Scholars, Scrolls and Scandals, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.


Pierre Benoit

Pierre Benoit

The Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem set off a chain of events that ultimately led to the release of all of the Dead Sea Scrolls and made it possible for us to understand more fully the secrets of the ancient library at Qumran. But when Israel took control of the scrolls in 1967, that understanding still lay almost twenty-five years into the future. Not until the 1990s would the publication project be reorganized and the Qumran documents made available for general scholarly research. And even after full release of the scrolls, we have yet to see within the scholarly and popular understanding the reassertion of their Jewish character.

The Dispute over Publication and Release, 1967–1991

Immediately after the Six-Day War, Israeli officials agreed to let the Christian scrolls scholars continue their work, expecting that the work would soon be completed. In retrospect, this constituted a clearly naive decision. It was impossible for the scholars ever to finish their task, for their allotments were simply too large for publication within a reasonable time. Some were even assigned to publish more scrolls than any individual could handle in a lifetime. Some died, bequeathing their texts to their students, who themselves failed to publish them. Yet the editorial team refused anyone else access to the remaining unpublished documents. Like misers, they hoarded the scrolls as currency to enrich their careers and those of their students.

With the acquisition of the Temple Scroll in 1967, scrolls studies reached a major watershed. When Yigael Yadin revealed the Temple Scroll, first in a series of public lectures and then in a published edition in 1977, he capped a process already observable earlier- interpretation of Qumran materials within a Jewish context. The Temple Scroll, a text the same size as the Book of Isaiah, comprising Jewish law exclusively, was now on the reader’s table. The agenda had shifted. All eyes turned to the new scroll, which, for some, raised false expectations that it would solve virtually all of the problems of Qumran studies. Yadin used his sense of drama and publicity to draw attention to this text. Indeed, one senses that Yadin fully understood the role we are attributing to him here.

In retrospect, we can see that research had been moving in this direction for some time. Joseph M. Baumgarten, a rabbinic scholar at Baltimore Hebrew University, had been contributing studies in the area all along. My own works were beginning to come to fruition as well at the same time. Yadin’s new find helped to spur on this research and re-Judaize the scrolls. At last, the significance of these texts for the study of Jewish law—halakhah—was becoming clear. Because Yadin had definitively identified the authors of the Temple Scroll with the Qumran sectarians, publication of his new scroll led to full recognition, even among Christian scholars, of the halakhic character of this group, that is, their grounding in Jewish law.

New Testament scholars suddenly found themselves waiting for scholars of Jewish law to interpret the scroll texts. And then the authority of Judaic researchers was heightened still further by the ironies of Middle Eastern history. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War (1973), Yadin was appointed to the Agranat Commission to investigate Israel’s military performance during the war. Yadin’s new commitment necessarily led to a delay in the publication of the English edition of the Temple Scroll.

For more than six years (1977–83), the Temple Scroll remained closed to those who did not read modern Hebrew. Although German, French, and Spanish translations were published before the English, they offered little in terms of commentary, and the expansive nature of Yadin’s introduction and notes made the Hebrew edition a hidden boon of secret lore known only to Jewish scholars and a few fortunate Christians. Now for the first time, the tables were turned- A scroll was opened to Jews and not to Christians. The recognition that only scholars trained in Second Temple literature and rabbinic texts could deal adequately with the new and now preeminent scroll promoted a completely new perspective on the Qumran finds in general and even on the background of early Christianity.

In September 1971, Pierre Benoit succeeded de Vaux as editor in chief of the International Team and the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series. Although several publications did appear, much of the work, especially on the cave 4 texts, was not really proceeding at all.

These problems were already clear in September 1984, when Benoit retired and the Israeli Department of Antiquities confirmed John Strugnell of Harvard as editor in chief of the scrolls publication project. Objections from a number of quarters were raised to the appointment of Strugnell, both because of the historically long delays in his own publications and because some accused him of harboring anti-Semitic views. Desiring to be confirmed, Strugnell suggested expanding the team. The group now grew to some twenty members, including a number of Israelis—Devorah Dimant, Elisha Qimron, and Emanuel Tov—whom Strugnell invited to participate in the work. It is indeed ironic that Strugnell, who was later to give an interview to an Israeli newspaper which was widely viewed as anti-Semitic, was instrumental in inviting Jews to participate in the publication of the scrolls. He also furnished a timetable to the Israeli Department of Antiquities (which in the meantime had become the Israel Antiquities Authority), but the deadlines he specified were not kept and could not be enforced. The abortive attempt to maintain that timetable set the stage for the struggle over open access to the scrolls that would occur some years later.

