The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

Did Christian agenda lead to biased Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in San Diego? (October 6, 2007)

“The truth is, I wouldn’t classify these as Jewish texts….”
Curator of Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, San Diego Natural History Museum, speaking on June 2, 2007

Was it appropriate for a scientific institution to allow a group of Christian academics to impose their agenda on an exhibit of ancient documents taking place under its auspices? Given what happened with the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit currently taking place at the San Diego Natural History Museum, this question confronts those of us who are concerned with issues of science, religion and ethics in American society.

Take a look at the program of the “Dead Sea Scrolls Institute” at Trinity Western University (which, as its name and website description indicate, is a Christian establishment). The program states: “We believe that Evangelical Christian scholars should play a significant role in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Well, the Institute’s co-director, Martin Abegg, did indeed play a “significant role” in creating the exhibit of the scrolls that took place last year at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, even to the point of acting as Governor Christine Gregoire’s “personal guide” on her tour of the exhibit; and there can be little doubt that he was involved in the creation of the current San Diego exhibit too — as indicated, for example, in his role as a “featured commentator” on the exhibit’s audio tour.

It is thus not surprising to learn that, in an interview of June 2, 2007, the curator of the San Diego exhibit, Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, stated:

“The truth is, I wouldn’t classify these as Jewish texts… Because I would say Judaism, the way we tend to think about it, even early Judaism, is not yet fully crystallized in this period….”

While flowing naturally from the views of Abegg and a number of other individuals whose names are listed below, Kohn’s statement was, unfortunately, tendentious; and it was particularly inappropriate coming from the curator of a supposedly scientific Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. After all, the scrolls are mostly Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts dating from a time when the civilization commonly known as “intertestamental Judaism” flourished in Palestine. What is more, an important group of historians and archaeologists have argued, both from the actual contents of the texts and from the results of the excavations of the past decade, that the scrolls are specifically the remains of Jewish libraries in Jerusalem, removed to multiple locations in the desert for safekeeping shortly before or during the Roman siege and sacking of the city in 70 A.D.

The evidence supporting this Jewish view (treated, let us recall, as one of the two salient theories of scroll origins in the Cambridge History of Judaism) is concealed in the San Diego exhibit, which favors the so-called “Qumran-Essene” theory according to which the scrolls were written, not by multiple groups of Jews living in a major urban center, but by a radical sect (or “community”) imagined, without any supporting archaeological proof, to have been living in a military fortress and commercial entrepot in the desert. What is more, all of the Jerusalem theory’s proponents have been excluded from participating in the lecture series accompanying the exhibit. Thus, none of the proponents of the Jewish view will have the opportunity to publicly challenge Dr. Kohn’s assertion concerning the non-Jewish character of the scrolls.

We must note, moreover, that in the same interview, Dr. Kohn asserted that she studied the scrolls only in a “tangential” way, thereby contradicting her earlier written statement of January 9, 2007, to the effect that she is a “Dead Sea Scrolls scholar.”

Bearing these assertions of Dr. Kohn’s in mind, let us now turn to the religious background, training and affiliations of the five key individuals who — in addition, of course, to the above-cited Martin Abegg — are known to have been involved in the creation of the San Diego exhibit (for full details and links, see my article on Christian fundamentalism and the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego):

