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The War Over the Scrolls

A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls James M. Robinson

prepared with an introduction and index by Robert H. Eisenman and
Biblical Archaeology Society, 2 volumes, 1,785 plates pp., $195.00

The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered: The First Complete Translation and Interpretation of 50 Key Documents Withheld for Over 35 Years

by Robert H. Eisenman, by Michael Wise
Penguin, 286 pp., $12.00

The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception

by Michael Baigent, by Richard Leigh
Touchstone, 268 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Jesus & the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Unlocking the Secrets of His Life Story

by Barbara Thiering
Harper San Francisco, 451 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reader from the ‘Biblical Archaeology Review’

edited by Hershel Shanks
Vintage, 336 pp., $13.00 (paper)

Responses to 101 Questions on the Dead Sea Scrolls

by Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J.
Paulist Press, 201 pp., $8.95 (paper)



One day late in 1948, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Louvain, my professor of biblical studies arrived 19940811010img1.jpgibly excited. He had in his hand a letter from Jerusalem that contained extracts from a recently discovered scroll of the Book of Isaiah a thousand years older than the earliest known Hebrew manuscript of the Prophets, which is dated 895 CE. I realized at once that this startling discovery invalidated the axiom, based on a century of intensive archaeological scrutiny of every corner of the land from Dan to Beersheba, that no ancient text written on leather or papyrus could have survived in the climate of Palestine.

But after the initial excitement surrounding the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a half-century of scholarly mismanagement and irresponsibility followed. During the Seventies and Eighties, the small team of scholars editing the unpublished manuscripts refused to make them openly available to other researchers, although they were making very slow progress in publishing them. As a result of this “secrecy rule,” a distorted, sensational view of the Scrolls arose among the press, the public, and even some scholars, who suspected that they contained “revolutionary” or “explosive” revelations about Jesus and the New Testament.

Once the Scroll archives were dramatically opened in 1991, however, they failed to reveal any sort of theological dynamite. The immense labor of publishing the Scrolls is now moving quickly, and they are the object of lively and informed scholarly debates. At this point it is possible not only to summarize the often sorry history of Scrolls research, but also to sketch the significance of the Scrolls for our understanding of the Bible and of Palestinian history.


The original hero of the Scrolls story was a young Bedouin shepherd, Muhammad edh-Dhib, who discovered seven ancient manuscripts, six in Hebrew and one in Aramaic, in a cave near the Dead Sea in late 1946 or early 1947. He did not reveal exactly where it was, but thanks to the efforts of Captain Philippe Lippens, a Belgian officer of the United Nations Armistice Corps, the cave was located in 1949. It was then investigated by G. Lankester Harding, the British director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, and Father Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican archeologist and biblical scholar, who found hundreds more leather manuscript fragments in it.

The study of the Scrolls began in three centers. E.L. Sukenik, professor of Jewish archeology at Hebrew University, purchased three of the scrolls fairly intact from an Arab dealer and began immediately to arrange for their publication. The other four were acquired by the Arab Metropolitan Archbishop Mar Athanasius of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark in Jerusalem, who entrusted them for study and publication to the American School for Oriental Research in Jerusalem. Finally, after the partition of Palestine into Israel and Jordan in 1948, de Vaux and Harding commissioned two young researchers at the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française in East Jerusalem, Dominique Barthélémy and J.T. Milik, to edit the fragments they had retrieved from the original cave.

Between 1951 and 1956, ten more caves containing manuscript materials were discovered by archeologists and, more often, by Bedouin. The most substantial deposits were found in Cave 4, which contained thousands of fragments, and Cave 11, which yielded several more scrolls. Many of the fragments were tiny, containing at the most only a few words, and the difficulties of deciphering them and fitting them together were immense. Harding and de Vaux also excavated the previously neglected ruins of a settlement known as Qumran, which lay near the caves, and the view soon prevailed among scholars that the Dead Sea manuscripts were connected to the Qumran settlement.

In the beginning, the editorial work proceeded with remarkable speed, despite the fact that with the exception of the Nash Papyrus, discovered in Egypt and containing the Ten Commandments, no Hebrew manuscripts predating the early Middle Ages were available for comparison. In 1955, Edmund Wilson’s The Scrolls from the Dead Sea introduced the subject to a wider public. By 1956, the seven original scrolls and fragments from Cave 1 had been published. The results of the archeological excavations at Qumran and several important fragments from Cave 4 were also made available to scholars without delay.

Yet in spite of the rapid progress made at first in publishing photographs and transcriptions of the manuscripts, the sudden accumulation of thousands of fragmentary texts led to disaster. The contents of the ten caves discovered after the partition of Palestine fell under the authority of the Jordanian government, and in 1952 Harding asked de Vaux to take charge of editing and publishing the rapidly accumulating manuscripts. De Vaux, awed by the enormous number of fragments retrieved from Cave 4, recruited an international, interdenominational team of seven Hebrew and Aramaic experts. They were to work under him on the preparation of a multivolume series, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, to be published by arrangement with Oxford University Press.

