The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

Charity fund, academic organizations involved in Dead Sea Scrolls conflict (December 16, 2007)

“The atmosphere of our day, in both religious and secular settings, demands that scholarship be public and accountable.” Ernest Frerichs, ed., Introduction to Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel, Fortress Press (Philadelphia, 1987).

The author of the above-quoted words was, at the time he wrote them, a professor of religious studies at Brown University; today he is the president of the Dorot Foundation, an institution whose influence on scholars and museums alike is examined below.

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In a series of previous pieces, I have examined the history and content of an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls taking place at the San Diego Natural History Museum, showing how it was created by Christian scholars and how the exhibitors downplayed, distorted and excluded the ideas of a major group of secular-minded, Jewish historians and archaeologists who have rejected the “Qumran-Essene” or “Qumran-sectarian” theory of scroll origins championed in the exhibit.

In those earlier items, I illustrated the religious significance of the Qumran-Essene theory by quoting statements to the effect that the “beliefs, literature and men of the Essene community” were a “vital part of the fabric of Jesus’ world.” To this I should no doubt have added that the material significance of the theory lies in the fact that thousands of Christian tourists are drawn to Israel and, specifically, to the Qumran site near the Dead Sea, every year to retrace the steps of Jesus and his imagined “Essene” predecessors who, according to the San Diego exhibitors, authored the Dead Sea Scrolls.

My analysis of the San Diego exhibit will have to stand or fall on its own merits. There is one issue, however, that demands hightened attention in light of recent efforts to convince the public not only that religion and science can be reconciled with one another, but that religion itself is the “source” of science. This is the issue of the apparent involvement of at least one charitable foundation in generating support for the San Diego exhibit from academic organizations with declared scientific missions. A glaring example of such support is the treatment alotted to the debate over Qumran and the Essenes in the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), both of which meetings also took place in San Diego, in the third week of November of this year, thus coinciding with the Natural History Museum exhibit.

I begin, then, with some facts about these organizations and their ties with a major charitable foundation.

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The Society of Biblical Literature and ASOR have a collegial “partnership.” The annual meetings of these two organizations (billed as major international conferences) always take place in the same cities, with the one overlapping the other, and the hundreds of “bible scholars” and Near Eastern specialists who participate in these meetings go back and forth between the two venues, often sharing insights and visiting various places (e.g., museum exhibits) in one another’s company.

Founded in 1880, SBL operates out of an office at Emory University, a Methodist institution in Atlanta, GA. SBL’s 2007 annual report states that its net assets for that year were worth over $3,000,000. Among SBL’s “core values” are “accountability,” “inclusiveness,” “collegiality,” “responsiveness to change,” “tolerance,” and “scholarly integrity.” Its declared mission includes the facilitation of “broad and open discussion from a variety of perspectives.” Why this is important, will become clear below.

ASOR was founded in 1900 in Jerusalem. Following the Israeli conquest of the West Bank in 1967, the organization basically split into several branches, with a central body (ASOR properly speaking) operating out of an office located at Boston University. ASOR’s website states that its mission is to “initiate, encourage and support research into, and public understanding of, the peoples and cultures of the Near East from the earliest times.”

One of ASOR’s four overseas branches, located in Jerusalem, is called the Albright Institute. A key funder of the Albright Institute (to the tune of $950,000 last year) is the Dorot Foundation. This entity (“Dorot” is the Hebrew word for “Generations”) was created by philanthropist Joy Gottesman Ungerleider-Mayerson, the daughter of Samuel Gottesman, the wealthy New York businessman who, working together with charismatic Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, famously financed the purchase of four important Dead Sea Scrolls from a Greek priest in East Jerusalem during the 1950’s. Joy Gottesman was born in 1920.  She graduated with a B.A. from New York University in 1942.  Then she went back to school when she was nearly fifty years old and in 1971 received an M.A. in Hebrew studies, again from New York University.  Less than a year later, she was appointed director (1972-1980) of the Jewish Museum in New York.  She gave extensively to the New York Public Library; to this day the head of the library’s Jewish division is called the “Dorot Librarian.”  In addition, she was chairman of the Albright Institute (one wonders whether big money or an M.A. from NYU qualified her for this position).  Joy’s first husband, Samuel Ungerleider, was a Wall Street mogul; his credits include contributing the funds for the Samuel Ungerleider chair in Judaic studies at Brown University.