  • David Noel Freedman: Presbyterian minister since 1944, biblical scholar and member of the original team that monopolized the Dead Sea Scrolls for many years; Risa Levitt Kohn’s professor at UCSD; co-author, with Pam Fox Kuhlken, of a popular book on the scrolls whose publication was timed to coincide with the exhibit (I will have a word to say about this book below).
  • Weston Fields: Th.D. from “Grace Theological Seminary,” Ph.D. in biblical studies from Hebrew University; affiliated with Christian fundamentalist “University of the Holy Land” network; connected with Freedman and other members of the old monopoly team, through the “Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation” of which he is the director; sells Dead Sea Scrolls ties.
  • Russell Fuller: professor in the Theology department at the University of San Diego, which (despite its name) is a “Roman Catholic institution” with a declared religious mission. His recent lecture at the museum was sponsored by “Point Loma Nazarene University,” which aims to become a “nationally prominent Christian university.”
  • William Schniedewind: B.A. and M.A. from two Christian educational institutions (“George Fox University” and “Jerusalem University College,” which was the predecessor of the “Institute of Holy Land Studies”); Ph.D. from Brandeis; biblical scholar at UCLA; described in one news item as a “practicing Christian with a deep appreciation of Judaism”; until recently listed as adjunct professor and member of board of advisors on personnel page of the “University of the Holy Land”; apparently no longer affiliated with that institution.
  • Robert Cargill: Schniedewind’s graduate student at UCLA, holds both a Master of Science in Christian Ministry and a Master of Divinity degree from Pepperdine University (a Christian educational institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ).  An article that appeared on a Jewish website two weeks before the San Diego exhibit opened, and for which he was interviewed, states merely that while at Pepperdine he majored in “biblical studies” — a very interesting way of describing those two degrees — and quotes him as stating that he “realized that to understand Christianity I had to first understand Judaism.”

These five individuals have, both separately and in tandem, (1) taught Risa Levitt Kohn at UCSD and recommended her as curator to the museum; (2) arranged for the scrolls to come to San Diego; (3) served as consultant(s) to the museum’s exhibit; (4) defended the old Qumran-Essene theory of Dead Sea Scroll origins in a variety of articles that ignore the major archaeological research developments of the past decade and feature titles like “Qumran Hebrew as an Antilanguage”; and (5) created a misleading “virtual reality” film that carefully distorts current research on Qumran and is being shown at the exhibit. They have also (6) snitched the title of a book by one of the excluded scholars for a lecture at the museum attacking the excluded scholars’ views; and (7) used the exhibit to promote their own books; engaged in sensationalist media campaigns designed to promote their own ideas as well as the exhibit; and remained utterly silent in face of criticism.

With respect to the above-mentioned popular book by David Noel Freedman and Pam Fox Kuhlken: timed, as I said, to coincide with the San Diego exhibit, and entitled What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls and Why Do They Matter?, it presents the Qumran-Essene theory in the manner of a dogma, without even informing readers of the existence of historical and archaeological research to the contrary. One passage, narrated in an earnest tone, suggests that the “secrecy” of the famous scrolls monopoly was wrong — but keeps it a secret from readers that Freedman himself was part of the monopoly. I am no expert, of course, on the ethical standards applicable to Presbyterian ministers, but shouldn’t the ordinary standards of common human decency lead us to have slightly higher expectations from someone who received a Ph.D. and who, in fact, presents himself to the public as a serious scholar? Then again, I seem to recall that telling the truth never earned anyone a fortune.

In the case of Mr. Cargill, it must be emphasized that his work on the misleading “virtual reality” film being shown at the museum was inappropriately funded with $100,000 that the museum obtained from Stephen Spielberg’s Holocaust fund. Why was a project of such importance entrusted to a graduate student with a ministerial degree from an institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ, rather than the group of seasoned Israeli archaeologists who, in 2006, published their detailed account of ten years spent re-examining Qumran? Is it because their on-site work led them to conclude that Qumran was a military fortress and commercial entrepot, that no sect ever lived there, and that the scrolls came from Jerusalem? Was it fair to deny the San Diego public the opportunity to hear from these archaeologists, and instead expose 450,000 people to the speculative reasonings and of a young man who hasn’t even completed a doctoral dissertation? Was Stephen Spielberg fully aware of the manner in which the exhibitors intended to use his money?

Mention should also be made of the elaborate network of evangelical “Bible blogs” that have in essence advertised the San Diego exhibit free of charge. Take, for example, the case of Jim West (Th.D. from Andersonville Theological Seminary in Georgia; currently a pastor in Petros, Tennessee). West has gone to considerable lengths to promote the above-mentioned “virtual reality” film, even using images from it (including the imaginary reconstruction of a “scriptorium” at Qumran which archaeologists now believe never existed) for his blog header.

