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  • Jonathan van Bilsen

Scrolling Along

I recently lost a mentor and friend who taught me black-and-white portrait photography. Nir Bareket, an Israeli photographer who lived in New York, had the distinction of being the first person to photograph the Dead Sea Scrolls, after their discovery in the early fifties. On a recent trip to Israel, I had the pleasure of visiting the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls up close. It was a very meaningful experience and brought back memories of my friend, Nir.


I remember Nir going into detail about those days when the scrolls were discovered. “I recall entering, what looked like a classroom,” Nir began. “You could cut through the cigarette smoke as I watched elderly scholars, with magnifying glasses, scrutinizing what is certainly one of the world’s greatest discoveries.”

Nir would have been in his early twenties at the time and very impressionable. He explained how he watched scientists, educators and curators, lean over the scrolls and, in many cases, use adhesive tape, fastening them to glass tables.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written between 300 BC and 58 AD. They are historical documents from the day, and 25 percent have been incorporated into the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

Before their discovery, the oldest known sources for the Old Testament were about a thousand years ago, so these certainly reinforced historical information from when they were written.

The scrolls were discovered by a shepherd, who was tossing pebbles against the rocks. One fell into a hole in a cave and made a strange sound. Upon further exploration, he discovered urns, inside of which were the manuscripts. The discovery was in the Qumran region of Israel, close to the shores of the Dead Sea.

When Nir photographed the scrolls, there were about 500 different documents, but discoveries of additional manuscripts continued to happen. In 2019, a major find took place when a number of scrolls, written mostly in Greek, were discovered. With them were 40 skeletons dating back to the same era. These texts were written by minor prophets and included the legendary Micah prophecy about the end of days and the rise of a ruler out of Bethlehem.

Two of these scripts were written by Thomas the Apostle and Mary Magdalene, but the contents have been kept secret, as they may contradict the 'Canon' teachings of the church.

All the time, while viewing the scrolls, I kept thinking of Nir Bareket and how fortunate he must have been to be able to witness history firsthand.


Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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