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By Norman Golb, Ludwig Rosenberger Professor in Jewish History and Civilization
Oriental Institute
University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 165, Spring 2000, prior to the opening of the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)

During the past several years, some strange events have befallen the storied Dead Sea Scrolls - events that could hardly have been foreseen by the public even a decade ago (and how much the more so by historians, who, of all people, should never attempt to predict the future). Against all odds, the monopoly on the scrolls' publication, held for over forty years by a small coterie of scholars, was broken in 1991. Beginning with such pioneering text publications as those of Ben-Zion Wacholder in Cincinnati and Michael Wise in Chicago, and continuing with the resumption of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series of Oxford University Press, researchers everywhere discovered how rich these remnants of ancient Hebraic literature of intertestamental times were in both their ideas and expressive art. Scholars in diverse countries began to perceive that a small group of sectarians, such as the Essenes were, could hardly have been responsible for most of the multifarious writings whose fragmentary remains had been discovered in those scrawny caves to the north and west of the Khirbet Qumran site, and to see that Khirbet Qumran itself could no longer be so easily explained as a place of literary production and intense scribal activity. New voices were heard urging the guardians of traditional Qumranological lore to reconsider the stance they were assuming - to attempt, if that were possible, to gaze in the direction of Jerusalem and, in so doing, ponder the events leading up to the First Revolt and the Roman siege of the city in ad 70.

The New York Conference of 1992, jointly sponsored by the Institute and the New York Academy of Sciences (see News & Notes 137, Spring 1993), had been proposed and scheduled before the freeing of the scrolls took place, but in the end came to represent, on an international level, the first attempt in the wake of their liberation to encourage scholars of different views on scroll origins at least to engage in discourse with one another. One of the important features of the volume of studies that emerged out of this conference [1] was the inclusion of the record of oral debates on the individual papers, so that readers would have a better sense of the stakes involved in the debates and of the logic as well as rhetoric by which basic scholarly positions on the question of the scrolls' nature and origin had been and were continuing to be constructed. During the 1970s and 1980s, I had made many fruitless efforts in encouragement of a dialogue of this kind, but only in the 1990s, perhaps for reasons we will never fully understand, was such discourse finally initiated. And it had important consequences, leading to significant turning points in the search for the truth about the scrolls' origins.

One of the most enlightening of these came in 1996, when England's Manchester University hosted an international conference on a single manuscript discovered in Cave III - a role of simple bookkeeping entries known as the Copper Scroll. This remarkable document [2] contains twelve columns of writing, with sixty individual paragraphs describing burial places of gold and silver treasures, including different types of vessels whose names are those of utensils that were employed in the priestly sacrificial rites carried out in the Jerusalem Temple until its destruction in ad 70. According to a statement made at the very end of this text, a copy of it with yet more detailed information had been hidden in another place (whose location is specified), thus making it quite evident that the author(s) of this unique documentary manuscript attached great importance to it. The inclination of the few scholars who first read small portions of the text before it was actually opened, as well as of Dr. John Allegro upon transcribing it as it was being cut apart section by section in Manchester, was to associate this scroll, reasonably enough, with Jerusalem.

This in turn would have opened up the question of origin of all of the other scrolls found in the caves - had not the official team working in East Jerusalem during the 1950s vigorously opposed this interpretation. Insofar as it seemed obvious to this latter group that all the scrolls being discovered had been written by wealth-eschewing Essenes, and at Khirbet Qumran, they held instead that the Copper Scroll was either a forgery or imaginative writing, or else a text that somehow had no connection with the other scrolls found in the caves - assertions whose effect was to cast a pall over the study of this document for almost thirty years. (During that long period, the Oriental Institute was one of the few places world-wide where a course on this document was periodically offered.) However, the deliberations on the Copper Scroll in Manchester in 1996, following in the wake of new publications of Dead Sea Scroll fragments - texts, that is, previously unknown to scholars or the public - gave rise, at the end of those meetings, to a straw vote by the participants in which they expressed, by a majority of 70 percent of those present, the view that the Copper Scroll was indeed a genuine document and, by a majority of 60 percent, that its place of origin was Jerusalem.