Interestingly, West has also risen to the defense of Nadia Abu el-Haj, the Palestinian “sociologist” who is about to receive tenure from Columbia University despite (or indeed because of) her fashionably post-modernist claims to the effect that the abundant material evidence of a Jewish kingdom in ancient Palestine has simply been manufactured by Israeli archaeologists for political purposes. West (who has made his own “anti-Zionist” views clear in numerous postings) condemns Abu el-Haj’s detractors on the basis that they have not attempted to “engage” with her. Yet he has had not a word to say about the San Diego museum’s refusal to “engage” the prominent scholars who have rejected the theory of scroll origins defended in the current exhibit. Which is worse, various individuals failing to “engage” with Abu el-Haj on internet blogs, or a scientific institution violating the principle of free debate by excluding an entire group of major researchers from a six-million-dollar exhibit?

In addition to the individuals specifically responsible for creating and promoting the exhibit, we may add others who, in one way or another, appear to have been involved in other recent exhibits and/or in various sensationalist attempts to defend the traditional Qumran-Essene theory against the objections raised by the archaeologists of the past decade:

  • James Tabor (“Lost Tomb of Jesus” and “Essene toilet” claims; professor in religion department in Charlotte, N.C.; former Worldwide Church of God member; listed as “resource” on [i.e., apologist for] “new religions” by Church of Scientology)
  • Joe Zias (M.A. from Wayne State University; no Ph.D., but presents himself as “anthropologist”; Tabor’s collaborator on “Essene toilet” claim; affiliated with “Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration,” a Christian fundamentalist outfit based in Tennessee; gives lectures on topics that include “crucifixion and the Dead Sea Scrolls” and “the monasteries of the Judean Desert and their role in preventing and containing infectious disease during the Early Christian period”)
  • Randall Price (World of Bible Ministries; adamant defender of Qumran-Essene theory)Finally, with respect to David Noel Freedman, we must also mention some of his principal associates, past and present:
  • Father Roland de Vaux (Dominican priest, now deceased; chief promoter of Qumran-Essene theory, member of original monopoly team)
  • Frank Cross (Bachelor of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary, professor at Harvard Divinity School, member of original monopoly team; “co-wrote” Freedman’s Ph.D. dissertation)
  • Pam Fox Kuhlken (co-author with Freedman of the popular book on the scrolls mentioned above; ministerial degree from Bethel Seminary, founder of an on-line Christian “college”)
    This, of course, is only a partial list (among many others, one could add, e.g., the Dominicans of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem (one of whom will soon be lecturing at the San Diego museum), or people like Stephen Pfann, David Bivin and Todd Bolen of the “Holy Land” network; for details, see my “Christian Fundamentalism” article and the additional comments appended to it).

All of these people appear to share a conviction (whether it is based on scientific or religious grounds is subject to debate) that the “beliefs, literature and men of the Essene community” were a “vital part of the fabric of Jesus’ world.” In addition, given the programs of the institutions with which they are affiliated, it appears likely that at least some of them believe that on account of “disobedience … Israel was temporarily set aside … but will again be awakened through repentance to enter into the land of blessing.” Such “repentance,” of course, is Christian evangelical lingo for conversion of the Jews to Christianity. (See, again, the additional comments appended to my “Christian Fundamentalism” article for details).

At the same time, as indicated above, the evidence supporting the views of a group of important Jewish and Israeli historians and archaeologists who disagree with Freedman and his Christian colleagues has been belittled and excluded, the only explanation offered being that “you don’t want to confuse people with so many competing theories.” The excluded scholars, who include University of Chicago historian Norman Golb along with Rachel Elior of the Hebrew University, Yitzhak Magen, Yuval Peleg, Yizhar Hirschfeld and others, believe that no Essenes lived at Qumran, that the Scrolls came from the Jewish capital and, as Golb phrased it in a Forward editorial, that 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.” Incidentally, it appears that the San Diego chapter of the University of Chicago alumni association, no doubt curious to hear an alternative point of view, recently arranged to have Golb give a presentation on the scrolls and a guided tour of the exhibit. I recall seeing this mentioned on Dr. Jim Davila’s “Palaeojudaica” blog, but the museum, as well as the local newspapers, have of course carefully hushed it up, presumably because they don’t want any “criticism” of the exhibit.  [Oct. 30 update: Will the local media also cover up Golb’s review of the museum’s catalogue, in which he makes a mockery of this exhibit’s claim to have any scientific validity whatseover? If I have time at some point, I plan to write a separate piece summarizing this newly issued article, which exposes, one after the next, an entire host of erroneous and mendacious statements in the museum’s presentation.]

