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

By Kezwer, Gil | Anglican Journal, May 1996 | Go to article overview

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


Kezwer, Gil, Anglican Journal


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. …

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