A Long History of Passion, Controversy

Monday, July 01, 2013
“Scholars are always engaged in controversy,” says Dr. Susan Ackerman, Preston H. Kelsey Professor of Religion at Dartmouth, “That’s part of the scholarly process.”

These words couldn’t be more apt. The Dead Sea Scrolls — heralded as one of the most significant archeological discoveries of the 20th century — have been at the center of controversy, scholarly debate and even criminal charges since they were found.

Their discovery in 1947 — an event that would shed light on ancient people and their religious practices — occurred in a time of intense political upheaval. Cousins Jum’a Muhammed, Muhammed Ahmed el-Hamed and Khalil Musa discovered the scrolls by accident when one of their goats disappeared into a cave miles outside of Jerusalem.

Initially, the find was small. The cousins brought a few of the old scrolls to Jerusalem, where an antiquities dealer presented them to Biblical scholars in the area.

For those who were able to see these scrolls and for those consulted abroad, their existence brought both excitement and apprehension: were they fakes or could these be as ancient and as important as they appeared?

The story “reads like a spy novel in parts,” says Dr. Peter Lanfer, professor of religion at Dartmouth and UCLA, referring to events that lead to the purchase of the initial scrolls.

Israel, as we know it today, was on the cusp of its formation. Tensions were high, and traveling in parts of Jerusalem to view the scrolls was dangerous.

Once the scrolls were purchased and brought to the larger scholarly community, Ackerman explains, “a team of seven scholars was appointed to work on the scrolls. And I put it in the passive voice because it’s hard to say X appointed them. It was a kind of gentleman’s consensus. (There were) no Jews on the team, certainly no women on the team ... It was seven guys who essentially divvied up the scrolls among them and were supposed to have responsibility for figuring out how to present them in scholarly publications.”

The task may have appeared achievable when there were but a small number of scrolls at their disposal. That number, however, grew to 935 manuscripts when more scrolls and fragments were found in 10 other nearby caves.

Publication was a slow process.

“It was incredibly meticulous work and it’s all being done in Jerusalem,” she says.

And no one but these scholars had access to the manuscripts.

One of the initial seven scholars to study the scrolls was Harvard Professor Frank Cross, of whom Ackerman was a student.

“Cross was very famous for being able to look at handwriting and not only tell a particular scribe but also to tell a particular date,” she recalls, describing his work on the scrolls. “By the 1980s, Cross was enlisting his students to help him with the publication of scroll fragments that had been assigned to him. Many of my peer group did scroll work for their dissertations.”

But not everyone within the original group of scholars did this, and the larger scholarly community still had no access to them.

“The scrolls were found beginning in 1947, but by (let’s say) 1985, there are Biblical scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity who have started their careers right with the discovery of the scrolls, are now retiring and still have never seen the full corpus. That’s people who have gone through a whole career knowing that there’s this whole new body of information that might be really important to the work they’re trying to do and yet they have no access to that body of information.”

Limited access to the scrolls prompted an enormous public outcry. The scrolls were finally released in the 1990s.

Now, explains Lanfer, “the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are widely available. So much so that I can go onto Google at any time to view them. Most of them are widely available in English as well.”

And yet, access to these scrolls did little to quell controversy.

Khirbet Qumran, the archeological site near the 11 caves, seems to prompt more debate than answers. Inkwells survive, pointing to the possibility that some scrolls may have been written there. But it is also possible that people from Jerusalem hid scrolls in the caves as they escaped Roman invasion.

Academic disputes have been heated. In 2010, the New York Times reported, Raphael Golb, the son of a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, was convicted on 30 counts, including identity theft, criminal impersonation and aggravated harassment. He had been campaigning, the Times said, to “advance his father’s views about the Dead Sea Scrolls against what he saw as a concerted effort to exclude them.”

Struggles over scroll ownership continue among Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian governments. New scroll fragments — kept for decades by the family of the antiquities dealer who originally sold the scrolls to scholars — have been emerging on the public market. Many of these fragments, to the dismay of the Israel Antiquities Authority, have been purchased by American evangelical schools.

Says Lanfer, “Passions surrounding the scrolls have always run incredibly deep.”

To view the scrolls online:

Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library: www.deadseascrolls.org.il

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