The eventual confirmation of Strugnell’s appointment did not stem the rising tide of opposition to the status quo in scrolls research and publication. Qimron’s revelation of a few lines of the Halakhic Letter at the 1984 International Conference on Biblical Archaeology greatly stimulated curiosity about what other such bombshells might still lie hidden in the unpublished corpus of Qumran texts. Scarcely a year later, at the New York University Conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls in Memory of Yigael Yadin, the late Morton Smith delivered an impassioned plea for immediate publication of photographs of the entire corpus. Ben Zion Wacholder, a then 67-year-old scholar, stated that if he waited patiently much longer, he would never see the texts before he died. Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), took up the struggle in his popular magazine. He editorialized extensively on the issue and began his campaign in earnest to liberate the scrolls.

The call for release and publication of all of the documents became almost deafening, resounding regularly at scholarly conferences and in the press. Such attention prompted the Israel Antiquities Authority to reconsider its policies. During the academic year 1989–90, while participating as a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University in a Dead Sea Scrolls research group, I met with members of the Israeli oversight committee and Amir Drori, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority. We discussed numerous plans for speeding up the rate of publication. Yet change was slow in coming.

Not that it mattered, for the monopoly was soon to be broken by the efforts of scholars themselves.

The clamor for open access intensified when Robert Eisenman and Philip Davies formally requested to read the Zadokite Fragments, one of the unpublished documents in the Rockefeller Museum, and were rebuffed by Strugnell. Shanks published their exchange of letters in BAR.

Then, in 1990, Stephen A. Reed of the Ancient Biblical Manuscripts Center in Claremont came to Jerusalem to prepare the first complete catalog of scrolls materials and negatives. He made use of an earlier catalog by Qimron that had circulated privately. Reed’s catalog clarified the extent of the still unpublished material. More important, it helped spur reorganization of the material and drew attention to the need for its proper conservation and restoration.

The official editorial team—significantly widened by 1990 to include some thirty scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish and of all nationalities—was still controlling exclusive access to texts and producing text editions much too slowly for use by other researchers. Many disenfranchised scholars proposed that access be granted to any and all on the basis of research or university affiliation. Shanks stressed this point in his journal and to the Israel Antiquities Authority, suggesting that in lieu of extensive and time-consuming transcriptions, translations, and commentaries, the authority should distribute easily prepared photographs of the texts.

In November 1990, Strugnell’s health sharply deteriorated. In an interview published subsequently in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Strugnell made disparaging remarks about Judaism. After a period of intense negotiations, his colleagues on the editorial team decided to relieve him of his position as editor in chief—for health reasons, it was explained. At that point, the Israel Antiquities Authority stepped in to appoint Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University as the new editor in chief of the International Team and head of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (DJD) series. Émile Puech of the École Biblique, Eugene Ulrich of the University of Notre Dame, and Tov were designated the general editors by the members of the team. The International Team was expanded by them to fifty-five editors, in the hope that the work would proceed promptly and that the entire corpus would soon be published. Since then, the pace of publication of additional volumes of DJD has been stepped up, and the long-awaited volume on the Halakhic Letter has just been published. It is clear that the new team will succeed in publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls in excellent editions within a reasonable amount of time.

This new team had barely gotten to work when events overtook them. In September 1991, only a few days after Tov returned from leave in Holland, newspapers around the world carried reports of the computer-aided reconstruction of the still-hidden texts by Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin G. Abegg of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Wacholder’s and Abegg’s edition had been produced from the privately distributed concordance prepared by the original editorial team, in a limited edition of about thirty copies. The Biblical Archaeology Society published it with a preface by BAR editor Shanks. Release of the reconstructed edition was timed to precede a PBS “Nova” television documentary that had been in the works for more than a year.

Only a few weeks later, on September 22, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, announced that it would release a full set of photographic negatives of the scrolls. The Huntington had originally intended to make this announcement around the time of the television program on October 15 but, scooped by the release of the Wacholder-Abegg edition, the library decided to advance its announcement.

