Who Stole The Samaritan Torahs? The Hunt To Bring The Manuscripts Home Twenty-three years after a brazen theft, the mystery still divides a tiny sect known as the Samaritans. Here's the story of the international hunt to bring the manuscripts home.

Who Stole The Torahs?

An Ancient Sect, A Brazen Theft And The Hunt To Bring The Manuscripts Home

A priest lifts a Samaritan Torah scroll during sunrise prayers on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank. One of the world's oldest and tiniest sects, the Samaritans trace their roots to the ancient Israelites. Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

A priest lifts a Samaritan Torah scroll during sunrise prayers on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank. One of the world's oldest and tiniest sects, the Samaritans trace their roots to the ancient Israelites.

Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

Before dawn on March 21, 1995, someone broke into a synagogue in the Palestinian city of Nablus.

The thief — maybe it was a band of thieves — crossed the carpeted sanctuary, pulled back a heavy velvet curtain, and opened a carved wooden ark. Inside were two handwritten copies of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. One was a sheepskin scroll written around 1360 and kept in a slender copper case. The other was a codex, a thick book, probably from the 15th century and bound in a maroon leather cover. The thief or thieves snatched the manuscripts, escaped through the synagogue's arched doorway, discarded the copper case in a stairwell, and vanished.

These were no ordinary texts. They were perhaps the most ancient Torahs stolen in the Holy Land since the Crusaders pillaged Jerusalem. And they belonged not to Jews but to the Samaritans, one of the world's oldest and tiniest religious sects. Known from the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, the group has barely survived. Centuries ago, it numbered more than 1 million; today, according to the last count, there are only 810 Samaritans left.

(Top) Samaritans gather for a sunrise pilgrimage to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. (Left) Carpets were placed on the mountain during the pilgrimage. (Right) Ruins on top of Mount Gerizim, just before sunrise. Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

The Samaritans trace their roots to the ancient Israelites and regard themselves as the most loyal followers of the word of God as transmitted to Moses. Women are kept apart from others when menstruating in adherence with ritual purity, and men sacrifice sheep each year on Passover, a biblical commandment Jews gave up millennia ago.

If the Samaritans are the true keepers of the biblical faith, their Torahs are title deeds: rare and sacred manuscripts, written in a variation of the original Israelite script that Jews abandoned long ago and featuring passages scholars say preserve some of the earliest drafts of the Bible. Of the three dozen old biblical manuscripts left in the community's coffers, the Samaritans say one is the oldest in the world, written by Moses' great-grandnephew. These manuscripts are the Samaritans' most jealously guarded possessions, and collectors across the globe have gone to great lengths to get their hands on them.

So have thieves.

Word of the burglary spread fast. Some 30 miles southwest, a Samaritan named Benyamim Tsedaka — everyone calls him Benny — left his home in Israel and drove straight to the West Bank, to the scene of the crime. Benny didn't know it then, but he would soon embark on a years-long international hunt for the missing Torahs. The hunt would eventually beckon me, too. The search would take us deep into the illicit artifact trade, where ancient manuscripts have more than just spiritual value.

Like ancient times

I first met Benny 10 years ago on a trip with friends to the Samaritans' West Bank village, perched on Mount Gerizim overlooking Nablus. Benny has a second home on the mountain, and we were quickly shepherded into his living room, just like many other diplomats, journalists, academics and curiosity seekers.

Benyamim "Benny" Tsedaka is a prolific author on Samaritan traditions. He introduces himself as a 125th-generation Samaritan. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Claire Harbage/NPR

Benny is a prolific author on Samaritan traditions and published the first English translation of the Samaritan Torah, which differs slightly from the Jewish version in thousands of instances. Benny is also editor of a Samaritan community newspaper and a one-man foreign ministry, hosting dignitaries and giving lectures around the world about his community. He speaks in oratorical English with a singsong Israeli accent, cracking jokes about the poor sheep sacrificed on Passover and complimenting his female guests on their beauty. He's 73 years old, with a tan complexion and a thin white mustache framing a gap-toothed grin. "If you want to go to the roots, you have to meet a Samaritan," I once heard him explain to a group of British Jews. "When you meet the Samaritans ... you can see how your real forefathers lived in the old times."