Since approximately 1997 (i.e., three years after Joy’s death), the president of the Dorot Foundation has been Dr. Ernest Frerichs, a professor (now retired) of religious studies at… Brown University. The Dorot Foundation has donated millions of dollars to fund facilities — such as the 80-seat Dorot auditorium, or the Dorot Foundation Information and Study Center — associated with the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book, the annex of that museum originally constructed to display precisely those four scrolls purchased by Joy’s father Samuel Gottesman, and where the “Qumran-sectarian” or “Qumran-Essene” theory of scroll origins first developed during the 1950’s and fiercely defended by Yigael Yadin until his death in 1984, is still presented to the public as an established fact. (Yadin received the Israel Prize for his doctoral dissertation on the scrolls in 1956; his father, Eliezer Sukenik, was the first scholar to propose, in 1947, that seven scrolls found buried in caves near the Dead Sea belonged to the small Essene sect.  Ultimately, over 900 scrolls copied by some 500 scribes were unearthed. The original construction of the Shrine of the Book was, needless to say, funded by Samuel Gottesman.)

Let us now return to ASOR’s Albright Institute, of which wealthy philanthropist Joy Gottesman, without ever having engaged in scholarly research of any type, was the chairman until her death in 1994. The Dorot Director (note the title — not simply “Director,” but “Dorot Director”) of ASOR’s Albright Institute is Dr. Seymour Gitin. The Albright Institute’s website has a page listing the members of its board of trustees. Here we find, among other names, “Ernest S. Frerichs, Dorot Foundation.” I will have a bit more to say about Dr. Frerichs directly below. The Albright Institute’s secretary is Dr. William Schniedewind, a UCLA bible scholar who has in the past been affiliated with the Evangelical Christian “University of the Holy Land” network, and whose attempt to defend the Qumran-Essene theory is, as I explained in several of my previous pieces, being presented at the San Diego museum in the form of a hypothetical, computer-generated model of the Qumran site prepared together with his graduate student Robert Cargill.

And now we come to a crucial piece of the puzzle. Another member of the Albright Institute’s board of trustees is Jodi Magness, a professor of archaeology in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Magness is a doctrinaire defender of the Qumran-Essene theory; her views have been rejected by various Israeli archaeologists, all of whom were excluded from the San Diego exhibit. Her personal biographical profile states that she was formerly vice-president of the Albright Institute’s board of trustees, that she has also served as a member of the board of trustees of ASOR properly speaking, and that her book defending the Qumran-Essene theory won an award as the “best popular book in archaeology” in 2003.  As of January 2006, she was listed as being a member of ASOR’s Committee on Annual Meeting and Program, the “primary responsibility” of which is the “organization and coordination” of ASOR’s annual meeting held each November. (Magness, along with many other individuals, is also on SBL’s 2007 annual list of donors; no information is available on how much money she gave.)

Here I must backtrack for a moment to the Dorot Foundation. Its website includes a page featuring a list of books purportedly written by the foundation’s president, Dr. Ernest Frerichs. In fact, as I was able to verify by cross-checking all of the titles with a library catalogue, none of the works, despite the misleading presentation of several of them on the list, are authored by Frerichs; they are all merely compilations of articles by other scholars, on which Frerichs is listed as co-editor (see the quotation from his introduction to one of these books above, at the top of this page). In fact, it does not appear that Dr. Frerichs has ever authored a single book. The first of the books on the foundation’s list was not even co-edited by him; rather, it is entitled “Studies in Honor of Ernest S. Frerichs” and was edited in 1998 by none other than Jodi Magness and Seymour Gitin, respectively member of the board of trustees and Dorot Director of the Albright Institute.

