The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit misleads public? (July 2, 2007) and Antisemitism and the Dead Sea Scrolls (February, 2009)

The Copper Scroll

Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit misleads public?

The Los Angeles Times recently carried an interesting report, by Mike Boehm, on the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit taking place at the San Diego Natural History Museum.  They asked the curator, Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, why the museum has carefully excluded all scholars who oppose the old, and increasingly contested, theory of Scroll origins from the lecture series accompanying the exhibit, and she came up with a good reply–“You don’t want to confuse people with so many competing theories, so they walk away, saying, ‘Well, nobody really knows anything!'”

I for one find that extremely convincing.  The last thing in the world we would want is for people to understand why there is more than one interpretation of the facts. After all, that would only confuse them, and in their confused state they might become depressed, or behave in an irrational manner. They might even start asking why the museum has not explained how it came about that an entire series of major scholars rejected the old theory over the past decade, not in favor of “so many competing theories,” but in favor of one salient competing theory. Yes, we must protect people from the truth at all costs.  Besides, we wouldn’t want to do anything that might upset Dr. Kohn’s academic friends!

For a somewhat different perspective, see University of Chicago historian Norman Golb’s articles Fact and Fiction in Current Exhibitions of the Dead Sea Scrolls–A Critical Notebook for Viewers (on recent scrolls exhibits in general) and The Dead Sea Scrolls as Treated in a Recently Published Catalogue (on the San Diego exhibit in particular).  And see his editorial in The Forward, Take Claims about Dead Sea Scrolls with a Grain of Salt.  (The titles are links–clicking on them brings up the articles.)

A chronology of this controversy is now available on-line (that’s another link).  I’ve posted a picture of the Copper Scroll, easily the most important document found in the caves–and which the museum appropriately treats as a “mystery” because to explain its significance for the interpretation of the scrolls as a whole would also confuse the public.

[Click here for a July 10 update to this story.  And click here for my August 2 piece concerning the involvement of individuals affiliated with a variety of “Christian educational institutions” in planning and choosing the content of the San Diego exhibit.]

Antisemitism and the Dead Sea Scrolls

While details of a terrible struggle concerning the apparent rigging of Dead Sea Scrolls exhibits have been trickling out, there is perhaps not enough general awareness of the role played by antisemitism in fifty years of scrolls research. Therefore, it will be useful to present some basic information on the topic, so readers can place the current exhibit controversy in context.

The elements of this scandal have been documented in many venues, including, most recently, in an article by Edward Rothstein of the New York Times.

Rothstein explains that in the aftermath of the 1948 war, virtually all of the thousands of text fragments found in the caves near Qumran were kept in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, and the Jordanian government appointed a team of “editors” to publish them, led by Roland de Vaux, a Dominican priest affiliated with the École Biblique (also in East Jerusalem).  One small detail that Rothstein fails to mention: before becoming a priest and moving to Jerusalem, De Vaux was a member of the ultra-right-wing, antisemitic Action Française group.

Now the crucial fact, as Rothstein indicates, is that “Jewish scholars were deliberately excluded from de Vaux’s original eight-member team, which was dominated by Roman Catholic priests and scholars.”

According to Rothstein, De Vaux “rejected offers by Israelis to help his team and persisted in referring to Israel as Palestine.” Other members of the team also had a “scorn of political [and] religious aspects of Judaism.”

Rothstein explains that while the theory that the scrolls were produced by a sect of ascetic Essenes was first proposed by a Jewish scholar teaching at the Hebrew University, “that vision was filled out by de Vaux and his colleagues,” who argued that Qumran housed a “monastic celibate group living in the desert, isolated from other Judaic movements,” and espousing messianic views that “embodied almost proto-Christian sensibilities.”

Referring to what is commonly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly, Rothstein reminds us that “the scrolls were passed among generations of scholars like esoteric possessions,” and that the Qumran-sectarian theory “became orthodoxy, made immutable because until the 1990s the texts were largely inaccessible to outsiders.”

Rothstein observes that “the scholarly cult devoted to these scrolls was as tightly knit, self-regarding and monastic as the cult those scholars imagined produced the scrolls.” (Substance is given to Rothstein’s account in an editorial by University of Chicago historian Norman Golb, where we read that the “complex history of the Palestinian Jews on the eve of the First Revolt [was] pushed aside in favor of a bizarre, Christologically colored thesis.”)

This situation continued until recent times, because when Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, it failed, according to Rothstein, to “assert any real authority over the project.”

John Strugnell, an early appointee of de Vaux, became head of the team in the 1980s, and in 1990 gave an interview in which he described Judaism as a “horrible religion” that “should have disappeared.” (For more on Strugnell, see his New York Times obituary by John Noble Wilford, where we learn, for example, that he never received a Ph.D.)

At least one member of the original monopoly, David Noel Freedman, was a convert to Christianity who served as a Presbyterian minister; his student, Risa Levitt Kohn, curated the San Diego exhibit and is “guest-curating” the Toronto exhibit; in a published interview, she has declared that the scrolls are “not really Jewish texts.”

Another monopoly member, John Allegro, issued an antisemitic book, The Chosen People (1971), which is regularly cited on “maverick” websites: see, e.g., this page, where we learn that “the best study … for the general anti-Semite to read is John Allegro’s ‘The Chosen People’ … which details just how blood-thirsty, organized and generally genocidal the Jews were.” The author of this fascinating statement explains that Allegro was a “theologian who focused on ‘macro-theology’ and the Essene connection to Christianity.”

I don’t recall ever reading that anything in the Dead Sea Scrolls reflects a “blood-thirsty and genocidal” world-view. Clearly, then, Dr. Kohn was right to say that they are not really “Jewish texts.”

To be sure, Allegro left the editorial “team” before he published his scholarly diatribe; Strugnell himself was dismissed after making his antisemitic statements; and in the 1990s the group was gradually opened to a number of Jews, after Oxford scholar Geza Vermes — another convert to Christianity and an adamant defender of the Qumran-sectarian theory — admitted that the monopoly was “the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century,” but entered into a controversial deal to obtain copies of the unpublished scrolls for Oxford under the condition that only individuals selected by the “official” editors could see them.

Despite the grudging expansion of the “team,” today it remains a fact that no one who fundamentally disagrees with the old Qumran-sectarian theory has ever been included in it. Moreover, while a variety of Jewish scholars have been invited to give lectures at the current museum exhibits, the views of the key opponents of the sectarian theory — in particular, of the prominent scholars in Israel and elsewhere who have argued for a specifically Jewish, as opposed to sectarian, theory of scroll origins — have been largely downplayed and excluded from these venues (with, it would seem, the single exception of the Jewish Museum exhibit in New York).

Finally, is it insignificant that an antisemitic insinuation has appeared in a press release announcing at least one of the exhibits (in Raleigh, N.C.), and that a concerted effort to prevent the public from finding out about opposition to the exhibits appears to have been engaged in by interested parties, some of whose work histories include, for example, employment in companies with names like “Christianity.com”?

Clearly these are difficult questions. Nor can antisemitism alone be held responsible for the current crisis in scrolls research: personal enmities, financial interests, the ordinary desire for power are surely all partly to blame. This being said, the question of how much influence the shadow of the original monopoly continues to exercise over public perception of the scrolls remains a pressing issue to this day, and one is entitled to wonder whether appeals to Jewish involvement in the traveling exhibition aren’t a bit like that old story: “Oh, but I have many Jewish friends…”

1 Comment »

  1. […] Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit misleads public? July 2, 2007 […]

    Pingback by “What a mess, huh?” « The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego — November 24, 2007 @ 5:12 am | Reply


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