He introduces himself as a 125th-generation Samaritan, meaning a descendant of the original Israelites who settled in Samaria, the area of the Holy Land where the Bible says the Israelites erected their first altars of worship. In the heart of Samaria is the biblical Mount Gerizim, the Samaritans' sacred mountain, which they have clung to for centuries. The ancient Jews based their center of worship about 30 miles south in Jerusalem, but Samaritans consider that an aberration of the Israelite tradition; indeed, Jerusalem is never explicitly named in the Five Books of Moses. Mount Gerizim is. Jewish tradition, meanwhile, said Samaritans were impostors of foreign descent. Jews and Samaritans sparred over the biblical birthright for centuries; the parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus' way of teaching his disciples that even a rival could be kind.

Today, the Samaritans' home on Mount Gerizim places them in one of the most volatile corners of the West Bank. To get there, you drive past landmarks of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Palestinian villages, Israeli military checkpoints, and some of the West Bank's most hard-line Jewish settlements.

Young Samaritans stand on top of Mount Gerizim after the sunrise pilgrimage. The Samaritan community used to number more than 1 million; today, according to last official count, there are only roughly 800 left. Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

Young Samaritans stand on top of Mount Gerizim after the sunrise pilgrimage. The Samaritan community used to number more than 1 million; today, according to last official count, there are only roughly 800 left.

Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

I started making regular visits, to watch Samaritan men in white holiday robes joyfully mark each other's foreheads with sheep's blood during the Passover sacrifice, to see a bearded priest thrust a Torah scroll toward the heavens during a sunrise ceremony held three times a year. Even with the jostling phalanx of photographers and tourists, I couldn't help being moved by these ceremonies. They seemed genuine and pure, a glimmer of an ancient past.

Five years ago, during one of my visits with Benny, he told me about the theft of the Torahs, dramatically unspooling the details as if narrating the opening lines of a novel. Then he said he was pursuing a new lead in the case.

Who stole the Torahs? Why? And what would it take to get them back? The mystery was irresistible — a tale of looted manuscripts and an ancient tribe's quest to retrieve them. I began to shadow Benny on his mission.

Torahs sold for bread

The disappearance of the holy books in 1995 was not the first time the Samaritans had been robbed. As Benny explained it to me, outsiders had plundered the community's treasures for centuries. Sometimes it was by deceit: In 1671, an English manuscript collector tricked the Samaritan high priest into giving him a Torah scroll to deliver to a fictitious Samaritan community in England. More often, it was through pressure and money. In 1864, for example, Samaritan priests quietly sold a Russian collector 1,348 manuscripts and assorted antiquities. Collectors were intrigued by the Scriptures and what they might teach about the history of the Bible. The Samaritans consider it a sin to give up their holy texts, but some sold them in secret. In total, Benny estimates about 4,000 Samaritan manuscripts were sold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hauled away to the Vatican, Russia's National Library in St. Petersburg, Oxford University, Michigan State University and other corners of the globe.

Benny has a sympathetic take on the Samaritans who hawked their own manuscripts. "People tore leaves from the Torah books to sell them and eat something. For bread," he explained to me. He says his people did this for survival. The Samaritans had barely outlasted centuries of persecution, conversion and the struggle of living apart. Their uncompromising loyalty to tradition and to the purity of their bloodline came at a high price. Centuries of insularity led to inbreeding and disabled offspring, and those who gave up the Samaritan religion or married outside the community were excommunicated.

Tsedaka helps libraries around the world catalog or appraise their Samaritan collections. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Claire Harbage/NPR

Samaritans no longer need to sell their ancient manuscripts, Benny says. The community has flourished, in no small part thanks to the efforts of his own family. His grandfather's friendship with Israel's second president helped secure the Samaritans their own tract of land in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and his grandfather's ties to an American benefactor helped sustain the impoverished community during tough times. Today, Samaritans are traders and tahini-makers, and the community has slowly rebounded in numbers, allowing men to marry outsiders who commit to the strictures of Samaritan life.

Benny takes great pride in his family's historic contributions and shares the same sense of duty. He has led delegations of Samaritan elders to libraries around the world to view Samaritan texts sold long ago. He is among a select few in the world who can read the Samaritan Hebrew alphabet, and libraries frequently call upon him to catalog or appraise their Samaritan collections. He knows the texts like no one else does.

I've watched Benny crane his neck over Samaritan parchments. They are not just historical documents to him; they are part of the Samaritan family tree. Torah scribes enciphered their names within the text, so Benny knows who wrote each one. Often he can identify the scribe by the handwriting alone. Many old texts serve as tombstones, mentioning the names of Samaritan families who died out long ago.

