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Israel Fires Controversial Editor of Dead Sea Scrolls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Israeli government Monday announced the dismissal of the American scholar in charge of deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls, who has made remarks interpreted as anti-Semitic.

The Israeli announcement cited “health reasons” for the firing of 60-year-old John Strugnell, who has been dividing his time between Jerusalem and the Harvard Divinity School, where he is a professor. Strugnell has been replaced by Hebrew University Prof. Emanuel Tov, the announcement said.

In an interview in November, Strugnell commented, “What bothers me about Judaism is the very existence of Jews.” Since the interview, and the furor that resulted, Strugnell has been under doctors’ care, most recently at a Massachusetts institution whose doctors would not comment on the nature of his illness.

Amir Drori, current director of Israel’s Antiquities Authority, which has custody of the scrolls, said Strugnell was relieved of his post as chief editor for publication of the scrolls on the recommendation of the authority’s three-member Scrolls Advisory Committee.

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The scrolls, the earliest of which date to 100 BC, were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea, with the first discovery reportedly made by shepherds in 1947. Among the most important biblical discoveries of the century, they contain the oldest known copies of most of the books of the Old Testament, along with other religious texts, ancient poetry and literature.

Scholars have suggested that the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls were the Essenes, a cult of Jewish ascetics and mystics who lived near Qumran from the 2nd Century BC until about AD 200.

Most of the scrolls have been translated, and some are on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

But thousands of fragments remain untranslated and unpublished and are under study at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. Strugnell headed the team preparing them for publication.

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Strugnell has been working on the scrolls since 1952, when as a young English student he joined a team of scholars authorized to study them by the Jordanian government, which had custody of the documents before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

After the war, when East Jerusalem was seized by Israeli paratroopers, the Israeli government took custody of the scrolls, but the original team of scholars was allowed to continue translating the texts.

Strugnell headed the research group that had sole access to the fragile fragments. Its members prepared translations and interpretations, and he decided when and if to publish their findings.

Over the years, many scholarly critics have charged that the scrolls team has been inordinately slow in publishing its work and that it has blocked access to the documents by other scholars in the field.

Geza Vermes, a professor at Oxford University and the author of “The Dead Sea Scrolls in English,” has complained: “Forty years since the beginning, and we still haven’t gotten a list of the documents.”

Saying he has not been allowed to see the fragments, Vermes added: “Nobody knows what’s there. Such a scandal is difficult to quantify.”

Strugnell, a Roman Catholic who assumed the title editor in chief of the scrolls research in the mid- 1980s, gave a recent interview to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz in which he declared:

“I think Judaism is a racist religion. Something very primitive. What bothers me about Judaism is the very existence of Jews as a group, as members of the Jewish religion.

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“I think (the Sabbath laws) are a wonderful excuse for laziness. When I look at details in the Halakha (Jewish law based on oral tradition), including sex, I think--that’s amusing. It’s not religion. These people act according to what I call folklore.”

Strugnell also described Judaism as a “Christian heresy” and said he thought its adherents should convert.

The interview gained quick and wide currency in the United States, and in a subsequent interview with the weekly magazine Jerusalem Report, Strugnell commented, “I am an anti-Zionist.” But he added: “What I said was not anti-Semitic. It’s the old Christian response to the Jewish question.”

After his remarks, Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, who had been seeking to get the fragments published, said: “It has now been revealed that Strugnell is an outright anti-Semite. And he should have nothing to do with these Jewish cultural treasures.”

Eugene C. Ulrich, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, said: “If Prof. Strugnell said those things, it would clearly have to be taken into account in a decision (to remove him). That kind of thing has no place in academic, or civilized, discourse.”

Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book here, said that 80% of the scrolls have been published and that delay in further publication is partly due to the difficulty of piecing together thousands of fragments.

But he admitted that another reason was “indolence and selfishness” on the part of the accredited scholars.


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