In fairness, I should stress that the industry of the group during its first decade could not be faulted. Judging from a primitive concordance made by de Vaux’s team of all the words found in the fragments from Caves 2-10, we can see that most of the material was deciphered and identified by 1960. The scholars’ refusal to put their findings into the public domain, a decision for which they were rightly criticized, should not obscure this achievement. Working mainly in Jerusalem, the team continued to make progress in the early 1960s. The fragments from the eight minor caves (2-3 and 5-10) filled a single volume in 1963, and in 1968 the first volume of Cave 4 fragments appeared, although it was poorly edited and full of inaccuracies. The contents of Cave 11 were published separately by American and Dutch scholars.

At the start the quality and importance and sheer numbers of the fragments should have made it clear that a group of seven editors was too small to deal with them, let alone produce the kind of “definitive” edition de Vaux appears to have had in mind. He was also at fault in relying on his own personal, quasi-patriarchal authority instead of setting up an independent supervisory board with the power to replace members of the team who failed to fulfill their obligations satisfactorily. Worst of all he imposed rules of secrecy on the project that limited access to the manuscripts to the members of the international team, and prevented other scholars from working on them.

When the Israelis occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, all the scroll materials housed in the Palestine Archaeological Museum came under the control of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Only the Copper Scroll (found in Cave 3, and thought to be a list of hiding places of Temple treasure) and a few other fragments exhibited in Amman remained in Jordanian hands. Yigael Yadin, deputy prime minister of Israel during the 1970s and an archeologist, acquired the Temple Scroll, the longest of all the Qumran manuscripts, from a dealer in Bethlehem and managed to complete a three-volume edition of the text by 1977. The Israelis decided not to interfere with de Vaux’s team, but de Vaux’s anti-Israeli sentiments were no secret; he apparently did not want to continue work on the documents as long as they were under Israeli control, and he remained inactive until his death in 1971. His successor, Pierre Benoit, lacked de Vaux’s energy and influence, and work on Discoveries in the Judaean Desert slowed to a lethargic pace. During the fifteen years of Benoit’s stewardship, only two volumes appeared.

As the years passed, several members of the team died without completing their assignments, while others subcontracted some of their editing work to their graduate students at Harvard, who delayed publishing the texts until they had completed their own research and dissertations. In 1987, after Benoit’s death, the depleted and aging international team chose as his successor the British scholar John Strugnell, who had failed to complete a single volume in all his thirty-three years of work on the editorial team. In 1987, at a public session of a Scrolls symposium held in London, I urged him to publish the photographic plates at once while he and his team continued their work. He refused, giving no reason for doing so. Strugnell’s tenure turned out to be brief: in 1990 his colleagues persuaded him to step down after he gave a highly compromising interview to an Israeli newspaper, in which he not only made disparaging remarks about Israel, but called the Jewish religion “horrible.”

At that point, the Israelis stepped in and terminated the disastrous thirty-seven-year reign of the international team. They appointed Emmanuel Tov, professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University, as the new editor-in-chief, and he began auspiciously by redistributing the unpublished texts among a new editorial team of sixty members. Unfortunately Tov still felt obliged to maintain de Vaux’s secrecy rules. But the slow pace of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series, combined with the inaccessibility of the unpublished texts, was creating intense dissatisfaction among the many scholars whose work was obstructed by these unexplained delays. My own warning in 1977 that “unless drastic measures are taken at once, the greatest…of all Hebrew and Aramaic manuscript discoveries is likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the twentieth century” went unheeded, but opposition to the status quo be-gan to gain momentum. Beginning in the 1980s the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), edited by Hershel Shanks, which is widely read by Biblical scholars, conducted a relentless campaign for the “liberation” of the Qumran texts. BAR’s parent body, the Biblical Archeology Society in Washington, DC, was ready to lend its support with a secret weapon: a full set of Qumran photographs that had been clandestinely obtained. The Scroll War was imminent.

It took only eight weeks for the walls to come down. Two scholars from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg, managed to reconstruct, with the help of a “rabbi computer,” the text of seventeen Cave 4 fragments, making use of the concordance first prepared by de Vaux’s colleagues, of which Strugnell had issued twenty-five private copies in 1988 for the official editors. The official team called the reconstruction piracy and threatened legal proceedings, but less than three weeks later the final blow was delivered from a most unexpected corner: the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Elizabeth Bechtel, a California philanthropist who was intensely interested in the Scrolls, had managed to obtain two sets of photographs of the manuscripts from the Jerusalem Department of Antiquities, one for the Biblical Manuscript Institute she had founded in Claremont and another for herself. Mrs. Bechtel donated her copy to the Huntington in the 1980s, with no conditions attached regarding access. When the Huntington announced on September 22, 1991, that it would open its Scrolls archives to all qualified scholars, the monopoly effectively ended. The Israel Antiquities Authority and the official editors protested, but by the end of October they realized the battle was lost. All restrictions had to be ended. The IAA formally lifted the embargo on access to the unpublished scrolls, and the Scroll photograph archives at Oxford, Cincinnati, and Claremont, previously restricted to a small number of persons approved by Jerusalem, were opened to all qualified researchers.

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