One manuscript eluded 19th century collectors' attempts to purchase it: the fabled Abisha scroll, which Samaritans believe is the oldest Torah in existence, written by Moses' great-grandnephew. It was not for sale. For a fee, visitors to the Samaritan synagogue in Nablus were allowed a glimpse. An ornate case would be opened to reveal a crinkly scroll. But it was a decoy. Instead of the famous Abisha scroll, visitors were shown a 14th century Torah scroll written by another scribe named Abisha. Among themselves, Samaritans called it the "tourists' Torah."

Tsedaka holds a reproduction of a Samaritan text. He lectures around the world about Samaritan history. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Claire Harbage/NPR

It was the tourists' Torah that disappeared in 1995. The thieves probably thought they were hauling away the oldest Torah in the world.

"Between the raindrops"

The morning after the burglary, Palestinian officials arrived at the Nablus synagogue to comfort Benny and a group of Samaritan elders. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat himself telephoned, vowing to root out those responsible. When the Palestinians left, the Israelis arrived — soldiers, police officers, and agents from Israel's domestic intelligence service. They, too, assured the Samaritans they would swiftly apprehend the thieves.

It was not surprising that Israeli and Palestinian officials both rushed to the scene of the crime. The Samaritans straddle the political divide. Half live as Israelis in one small Samaritan neighborhood in the working-class Israeli town of Holon, speak Hebrew and serve in the Israeli army. The other half live as Palestinians on their holy mountain in the West Bank, speak Arabic and work in the Palestinian city of Nablus. The Samaritans of the West Bank carry both Palestinian and Israeli ID cards and bear both Arabic and Hebrew names. It can lead to delightful hybrids; one young man I know is named Abdullah Cohen.

Young Samaritans wait outside a grocery across the street from the Samaritan synagogue on Mount Gerizim. Samaritans straddle the political divide: Half live as Israelis in one small Samaritan neighborhood. The other half live as Palestinians on their holy mountain in the West Bank. Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

Palestinian leaders embrace the Samaritans as an example of the Palestinian people's tolerance, diversity and deep roots, while Israeli leaders embrace the Samaritans as living proof of Jewish history in the West Bank. The Samaritans are poised between these two adversaries, and dependent on both. It's a matter of survival, reflected in Benny's own family: His brother is an activist in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative political party, while his cousin is a civil servant of the Palestinian Authority.

As Benny likes to say, Samaritans must walk between the raindrops.

"I want him destroyed, like Lot's wife"

"There is a certain development in the affair of the two stolen Torahs," Benny's newspaper, A.B Samaritan News, reported in the summer of 1995, a few months after the theft. "The hour of their return to the Samaritans is very near."

Palestinian leader Arafat had taken on the case. His confidants had contact with men in Jordan who had the manuscripts and were demanding $7 million for their return. By autumn, Arafat had told Samaritan elders the thieves had dropped their ransom demand to $2 million. Over the next couple of years, prominent Samaritans were summoned to the Jordanian capital of Amman to view the stolen Torahs. One businessman was reportedly shown the Torahs in a parking lot around midnight. Another, Saloum Cohen, a Samaritan friend of Arafat's appointed to the Palestinian parliament, was said to have nearly cried when a masked man in Amman opened a briefcase and showed him the captive manuscripts. But the Samaritans always came back empty-handed, unable to afford the steep ransom.

"It is all suspicious," Benny told me recently. The shadowy viewings in Amman seemed like a charade, and Arafat appeared to be more interested in negotiating over the ransom than seeking the manuscripts' return. The Samaritans had no choice but to cooperate. In the aftermath of the Oslo peace accords of the mid-1990s, and just months after the Torah theft, Arafat's newly formed Palestinian Authority government took charge of the Nablus area from the Israeli military, and the Samaritans of the West Bank fell under Arafat's rule.

Samaritan priest Saloum Cohen greets Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1998. After the theft, Arafat vowed to root out those responsible. Courtesy of Shoroq Cohen hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Shoroq Cohen

In the years that followed, Benny tried diplomatic channels. He organized a meeting with Israeli Foreign Ministry officials, sought help from Netanyahu, and enlisted British lawmakers to petition the Jordanian king's brother. His efforts yielded nothing. Eventually, the Israeli police said they closed their investigation because of a lack of evidence and purged the case file.

