The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

Virtual Qumran: the “unwritten” version; Warriors occupied Qumran: Scrolls battle continues (July 17, 2007)

“There’s a third reason, but I never write it down.” Robert Cargill, marginal comment in unpublished Virtual Qumran script

(1) The Schniedewind/Cargill “Virtual Qumran” film:

Last year, an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls held at the San Diego Natural History Museum featured a film entitled Virtual Qumran or Ancient Qumran. The film consists of a computer-generated 3-D reconstruction of what the Khirbet Qumran site might (according to the film’s authors) have looked like, together with an explanatory script that was read aloud to visitors by museum docents. The film and accompanying script were prepared by Dr. William Schniedewind and his student Robert Cargill (who since then has apparently received his Ph.D.).

Two little trailers from the film can be viewed on YouTube. In addition to being featured at the San Diego museum, the film was also shown to audiences of scholars at the recent annual meeting (also in San Diego) of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Society of Biblical Literature.

The Schniedewind/Cargill film was purportedly produced with the aid of $100,000 received from the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Righteous Persons Foundation.

(2) Previous 3-D Qumran films:

If we put the various claims made in the media campaign that has surrounded this film (see further below) in context, we see that they are inflated and in part transparently mendacious.

The original 3-D Qumran film was produced by a German researcher (Ferdinand Rohrhirsch, of the Katholische Universität Eichstätt) in 2000/2001, see link and link.

A year later, a relatively complete overview of a hypothetically reconstructed Qumran site, entitled “Qumran 3-D reconstruction,” appeared on the University of the Holy Land website, without accreditation. It has been suggested on this site that Stephen Pfann was the film’s author, but Schniedewind and Pfann are known to be “close.”

The University of the Holy Land and Schniedewind/Cargill films are oddly similar, if also different in certain respects. A definitive statement on any technical relationships between the films would require an extremely detailed analysis of their contents, but it should be emphasized that anyone can easily download the 2002 UHL film onto his computer and presumably, if UHL grants permission, do whatever he likes with it (the film icon is labeled “Q3DS”: could this possibly stand for “Qumran 3-D Schniedewind”?).

(3) Claims made in UCLA media campaign and by San Diego Natural History Museum:

A UCLA press release dated June 18, 2007, described the Schniedewind/Cargill film as the “world’s first” such computer-generated reconstruction. The release quotes Schniedewind as stating: “Once you put all the archaeological evidence into three dimensions, the solution literally jumps out at you.” A media campaign based on the release (see, e.g., link, link, and link) picked up on the claims made in it, explaining that Schniedewind and Cargill, through the 3-D reconstruction process, “found evidence” that Qumran was originally constructed as a fortress and then reinhabited by celibate Essene monks. The MSNBC article even goes so far as to declare: “Researchers base theory on 3-D reconstruction.”

Similarly, under the rubric “New Findings,” the San Diego museum stated that the film “suggests some important findings… First, … the original structure was a fortress… Second, … the site was abandoned, and then reoccupied … These findings support many aspects of the new theories surrounding Qumran, while maintaining that the site did in fact manufacture scrolls, and is ultimately responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls found in nearby caves.” (This, incidentally, is the first time in my life that I have had to grapple with a sentence in which “findings” are described as “maintaining” a view.)

Nowhere in their UCLA Virtual Qumran website do Cargill or Schniedewind acknowledge the existence of any previously existing films, let alone explain the connection between their film and previous ones. We read, for example, that “Professor Schniedewind’s idea was to attempt to utilize the Visualization Portal at UCLA to illustrate the site at Qumran, just as the model of the Jerusalem Temple Mount has done in Los Angeles and at the Davidson Center in Jerusalem. The plan was to begin with the published excavation plans and reconstruct the community at Khirbet Qumran…” (Does this reference to “published excavation plans” allude in any way to Israeli archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld’s Figure 57, “proposed reconstruction of Qumran during the Herodian period [Stratum iii],” Qumran in Context, p. 113?)

