The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

Christian fundamentalism and the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego (August 2, 2007)

A Dead Sea Scroll featured on one of the ties sold by Weston Fields

Recently, there has been some general awareness that an important group of Jewish and Israeli historians and archaeologists have been excluded from the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit taking place at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Many people, however, are a bit confused as to what it’s all about. Why exclude people? And why did it cost six million dollars to create this exhibit anyway? After all, it’s just a bunch of old parchment texts, so who cares?

Hoping to shed some light on these matters, I decided to take a closer look at the history of the exhibit. What I found was evidence that the old Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly group (on which see further below) teamed up with individuals affiliated in one way or another with a number of Christian fundamentalist “educational institutions” to market the exhibit and control precisely what type of ideas would be presented in it.

So what do the “American Institute For Advanced Biblical Studies,” “Grace College,” the “Institute of Holy Land Studies,” the “Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration,” the “Jerusalem University College,” the “University of the Holy Land” and other similar institutions all have in common, and what do they have to do with the Dead Sea Scrolls? For the answer, read on.


An article in the San Diego Union-Tribune sums up the basic facts as follows: “The exhibition’s journey to San Diego began with a lunch and a phone call. David Noel Freedman, a well-known biblical scholar at the University of California San Diego,” invited his former student Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, now a faculty member at San Diego State University, “to meet Weston Fields, executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, which raises funds for publication and preservation through exhibitions. Levitt Kohn suggested the Natural History Museum as a possible venue.”

Another website similarly explains that Weston Fields, “head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, which raises money for continuing research into the scrolls, visited Freedman at UCSD while Levitt Kohn was completing her doctoral studies.”

Already a bit worrisome was the role played in this affair by David Noel Freedman. I’ve known for some time that Freedman grew up in New York, then became a Presbyterian minister at the age of 22 — his father, incidentally, was a Jewish immigrant from Romania, known as “king of the gag writers” for his comedic collaboration with Eddie Cantor — and went on to write his “joint Ph.D. dissertation” with Frank Cross. (They wrote the dissertation together and Johns Hopkins awarded a degree to each of them individually, but we will pass over this little detail and whatever ethical issues it might raise.) After receiving their degree(s), Cross and Freedman both became (1) promoters of the theory that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written at Qumran by a radical, proto-Christian sect known as the Essenes, and (2) members of the team of “editors” who, as I will explain below, monopolized access to the scrolls for many years.

Still missing from the picture, however, was any kind of solid background info on the individual who appeared to be the animating force behind the San Diego exhibit: namely, Weston Fields, “executive director” of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation. Who is this guy, and why would he be having lunch with Freedman and soon-to-be Dr. Kohn at UCLA? That’s the question I started with, and from that point on a whole picture began to emerge.

Here is what I found on Fields:

According to one website, he received a Th.D. at Grace Theological Seminary, and taught at the same institution and at its sister Grace College for ten years.  Then he went on to earn a Ph.D. in biblical studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His dissertation, on “Sodom and Gomorrah: Tradition, Motifs and Meaning in Genesis 18, 19,” was written under the direction of Shemaryahu Talmon, one of the most doctrinaire defenders of the old Qumran-Essene theory ever to have played a role in scrolls scholarship. Fields’ own claim to fame as a scholar apparently comes not from any work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but from having authored the “notes on Jeremiah and Lamentations for the study-reference edition of the New American Standard Bible.” Another website indicates that he also taught “at the Institute of Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College) for seven years.” And still another site describes him as “Chair, Department of Biblical Studies; Chair, Division of Old Testament and Culture of Ancient Israel, University of the Holy Land, Jerusalem.”

Well, let’s take these institutions one by one.

First, Grace College: located in the “resort community of Winona Lake, near Warsaw, Indiana,” it is “associated with the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches” and defines itself as an “evangelical Christian community of higher education which applies Biblical values….” Its webpage includes the statement: “Our goal in Christian living and teaching is to make Christ preeminent in all things.” It further indicates that “Grace College affirms the inerrancy of scripture and the moral, spiritual, and historical authority of the Bible, embracing sound theology, including the divine creation of the universe and other great doctrines.”