Samaritans tried to forget the whole affair, though if you raise the topic, the anger resurfaces. "Whoever stole it, I want him destroyed, like Lot's wife," one Samaritan once told me, vowing biblical vengeance.

In the summer of 2011, Benny received a telephone call. An Israeli antiquities dealer in Jerusalem had received two video files of Samaritan manuscripts for sale. The Israeli dealer frequents parts of the Middle East where trading in antiquities is outlawed and can land someone in trouble, so he didn't want his name revealed. I'll call him the Dealer.

The Dealer asked Benny to appraise the manuscripts. In the first video, olive-toned hands roll out a splotchy scroll atop a wine-red tablecloth. In the second video, the same hands leaf through a large codex. The videos were filmed in silence, save for the crackle of the parchment.

Benny recognized the penmanship. The stolen Torahs had resurfaced.

Now all the Dealer had to do was get them back.

The Hunt

In early 2013, I traveled with the Dealer to Amman, where the two stolen Torahs had been brought after the theft.

The Dealer had arranged to meet the thieves' frontman, a retired Palestinian police officer residing in the Jordanian capital. But when we sat in the frontman's living room, he said he didn't have either of the Torahs. He alleged that the 14th century Torah scroll had been moved across the border to Syria. The Dealer groaned and we left. I was skeptical that we had gotten the full story.

An antiquities dealer in Jerusalem received this video of a Samaritan Torah scroll for sale that Tsedaka identified as one of the stolen manuscripts.

The Dealer had gotten a tip that the other stolen Torah, the 15th century codex, had been moved from Amman to London. The city is a frequent destination for antiquities looted in the Middle East, because of its colonialist legacy, permissive laws on collecting and concentration of wealthy buyers.

According to the Dealer, a London antiquities merchant had told him: "I bought the Samaritan Bible, but I forgot where I put it." It was the playful and slippery lingo of the antiquities trade, in which looted relics are often bought and sold in the shadows. Benny was traveling to London to lecture about the Samaritans, and the Dealer arranged to meet him there to confront the antiquities merchant about the codex. I was invited to come along. But once we were inside his cramped London shop, the merchant denied any knowledge of the Samaritan codex or its whereabouts, and we left.

It was yet another dead end.

According to the Dealer's informants in London, the merchant sold the codex to cover a debt. There were two prominent Israelis in London with an interest in Samaritan manuscripts. The first was Shlomo Moussaieff, a diamond magnate who had amassed some 60,000 biblical and Jewish antiquities in his quest to prove the historical veracity of the Bible. I phoned his London home, and he asked me to come at once.

Wilma, his Filipina caregiver, answered the door. I walked into a large foyer flanked by Romanesque columns and vitrines stacked four levels high with miniature glass vases and votive carvings. Moussaieff, then 90 years old, was slumped in a plush loveseat, holding two polished black coins in his right hand and a cigarette in his left.

I asked him about the stolen Samaritan codex. "That's mine!" he squawked, then trailed off about shards of 3,000-year-old glass. Each time I pressed for details, he proffered a different story. The patriarch of the Armenian church in Jerusalem sold it to him. No, a Samaritan priest's daughter sold it to him. No, he hadn't bought it at all. I left unsure whether I had been treated to the sleight of hand of an ace collector or to the shifting memories of an old man's muddled mind. He died a few years later.

The second man on my list was the Jerusalem-born investor David Sofer, a descendant of an important rabbinic scholar and the owner of an enviable collection of rare manuscripts. He invited me to view his collection. Unlike Moussaieff's apartment of swirly upholstery and colored marble, Sofer's London home was decorated in creamy white. He disappeared into a side room and brought out a thick Samaritan Torah codex written on vellum, and a long strip of parchment from an old Samaritan Torah scroll. Neither was one of the stolen Torahs. "I don't buy manuscripts and books from fly-by-night, passing-by people," Sofer said.

Samaritans gather in a synagogue in the middle of the night before marching to the peak of Mount Gerizim. Many collectors have the desire to own a remnant of biblical history. This desire turned Samaritan holy books into luxury commodities. Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

The two collectors could not have been more different in character, but both embodied the centuries-old fascination with the Samaritans' literary treasures. Just like the first Europeans who collected Samaritan Scriptures, their desire to own a remnant of biblical history was wrapped up in their quest to verify the Old Testament. This desire turned holy books into luxury commodities. But both denied acquiring the stolen Samaritan texts.

The trail had gone cold.

A Sale?

