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Overview: Publication and Preservation

Publication and Preservation of the Dead Sea ScrollsEarly Publication Efforts

In 1952, the Jordanian Antiquities Authority appointed Roland de Vaux editor-in-chief of the publication of the scrolls. The work was subsidized by the Palestine Archaeological Museum (PAM) as well as by John D. Rockefeller. The scrolls were photographed using infrared photography, allowing researchers to read parts of the scrolls which were invisible to the naked eye, and scholars worked to assemble the fragments like a jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, the scholars were ignorant of proper procedure for conservation and preservation of scrolls. Sunlight was allowed to damage the manuscripts and fragments were connected using scotch tape. In some cases, the scrolls were so badly damaged that scholars now have only photographs to rely on for their research.

De Vaux’s initial team of researchers included Pierre Benoit, Jozef T. Milik, and Maurice Baillet of the École Biblique. In 1953, it became obvious that the work was too great for so small a team. An International Team of scholars was formed, which, as it was under the auspices of the Jordanian government, included no Israeli or Jewish scholars.

The first new scholar to be appointed to the team was Frank Moore Cross Jr. (later to become a professor at Harvard University), who was responsible for the publication of most of the biblical manuscripts. His most important contribution to the field was his paleographic analysis of the history of the scripts, published in 1958. His methods were used for dating the scrolls, and when carbon-14 dating came into use, it confirmed the dates determined using Cross’s method.

The team also included Prof. Jozef Milik. A prolific scholar, he published more scrolls than any other scholar on the team. However, he had been assigned an unreasonable number of scrolls, and, as a result, many of them remained unpublished. John Strugnell of Jesus College at Oxford University joined the team in 1954. He, too, was assigned a large number of manuscripts; he handed some of them over to his students at Harvard, where he taught for many years.

Prof. Sukenik’s editions of the scrolls in his possession were published posthumously in 1955. The only scroll in Israeli possession to remain unpublished was the Genesis Apocryphon, which was not successfully unrolled until 1956 due to its fragile condition. When it was finally unrolled, it was published by Yigael Yadin and Nahman Avigad.

In 1957, Joseph Fitzmyer began to compile a concordance (an index of all the occurrences of each word) of the scrolls. Together with two other scholars, he worked on this project until 1960, when funding for the project came to an end.

John Allegro, a member of the International Team, published an edition of the Copper Scroll, a rare document listing sixty-four treasures and their supposed burial places in the Judean desert. This scroll had initially been assigned to Milik and members of the team were understandably incensed at this “theft.” Allegro even conducted a search for these treasures, but came up empty-handed.

The delay in publication of the scrolls was due to a number of factors. Firstly, the Rockefeller family ceased to fund the project in 1960, when the vast majority of the scrolls had already been sorted and transcribed. The various members of the team left Jerusalem and returned to their respective universities. Instead of quickly completing the last stage of the project—publication—the scholars hoarded the texts and did not allow free access to other scholars, delaying publication far beyond a reasonable amount of time.

Secondly, publication of the scrolls was delayed due to the fact that no Jewish scholars were involved in the project. The scholars on the International Team were not as fluent in Hebrew, and this slowed down their work. These scholars also preferred to publish the biblical and apocryphal texts, with which they were more comfortable, and neglected the Jewish legal texts. When they did publish these texts, they interpreted them as proto-Christian texts and not as evidence of Jewish life in the Second Temple period.

As a result, the first twenty years of scrolls research focused on understanding Christianity through the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scholars identified the scrolls with the Essene sect mentioned by the ancient authors Philo Judaeus, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder. They saw this sect as a precursor to Christianity and used the scrolls to interpret the New Testament. Although some Jewish scholars published research on the Dead Sea Scrolls, their work was largely ignored since they did not deal with the question “How Christian are the scrolls?”

With the return of the scrolls to Israel in 1967, the Jewish context of the scrolls began to emerge. Yigael Yadin’s lectures and publications about the Temple Scroll showed that the scrolls shed new light on Jewish law. Yadin proved that the presence of the Temple Scroll at Qumran demonstrated that the sect was grounded in Jewish law.

In 1977, the Temple Scroll was published in Hebrew. Publication of the English edition was delayed until 1983, as Yadin was appointed to the Agranat Commission to investigate Israel’s military performance during the Yom Kippur War. During this time the tables were turned. Instead of Jewish scholars waiting for Christian scholars to release the scrolls, for the first time ever, scholars who could read Hebrew had access to the scroll before the rest of the academic community.

The Release of the Scrolls

In 1971, Benoit was appointed editor-in-chief of the International Team. Upon his retirement in 1984, John Strugnell was appointed in his place. Some objections were raised to his appointment—firstly, that he had not published a sufficient number of the texts assigned to him; secondly, that he was anti-Semitic. In an effort to counteract these claims, Strugnell expanded the team to thirty scholars and even included three Israelis—Devorah Dimant, Elisha Qimron, and Emanuel Tov.

When Elisha Qimron revealed a few lines of the Halakhic Letter at a conference in 1984, scholars started to voice their objections to the slow publication process, wondering what other revolutionary information was being hidden from them. One of the most outspoken proponents of free access to the scrolls was Hershel Shanks, editor of the popular magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review.

Six years later, in November 1990, John Strugnell was quoted making disparaging comments about Judaism in an interview printed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. He was subsequently relieved of his duties as editor-in-chief and replaced by Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University. The International Team was expanded to 55 members in the hopes of speeding up the work. Shortly afterwards, in September of 1991, Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg (both of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati) published an unauthorized edition of the entire corpus based on the concordance created by the original team. A few weeks later, the Huntington Library in California announced that it would release a full set of photographs of the Scrolls. On October 15, 1991, the PBS “Nova” documentary “Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls” appeared on nationwide television. The film contributed to public awareness of the issue and further press coverage.

In October 1991, the Israel Antiquities Authority agreed to allow public access to its photographs. However, scholars were asked not to publish editions of texts which have been assigned to members of the team. The Antiquities Authority cooperated with the publishing house E.J. Brill to create a set of high-quality microfiches of the entire corpus.

The full release of the scrolls was heralded as an exciting revelation. It has allowed scholars to properly study the texts, providing them with an invaluable look at the lives of the members of the sect at Qumran as well as the population in Judaea at the time.

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