identity of the original discoverer—the shephered Muhammad ed-Dibh—is murky: according to Weston Fields, two different men in the 1990s claimed to be “the original ed-Dib.” And the story itself, in the form that has become “canonical,” contains motifs familiar from older narratives. These motifs, such as the animal that leads the way, might lend themselves to folkloristic analysis.

More deeply, I want to highlight that whether these stories are factual, fictional, or somewhere in between, it is sometimes their very telling, rather than the actual manuscript finds themselves, that capture our imagination. Find stories reveal our own patterns of thinking about how a long-lost past might come into view and what might stand in the way of its recovery.

Agnon’s story evokes familiar aspects of our scholarly mythologies. It critiques scholarly isolation: does the story invite scholars to ask if we’ve locked ourselves in a leper hospital, never to communicate with the outside? At the same time, Agnon’s tale doesn’t turn its back on the mystique of discovery—on the excitement of the possibility that there is a lost past out there waiting to be found. This lost past becomes, for the scholar, present—word by word and fragment by fragment. But Agnon’s story also narrates some of the key ways we imagine the memory of that past to be threatened: the text is contaminated and decomposing. It is kept among lepers, who, despite not understanding the value of the manuscript, are both the only way it can be found and the greatest obstacle to its survival.

Considering the metaphorical resonance of a fictional discovery story alerts us to how our own “real” narratives of origins reveal patterns in how we think about the discovery of the ancient past. At first glance, origin stories seem to have two purposes. First, scholars use discovery stories to recount the provenance of texts, to trace their chain of custody, and also to authorize their authenticity. A newly surfaced manuscript or artifact is called “unprovenanced” when it is not found in situ (that is, in the place of its ancient deposition) by professional archaeologists and has no other traceable origin story. The fact that an artifact is unprovenanced automatically places into doubt both its authenticity—could it be a forgery?—and brings to the fore ethical questions relating to how it was found, purchased, and removed from its country of origin. Second, the origin story becomes the introduction or frame for how we talk about our ancient sources. Each time we tell the story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi codices, we retell a version of how the past has made it to the present. We do this both because such stories are enchanting—and entertaining—and because they contextualize the ancient materials in our own time. So, in one sense, these stories are paratexts—they provide context for our sources, written and retold for those sources’ sake.

But sometimes the story can overshadow the actual artifact or manuscript that it is supposed to contextualize. If one asked average people about the Dead Sea Scrolls, they likely won’t know much about the texts themselves. They might not know if the texts are Jewish or Christian, what they are about, what language they were written in and when, or even that they are all published and readily available—not suppressed in secret archives. What they are likely to know is some version of the discovery story: “The Dead Sea Scrolls – weren’t they found by a shepherd boy in the desert?” “Didn’t a goat go into a cave and find them?” It is this narrative that has become the content of the “Dead Sea Scrolls” in popular imagination, the compelling story in itself. The discovery story is not just a frame in the service of the ancient text. In the public imagination, the ancient text remains largely obscure.

If we assume that a narrative of provenance is primarily meant to establish the authenticity of a new text, a look at the history of discovery stories quickly shows they often fall short, sometimes evoking more suspicion than trust. The Christian Apocalypse of Paul (likely composed ca. 400 CE) is framed with a story that it was found in the foundations of Paul’s old house in Tarsus, buried in a box along with his shoes, but not much later the Christian historian Sozomen (writing in the fifth century) reports that an elder told him this tale was invented by heretics. Medieval Jewish commentator Moses Taku also claims that heretics create provenance stories: the followers of Anan, the founder of Karaism, forged new texts, buried them in the ground, and claimed to “discover” them. We have no similar account of “discovery” from Karaite texts themselves—this provenance story comes to us only as an imagined hoax already debunked.

More recently, soon after the first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, one scholar cast doubt upon their authenticity precisely because of their origin story. Solomon Zeitlin, editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review, was convinced that the entire discovery was a hoax: not only were there multiple versions of the provenance narrative, but its major contours—a Bedouin shepherd discovering scrolls concealed in a cave—had a whiff of myth about it. The notorious nineteenth-century forger Moses Shapira, who tried to sell fragments of a “rough draft” of the Book of Deuteronomy, also told a story of Bedouins finding the rolled up, calcified scroll pieces in a remote cave. This resonance was Zeitlin’s major argument that the Qumran provenance story was just a story. “With Shapira,” he wrote, “the Bedouin and the cave became a myth.”

Zeitlin was onto something—the combination of tropes was in fact far older than the nineteenth-century example of Shapira. Already in 800 CE, the Christian patriarch Timothy I wrote a letter relating a secondhand report of an Arab hunter whose dog followed an animal into a cave near Jericho and found ancient Hebrew scrolls. A sixteenth century compilation relates that the Zohar, attributed to the second-century Shimon bar Yohai, was found in a cave by “Ishmaelite farmers,” its leaves were then used to wrap and sell spices, and finally recovered, scattered and torn, from garbage heaps.