I returned to where the story began: with the Samaritans of the West Bank. On a blustery Sabbath weekend one winter, Benny lent me the keys to his second home on Mount Gerizim, where Samaritans live in modest, limestone-covered houses huddled around one main village road. I stumbled through the mountain mist, up and down the road, knocking on doors.

Khader Cohen, a member of one of the community's three priestly families, invited me into his living room. He was a cantor at the Samaritan synagogue and the last person to return the Torahs to the ark before the theft. He said he had locked the ark and placed the key on top, as he always had done. Only a Samaritan who attended prayers would have seen him do that, he said. Plus, the copper Torah case, found discarded outside the synagogue, would have been complicated to detach from the scroll; whoever did it would have had to remove its ornamental crowns and slide out its two long dowels. Only those experienced handling a Samaritan Torah would have been able to do so, and only members of the Samaritan priestly class handled Samaritan Torahs, he said. Though Benny had reported in his newspaper that the thieves had bludgeoned the padlock on the synagogue door, and stood by his recollection, Cohen swore it had merely been unlocked.

Samaritans pray among ruins at the top of Mount Gerizim in the West Bank. Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

Cohen would not name names. Instead, he posed three questions about the thief or thieves: "How did he know how to take off the crowns? How did he know the key was above the ark? And the third question: How did they open the padlock?"

Nearly every Samaritan I met that weekend suspected one of their own was behind the theft. The older generation refused to point fingers. Some younger Samaritans, however, offered up names of prominent members of priestly families, though they provided no evidence. The Torah theft was no theft, they insisted: It was a sale. One young community member alleged these Samaritans had colluded with Palestinian criminals, duping them to believe they were selling the world's oldest Torah, the Abisha.

I visited one of the men who had been named as a suspect.

This Samaritan was one of several in the community who owned old manuscripts. His family used to have more, he said, but sold Torahs to foreign collectors several generations ago — the familiar story of manuscript peddling. Today, he said, he would never dare to sell one.

But other items are for sale. He sent his young nephew to fetch a small box of beads he said were from ancient Assyria and asked if I would like to buy them. And he once dabbled in Samaritan fortunetelling. Throughout the Middle East, Samaritans of priestly stock have long been viewed as wielding supernatural powers of prediction; to this day, Palestinians, Jordanians and other Middle Easterners pay Samaritans for palm readings and amulets handwritten in their cryptic Hebrew script. Several Samaritan priests now make their living as fortunetellers. "Between us, it was a scam," he said of his clairvoyance business.

An old Samaritan Torah codex. Twenty-three years later, the theft still divides some of the most prominent members of this tiny sect. Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

He seemed an unlikely thief; like others, he said he had taken an interest in trying to get the Torahs back. I told this to a young Samaritan on the mountain. "Let me tell you a story," he replied.

In the Torah, he said, Jacob's sons plotted to kill their brother Joseph. The eldest brother, Reuben, persuaded them to throw Joseph into a pit instead. The reason, the young Samaritan said, was that Reuben wanted to return Joseph to his father, so his father would forgive Reuben for what they had done.

The young Samaritan's implication was clear: Like the biblical Reuben, these Samaritans may have sought to retrieve what they had sold to clear their conscience.

I asked the man I visited, one of those suspected by fellow Samaritans, where he was the night the Torahs disappeared. "From your question, it sounds like you think I was involved. Don't think that," he said. When pressed, he demanded to know who his accusers were, and then he alleged the culprits were "two Arabs" and another Samaritan man, now deceased. Twenty-three years later, the theft still divides some of the most prominent members of this tiny sect.

Surrounded by worshippers, a Samaritan priest on Mount Gerizim thrusts a silver-plated Torah scroll toward the heavens. Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

Surrounded by worshippers, a Samaritan priest on Mount Gerizim thrusts a silver-plated Torah scroll toward the heavens.

Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR

Whom to trust?

Many Samaritans I spoke to in the mountain village believed one of their own was complicit. But Benny, my guide to the Samaritan community, had warned me about the healthy imagination of the Samaritans on the mountain. He believed what a local Palestinian in Nablus told him, that a group of Palestinians from the city had stolen the Torahs to sell them on the antiquities market. He was convinced that no Samaritans were involved.

Benny and I met over croissants in Jerusalem, and I told him what I had heard on the mountain, that members of his own community had secretly sold the Torahs.

