The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

New York’s Jewish Museum announces Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, takes opposite stance from San Diego museum (August 1, 2008)

New York’s famous Jewish Museum has announced its upcoming Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, produced by the Israel Antiquities Authority and entitled “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World.

Anyone interested in the San Diego exhibit controversy would do well to reflect on the New York museum’s announcement.  Baptist “Bible blogger” Jim West linked to it on his site, but carefully abstained from giving any of the details or from commenting on it.  Now one might wonder why the reverend Jim West, who engaged in (shall I say?) more than a bit of verbal (ehem) when it came to promoting the San Diego exhibit, has been so oddly parsimonious about the New York one.  For a hint at what his inner motivations might be, read on.

The announcement describes the old “Qumran-sectarian” theory of scroll origins (so dear to Jim West and other members of his evangelical blogger network) as merely one among several possibilities, and we read that the question of who wrote the scrolls is

still being debated by historians and archaeologists, particularly now that the last of the scrolls have been published and new archaeological studies have been undertaken on material from sites in the Dead Sea region. Just as it took sixty years to study and publish the individual scrolls, it may be many years before scholars can come to a consensus on who wrote and used the Dead Sea Scrolls, where they lived, and how this impacts on our interpretation of their meaning for our lives today.

In a separate press release, the Museum explains that during recent years,

scholars have once again pored over these texts and over the archaeological remains from Qumran, seeking to unravel their mysteries:  Who wrote and used them?  What can they tell us about the development of early Judaism, the text-oriented and synagogue-based form of worship that evolved alongside the sacrificial rituals at the Temple?  And can they shed light on the beginnings of Christianity in the first century CE?

Finding the answers to these questions is an ongoing process, one that has already produced lively scholarly debates. The scrolls have opened up a complex world of Jewish diversity and inquiry from which Christianity eventually emerged.

Scholars have two basic theories about who used the scrolls. The first posits that the scrolls all belonged to a single religious sect [living] at the settlement of Qumran.  Most scholars identify this group as the Essenes … although other groups such as the Sadducees and even proto-Christians have been proposed.

The second theory proposes that the scrolls were a random collection of texts reflecting the beliefs of many Jewish groups of the period.  They represented either a single priestly repository or public library or the sacred texts of various Jewish communities from Jerusalem and elsewhere in the land of Israel.  During the Jewish revolt against Rome beginning in 68 CE, refugees from further north hid their precious texts in the Dead Sea caves.  This hypothesis holds that there is no connection between the scrolls and the settlement at Qumran, and that the site was a fortress, a villa, a farm, an industrial site, or a commercial center.

The press release further states that in an exhibition gallery, “visitors will learn that scholars still do not agree about the origins and meaning of the scrolls decades after their discovery,” and that “in assembling the exhibition… Susan Braunstein, Curator of Archaeology and Judaica… selected texts that illustrate the diversity and transformations in Judaism during the Second Temple Period.”

Those who have been following the Dead Sea Scrolls controversy over the past few years can hardly fail to read these statements as a sharp rebuke to various individuals involved in the controversy (including Risa Levitt Kohn, the curator of the 2007 San Diego exhibit) who have been arguing that scrolls exhibits should reflect a claimed Qumran-sectarian “consensus.”

Indeed, the New York museum’s frank and neutral recognition that no such consensus even exists cannot but call further attention to the stance of various “science” museums around the country, where exhibitors have used their displays and lecture series to inculcate belief in the disputed sectarian theory, their stated aim being to avoid “confusing people with so many competing theories” (Dr. Kohn as quoted in the Los Angeles Times).

This is the attitude adopted, for example, by the creators of the exhibit currently taking place in Raleigh, North Carolina, who hired Dr. Kohn as their “scientific consultant” despite her biased handling of the San Diego exhibit (reflected in her statement that the scrolls are not really “Jewish” texts).

The Raleigh exhibit – showing in, of all locations, a “natural sciences” museum operated by the North Carolina Department of the Environment, which is a government agency — will be running through December, and will thus overlap with the Jewish Museum exhibit.  There is, however, a quite astonishing contradiction between the stances taken by the North Carolina institution and the museum in New York.  Doesn’t the public deserve some kind of explanation as to how this came about and what it means?


1 Comment »

  1. […] New York’s Jewish Museum announces Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, takes opposite stance from San Di… […]

    Pingback by “What a mess, huh?” « The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego — March 22, 2009 @ 2:09 am | Reply

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