(My concern here is not with personal polemics, but readers may wish to note that Jacob Neusner’s book The Price of Excellence contains several references to Dr. Frerichs. Two of them report statements describing Frerichs as a “mediocrity” [p. 155] and “never to be trusted” [p. 180]; a third describes an incident in which Frerichs appears to have “threatened” a particular scholar with a “loss of respectability” and with having his capacity to publish scholarly works removed [p. 235]. I have no idea if there is any truth to these accusations, nor are they my topic here; my concern is with Dr. Frerichs’ accountability as president of a foundation that has donated millions of dollars both to popular museums where the Dead Sea Scrolls are presented as sectarian writings, and to research institutions some of whose most prominent members are regularly quoted as defending that particular theory.)

A google search for “Dorot Foundation, ASOR, Society of Biblical Literature” brings up ample evidence of the complex pattern of financial ties (both direct and indirect) between the Foundation and these organizations, involving, for example, various travel and research grants. At a minimum, it is not clear if ASOR would be able to function properly without the Foundation’s support.

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With this background in mind, let us now turn to the ASOR and SBL meetings that recently took place in San Diego (November 13-20, 2007).

On November 14, 2007, the aforementioned Dr. Magness, as “plenary” speaker at ASOR, gave a talk entitled “The Current State of Qumran Archaeology.”

Three days later, on November 17, 2007, Magness gave the same talk, or at any rate a talk having exactly the same title, at SBL (go to this link and enter “Magness” in the “last name” box).

There is, of course, nothing wrong with giving a couple of talks on a particular topic of controversy; indeed, Dr. Magness has every right in the world to express her opinion on the disputed question of whether Qumran was a military fortress and whether its inhabitants had anything to do with writing the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What is unusual and disturbing, however, is that she gave the same lecture to two different groups with overlapping audiences within a period of three days, and that none of the researchers who have rejected her views were invited to respond to her on either occasion.  Viewed in light of ASOR’s policy of fostering “public understanding” of ancient societies, it is not clear whether such a course of conduct conflicts, or can be reconciled, with Dr. Magness’ position as a current (or erstwhile) member of ASOR’s annual meeting committee.

In fact, a closer look at the SBL and ASOR conference schedules reveals that Magness gave three lectures at these two events and was one of the participants in a fourth panel too (believe it or not, on the topic of “the media, scholars, and sensational finds”).

What is more, Albright Institute secretary William Schniedewind’s graduate student Robert Cargill, who authored the virtual reality film being shown at the San Diego museum, also gave three lectures, one of them as the introduction to the ASOR “plenary session” at which Magness gave her address. (A few introductory remarks were also made by Dr. Eric Cline, ASOR’s current vice-president, who is regularly featured on National Geographic, Discovery and History Channel “documentaries” dealing with sensational archaeological topics such as “Joshua and the Walls of Jericho,” “Is it Real: Atlantis,” or “Revelation: The End of the World?”)

To be sure, in one session — not on the archaeology of Qumran, but on “Josephus and the Essenes” — Dr. Steve Mason of York University is listed as “respondent” to four lectures including one by Dr. Magness. The titles of the various lectures (including “Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Qumran Essenes” and “Josephus the Essene on the Qumran Essenes”) amply reveal that the main purpose of this session was to argue, against the view of many researchers, that the statements of the ancient Jewish author Josephus (who briefly flirted with Essenism) somehow confirm the idea of a sect living at Qumran. Dr. Magness is known to favor the idea that a “community” of sectarians, rather than soldiers and pottery manufacturers, inhabited Qumran, and Dr. Mason is known to be unconvinced by that idea. But clearly the cards were stacked against Dr. Mason, who had 20 minutes to respond to four different lectures, and no assistance from any of the better-known scholars who have rejected the Qumran-sectarian theory.

In fact, it appears that none of the historians or archaeologists who have concluded that no sect ever lived at Qumran, and that the Dead Sea Scrolls are the remains of libraries that were removed from Jerusalem for hiding during the siege of the city by the Romans in 70 A.D., were invited to report on their continuing research at either SBL or ASOR. As I have pointed out in my previous pieces, these archaeologists include Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, the leaders of the officially appointed team whose lengthy preliminary report on ten years of excavations at Qumran is available on the Israel Antiquity Authority’s website. Magness’ SBL and ASOR lectures were clearly designed to defend the Qumran-sectarian theory against the findings of Magen, Peleg and other archaeologists, but no one had the opportunity to hear a response from the scholars whose conclusions she opposes.