Second, the Institute of Holy Land Studies: based in Sherwood, Arkansas, it is also known as the “American Institute For Advanced Biblical Studies.” Founded by Dr. Ron Moseley in 1991 as a “specialty college,” it serves as a “training center for biblical teachers and laymen relating to Middle Eastern history.” Its “Statement of Faith” explains that its program gives “special emphasis to the Christian faith as it was originally conceived…, refuting and denying all atheistic, agnostic, pagan, and neo-scientific alterations of the Scriptures. We affirm … the creation of man by the act of God, the incarnation and virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish Messiah. We affirm His vicarious atonement for the sins of the world, by shedding of the Messiah’s blood on the cross as the innocent for the unjust and the resurrection of His body from the tomb…” Apparently, the Institute, or at least its Jerusalem branch, goes by a third name as well: the “Jerusalem University College“; but this place has a different website and a slightly different “faith statement” which refers to the principles of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Third, the University of the Holy Land: its online “academic profile” states that it was “developed” in 1986 by the “Center for the Study of Early Christianity.” It offers, among other degrees, a Master of Theological Studies “designed for students desiring to enter into ministerial areas of vocation.” Its website includes a page soliciting financial contributions that can be sent to an address in Medford, Oregon. One of its projects involves the construction of a model “Nazareth Village” the aim of which is to “provide a sort of time capsule into which the contemporary visitor might step to encounter more effectively the message of Jesus in its original setting.”


So far so good. If the only element of my story were Weston Fields and his illustrious teaching career, well, then perhaps it would not be much of a story. Field’s affiliations, however, are only the beginning of the story.

It turns out that one past member of the University of the Holy Land‘s adjunct faculty and board of advisors, is Dr. William Schniedewind, a biblical scholar who teaches at UCLA, and whose views on the Scrolls and Khirbet Qumran are being displayed in a “virtual reality” film at the San Diego exhibit. Dr. Schniedewind did his doctoral work at Brandeis, but where did he receive his M.A.? At the Jerusalem University College (see above).

Here a digression is necessary, because we read further that “the founder and President of the University of the Holy Land/Center for the Study of Early Christianity is Dr. Stephen J. Pfann.” We are informed that Pfann received his M.A. (in what year is not clear) from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley; he has lived in Jerusalem since 1982; in 2001, he received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University, the topic of his dissertation being “The Character of the Essene Movement in Light of the Manuscripts in Esoteric Script from Qumran”; nine years earlier, however, he was made a member of the official “International Team of Editors” of the Dead Sea Scrolls — a group that was set up during the old days of the Scrolls monopoly (on which more below). Pfann, we are told, is a collaborator of Emmanuel Tov, the head of the International Team. I will have another word to say about Emmanuel Tov in a moment.

First, however, let us return to Weston Fields, the primo mobile behind the San Diego exhibit.  His name is not listed on the University of the Holy Land site despite the chair that he claims to hold there; but I took a closer look at his Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation. Its website states that it “is involved in facilitating international exhibitions of scrolls, and serves as a clearing house for many other matters relating to scrolls research and scholarship.” Its “primary function,” however, “is the financial support of the official publication in the Oxford University Press series” of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The methods it uses to achieve these goals include the sale (no doubt in a variety of venues including museum exhibits) of “Dead Sea Scroll ties and scarves.”

Its board of advisors includes minister David Noel Freedman, the guy who shared (so to speak) a Ph.D. with Frank Cross, and whose student Risa Levitt Kohn is the curator of the San Diego exhibit; and its board of directors includes none other than… Emmanuel Tov, the mentor of Holy Land University founder Stephen Pfann. The foundation’s other directors and advisors consist mainly of a series of other academicians, at least eleven of whom are members of the aforementioned “International Team of Editors”, and all of whom are associated with the old Qumran-Essene theory of scroll origins.


Now does any of this sound familiar? Perhaps not, so for readers who might not know about the Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly scandal of the early 1990’s, another small digression is in order. Somehow, back then, word slipped out that the official team of editors [including David Noel Freedman] were hoarding hundreds of unpublished texts and refusing to allow anyone who was not a privileged member of their “official” group — and hence, anyone who disagreed with the old Qumran-Essene theory — to study them.

Emmanuel Tov (yes, Stephen Pfann’s mentor) was then appointed head of the International Team (which, perhaps, explains why Pfann, nine years before receiving his Ph.D. but six years after “developing” the University of the Holy Land, quickly became a member of the Team when seasoned scholars were complaining of being exluded from it). Around that time, despite widening public awareness of the scandal, a rather shoddy agreement was ironed out to sell photographs of the texts to Oxford University, under the condition that only people who were approved by the official team could see them. This led to a harsh exchange of letters in the Times of London between Geza Vermes of Oxford (who had in effect, through this agreement, purchased his way into becoming a member of the official editorial team) and University of Chicago historian Norman Golb, who condemned the agreement as an offense to the British tradition of academic freedom.