"No such thing ever occurred," Benny said. "What's the point when everyone becomes a Sherlock Holmes?" The era of destitute Samaritans selling holy texts in the 19th and early 20th centuries was long over, he insisted. "Then, they sold because they didn't have. Now, we have. So why would a Samaritan sell?" he asked.

Benny was in Jerusalem that day for an appointment. An auction house had bought a pile of 18th and 19th century Samaritan manuscripts from a private collector and asked Benny to catalog them for an upcoming auction. I sat next to Benny at the auction house as he shuffled through the documents and offered his standard explanation: Impoverished Samaritans had been compelled to sell their manuscripts for food a long time ago.

Benny then revealed a detail I hadn't heard before: His grandfather's brother had also been complicit in the Samaritan manuscripts market. To cover debts, he sold a 15th century Torah codex to Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of Israel. His great-grandfather was enraged, became ill and died, and it is still a source of shame for Benny.

As Benny and I left the auction house, I asked him why he would lend a hand to the auctioning of Samaritan treasures. "Can I stop it?" he shrugged.

Tsedaka in the Washington, D.C., area during one of his annual trips around the world to visit Samaritan manuscript collections and lecture about the Samaritans. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Claire Harbage/NPR

Weeks later, Benny returned to the auction house with his completed catalog. I joined him. His typewritten inventory included a detailed description of the texts and the dollar value of each. A small leatherbound prayer book was worth $80,000, Benny estimated, while other pieces ranged from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. The owner thanked Benny for his work, agreed to give him a commission on the eventual auction sales and handed him a wad of bills as compensation for his work.

Benny was involved in the Samaritan manuscripts market in other ways, too. An antiquities dealer told me Benny tried to interest him in a manuscript; Benny said he was only trying to help a man in dire financial straits sell his Samaritan manuscript collection. And Benny had expected to get a cut of the deal for the return of the stolen Torahs, though he later demurred on the subject of a financial reward, saying the return of the manuscripts was paramount.

When I first joined Benny on the hunt for the missing manuscripts, I saw him as a protector of his people's cultural heritage. Now I wondered if he was any different from the enterprising Samaritan salesmen in generations past. He publicly opposed Samaritans trading in their own manuscripts even as he helped enable the trade by consulting for auction houses and dealers.

"Hey, I'm not looking for that," he said. Meaning, he wasn't fishing for profits. "[The dealers] are making the initiative. So my interest is that at least they will have the right information." He said he does not initiate the sale of manuscripts but offers his services if asked. "I'm not a dealer. But dealers ask me from time to time. And they pay [me] according to the law," he said. "At least I'm not helping buy them. I'm not."

"It doesn't pain you that these things are being sold?" I asked.

Tsedaka believes Samaritan manuscripts are better off out of Samaritan hands and in the custody of professional, climate-controlled libraries. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Claire Harbage/NPR

"I'm not sad," he said.

He argued that Samaritan manuscripts were better off out of Samaritan hands. Serious collectors and climate-controlled libraries had the resources and know-how to preserve the brittle manuscripts better than his community could, while Benny offered his knowledge so the texts could be properly documented. As Benny saw it, these texts scattered around the world served a purpose: They piqued scholars' interest and kept the story of the Samaritans alive. Paradoxically, their plunder ensured their preservation.

The other paradox remained: Benny supported the very trade he opposed. Some Samaritans told me privately that they think Benny exploited their religion to finance his annual lecture trips around the globe, while Benny reserved similar disapproval for those Samaritan priests who hawked amulets and psychic readings to gullible outsiders.

And yet, for this tiny religious minority concerned with survival, cultural preservation is self-preservation. Living among warring Israeli and Palestinian societies requires pragmatism, and so does the conservation of their literary treasures.

"If the deal goes through"

A few years ago, I attended a public auction in Tel Aviv where a few Samaritan items were on sale, to see who might bid on them. One man who did was an ultra-Orthodox Jewish antiquities dealer named Menachem, who asked to be identified in this story only by his first name. He said he was a middleman for the Green family of Oklahoma City, the owners of the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts chain. Over the past decade and a half, the evangelical Christian family has amassed one of the world's largest collections of biblical artifacts — about 40,000 antiquities and manuscripts. The Greens have also been accused of fueling the black market in antiquities; last year they paid a $3 million federal fine for illegally importing ancient Iraqi artifacts and agreed to forfeit the objects.