This statement makes it sound as if Schniedewind did not have previous 3-D Qumran reconstructions to work from, and that the 3-D reconstruction “idea” was his own. As stated above, however, Schniedewind is known to have close ties to University of Holy Land founder Stephen Pfann. In fact, until September 2007, Schniedewind was listed on the University of the Holy Land website as an adjunct professor and as a member of that institution’s “Board of Advisors.”

(4) Criticism of the Schniedewind/Cargill film script:

In an article published on the University of Chicago website, historian Norman Golb takes issue with a lengthy series of statements made in the Virtual Qumran script (a copy of which Golb apparently obtained from the San Diego Natural History Museum). I urge anyone interested in the Qumran controversy to read Golb’s article so as to gain an idea of exactly what kind of scholarship is being supported by “scientific” museum exhibits and $100,000 research grants.

In addition to exposing all sorts of false claims and fallacious arguments, Golb also focuses on a particular spot where Cargill inserted a marginal comment into the script, apparently intended for the private consumption of someone at the San Diego museum, if not also for other participants at UCLA. Cargill states that he would like to see Yizhar Hirschfeld’s name mentioned in connection with the theory that Qumran was originally built as a fortress, for “two reasons: (1) he developed Golb’s suggestion into a theory. (2) it will shield us from criticism that we didn’t source a key pillar of the argument.” And then Cargill adds: “There is a third reason, but I never write it down.”

Golb naturally takes issue with the characterization of his fortress theory, developed at length in his 1995 book Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?, as a “suggestion.” More interesting, in my view, is the question of what Cargill’s third, secret “reason” might be. Was it, for example, that to publicly mention Golb’s name would violate a policy or “consensus” according to which traditional scrolls scholars have agreed to abstain from openly discussing some of the writings responsible for the change in the nature of the central, fundamental questions that researchers now commonly ask about Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Or, on the other hand, could it possibly have something to do with the existence of previous, unmentioned 3-D Qumran films? Could it be that in their zeal to be “shielded from criticism,” Schniedewind and Cargill were concerned that the public might learn that they didn’t “base a theory” on their virtual effort or make any “finding” or discovery in it, but simply decided to use the generous financial contribution they received to concoct a piece of propoganda reconciling the Qumran-Essene theory and the opposing research results of the past decade? “Shielded from criticism”: how ironical.

(5) A final note:

I am now in possession of an email, forwarded to me by a correspondent of Ferdinand Rohrhirsch, in which Rohrhirsch states (and grants permission to state) that he doesn’t “know Dr. Schniedewind or any other member of his staff,” and has “never met him or received inquiries, plans or other information about his Qumran project.”


Schniedewind and Cargill have (1) failed to correct mendacious statements disseminated by their university about the originality of their work; (2) passed over previous 3-D reconstruction efforts in silence; (3) characterized their enterprise with misleading assertions like “the solution jumps out at you”; (4) hidden a “third reason,” and (5) subjected the public to a series of demonstrably false and misleading assertions in an effort to shore up a disputed theory, all of this with the assistance of $100,000 received from a prestigious charitable foundation.

Is this type of “reticence for the sake of marketing” (as one might delicately put it) an appropriate way of doing scholarship? Readers will have to judge for themselves, but I think it should now be clear that there are many unanswered questions about the “Virtual Qumran” film, its genesis, and the sensationalist media campaign surrounding it.

“Warriors occupied Qumran”: Scrolls battle continues

During the past decade or so, a variety of sources, including the Cambridge History of Judaism, have made it clear that Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship is polarized between two salient theories of Scroll origins, namely (1) the old “Qumran-Essene” theory, initially formulated when only seven of the 900 texts were known and vigorously defended by a group of scholars who monopolized publication rights and access to hundreds of the remaining texts for several decades, and (2) the “Jerusalem” theory which has come to be increasingly supported by a newer generation of independent scholars who have no connection with that original group.

Those who follow the first theory (many of whom are students of the original monopolists) hold that the famous Khirbet Qumran site, a fortress-like structure located on a desert cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, was home to a small, celibate sect usually said to be the Essenes, and that these people wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls in this place.  Speculation that the Essenes were forerunners of early Christianity has generated enormous popular fascination with this theory.

