Library Lifts Veil on Dead Sea Scrolls : Antiquities: The Huntington breaks four decades of secrecy surrounding biblical texts.
The Huntington Library will announce today that it is making a complete photographic set of the Dead Sea Scrolls available without restriction to scholars, breaking a monopoly held by a clique of aging academics who have only completed a third of the translation they agreed to do 40 years ago.
“As a librarian and one dedicated to research, the kinds of restraints placed on the scrolls has been a scandal and we didn’t want to contribute to that,” said William A. Moffett, director of the San Marino library, which is internationally known for its rare books, art collections and botanical gardens.
The Huntington collection contains about 3,000 negatives of photographs taken of the original scrolls in complete and fragment form.
Scholars in charge of the official scrolls translation project assert that the Huntington has no authority to release the photos and possesses them illegally.
“It’s a most scandalous thing,” declared Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book, a museum in Jerusalem where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are stored.
The struggle to gain access to the scrolls, the culturally significant cache of 800 papyrus and leather documents that includes some of the earliest known biblical texts, has been long and bitter. Scholars say 80% of the scrolls’ total contents have been published. But only about 20% of the text contained in fragment form has been transcribed and published.
The texts produced so far have affected Bible translations read by millions of Jews and Christians and provided new insight into ancient Jewish life. Many of the scrolls apparently belonged to a Jewish religious sect called the Essenes and describe the thought and prescriptions for community life of the order. More than 100 of the scrolls are biblical texts, representing every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther.
In 1953, a small group of international scholars received exclusive permission from the Jordanian government, which had custody of the scrolls before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, to study and then publish them. This arrangement virtually shut out other academics eager to examine the find of biblical archeology discovered between 1947 and 1956 by Bedouin shepherds in caves northwest of the Dead Sea.
Moffett said the library’s decision to provide open access to scholars was “like bringing down the Berlin wall or releasing hostages in Lebanon.”
“It’s a major breakthrough and great news for scholars,” agreed the Rev. James Charlesworth, a scrolls expert at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
Charlesworth said wide access would lay to rest fears that the unpublished materials would undermine the beliefs of Christians or Jews.
“I am certain nothing will be found that will upset generally held ideas of the origins of Judaism or Christianity,” he said. “But if documents are not open to all, it increases misunderstanding and suggests a conspiracy when there is none.”
Robert Eisenman, chairman of religious studies at Cal State Long Beach and a key figure in the campaign to widen access to the scrolls, also praised the Huntington action as “another step forward in shattering the monopoly.”
But John Strugnell of Harvard University, who was editor-in-chief of the official scrolls research team until he was removed last year amid charges of incompetence and anti-Semitism, said the Huntington did not have the right to break an agreement that had been made with the Israel Department of Antiquities regarding who could use the photographs.
“Permission was given to make copies on condition that they would be used only by the (assigned) scholars working on the project,” Strugnell said Saturday. “The photos we are dealing with are working documents and . . . part of the intellectual investment of the individual scholars who are preparing these editions.”
Strugnell added that no one should expect the translation project to move any faster. The processing of similar ancient archives has commonly consumed 50 to even 100 years of scholarly labor, he said, because of the cost and the painstaking task of properly assembling all the texts.
The Huntington collection, which has been stashed in 20 metal file boxes inside a secret climate-controlled vault for a decade, is believed to be the finest and most extensive photographic reproduction of the scrolls not controlled by the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls cartel.”
Another set of photographic copies of the scrolls is stored at the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont. But according to a spokesman, the center is forbidden by contract from showing the material to anyone except by permission from the 12-man scroll editorial committee, which has denied access to those outside its immediate circle of 25 to 40 scholars.
“Responsible access is our policy,” said the center’s president, James A. Sanders. “The Huntington thing is embarrassing . . . They are ignoring us and doing it on their own . . . I suspect there will be some court action.”
Emanuel Tov of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who replaced Strugnell as head of translation and publication of the scrolls, said that “for all intents and purposes, the Huntington Library has illegal copies. . . . It’s all quite shocking. . . . We don’t need proddings like this to speed up our work. We are ourselves encouraging our scholars to speed up their work and we are reassigning work that has been with certain scholars too long.”
Moffett said the Huntington scrolls, believed to include facsimiles of all of the known Dead Sea Scrolls, had never been listed on the library’s roster of special collections. And scholars, apparently unaware of their existence there, had never asked to see them.
But Moffett said more than four decades of obstruction to access to other copies, as well as a recent review of Huntington Library policies, led to the decision to publicize the collection.
“If we surrender the collection to the cartel, that would be immoral. And to sit on it would be immoral,” Moffett said.
He added that the library legally owns the photographs and will allow scholarly access only to microfilm copies. There are no plans by the library to exhibit the photos or to translate or publish them, he said. The actual scrolls are housed at the Shrine of the Book and the Rockefeller museums in Jerusalem.
The Huntington photos were taken by Robert Schlosser, now the library’s chief photographer, during a series of trips to Israel beginning in 1980.
Sanders and the late philanthropist Elizabeth Hay Bechtel, who founded the manuscript center at Claremont, began negotiating with Israeli authorities in 1967 for permission to photograph the scrolls and reproduce the negatives.