A few days later, William Moffett, director of the Huntington Library in California, saw the exchange of letters in the Times. It so happened that many years before, under a highly unusual arrangement, a wealthy citizen of California had succeeded in purchasing a complete set of photographs of the Scrolls and given them to Huntington for safekeeping in case of a war. Moffett saw that he had an opportunity and, after giving the matter some thought, announced that he had decided to make all of the photographs available to scholars at large. With that simple decision, the monopoly in effect collapsed. The New York Times reported that the Oxford group had reacted with anger and that legal action was being contemplated. This idea, however, was quickly abandoned. Instead, Oxford hastened its own publication of the scrolls by a select group of Qumran-Essene ideologues, and museum exhibits started to take place, of which the San Diego exhibit is only the latest and the largest to date.


Let us now return to the exhibit and to our Christian fundamentalist theme. As I have reported in other pieces on this site, Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, Freedman’s student, was appointed curator. While the museum was gathering six million dollars from various wealthy philanthropists, she began to put together the exhibit and its accompanying lecture series, from which the many scholars who disagree with the traditional Qumran-Essene theory were carefully excluded (“you don’t want to confuse people,” she said). In January, she falsely presented herself in writing as a “Dead Sea Scrolls scholar.”

At the same time, Dr. Kohn announced that the exhibit would feature the above-mentioned “virtual reality” film on Qumran (I discussed the sensationalist press campaign surrounding this film at length in an earlier item). It has since come out that the museum and Stephen Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation together gave $100,000 dollars to Robert Cargill, a graduate student at UCLA, to further his “dissertation work” involving this film. Cargill is a student of Dr. William Schniedewind, who as we saw above (1) received his M.A. from the Institute of Holy Land Studies and (2) has served as a member of the board of advisors of the University of the Holy Land.

Now what brought Robert Cargill to Dr. Schniedewind and UCLA? A clue is to be found in Cargill’s biography which he recently posted on his wikipedia “userpage” after initially attempting to post an encyclopedia article about himself, an action blocked by wiki editors. Here, we learn that before enrolling at UCLA, Cargill attended Pepperdine University, where he received a Master of Science degree in Christian Ministry and a Master of Divinity degree as well. For readers who may be unfamiliar with Pepperdine, it defines itself as a “Christian university,” and its website explains that it is “religiously affiliated with the Churches of Christ, of which Mr. Pepperdine, university founder, was a lifelong member.” (Members of the “Churches of Christ” seek to reestablish or “re-present” the original first-century Church, i.e., they “regard early Christian behavior recorded in the New Testament as directives, to be followed literally as mandatory practice today.”)

In passing, let us note that another sensationalist Dead Sea Scrolls character who got his M.A. at Pepperdine is James Tabor (“he was raised in the Churches of Christ and attended Abilene Christian University where he earned his B.A.,” etc.). Tabor is the Charlotte, North Carolina-based religion professor who attempted to demonstrate that undatable feces found at some distance from the Qumran fortress are the remains of an “Essene toilet.” Tabor, incidentally, is also the main figure behind the phony “Lost Tomb of Jesus” claim made in a Discovery Channel “documentary” a few months ago. One of the first of the current series of scroll exhibits took place in… Charlotte, North Carolina. At the time, Tabor falsely presented himself as an “archaeologist” in an article he contributed to a Charlotte newspaper. His “toilet” research was conducted jointly with Joe Zias of the “Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration” (which despite its name is another Christian fundamentalist outfit, based in Humboldt, Tennessee). Zias gives lectures in which he presents himself as an expert on the scrolls and other related topics; he is occasionally referred to as “Dr. Joe Zias,” but he never received a Ph.D.

Given everything I’ve said, it is not surprising to learn that a prototype of Robert Cargill’s work-product, the “virtual reality” film being show at the San Diego exhibit, is featured as one of the University of the Holy Land projects on that institution’s website, immediately following the “Nazareth Village” project.

The same “University of the Holy Land” website explains that “in studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars are presented with the rare opportunity of exploring the world of … the Essenes … The Scrolls themselves are the library of the Essenes and reflect their history, beliefs, practices, liturgies, and Biblical interpretation. The site of Qumran near the Dead Sea was the community center of the Essenes…”

What the website fails to mention, of course, is that a team of major Israeli archaeologists led by Dr. Yitzhak Magen and Dr. Yuval Peleg, after a decade spent reexamining the Qumran site, have, like Yizhar Hirschfeld and other scholars before them, concluded that no Essenes ever lived there and that the scrolls were brought down for hiding from Jerusalem during the revolt against Rome and were written by many different groups within ancient Judaism. And, of course, it fails to mention, for example, that Dr. Rachel Elior who chairs the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University has reached the same Jerusalem conclusion on textual and historical grounds.