Three rare Samaritan manuscripts are on display in the Greens' new $500 million Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., including a fragment of one of the world's oldest existing Samaritan Torah scrolls. It should come as no surprise that Benny had a hand in the sale of the Torah fragment; he said he catalogued it — free — for Sotheby's, and the auction house sold it to the Greens.

Three rare Samaritan manuscripts are on display at the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., including a fragment of one of the world's oldest existing Samaritan Torah scrolls. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Claire Harbage/NPR

Menachem, the antiquities dealer, said he was curious to meet a Samaritan, so I introduced him to Benny. Later, Menachem told me he and Benny had come up with a proposal to reach back out to the frontman in Amman to purchase the stolen Samaritan Torah scroll for the Museum of the Bible, with the Samaritan community's approval. "If the deal goes through, I will give you, God willing, five percent of the amount of the purchase," Menachem wrote me in a text message. I declined the offer.

Benny tried to persuade the high priest to let the museum buy the scroll and lend it to the Samaritans periodically. The high priest declined. He said he wanted the scroll returned to the community, not lent back, and the deal never went through. The Museum of the Bible's director of collections, David Trobisch, said he was unfamiliar with the matter. "This may relate to a contact five years ago that I decided not to pursue," Trobisch said in an email. When the high priest declined the offer, Benny threw up his hands. Besides, he realized that his efforts over the past 23 years to get the Torahs back had made some Samaritans question his motives. "This is what made the Samaritans think if Benny is struggling so much [to find the manuscripts], maybe he has millions to make from this," Benny said — an accusation he denied.

"No doubt this is it"

A couple of weeks ago, an Israeli military official sent me a picture of a single leaf from an old Samaritan scroll. It had been confiscated several years ago from a traveler crossing the Jordanian border. I immediately sent the picture to Benny. He compared the leaf with images of the stolen Torah scroll. "No doubt this is it," he replied. His eye caught the first verse at the top of the leaf, a passage from Deuteronomy: "You shall not deliver a slave to his master if he seeks refuge with you from his master."

A leaf from an old Samaritan scroll confiscated by Israeli customs officials at the Jordanian border. See the full text. COGAT/Israeli Ministry of Defense hide caption

toggle caption
COGAT/Israeli Ministry of Defense

Five years after setting out on my quest for the missing Torahs, I still do not know whether Samaritans were responsible for their disappearance — but I now know they won't get them back whole. The codex said to be in London has vanished, perhaps tucked away in some collector's bookshelf.

The Torah scroll is being sold piecemeal, its parchment leaves separated at the seams. The Israeli officer in possession of the single confiscated leaf told me he has no intention of giving it back to the Samaritans. According to policy, Israel does not return antiquities to areas of the West Bank under Palestinian control, and the Samaritans' West Bank village is under partial Palestinian jurisdiction.

Who is to blame for the Samaritans not getting back their holy books? Benny believes the community did not wish to revisit Palestinians' potential involvement in the theft, which could threaten the Samaritans' delicate relations with their neighbors. The high priest says he was not willing to lose ownership of the Torah scroll by allowing a museum to purchase it. And community members were clearly uncomfortable investigating prominent Samaritans who may have helped orchestrate the theft. Whatever the reason, the Samaritans sacrificed their chance to recover the very Scriptures their ancestors had protected for centuries.

Last October, I left Jerusalem in the pitch dark and drove north, past Palestinian hamlets and Israeli settlements, to attend the Samaritans' sunrise pilgrimage ceremony for the biblical Festival of Tabernacles. At 5:30 in the morning, men in tasseled white robes and red tarboosh caps streamed to the rocky peak of Mount Gerizim, the rap of their wooden canes punctuating the wails of quarter-tone prayers. Surrounded by several hundred men who might have answers to the Samaritan mystery, I couldn't resist striking up conversations on the edges of the crowd.

Benny approached me, his robe worn casually open over a dark blue sweater. "Enough with the interrogations," he said. It was prayer time. The rising sun turned the black sky orange, then light blue. Men encircled a bearded priest for the climax of the prayers. In the sea of white robes, I recognized the faces of those who had confided in me over the years about the robbery. They waved a hand over their faces in deference as the priest unfurled a Torah scroll and raised it high.

Tsedaka walks at the top of Mount Gerizim just before sunrise. He confirmed that the single leaf in Israeli army possession from an old Samaritan scroll is likely part of the missing Torah. The scroll is being sold piecemeal, its parchment leaves separated at the seams. Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Tanya Habjouqa/Noor Images for NPR