Given the recurring motifs that we can trace across many centuries, Zeitlin had a point: the story of an Arab finding ancient scrolls in a cave is indeed a “myth.” It comes with a certain collection of repeating motifs one could study through the lens of folklore. But it does not follow that the story is always a hoax. Regardless of the details of the Qumran discoveries, the general outlines of the Bedouin shepherds’ discoveries are true—and the Scrolls, at least the ones discovered in the 1940s and 1950s, are unquestionably authentic. But there is always selectivity in how we choose to tell such stories, in what is emphasized and what is left aside, and even true stories become representations of our imagined worlds.

There are two recurring motifs in our own western scholarly mythology that depend on some deep assumptions about the possibilities of and threats to the past’s survival. The first is the threat of contamination and filth, and the second is the precious ancient manuscript that is both preserved and threatened by a foreign “other.” Both motifs bring us back to Agnon’s short story, with the obscure book of Gumlidata preserved in the leper house but so contaminated it can barely be read. It turns out both in Agnon’s work of fiction and in scholarly myths that these tropes are closely linked.

When we look at the discovery story as a narrative genre, we find a surprisingly common motif: the legibility of the text is threatened by contamination through contact with food, feet, trash, or rat and bat droppings. In the sixteenth-century legend about the Zohar, the ancient pages are discovered in a cave but then used as food wrappers and discarded, and need to be salvaged by picking through trash. Manuscripts in or as trash evoke the real trash heap from which the Oxyrhynchus papyri were salvaged, and later studied through the lens of garbology—the study of what people throw out—by AnneMarie Luijendijk. Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s poetic and scholarly account of the Cairo Geniza documents bears the title Sacred Trash.

In more recent narratives, manuscripts that reveal new knowledge from the past no sooner emerge from obscurity than they are already soiled and disintegrating, usually through a human category error—that they are not words, but things. This is particularly striking in ninteteenth-century accounts, such as the report by Whigham Price that an ancient gospel discovered in St. Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai by the Gibson sisters was used as a butter dish. (This is patently false—the monks took care of their manuscripts, which were preserved in their collections for centuries). We also find Robert Curzon’s report that monks used ancient inscribed parchments to cover jars of preserves, but they were now useless since the jam had long been eaten; and that other monks stood on priceless codices because the stone floors of the monastery were too cold and damp for their bare feet. Later, a persistent rumor about the Dead Sea Scrolls holds that the Bedouin used ancient parchment fragments as replacement sandal straps. In a related set of tropes, sometimes precious texts revert to their basic material form when somebody ignores their value and burns them as fuel, a rumor we encounter in both the Qumran and Nag Hammadi origin stories. Precious manuscripts revert to gross materiality, their words at risk of becoming illegible forever. Discovery goes hand in hand with anxiety about contamination, discarding, mishandling, and ultimately illegibility. There is a desire to read the past, but also a deep mistrust of the very possibility: the most precious texts are a hair’s breadth away from being worthless trash.

Sometimes motifs of contamination in “real” discovery stories become as viscerally evocative as Agnon’s chronicle written not with ink on parchment, but with pus on a leper’s skin. John Allegro’s 1964 account of the discovery of texts at Wadi Murabaat in the 1950s, which include writings from the 2nd century CE Jewish revolt led by the messianic figure Bar Kokhbah, is a striking example. Here again, Bedouin discovered these texts in some caves in the desert, in various states of preservation. According to Allegro, the manuscripts

had suffered from the depredations of visiting animals, human and otherwise, and particularly in the activities of rats who, with regrettable lack of appreciation of true values, had used the precious leather and papyrus manuscripts as linings for their nests. The excavation developed into a hunt for rats’ nests, since each one was almost sure to produce remnants of a written document or two. Another contributory factor in the denudation of written material was that the later habitation by birds and small animals of the caves over hundreds of years had resulted in an abundant supply of guano which the Bedouin had for years been collecting and selling in Bethlehem. It is not at all improbable that the Jewish orange groves near Bethlehem were fertilized with priceless ancient manuscripts written by their forefathers!

The texts become rats’ nests; they become bat guano. The Bedouin sell texts not only in their intact form, but also after they had been “processed” by animals into fertilizer for new trees. Ancient manuscripts become mere organic matter and decompose into the physical environment, taking their place in a whimsically sketched cycle of loss and life. There is an anxiety here that the physical manuscript will no longer carry verbal meaning. They return to their materiality, sometimes, indeed, to the grossest kind of matter, apparently the opposite of their rarified verbal communication. The images of soiled and scattered texts—scholars sorting through trash heaps and rat’s nests and bat shit—reflect a vision of a soiled and scattered past always near decomposition, whose salvage is always a dirty job.

