An ancient quasi-Jewish sect dating back to the early Second Temple period, the Samaritans are now a small community of about 800, divided between Samaria and the Tel Aviv suburb of Ḥolon. Their Torah scrolls, written in a unique variation of the Hebrew script, have long been of interest to antiquarians and scholars because of the numerous minor ways they differ from the standard Jewish version of the text. For several years, Daniel Estrin has been investigating the mysterious theft of two of the Samaritans’ most prized manuscripts:
Before dawn on March 21, 1995, someone broke into a synagogue in the West Bank 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. . . .
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.
It now seems that someone is selling piecemeal pages from the stolen manuscripts. The mystery remains unsolved; many Samaritans believe that only members of their own community could have perpetrated the theft, while others believe that it was committed by Palestinians.