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The Dead Sea Scrolls at Seattle's Pacific Science Center

Norman Golb

Once again, and after a spate of new archaeological findings, American institutions are hosting exhibits of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. The current venue is Seattle’s Pacific Science Center.  Prior to the opening of this latest exhibit, the president and chief executive of the Center stated that it “may be the most important exhibit the … center has ever created because of the rich, multiple layers of story that combine science, history, culture and spirituality.” He added: “cutting-edge sciences are not only taking mankind beyond the fringes of current knowledge but also helping us understand where we came from.” (Seattle Times, 17 Sept. ’06, corrected 27 Sept. ’06.)  

 A perusal of the descriptions of the exhibit contained on the Center’s website, however, may lead one to infer that the exhibit cannot be regarded as “cutting-edge,” scientific, or fairly balanced. The descriptions often seem designed to support one particular theory, now hotly contested, concerning the origin and significance of the Scrolls. 

That theory, created in the early 1950s in the wake of the first Scroll discoveries — and long before most of the relevant evidence was known — is that they reflect the views of an Essene or Essene-like sect that had its home at the site known as Khirbet Qumran, located in the Judaean Wilderness near the shore of the Dead Sea and close to the eleven caves in which the Scrolls were discovered.  According to present forms of the traditional theory, this sect wrote, copied, and/or collected scrolls in their claimed religious home at Qumran and hid them away in nearby caves when they learned that Roman troops were planning to attack them.

Yet in the past decade members of the reading public have become increasingly aware of a growing controversy over the nature and origin of the Scrolls.  The new, opposing view, developed particularly in the wake of additional manuscript discoveries in that same Judaean Wilderness made in the 1950s and 1960s, is that the Scrolls reflect religious and social ideas of various groups within ancient Judaism, that Khirbet Qumran was not a religious site either of Essenes or others, and that the hiding of the Scrolls in the caves arose out of the need of the Jews of Jerusalem, circa 68/69 C.E., to sequester their manuscripts and other valued possessions when they became aware that the Romans intended to besiege and invade the city.

Over this last half-century, many books and articles have been published to develop and support the traditional Qumran-Essene theory. Relying on new discoveries that were made after the original theory was formulated, however, other books and articles opposing that theory, and espousing the view that the Scrolls came from Jerusalem, have also appeared, particularly during the past decade. 

As a service to visitors, the Pacific Center has placed on-line a list of approximately twenty-five recommended books dealing with the Scrolls — a list in which, one might have thought, both the older and the newer ideas on Scroll origins would have been represented.  Yet on the contrary, no book or article, by either archaeologists or text-scholars, developing or defending the hypothesis of Jerusalem origin of the Scrolls is included in this list.  (Some representative titles of the excluded publications are appended below.)

That none of these writings appear in the Science Center’s list of recommended readings on the Scrolls is highly puzzling.  According to its own statement  (also on-line), the Center “is committed to advancing the public’s understanding of science and contributing to the development of a scientifically literate society…. Pacific Science Center uses data and information based on … rigorous scientific evidence in its exhibits, demonstrations and science curricula.”  It would seem obvious that the Center’s failure to include, in its list of recommended readings, scholarly literature expressing opposition to the traditional Qumran-Sectarian theory, directly clashes with its own statement of purpose. 

Moreover, the Center’s website announces a roster of guest lecturers on the Scrolls, including several apparently neutral speakers but also others who have devoted themselves assiduously in their writings to the protection of the original Qumran-Essene theory.  By contrast, those scholars who express the view that Khirbet Qumran was a secular site, and that the Scrolls come from Jerusalem, are not included in the list of speakers. 

The impression that readers of recent books about the Scrolls may well gain from the reading list and the roster of speakers is that the exhibit, far from helping us “to understand where we came from,” seems particularly devoted to informing viewers where supporters of the original Qumran-Sectarian theory are coming from when they express their views. 

As a notable example of what appears to be, but one hopes may not be, a studied series of omissions, we may observe the following case: In the spring of this year Dr. Yizhak Magen and Dr. Yuval Peleg of the Israel Antiquities Authority published a lengthy and detailed article describing their ten recent seasons of archaeological investigations at Khirbet Qumran, from which they draw the conclusion that the Scrolls came from Jerusalem and that the Qumran site had nothing to do with literary scrolls or a Jewish sectarian community. As much as two years ago, their findings were reported widely in the international press. Not even they, however, are included in the Pacific Center’s roster of speakers, while the important book in which the results of their excavations appear is likewise missing from the Center’s list of recommended readings. 

Likewise, the Center’s own news releases appear to indicate that the exhibit itself seeks to offer a defense of the traditional Qumran-Essene theory by describing specific evidence claimed to support it. To the extent that this is the case, the exhibit apparently makes this effort without describing the opposing evidence — textual and archaeological — that today speaks in favor of the Jerusalem theory. The various pieces of new evidence are fully described and illustrated in publications of the authors whose writings are excluded from the list of recommended readings, but, at least as far as can be determined from reports reaching Chicago,  descriptions of those pieces of evidence would appear to be missing in their entirety from the Seattle exhibit.  The American Association of Museums — i.e., the umbrella organization under which the Association of Science-Technology Museums (whose affiliates of course include the Pacific Science Center) carries out its mission —  has for many years publicly expressed a determined opposition to notably one-sided exhibits of controversial subjects.