Those who follow the second theory hold that Qumran was a secular site, never inhabited by any sect, and that the scrolls were not written there at all — and, in fact, are not the writings of any specific group in ancient Judaism. Rather, according to this view, they are the remnants of libraries from the Jerusalem area, and are part of a wide phenomenon of hiding of such texts in the desert for safe-keeping shortly before the siege and sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.

Evidence supporting this second theory includes a wide range of conflicting doctrines found in the texts (largely unknown until scandal led to the collapse of the monopoly and publication of all the scrolls in the early 1990’s) and the presence of over 500 scribal hands among them, pointing to their origin in an urban center of intellectual activity; a massive list of hidden treasures (including huge deposits of gold as well as “books”) which the wealth-eschewing Essenes could not possibly have owned, inscribed on copper (see photo) and hidden together with the other scrolls; and the lack of any demonstrable organic link between the scrolls and Qumran, which seems to have the characteristics of a military fortress rather than a “monastic” or sectarian settlement.

Now all of this might be news to many people. Why? Because museum exhibits — most recently, the one being held at the San Diego Natural History Museum — and accompanying media campaigns, all of them organized by heirs of the old monopolists who stringently adhere to the Qumran-Essene theory, have systematically presented that theory as a fact, eliminating any discussion of the evidence supporting the newer theory.

A good example of this combination of exhibits and misleading press campaigns may be seen in a recent news release, clearly timed to coincide with the San Diego exhibit and which has appeared under various titles, including  “Warriors May Have Occupied Dead Sea Scrolls Site,” “Warriors Once Occupied Dead Sea Scrolls Site,” and “Dead Sea Scrolls Site Once a Fortress?

I will return to this in a moment, but first I need to recall that UCLA Bible scholar William Schniedewind (who wrote his doctoral dissertation on “Prophets, Prophecy, and Inspiration in the Book of Chronicles”) has, with the assistance of his student Robert Cargill (a former senior manager at, created a “virtual reality” film currently being used to indoctrinate eager throngs visiting the San Diego exhibit into believing the Qumran-Essene theory is an acknowledged historical fact — indeed, that there is no evidence against it whatsoever.

The Schniedewind-Cargill “virtual reality” film is surely a remarkable endeavor for one trained not in archaeological analysis, but in the arcane techniques of biblical exegesis. The film’s fundamental, although unstated, aim is to demonstrate that even though a series of major Israeli archaeologists — by which I mean specialists trained specifically in the field of archaeology — have concluded that Qumran was originally a fortress and was never inhabited by any sect, this does not conflict with the theory that the pacifist, purity-loving Essenes actually lived and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls there — despite the archaeologists’ rejection of precisely that theory after ten years of renewed digs at the site.

So much for background. The “Warriors Occupied Qumran” article I referred to above is signed by a young journalist named Heather Whipps. Perhaps fortunately for her, it is impossible to ascertain if she knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote this article, or if she was the unwitting victim of a public relations campaign, as is often the case with such matters.

Be that as it may, the piece Ms. Whipps has signed is a superb example of (1) how to use popular news articles to advertise and promote work that appears to have been plagiarized, by which I mean lifted in pertinent part from one’s academic opponents without giving them proper credit, and (2) how to use such articles to misinform the public as to the current state of research in a scholarly field of studies.  And for this reason, I commend the piece to anyone who wishes to hone some of the basic skills required for a career in journalism or in academics.

Almost at the very outset, Ms. Whipps neatly explains that Schniedewind and Cargill (together referred to not as Bible scholars, but as “historians”) have, in the course of cobbling together a computerized, 3-D view of what Qumran might have looked like, “found evidence” that the site was a fortress. Or, as she puts it: “Using the world’s first virtual 3-D reconstruction of the [Qumran] site, historians recently found evidence of a fortress that was later converted into its more peaceful, pious function.”

To avoid any threat to the credibility of this claim of a 3-D-inspired discovery of a fortress and of its later “pious function,” the article cleverly fails to mention a number of important facts, to wit:

(1) Since at least 1980, University of Chicago historian Norman Golb has been arguing that Qumran was primarily a fortress, pointing out, for example, that the site is strategically located with a view over the Dead Sea towards other Jewish bastions in what is today Jordan, and that its colossal watch-tower was mined by Roman soldiers in a pitched battle fought there during the Jewish Revolt (see photo).

