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Controversy and intrigue surround Dead Sea Scrolls

By Leon Cohen

December 29th, 2009

Controversy has swirled around the Dead Sea Scrolls since the first ones were discovered in 1947. Some of these controversies have been scholarly, but others have been theological and even involve anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israel conflict.

The Milwaukee Public Museum will be mounting the largest temporary exhibit it has ever produced around some of these scrolls and associated artifacts for a limited engagement beginning Jan. 22.

According to Carter Lupton, head of the museum’s history and anthropology sections, this exhibit, titled “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible,” is probably the first time these materials have been brought to the city and the state.

But to obtain and display them, he and the museum have had to thread their way through some of those controversies.

Nevertheless, part of what makes the scrolls so fascinating is that so much about them is disputed and so many people – scholars and general public – have cared about them and what they could mean.

As Jody Hirsh, Judaic education director at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, said, there’s “intrigue and mystery” around these items that “captures people’s imaginations.”

Bible variations

“Dead Sea Scrolls” is the name of a collection of ancient mostly parchment scrolls and fragments of scrolls discovered from 1947 through the 1950s in caves near the western shore of the Dead Sea.

They come from nearly 900 different texts, mostly in Hebrew, that were copied or composed from about 250 B.C.E. to about 70 C.E.

They span Jewish history from the time Judea was a province of Ptolemaic Egypt, through the periods of Seleucid Empire rule, the Maccabee revolt, the Hasmonean independent Jewish state, and the Roman conquest up to the destruction of the Second Temple. During this era, Jesus lived and Christianity began.

Of these texts, about 220 come from the Hebrew Bible, and they are sources of some of the controversies. These scrolls and fragments are more than 1,000 years older than any previously known copies of the Hebrew Bible, and they come from every book of the accepted Jewish canon except Esther.

The Hebrew Bible considered standard in Judaism is called the Masoretic Text from the masoretes (from Hebrew masora, tradition). Lupton said that among the associated items the museum will display with the scrolls will be some of the oldest known copy of the Masoretic Text, obtained from the British Library.

But the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek for Greek-speaking Jews, the Septuagint, was made centuries before the establishment of the Masoretic Text. And the Septuagint contains so many different readings that scholars came to believe those translators were using a different Hebrew text than the Masoretic.

The Dead Sea Scrolls helped confirm that. Scholars have discovered whole passages in the scrolls and fragments, including some in the Torah books, which somehow dropped out of the later Masoretic Text; but some of which exist in the Septuagint.

(For examples and details, see the 2002 book, “The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” by scrolls scholars James VanderKam and Peter Flint.)

Therefore, the scrolls have proven that the Hebrew Bible at one time existed in varying versions. Such findings to some people have clear implications in the debate over whether the Bible is of supernatural or of natural and human origin.

Who wrote them?

The rest of the scrolls are called “sectarian scrolls,” works that include Bible commentaries, rules for living, hymns, and apocalyptic visions like “The Wars of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness.”

They seemed at first to be compositions of a breakaway Jewish sect, which is the origin of the scholarly controversy over who copied and/or composed the scrolls.

Because many, but not all, of the scrolls were found near the ancient town of Qumran northwest of the Dead Sea, some scholars have concluded that the scrolls were composed and copied by the Essenes, a dissenting Jewish group described by first century C.E. Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, and that Qumran was a settlement of this group.

Indeed, Lupton said that some other museums in their Dead Sea Scrolls exhibits have stated this attribution as an accepted fact.

But recently, other scholars have challenged this interpretation. Some claim the scrolls actually originated in Jerusalem and, as the rebellion against the Romans intensified, priests from the Temple hid the scrolls in the caves to save them from the Romans. Others claim the Essenes didn’t exist at all.

Lupton said the MPM exhibit has “tried to avoid that controversy…. I am an archeologist. I know how easy it is to over-interpret archeological materials and see them the way one wants to see them.”

Mixed with that issue are questions of whether the sectarian scrolls and the doctrines they preach form “a kind of missing link between Judaism and Christianity,” said Hirsh.

One of the JCC’s events occurring in conjunction with the exhibit will explore such issues. On February 21, Hirsh and Prof. Deirdre Dempsey of Marquette University will hold “a public conversation” about how Judaism and Christianity understand the scrolls differently, Hirsh said.

Who owns them?

That these scrolls are vitally important for understanding the histories of Judaism and Christianity have made them valuable and disputed possessions over the years.

The first team of scholars in charge of examining, analyzing and publishing many of the scrolls were all Christians. That was because many of the scrolls were found during the first Arab-Israel War in territory claimed by Jordan. (Israelis managed to obtain some of them and housed them in a museum called the Shrine of the Book, built in 1965 in Jerusalem.)

In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured the territory and the Jordan-controlled scrolls. Still, Israel was inclined to leave the scholars alone. Not until the 1980s did John Strugnell become chief editor of the project and begin to bring Jewish scholars onto the team.

Yet the rate of publication remained slow, and the editing scholars who had control of the scrolls seemed to behave as though they had a monopoly on them and were hiding them from the world.

Hershel Shanks and the popular magazine he edited, Biblical Archeology Review, helped lead a campaign for faster publication and release of the scrolls.

This campaign intensified in 1990, when Strugnell revealed himself to be an anti-Semite in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in 1990. (“Judaism is originally racist…. The correct answer of Jews to Christianity is to become Christian.”)

Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem replaced Strugnell as chief editor and led to the project’s completion in 2001.

Nevertheless, biblical archeology has become a front in the Israel-Arab conflict, and the scrolls have proven one battleground. An exhibit of the scrolls that will end Jan. 3 in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, ran into this problem.

The Canadian National Post and the Jewish Forward reported this past summer that pro-Palestinian groups in Toronto and elsewhere protested the ROM exhibit on grounds that Israel had obtained the scrolls by wrongful force.

Moreover, some claimed that the scrolls actually were produced by ancestors of the Palestinians and were a part of their cultural heritage that Zionists have stolen.

“It’s obvious these are Jewish documents originally,” Lupton said, but he doesn’t anticipate any such problems in Milwaukee because the scrolls and scroll fragments come from a variety of places other than Israel, including Jordan, France, Britain and the U.S.

However, associated archeological material in the exhibit does come from Israel, specifically the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Lupton said. Moreover, Israelis are among the guest speakers who will lecture at the museum about the exhibit; and they will include chief editor Emanuel Tov, Lupton said.

For more information about the exhibit and the associated events at the museum, contact the museum, 414-278-2700.

Formerly op-ed editor, Leon Cohen has written for The Chronicle for more than 25 years.