Returning to Risa Levitt Kohn, the curator of the exhibit [and author of the above-mentioned catalogue], one must bear in mind that she only recently completed her Ph.D., could well have difficult career choices to make and is probably (I’m happy to be corrected by her or others if I’m wrong) following orders or advice dished out by her mentor Dr. Freedman and the others. How could it be otherwise, given that she only has a “tangential” knowledge of the topic? One can certainly empathize with her on account of the difficulty she is in, but I don’t see how that can excuse her conduct, which has contributed to a situation in which the two theories of scroll origins oddly continue to subsist side by side, in parallel universes, without any of the direct public exchanges that alone would allow people to judge for themselves whose arguments are more convincing.

I believe these facts speak for themselves. While there is certainly no easy answer to the question of why any of this “matters,” what is now known surely gives rise to an appearance of impropriety. In sum, we appear to be dealing, at the very least, with an exhibition tainted by intellectual antisemitism, with an obscurantist, seemingly irrational fear of debate, and with biased conduct that is abhorrent to our basic social sentiments and to the principle of freedom of inquiry which lies at the core of our system of values.

What is more, the view being defended in the exhibit may well distort the true picture of the historical relationship between Judaism of the intertestamental period and early Christianity — a topic that is of immense significance to many people. And the exhibitors were clearly worried that the possibility of such distortion might become known.  Why else would they be afraid to invite the opponents of the view in question to explain their objections to the San Diego public?

So much for the exhibit itself. As was to be expected, a small number of rational, humanistically minded people have signaled my pieces in a favorable way, especially in England (I am truly grateful to the author of the View from Number 80 blog); but several individuals, apparently associated in one way or another with the exhibit or with the theory defended in it, have attacked me here and there, both privately and publicly, accusing me of “playing the religion card,” of being a “bigot,” and (as it was put by Freedman’s co-author Pam Fox Kuhlken in her dramatic intervention in the comments to my “Christian Fundamentalism” article) of establishing “guilt by association.” (These accusations are repeated by the individual who has posted a series of lengthy attempts to defend the museum, replete with ad hominem attacks against me, in the comments below.)

Well, who are the bigots here? If a shopowner keeps saying “we’re closed” when atheists, agnostics, or people of one religion or another show up, does a concerned observer “play the religion card” if he complains about this? Did I condemn the San Diego team members because of their affiliations, or did I not rather condemn their conduct? Did I ever say that proponents of the old Qumran-Essene theory should be silenced in a six-million-dollar museum exhibit? Did I blame David Noel Freedman for being a Presbyterian minister, or did I blame him rather for playing along with — and profiting from — an exhibition that stifles debate, excludes a group of major Jewish scholars, and misleads the public by presenting a fabricated Qumran-Essene “consensus” that no longer exists?

The San Diego exhibit, it must be said, is only the latest of a series of similarly vulgar and biased displays, all of them in “science” museums of one sort or another. It thus appears that the same unscientific pattern of conduct that we have seen here has been going on for at least several years in other venues. Yet, for a variety of reasons — ranging, one can only presume, from general distaste to fear for one’s career — everyone has always delicately passed the matter over in silence.

As for me, I am glad to have set forth the basic facts for anyone to see, and will continue to hope that serious-minded people will think about the situation and draw whichever conclusions are the right ones.


October 18 update: in comments to the version of this article that appeared on the Nowpublic site, an individual calling himself B. Ralph, who clearly knows a good deal about the Dead Sea Scrolls research milieu and is a supporter of the museum(indeed, it appears that B. Ralph might be a pseudonym for the museum’s marketing director, although he denies this, perhaps a bit too stridently), submitted a lengthy set of lurid accusations, virtually all of them evasive of the basic issues I have raised.  The one point where he actually tried to offer a rationale for the museum’s conduct, is when he asked why the proponents of the Jerusalem theory should “get primacy” and suggested that if the exhibit were to be inclusive, it would have to “show … every other of the dozens of ideas out there.”

