Magazine article Anglican Journal

Dead Sea Scrolls Anything but Dry: Parchments Have Stirred as Much Politics as Scholarship in Battle for Their Control

Magazine article Anglican Journal

Dead Sea Scrolls Anything but Dry: Parchments Have Stirred as Much Politics as Scholarship in Battle for Their Control

Article excerpt

THE HISTORY of science and of social science in particular is filled with instances of embattled theoreticians belabouring each other from extremist positions. Articles in scholarly journals often lead to responses, rejoinders, rebuttals and refutations. Some disputes degenerate into shameless name-calling and hot accusations of quackery or fatuousness. Yet however caustic the language becomes, these learned and esoteric controversies are generally of interest to only a few academic specialists.

This has not been the case with the endless disputes swirling about the Dead Sea Scrolls ever since 1947 when a Bedouin shepherd boy, looking for a lost lamb, stumbled on a cache of 2,000-year-old manuscripts in a cave at Qumran near the Dead Sea. Arguments about this great find in biblical archaeology have spilled over into the public arena and have attracted widespread interest because they shed light on the little understood relationship between early history of rabbinic Judaism and nascent Christianity. One scholar contends that he has found reference to the execution of a messianic leader, thus providing an extra-biblical historical source for Jesus. Others contend that this has nothing to do with the creation of a Christian heresy within Judaism. Religious polemics have become joined with academic politics in a volatile combination. What is at stake is understanding the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as achieving a more accurate text for the Hebrew Bible.

The most notable battle over the Dead Sea Scrolls to reach public attention is the issue of access to the material, an issue which wound up in the courts of Israel and the United States. Originally, most of the scrolls were placed in East Jerusalem which, like the Qumran caves, was under Jordanian rule from 1948 to 1967. King Hussein's Department of Antiquities granted a monopoly to a small group of non-Jewish scholars who laboriously interpreted the material from a Christian perspective and refused to permit anyone else to see the scrolls. They rigidly controlled publication rights and were accused of extending their exclusive hold "beyond the grave" by bequeathing their power to others selected by them. Discontent with such total command over the scrolls by a few people was sorely aggravated by the agonizingly slow pace of publication.

Some editions of a few scrolls appeared by the time of the 1967 Six-Day War when the Israeli troops reunited Jerusalem and captured the Rockefeller Museum where the scrolls were mainly housed. Oddly enough, the international team which had been appointed by the Jordanians remained in charge. In 1987, after some members had died and tensions arose within the group, John Strugnell of Harvard University, who had been on the original team, became the chief editor. The Oxford-trained scholar brought in some Jewish experts. But he resigned in disgrace in 1990 when in an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown he told a Tel Aviv newspaper that Judaism was a "horrible religion ... a Christian heresy" that should have died out after Jesus appeared. An Israeli scholar, Emanuel Tov, replaced Prof. Strugnell as editor-in-chief, and the official team was enlarged.

MEANWHILE, Hershel Shanks' campaign to break the monopoly of the small group that held dominion over the scrolls gathered momentum. A lawyer by training, Mr. Shanks had an avocational interest in biblical archaeology. He gave up his Washington, D.C., law practice to become founding editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and Bible Review, popular and successful publications which sponsor, through the Biblical Archaeology Society, tours, cruises and courses, as well as market books, slides, video cassettes and souvenirs.

MR. SHANKS' outspoken editorials savaged the international team and the Israel Department of Antiquities for failing to grant general access to the material. In 1993, a U.S. $250,000 lawsuit began in the Jerusalem District Court against him. Prof. Elisha Quimron of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem alleged Mr. Shanks had infringed on his copyright by publishing a computer-generated "bootleg" facsimile edition of unpublished manuscripts in 1991. The judge found for Prof. Quimron but awarded him damages in an amount that was less than he had requested.

However, the question became moot in 1991 when the Huntington Library in San Marino, near Los Angeles, announced that its photographic archive would be available to all qualified researchers and not just those approved by the international team. The library had 3,000 pictures of the scrolls, placed there and in three other libraries as a safeguard against loss or damage to the originals in Jerusalem.

The Huntington Library director, William Moffett, who had made the bold decision to provide open access to the documents, was threatened with a lawsuit but he held his ground, insisting that his institution was not bound by the severe restrictions imposed by the international team. The secrecy which had surrounded study of the scrolls ended and research by the broad community of scholars was facilitated. Mr. Moffett deserves full credit for his courage in terminating the absolute control of a coterie of scholars over examination and publication of the scrolls. He died in February 1995, a true hero in the saga of the Dead Sea Scrolls, having risked his career and his reputation to do what he believed was right.

In 1993, a Dutch publishing house, E.J. Brill, released The Dead Sea Scrolls on Microfiche, containing 6,000 photographs of all the Dead Sea scrolls and parchment fragments, an index of the manuscripts, and a history of scrolls study. This enabled anyone wanting to study the material to have ready access. Moreover, researchers can use advanced computer technology and even DNA analysis to match fragments of the parchment on which the scrolls were written.

WHILE THE fight to break the cartel over the documents has at last been won, many other controversies are still brewing. A variety of bizarre theories and conflicting claims have generated one conference after another along with a spate of publications in which little civility is manifest. Authors use their books to sling vitriol at each other. For example, James VanderKam, in The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, characterizes The Dead Sea Scroll Deception by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh as a "disgraceful display of yellow journalism" ... a "tortured and remarkable bit of nonsense." Mr. VanderKam also refers to "shouting matches" in scholarly conferences which result in "hasty, sloppy publications." Neil Asher Silberman in The Hidden Scrolls (the title is a translation of the Hebrew ha-megilot ha-genizot by which the scrolls are referred to in Israel) defends Robert Eisenman whose work Maccabees, Zadokites, Christians and Qumran (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1983) was "unfairly dismissed as baseless crankery." Others regard Mr. Eisenman as vain, self-serving and ignorant.

Norman Golb's Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? was dismissed by Mr. VanderKam as having advanced a theory that "has rightly been rejected as implausible." Some of Mr. Golb's academic opponents depict him as an irritant. In turn, he describes his adversaries as resorting to "stock platitudes," driven to extremes as they defend their "dogmas." He also asserts that his predecessors in research on the scrolls were poorly trained in manuscript study. Use of strong language is found even in The Community of the Renewed Covenant which is an otherwise dull collection of scholarly papers that focuses on systematic analysis of various scrolls. Such terms appear as "wild speculation" and "the memory of a bluff that has been discovered."

THESE BOOKS which form the basis for these comments are representative of the many recent publications on the Dead Sea Scrolls. A medium-sized library could easily be filled with such volumes. For a departure from traditional theory, there is a book by Norman Golb which argues that the scrolls were not produced by the Essenes, as is commonly held, but rather by Jews from Jerusalem who were fleeing from the Romans. For an overall introductory summary, there is James VanderKam's The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. For another somewhat off-beat theory, there is Neil Asher Silberman's The Hidden Scrolls which suggests the scrolls' writers were revolutionaries, radical Jews closely associated with the Zealots and early Christians. For an update on the latest scholarly research on the scrolls, there is The Community of the Renewed Covenant.

Familiarity with these and other books on the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrates that scholarship needn't be pedantic and dull. The Dead Sea Scrolls are very much alive.

Gil Kezwer is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

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