In addition, it must be noted that the Center has, on its web-site, named and briefly described the original manuscripts on display — yet designating only two categories of texts which are labeled, respectively, as “Biblical Scrolls” and “Sectarian Scrolls.”  Today, and particularly with the full publication of all of the Scrolls, it is known that many of them are neither Biblical nor sectarian in content.  (It can no longer even be reasonably said that the so-called “sectarian” scrolls are all the writings of a single heterodox group.)  To the best of my knowledge, there is no statement in the Center’s exhibit that shows a clear recognition of these facts.  The unsuspecting visitor to the  exhibit will quite likely be led to draw conclusions from this type of presentation that are in harmony with the thrust of the exhibit as a whole.

In consonance with the fact that only two types of Scrolls are displayed, it must be noted that so significant a discovery as the Copper Scroll — whose contents, fully edited and translated years ago, describe the sequestration of manuscripts, as well as of valuable artifacts known from other sources as Temple treasures, in various hiding-places in the Judaean Wilderness — is characterized in the exhibit as a writing shrouded in mystery. On the basis of its actual language and descriptions, however, this scroll serves as substantive evidence supporting the theory of Jerusalem origin of the Scrolls.

 To the best of my knowledge, only scholars who continue to adhere to the old Qumran-Essene theory treat the Copper Scroll with suspicion. (Father de Vaux, the originator of the full-blown Qumran Essene theory, was aghast when he first learned of its contents, and issued a public statement to the effect that it had been written by a deranged Essene.) This arbitrary treatment, for which there is no textual support in any passage of the Copper Scroll, has in effect become a polemical claim in the current debate on Scroll origins — a claim that writers who have published scholarly studies of this text during the past few decades do not generally subscribe to. 

Of equally great concern is the fact that another placard on display at the exhibit states, with respect to the traditional Qumran-Essene theory, that it is “accepted by the majority of scholars.”  This assertion, for which no statistical evidence is offered, is not one usually encountered in exhibitions of a scientific nature where, as a rule, the attempt is made to portray both sides of controversial subjects transparently and on the basis of empirical evidence. My own experience is to the effect that traditional Qumranologists, deeply committed in their writings to the old theory, do indeed continue to defend it, whereas scholars working today in archaeological, historical and humanistic fields generally speaking refrain from so doing. The statement concerning this claimed “majority of scholars” is one that should be of concern to all members of the thinking public, particularly when juxtaposed with the surprising assertions described above.

Thus according to descriptions in published news accounts and statements on the Center’s web-site and in the exhibit itself, the current Scrolls exhibit is basically designed to support the traditional Qumran-Sectarian theory while apparently disregarding, either wholly or in large part, the evidence that has given rise to the countervailing Jerusalem theory of Scroll origins.  The ensuing problem — essentially one of fairness and openness to the viewing public in the Pacific Northwest — could have been avoided if the Center had appointed a neutral party experienced in curatorial museum work, whose role would have been to gather opinions from scholars holding opposing views. Such a party would then have been able to draft the explanatory content of the exhibit in such a manner as to inform the public objectively of the current state of Scrolls research. 

As matters stand, from evidence so far available (and bearing in mind the fact that my request of 9 October to the Center for a full e-mail printout of it descriptions has been refused), it now would appear to be the case that the Scroll exhibit taking place in Seattle, by its apparent one-sidedness and omission of relevant information, tends to contravene the stated goals of the Science Center which itself sponsors the exhibit (see its full on-line statement at  By token of both its own statement of purpose and the nature of written assertions relative to the Scrolls that have been promulgated by it, the Pacific Science Center would seem to be running the risk of misleading the public on a controversial issue of widespread interest and concern. In order to live up to its public mandate, the Center would appear to be under the moral and scientific obligation to correct the exhibit in consonance with the basic facts as now known.

It may, of course, be possible that the Center has already taken steps in that direction. For this reason, I add here a list of several questions about the exhibit that may provide viewers with some guidance as to whether that has indeed happened — the one and only goal being to encourage fairness to the viewing public.  The questions are these:

  1. Pliny the Elder describe the Essenes as celibate, and Josephus states that most of them followed this practice. However, it is well known to scholars today that no Dead Sea Scroll text so far discovered espouses the doctrine of celibacy.  Is this fact acknowledged in the exhibit?
  2. According to the Qumran-Essene theory, the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, copied, and/or stored at Khirbet Qumran before being hidden away in nearby caves.  However, no scrolls or scroll fragments have ever been discovered within the Khirbet Qumran buildings or on its grounds.  Is this fact acknowledged in the exhibit?
  3. The Copper Scroll contains inventories of various scrolls and artifacts hidden away in various hiding-places, mostly localities of the Judaean Wilderness.  In the final passage of this document the statement is made that “a copy of this writing” has likewise been sequestered in a particular place.  Is a translation of this or of any of the columns of the Copper Scroll on display in the exhibit?  Does it state anywhere in the exhibit that the terms used in the Copper Scroll to describe some of the artifacts are also terms that in early rabbinic literature designated Second Temple artifacts?
  4. Scroll fragments, similar in content and age to the scrolls found in the caves near to and north of Khirbet Qumran, were in the early 1960s also discovered at Masada, lying over twenty miles south of Khirbet Qumran.  In addition, Hebrew scrolls were, according to ancient writers, discovered in the third and ninth centuries “near Jericho.”  Is there a map on display at the exhibit showing the configuration of scroll discoveries as known today?  Is it stated at any point in the exhibit that this configuration was unknown when the original Qumran-Essene theory was first formulated?          
  5. According to the traditional Qumran-Essene theory, members of  the group living at Khirbet Qumran hurriedly hid the scrolls in the caves when they learned that the Romans, encamped at Jericho, were on their way south to attack them.  In the exhibit, is the question raised as to why they would have travelled towards the oncoming Roman attackers so as to hide texts in the several scroll caves located as much as two kilometers north of Khirbet Qumran, rather than fleeing southward? 
  6. For many years it has been known that a considerable number of phylacteries (tefillin)  — such as those used by pious Jews even until today for prayer purposes — were found in several of the scroll-bearing caves. Contrary to subsequent Jewish usage, however, the Pentateuchal texts used in these phylacteries differ from one another in their contents. A writer who devoted an exhaustive doctoral thesis to their study concluded in 1992 that “it appears probable that [the circles responsible for them] constituted a broad spectrum of Palestinian (and Diaspora) Jewry.”  Beforehand, a traditional Qumranologist who edited and published some of these phylacteries in 1977, and who maintained that all of the scrolls being discovered and studied belonged to the Essenes, had stated that these phylactery texts merely showed that the practice of wearing them remained essentially, “if one might say so, private and semi-sacred” — i.e., that the variety being shown did not affect the basic Qumran-Essene theory.  Does the current exhibit ascribe these phylacteries either to a “sect of Qumran” or to a variety of Jewish groups — or does it describe both points of view, or simply omit all mention of the matter?

Further questions will inevitably arise once the answers to these are available.  Yet more to the point, it must be stated that, according to the gist of  letters sent to me by the Center’s president (10/6/06 and 10/25/06), the Israel Antiquities Authority itself  curated the exhibit and is responsible for the statements in it, and for its thrust.  By this token the Science Center would not be responsible for the nature of the exhibit now taking place within its walls.  Yet at the same time the recommended reading list and the roster of speakers, which are in utter harmony with the exhibition itself, appear to have been the Science Center’s own creation — while researchers at the Antiquities Authority, in Jerusalem, are now claiming that the Scrolls are of Jerusalem origin and that Khirbet Qumran was not the site of a religious sect. 

Clearly there are some strange contradictions here that would appear to call for public clarification by responsible parties whether in this country or in Jerusalem.  The public has a right to know what is happening, and particularly to be informed whether any financial contributions have been made by donors, here or abroad, on the condition — tacit or otherwise — that the Scrolls continue to be exclusively depicted in exhibitions as the writings of an Essenic sect living in the desert. 

Additional Note

Among the writings that oppose the traditional Qumran-sectarian theory are not only my own Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? (Simon & Schuster, 1995, 1996) but also, inter alia, books and/or articles by the archaeologists Robert and Pauline Donceel of the University of Louvain, Yizhar Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University, and Yizhak Magen, Yuval Peleg, and Rachel Bar-Nathan of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as well as a recent volume of text-studies by Prof. Rachel Elior of the Hebrew University (The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism [Oxford/Littman 2004]).  The published proceedings of two important conferences, one held at the New York Academy of Sciences in 1992 (M. Wise et al., Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site [New York, 1994]) and the other at Brown University in 2002 (see below), include a variety of articles by Israeli, Continental, and American scholars that give clear proof of the intensity and extent of the current debate — a development in scholarship also manifested by publications of English, Canadian and Australian writers.  

On the archaeology of Khirbet Qumran, see particularly the recent detailed study of the Israel Antiquities Authority researchers Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, “Back to Qumran: Ten Years of Excavation and Research,” in K. Galor et al., Qumran — The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates [Brill, 2006), pp. 55-113. Dr. Bar-Nathan’s comparative study of the pottery of Qumran and Jericho appears in the same volume, pp. 263-277.   The most recent study on the Khirbet Qumran site by the late Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld is his Qumran in Context – Reassessing the Archaeological Evidence (Hendrickson Publishers, 2004).  

The above list is only a partial one intended for the present use of general readers, particularly those who may have seen or may soon be seeing the Seattle exhibit.  Readers of French may find of particular interest the recent volume edited by Bruno Bioul,  Qumran et les manuscrits de la mer MorteLes hypothèse, le débat (Paris, F. de Guibert, 2004).

Revised: December 19, 2006

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