At least one of the sensationalist news articles surrounding the San Diego exhibit has celebrated the fact that Dr. Schniedewind of UCLA and his student Robert Cargill are both “practicing Christians,” as the article puts it, “with a deep appreciation of Judaism and Israel.” Given what is now known about the organizations these two individuals are tied to (see again the obvious fundamentalist agenda of the “Institute of Holy Land Studies” where Schniedewind got his M.A., quoted above), the question must be raised: is the UCLA team’s fascination with both Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls in any way grounded in a desire to “re-present the original first-century Church”?

In addition, bearing in mind the important apocalyptic themes found in some of the Scrolls, clarification is needed on the attitude of the organizations in question towards the belief, broadly shared by Christian fundamentalists, that the Jews must convert to Christianity before the “end of days” can arrive.

At any rate, the apparent connection between Christian fundamentalist institutions and Israeli scholarship is, to say the least, disconcerting. Ultimately, the question must also be raised — and will hopefully be answered in the coming months and years — whether these institutions have been offering financial backing and related support to any of the scholars involved.

Furthermore, is it proper for museums claiming scientific objectivity to sponsor exhibits significantly informed by fundamentalist beliefs? In fact, did the San Diego Natural History Museum even know that these various Christian organizations — all of which seem to be so oddly connected among themselves — were, together with members of the original Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly, behind the exhibit that Risa Levitt Kohn and Weston Fields pitched to them?

Did they know that Kohn would collaborate with Fields to exclude a series of major Israeli archaeologists from the exhibit, as well as all the other opponents of the old monopolists — including, above all, Jewish historian Norman Golb who has argued (see his Forward editorial) that, on account of the Qumran-Essene theory popularized by Dominican priest Father Roland de Vaux, the “complex history of the Palestinian Jews on the eve of the First Revolt is being pushed aside in favor of a bizarre, Christologically colored thesis”?

Did Joan and Irwin Jacobs, Stephen Spielberg and other famous donors know that of the millions of dollars they agreed to give for the exhibit, some would be handed over to graduate student (and Minister) Robert Cargill for a project that appears to be based on a film featured on the “University of the Holy Land” website; some would fund the “continuing research” of the old crew of Dead Sea Scrolls monopolists; and some would perhaps pad the pockets of the monopolists’ other “righteous,” i.e., fundamentalist collaborators? Would the donors have been so quick to shell out the money if they had known exactly who was asking for it?

Who’s to say. Where interests coincide, even Oxford University professors and Jewish researchers like Emmanuel Tov and Shemaryahu Talmon will work together with Christian fundamentalists like Fields to achieve common goals. The result is the “inner circle,” the chain of connected figures — heirs of the old Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly — who are now using the San Diego exhibit to indocrinate thousands of people into believing that the Scrolls are the “library of the Essenes of Qumran.”

[August 9 update: I wish to thank Mr. Robert Dworkin for directing my attention to the statement, in an article published nearly three years ago to this date, that “archaeologists who are financed by Christian fundamentalist organizations” had, on August 16, 2004, given a “press conference” to reassert, in the face of research to the contrary, that Qumran was a “monastery” inhabited by a sect or “community,” etc.  Although the article does not state the names of these individuals, other news items reveal that at least one of them was Randall Price, Th.M., Ph.D., president of the World of Bible Ministries, pastor at “Grace Bible Church” in St. Marcos, Texas (no website found) and “research professor” at the “Oregon Theological Seminary” (website suspended) and also at the thriving Trinity Southwest University (TSU), an institution based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  TSU defines itself as a “trans-denominational institution in the evangelical mainstream … serving New Mexico’s Christian community.” Its statement objects to relegating “the Word of God to patient status, rather than its proper role as agent in our lives.” TSU’s affiliations include the Association of Christian Schools International” (dead link on TSU’s site) and the “International Symposium on Archaeology and the Bible” (link provided by TSU goes to Bible products and trivia site). As of today, I have been unable to ascertain which other “archaeologists” were present at the “press conference” of August 16, 2004.]

[October 1 update: William Schniedewind’s name has now been removed from the University of the Holy Land’s above-linked personnel page, but Google’s cached version of the page (as of Sept. 26, 2007) clearly lists him both as advisor and as adjunct professor.]

[October 30 update: My more recent article, Did Christian agenda lead to biased Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in San Diego?, synthesizes and updates the information presented above and in the comments appended to the original Nowpublic version of this article, and features a response to a fierce supporter of the museum who has repeatedly asserted that I am a “bigot” and a “liar.”]


1 Comment »

  1. […] Christian fundamentalism and the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego (August 2, 2007) […]

    Pingback by “What a mess, huh?” « The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego — March 22, 2009 @ 2:04 am | Reply

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