In light of the above, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that on Nov. 19, 2007, Dr. Magness also gave a lecture at the San Diego Natural History Museum, on the topic of “The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.” The museum’s description of the lecture says that the Dead Sea Scrolls “represent a library of religious literature that belonged to the inhabitants of Qumran in the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE. In Dr. Magness’ slide-illustrated lecture, we will review the archaeology of Qumran, incorporating information that the scrolls provide about the beliefs and practices of the sect.” Notice that here there is no longer any pretense of discussing the “current state” of research on this topic or of responding to Drs. Magen and Peleg (who, as I have explained in my previous pieces, were excluded from participating in the museum’s lecture series). Rather, the Qumran-sectarian theory is presented as a fact.

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To sum up: ASOR is funded by the Dorot Foundation, which also funds at least one museum that presents the Essene theory as a dogma; Dr. Magness has played a prominent role on the Board of Trustees of one of ASOR’s main branches; she has also co-edited a book in honor of the Dorot foundation’s president; — and lo and behold, Dr. Magness is trotted out at ASOR and SBL without a single opposing voice at two of her talks, and with the cards stacked in her favor at the other.

Again, it is difficult to see how any of this can be reconciled with ASOR’s own “public understanding” philosophy — or, for that matter, with SBL’s policy of “broad and open discussion from a variety of perspectives,” or with its “core values” of “accountability,” “inclusiveness,” “collegiality,” “responsiveness to change,” “tolerance,” and “scholarly integrity.”

Indeed, given the apparent lack of any public explanation as to how Dr. Magness came to be chosen as the single lecturer on this topic, I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that her quasi monopolization of the SBL and ASOR talks on this important topic conflicts with the spirit of Dr. Frerichs’ own statement, quoted above at the beginning of this piece, that “the atmosphere of our day, in both religious and secular settings, demands that scholarship be public and accountable.”

Given the total circumstances, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in the case of treatment of the “current state of Qumran archaeology” at the ASOR and SBL meetings, we appear to be dealing with a set-up, and it is in fact quite astonishing that none of the hundreds of participants in the two conferences appears to have noticed or complained about it.

Then, a couple of days later, Dr. Magness gave a lecture at the San Diego museum in which, judging from the museum’s description of the lecture, she presented the Essene theory as an established fact.

I must again emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with a foundation giving money to academically-based organizations like ASOR or SBL. But if there are grounds for inferring that the foundation granting the money has, in an ongoing manner, been using the financial incentive of the grant to ensure that the organizations in question present without opposition the view favored by the foundation or its directors, then the question surely arises whether we are dealing with a misuse of influence (or meddling) in the academic community that deserves careful investigation by the press.

This would not be the first example of such misconduct in the academic world, but in light of the religious fervor conveyed by so-called bible scholarship, the alarming possibility seems to have emerged that an effort to break down the wall separating religious and scientific discourse (on which see my recent piece on peddling religious sensationalism in America) has spread into the milieu of scholarly research. Are the actions of the parties concerned grounded in unsettling ideological tendencies, in motives stemming from personal pride, a desire for financial profit, or in some combination of all of these factors? Whatever the answer to this question, to the extent there is indeed such an effort, I submit that it must be exposed and combatted at every step.

Postscript: In the course of researching this article, I learned that in 1986, Joy Gottesman co-authored a book entitled The Museums of Israel.  Even though it’s available for the modest price of 49 cents on Amazon.com, I couldn’t bring myself to order it.  But I think it’s a safe bet that it prominently features the Shrine of the Book constructed with Samuel Gottesman’s money. Would Mr. Gottesman have been happy to learn of the propogandistic, “Qumran-sectarian” use the museum is being put to with funds provided by his heirs (the next of the “Dorot”) today? Honestly, I have my doubts.

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