According to a memorandum by Moffett and Schlosser, Bechtel helped pay for the photographs and “oversaw the entire operation, arranging for one set of negatives to be deposited in the Ancient Biblical Manuscripts Center for purposes of research and a master set to be deposited in secure storage elsewhere.”
But by 1981 Bechtel and Sanders had a falling out, and Sanders replaced Bechtel as president of the center’s board.
According to Moffett and Schlosser, Bechtel then signed an agreement to create a $100,000 “Bechtel Vault” at the Huntington, where she quietly placed the “security set” of photos which had been in her possession since Schlosser shot them.
“She thought the break between herself and Claremont would only be temporary, and that Claremont was to be the place where the scrolls could be seen by scholars,” Moffett said. “In accordance with the agreement, following her death in 1987 . . . the collection became the property of the library.”
But Sanders and Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, dispute that.
“It’s not at all clear by what authority they came by the copies they have,” Sanders said. Broshi said the Huntington photos were “only an extra copy for safety” and were to be “under lock and key at all times.”
In any case, the cartel has been attempting to wrest control of the Huntington scrolls.
In July, Eugene Ulrich, a Notre Dame University theologian who is chief editor of a portion of the scrolls thought to contain some of the most valuable information--sent a letter to Moffett requesting that the entire collection be turned over to the manuscript center in Claremont. Moffett refused.
Ulrich said in a telephone interview that “no one wants the scrolls published and available to the public any more than the (assigned) scholars do.” Information “fed to the media that a small coterie of jealous scholars” are holding up the work by not cooperating with other experts is “quite misleading,” he said.
But he said that unlimited access to the Huntington’s “wild unsorted collection” of scroll photos would be of little help to those who “don’t know what’s there.”
Ulrich and others compared the scroll fragments now being analyzed to a huge jigsaw puzzle. Thousands of pieces were literally dumped onto a long table and sorted by scholars over a 10-year period.
“If you just had little fragments, you wouldn’t know if it was a biblical scroll or a larger work that just quoted biblical works,” Ulrich said. “An overview of the entire collection is needed.”
Yet critics say that an overview as well as a transcription of the texts has been available since 1960, but that the cartel has refused to release it.
Two scholars at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, using a desktop computer, caused a stir in academic circles earlier this month when they announced that they had constructed a text based on a bootlegged concordance to the scrolls that was composed 30 years ago. The concordance--an index that lists each word in a document--had been assembled by four scholars working in secrecy for the Dead Sea Scrolls editorial team. But it was 1988 before a very limited edition of the concordance was printed.
Hershel Shanks, publisher of the Biblical Archeology Review in Washington, is now publishing the computer-generated texts. The first volume in a series Shanks plans to release over the next several years came out this month. Scholars said that, although the material contained no great surprises, the texts will help in understanding the development of Judaism and Christianity in the period between 200 BC and AD 70--the probable time the scrolls were written.
Shanks said availability of the Huntington collection will enable the Cincinnati scholars, Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg, to “further check the accuracy” of their computer generated texts.
“We favor anything that opens the doors wider,” Shanks said. “We will continue to open the doors ourselves.”
Many of the most important texts were found on scrolls that were nearly intact when they were recovered from caves in the Wadi Qumran valley in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These were translated long ago. Other texts consist of blackened, brittle and moth-eaten fragments that must be painstakingly pieced together.
According to the most commonly accepted story, the first scrolls were discovered in the spring of 1947 by accident when shepherds were making their way through a desolate mountain pass on their way to Bethlehem. Thinking a sheep had lingered inside one of the cliff side caves, a shepherd threw stones into the opening. Hearing a shattering sound, he clambered into the cave and discovered a small chamber where a number of tall, tightly sealed clay jars were concealed.
The Bedouin immediately realized they had stumbled onto a valuable find: several dark, tightly bound scrolls of animal skin were packed inside the pottery. Over the next few years, caches in 10 more Dead Sea caves yielded up a trove of ancient documents that American biblical archeologist William Albright was to call “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.”
In addition to nearly complete editions of ancient versions of biblical books in Hebrew and Aramaic, the scroll fragments contain stories, poetry, calendars and almanacs as well as writings in various languages about the history, customs, laws and rituals of the time.
The Essenes, the ascetic Jewish community to which some scholars believe Jesus may have belonged, was widely thought to be a celibate sect. But a passage from a scroll published by the Biblical Archeological Review this month details what a man must do to gain permission from the rabbi to be married. Among the better-known previously published scrolls describing the sectarian life and thought of the Essenes are “The Manual of Discipline” and “Thanksgiving Psalms.”
According to Tov, the chief of scrolls publication, translation of all the scrolls could be completed by 1996--a timetable critics say is highly unlikely.
“If this were the beginning of the story, that would be fine,” complained James Robinson, director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate School and chairman of the school’s religion faculty. “But they’ve been singing that ‘give me a little more time’ song for 40 years.”
Robinson said that the Huntington Library’s decision to open its collection to scholars “probably won’t change things overnight.” But, he added, the widespread protest against the unpublished Dead Sea fragments is a sign that “scholarly monopolies of our cultural heritage will probably soon come to be simply beyond the pale of acceptability.”
He said in a lecture Thursday night titled “Avoiding Another Dead Sea Scroll Fiasco,” that “the time may come soon when we will look back in amazement at how we showered our highest academic honors on those publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls--or, more exactly, those not publishing many of them, but withholding them from us all, throughout their and our professional lifetimes.”