But there is something more sinister behind this passage about the ravages of “animals, human and otherwise, and particularly rats who, with lack of appreciation of true values, had used the precious manuscripts for their nests.” The rats here lack appreciation of true values, and in this, they take on the persona of the stock character in the story: the Arab, who discovers but badly mishandles the precious writings. The Arab does not understand the true meaning of the find, but he is both the guide to the discovery and the greatest obstacle that stands in its way. His superstition, greed, and dishonesty jeopardize the past, as much as rats and bats.

Do scholars still subscribe to this set of colonial stereotypes, so prevalent in ninteteenth-century discovery accounts? Perhaps we would not admit it, but the way we tell our discovery stories shows they are not easily transcended. Let us stay with the account of the discovery at Wadi Murabaat. Michael Wise’s dense philological study of the Bar Kokbah materials, published in 2015, includes a discovery narrative that draws heavily on John Allegro’s 1964 account, but presents its own retelling: in 1951, a Beduoin came to Joseph Saad, secretary of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, with two parchment fragments and a sandal he said was from a different cave some distance from the ongoing Qumran discoveries. Saad asked the Bedouin to return with the people who had first found the cave, but nobody showed up for several days. He had a friend who was a British army officer, and he supplied some armed men and a jeep, and Saad went in search of the Bedouin who might know where this new cave was. He didn’t succeed, but on the way back, in his jeep full of soldiers, Saad happened to spot the very Bedouin who approached him in Jerusalem. Wise, retelling Allegro’s account, writes:

At sharp orders from the secretary, the vehicle skidded to a halt; questioned, the man refused to answer, whereupon he was summarily pitched into the vehicle.  As they drove, Saad explained to his involuntary guest in pellucid terms that any further refusal to cooperate would have nothing but the gravest consequences. Given what had already transpired, and stealing a glance at the hard faces of the soldiers all around him, the frightened tribesman found such threats easy to believe. He reluctantly agreed to show the way to the cave.

This man’s violent seizure from the side of the road by a group of armed men is presented as a rollicking tale. The man is identified only by his ethnic marker and emotions: a “frightened tribesman.” Through the boisterous tone, what are we supposed to visualize when we read Saad “warned him that refusal to cooperate would have the gravest consequences”? What threats were so effective? To have him killed? At least, to trump up charges to have him thrown in prison? But we shouldn’t worry about this as we chuckle at the story.

When they had gone as far as they could drive, there was still a seven hour trek on foot each way. We hear about the aching muscles of the secretary and guards, but there is no such concern about the man who was forced at gunpoint to guide them. When they approach the site

They spied clouds of dust wafting from two enormous cave entrances … a dozen tribal workers darted from the caves, stumbling over each other. Several warning shots fired into the air over their heads halted their flight, and the soldiers began to herd the dust-covered Bedouin together so that they could be questioned.

One final paragraph to illustrate the tone and the assumptions of this account:

Saad arrived in Jerusalem just as morning was dawning. On the way he had handed the Bedouin over to authorities in Bethlehem. Now back home, he dutifully contacted the local inspector of antiquities and reported all that had happened, turning over as well the sandal and the scroll fragment. Then he fell exhausted into bed, awaking much later in the day to find himself accused of kidnapping and incarcerating their guide. To this charge there was, of course, some truth; but the man himself had been involved in illegal activities. Matters were eventually smoothed over, Saad suffering nothing more serious than a severe reprimand.

The tone of this account is one of bemused distance. Note that Saad awoke “to find himself accused of kidnapping and incarcerating their guide,” as if “kidnapping and incarcerating” were not quite the right words to use to describe what had happened. The concession that there was “some truth” to this is dismissed because the man had been “involved in illegal activities,” presumably in not disclosing the finds to the authorities. “Matters were eventually smoothed over.” The reader, it appears, is expected to feel relieved that there were no consequences.

The story is retold because it adds life to a dense and technical study of the texts. The paratextual role of the discovery narrative—its value for creating an entertaining frame and context for the study of a set of manuscripts—is on full display. Much of it is probably a true account. But it is the manner of telling I want to highlight, its choices and assumptions. The way that this story has become a story in Allegro’s original version and as retold in 2015 depends on older narratives about the cave, the manuscript, and the Arab: the Arab is the only connection to the discovery, but he is also the major obstacle and threat to its possession, and somebody who is never quite fully a human subject.

We see the intertwining of state violence with the discovery of manuscripts. We see the Orientalized way the “frightened tribesman” and the “herd” of “dust-covered Bedouin” are described, and the clear implication that the physical intimidation of certain kinds of people is entertaining, and not to be taken too seriously. The reader is expected to identify with a particular side. This assumption that we, too, will read the word “kidnapping” in a bemused tone when it describes a violent seizure by armed men is a powerful expectation: the story does not try to mask what it is describing, but plays it up, as if it was unremarkable and unquestionably worth it: the greatest object of desire is the possibility of saving the lost text from bats and from humans, “recovering” a past that rightfully belongs only to some.

Eva Mroczek is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of  The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity (Oxford, 2016) and is working on a new monograph about manuscript discovery narratives.

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