A photographer from the Huntington had originally taken those photographs as part of a project to ensure the scrolls’ preservation in case of war in the Middle East. After official copies were distributed with the permission of the Israel Antiquities Authority, an extra set of negatives ended up in a vault at the Huntington. Initially, Israeli reaction to the Huntington release was very strong, including threat of legal action, but Israeli authorities soon adopted a more conciliatory stance, seeking to open up access to the collection.

On October 15, 1991, the “Nova” documentary “Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls” appeared on nationwide television. Reaching an audience of 13 million, it detailed the discovery of the scrolls and the controversies surrounding their delayed publication. By making viewers aware of the controversy and stimulating further press coverage, the “Nova” program demonstrated the instrumental role played by the media in the release of the scrolls.

The actions of the Huntington Library together with the edition by Wacholder and Abegg effectively ended the editorial team’s privileged status. In a world growing increasingly democratic, freedom of information must inevitably triumph over all other considerations, even legitimate scientific concerns. Although the official publication program, had it been pursued with vigor and haste, might have provided a sounder basis for future scholarship, it had now become impossible to delay publication any longer. Despite the genuine intentions of Tov and his associates to advance the pace of publication and solve the problem of scholarly access, the world—nervously expecting bombshells that would shake the foundations of Judaism and Christianity—would not wait.

I welcomed the full release of all the documents, for it gave me the chance to test my theories by studying all the texts. After more than twenty years of research, the conclusions I have reached, and subsequently published in books and articles, can now be supplemented. My students are now able to work with the full set of manuscripts and to write their doctoral dissertations without having to fear that they can be disproven by some unpublished text in the hands of a student of one of the editors. We are no longer dependent on the information furnished to us by others—often ones less competent to study the material than we.

Beginning in 1990, new technological advances and aids to scholarship not only opened up the scrolls to all scholars but also facilitated better readings of the manuscripts. In that year, carbon-14 tests of a selection of manuscripts were run that generally supported the paleographic and archaeological dating previously proposed. Several editions of photographs were released that offered varying degrees of usefulness. Unfortunately, the microfilms of the Huntington, though striking a blow for liberation of the scrolls, were available only on interlibrary loan and proved not to be of sufficient quality for serious research.

At about the same time, copies of photographs of the unpublished fragments were reaching Robert Eisenman, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at California State University, Long Beach, from an undisclosed source. Eisenman was a natural conduit for such photographs because he had been so outspoken in demanding release of the scrolls. Together with James Robinson of the Center for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont, he organized those photographs for publication in a two-volume set preceded by a foreword by Hershel Shanks, who discussed the publication controversy and related his role in it.

These publications forced the Israel Antiquities Authority to reformulate its own policies on access to photographs of the scrolls. Since October 1991, the authority has allowed open access to all photos, but it asks scholars to refrain from publishing editions of texts assigned to others for editing. Open access to all photographs available in Jerusalem, Claremont, and Oxford is now the norm.

Along with the photographs, Shanks published a transcription of the Halakhic Letter, at that time being prepared for publication by Qimron and Strugnell. Qimron then sued Shanks in Israeli court for copyright violation and won. At this writing, however, the case is being appealed by Shanks before the Supreme Court of Israel.

With the release of the Huntington microfilms and the Eisenman-Robinson-Shanks facsimiles, it became clear that high-quality, properly indexed photographs of the entire Judaean Desert corpus would have to be issued. The Dutch publishing house E. J. Brill, with the cooperation of the Israel Antiquities Authority, issued a set of positive microfiches in 1993. It is a project of extremely high quality and when projected produces much clearer images than the Eisenman-Robinson-Shanks photographs. And it is the most complete set of photos ever issued. Today, anyone who can read Second Temple Hebrew and Aramaic texts in the texts’ original scripts can study the entire corpus. At long last, this important part of humanity’s heritage is available to all.

With the full release of the documents behind us, we must now set aside the politics that have wracked the field for so long. Those of us who have been waiting decades for this material can now go back to our real work- using the scrolls to reconstruct the history of Judaism in Second Temple times so that we can better understand the development of rabbinic Judaism and the background against which Christianity arose. As we continue our work, we must now prove ourselves capable of the major strides finally made possible with the opening up of these manuscript treasures.

What do you want to know?

Ask our AI widget and get answers from this website