(2) Dr. Yizhar Hirschfeld’s book Qumran in Context (2004) argues at length that the site was originally a fortress (see especially Chapter 3, pp. 49-182), and then used as a fortified manor or trading station.

Note that Hirschfeld, a professional archaeologist, did not need to employ virtual 3-D “technology” to do his work and conclude that Qumran was built as a fortress. His book provides, for example, two technically correct, original drawings of the tower and rectangular building attached to it, first as they existed during the Hasmonean period (p. 86) and then with a new extension of the Herodian period (p. 113).

(3) The leaders of the official Israel Antiquities Authority Qumran excavation team, Dr. Yitzhak Magen and Dr. Yuval Peleg, have similarly concluded that Qumran was originally a fortress “responsible for the security of the Dead Sea shore,” and was then used as a pottery factory and commercial entrepot  (see their report in The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates [Brill, 1996], pp. 102 ff.).

The crucial fact here is that none of the key Israeli archaeologists who have described the two stages of Qumran construction have suggested that in the second stage any group or “community” of religious sectarians ever lived there or wrote scrolls there. Indeed, after ten years of digs at Qumran they were unable to find any evidence whatsoever to support such a claim, and have frankly admitted as much in their published books and articles.

But Ms. Whipps, while expostulating at length on the site’s presumed conversion into the home of radical “Essene monks,” carefully fails to mention any of this. Or was it perhaps her source, Dr. Schniedewind, who failed to mention it, thereby misleading Ms. Whipps and placing her in an embarrassing situation?

Many have accused me of misrepresenting the facts before, and I can just see what people are going to say now. “Charles,” they will say, “what you are doing here is suggesting, in a truly poisonous manner, that Schniedewind’s ‘virtual reality’ film, and the sensationalist press campaign surrounding it, rehashes the findings of several prominent Israeli archaeologists and presents them as Schniedewind’s own discovery.”

And, of course, they won’t stop there. “Charles,” they will say, “you are suggesting that Schniedewind has failed to explain to the 500,000 estimated viewers of his film that his true aim all along has been to concoct a reconciliation of Qumran’s increasingly ineluctable status as a Hasmonean fortress, on the one hand, with the Qumran-Essene theory on the other — and this, without informing the public that Magen, Peleg and Hirschfeld have all concluded that no sect ever lived at Qumran.”

People can say what they like, but allow me to make it entirely clear that I would be the last person in the world to blame the great William Schniedewind for stealing the credit due to his opponents — who have inappropriately refuted fifty years of research, on account of which violation they are properly excluded from museum exhibit lecture series and news articles.

So what, then, am I saying? Merely that Schniedewind’s “virtual reality” film, and the sensationalist press campaign surrounding it, must be seen in context. The film is being presented as one of the main features of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum. And a principle aim of that exhibit, according to the words of its curator Risa Levitt Kohn quoted in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, is to prevent public “confusion” by concealing the current state of research on the question of who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Seen in this light, the “virtual reality” film is a worthy endeavor. It ably misrepresents the facts, and allows the traditional Scrolls establishment — to which, we recall, Dr. Kohn herself has belonged since her announcement on Jan. 9 that she is a “Dead Sea Scrolls scholar” — to retain its prominent role in the academic world for now and no doubt for many years to come. What better result could have been hoped for? Let us congratulate Dr. Schniedewind on his sensationalist campaign, and Ms. Whipps for contributing to it!

For my NowPublic update on Dr. Schniedewind’s response (via his student Robert Cargill) to Dr. Jim West’s criticism of their work as lacking in originality, see here. For further background on the unfortunate controversy surrounding the San Diego exhibit, see my other NowPublic pieces here and here, and the various articles linked in them.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Warriors occupied Qumran? Scrolls battle continues (July 17, 2007) […]

    Pingback by “What a mess, huh?” « The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego — December 12, 2007 @ 3:43 am | Reply

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