That, of course, is precisely the explanation offered by Risa Levitt Kohn, when she said that the museum didn’t want to “confuse people with so many competing theories.”  As I have explained in several articles, this show of good will towards the public actually misleads the public in an embarrassingly obscurantist manner, because it hides the fact that the Jerusalem theory is treated as one of the two salient theories of scroll origins in major reference works such as the Cambridge History of Judaism and in articles published by major news sources such as the New York Times and the Associated Press (one AP article speaks of a “polarization” of scrolls studies between the two theories). By belittling, distorting, and excluding the evidence that supports one of those two salient theories, the museum is inappropriately taking sides in a bitter and widening academic dispute — and, indeed, implicitly defaming an entire group of important scholars, by suggesting that they are on the same level as minor figures on the margins of scrolls research.

Is it just a coincidence that B. Ralph also used his comments to tout the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, an organization (incidentally of mostly Christian membership) whose West Coast chapter “president” is none other than… Risa Levitt Kohn? (That Dr. Kohn, who only recently completed her Ph.D. and has very few publications to her credit, would be appointed to such a high-ranked position, says more than a little about how people like David Noel Freedman use their influence in the game of getting-ahead-in-academics.)

According to B. Ralph’s bluster, I am (among other things) a “bigoted liar” who has “maliciously maligned” the creators and promoters of the San Diego exhibit. Revealing an unusual degree of fascination with internet chatter critical of the museum, and stabbing me in the abdomen with the terrible revelation that I once posted a few comments using my nickname Carlo, B. Ralph also repeatedly suggests that I have used “pseudonyms” to perpetrate my abominable “lies.”

This is of course ridiculous, but even if it were significant, I would rather be known as a sinner than a hypocrite. Naturally I wouldn’t want to suggest that any particular member of the group I have “maligned” would attempt to shield himself or herself from criticism by posting comments on my article using an alias, but readers may wish to consider that B. Ralph, precisely like some of the individuals mentioned in my article above, appears (1) to have a professional (or semi-professional) knowledge of scrolls studies and (2) to live either in, or within distance of, San Diego; and (3) that his indignation over my articles appears to be, shall I say, a wee bit more intense than one would expect from someone not personally involved in this affair. What is more, diatribes similar to those of B. Ralph recently appeared on wikipedia, under another pseudonym.  Is it just a coincidence that Robert Cargill, creator of the misleading “virtual reality” film being shown at the museum, posted an encyclopedia article about his own professor (a highly unethical thing for a Ph.D. candidate to do) and attempted to post one about himself, on wikipedia shortly after those diatribes appeared? I can only presume so.  (See here for an amusing theory about a number of apparent aliases used by minor Dead Sea Scrolls scholars, at least one of whom has expended a great deal of time and energy posting offensive remarks about historian Norman Golb — who B. Ralph, as if by chance, accuses me of “promoting.”)

More important is the question whether I actually have maligned anyone, or if I have not rather simply sought to shed light on an important, and (sadly) very real, institutional problem.  The author of the View from Number 80 blog has published a clear-sighted comment on this matter (see his paragraph entitled “Objective: Obfuscate”); I am extremely grateful for his statement, which to my mind goes straight to the core of the situation.

I have not been able, of course, to draft a full response to each and every one of B. Ralph’s accusations, which are in essence a somewhat paranoid, if no doubt titillating, smokescreen whose real effect is to distract readers from the issues.  Naturally I take offense to being called a bigot, but I’m happy to be called a liar by such an opponent, since what I am accused of is but a drop in the bucket compared with the implicit smearing of the excluded scholars (and indeed of the public at large, which needs to be protected from “confusion”) that lies at the core of the San Diego exhibit. If the exhibit’s creators feel they have to lash out at me instead of speaking to the issues, this merely exposes their astounding inability to defend what they have done.

As it stands, this episode gives rise to a basic question: can we still hope that logic, reason and civility will prevail in (and in discussions surrounding) public exhibits concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls? Or are we doomed to continuing displays of exclusion, grandstanding and denial? Only the future will tell, but the foolish, uncritical enthusiasm with which the media have promoted the current exhibit is certainly not a good sign.


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