This result of the Manchester meetings, following by only two years the publication of the proceedings of the New York conference, had the effect, over time, of awakening the world of traditional Qumranology to the fact that the voices calling for a reconsideration of the original theory were no longer isolated and were not going unheeded. One could notice, in various publications, a certain drawing back from the original idea of a Qumran-Essene "monastery," where all or most of the scrolls were ostensibly produced, towards recognition of a possible Jerusalem connection with these manuscripts. At times the acknowledgment took the form of a veiled allusion to the possibility that some of the scrolls had come to Qumran from "somewhere else," but other writers more candidly spoke of a movement of scrolls from Jerusalem to the Khirbet Qumran site. (Prof. Emanuel Tov, the editor-in-chief of the Oxford series of scroll publication, even acknowledged, eventually, that most of the scrolls might have derived from Jerusalem.) Despite these developments, however, and although not a single scroll or shred of parchment has ever been discovered within the site itself, traditional Qumranologists as a whole remained fixated on the idea of Khirbet Qumran as the home of a sect that putatively either wrote the scrolls or at least harbored or hid them.

And yet, noted and well-trained archaeologists had begun distancing themselves from this very idea since the early 1990s. Drs. Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voûte of Louvain, at the time officially charged by the École Biblique with the full publication of Père de Vaux's dossier of notes on the original Khirbet Qumran excavation of the early 1950s, re-examined the cache of still-unpublished artifacts of the dig as well as the site itself, and in their article in the proceedings of the New York conference emphasized that the totality of finds did not at all support the interpretation of Khirbet Qumran as a modest, sectarian settlement. [3] Dr. Yitzhak Magen, a chief archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, asserted [4] upon completion of his own examination of the site that Khirbet Qumran had to be viewed as a fortress and an "integral part of the Hasmonaean plan to settle and fortify the Jordan Valley." (These new interpretations in certain ways echoed my own earlier published views that the site had never been a place of literary activity, sectarian or otherwise - but as the carefully deliberated opinions of seasoned archaeologists they carried a special weight of their own.) It was not long before a member of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, Dr. Yizhar Hirschfeld, began to examine Khirbet Qumran in the context of other known Judaean Wilderness sites having similar architectural features (e.g., barrack-like habitations and defensive towers). His eventual conclusions, [5] as they pertain to the question of the place of origin of the scrolls, were that there is "no evidence in the finds from the excavations or in the historical sources that the Essenes inhabited the site of Qumran at any time," but rather that "the theory that seems reasonable, on the basis of their unusual quantity, is that the scrolls originated in Jerusalem." Responding to Pliny the Elder's statement - made at all events after ad 70 - that a group of monastic, celibate Essenes lived near the western shore of the Dead Sea and that "below" them was En Gedi (more than 20 miles south of Khirbet Qumran), Hirschfeld has more recently dug at a site directly above En Gedi and found there the remains of a community that inhabited cell-like living quarters, which, he indicated, is far more likely to hint at Pliny's description of the celibate Essenes above En Gedi than Khirbet Qumran does.

All this does not mean, of course, that the doctrine of Qumran-Essenism has even come close to extinction. Some archaeologists, for example, have gone on record as opposing the recent identifications; others, when questioned, express indecision; while still others go as far as saying (but not yet writing) that if the actual evidence now at hand does not support the original sectarian identification, it should be abandoned. Only this much may be legitimately said, that while the doctrine of Qumran-Essenism still attracts many believers, the challenge to it, based on a highly respectable configuration of evidence, has become, during the 1990s, increasingly strong. And this now results in two major efforts on the part of the guardians of traditional Qumranology to defend its essential doctrine.

The one effort has taken the form, in various writings, of avoidance of referral to the arguments behind the new archaeological interpretations of Khirbet Qumran or those underlying the growing body of literary and historical scholarship favoring the view of a Jerusalem connection to the Dead Sea Scrolls. This approach may be observed in publications by the more active traditional Qumranologists over the past decade. As a rhetorical device, to be sure, it is fully understandable when resorted to by individual scholars in diverse and disparate publications of their own. One may, however, question its virtually uniform employment by scholars of the official team in their text-editions appearing at Oxford. [6] Observing as we all may that the text publications of those scholars who broke the de facto monopoly in 1991 and 1992 are not included in the lists of "Prior Publications" occurring in each of the volumes, we also find, in all but two of the fifteen new volumes in the series published since then, not only an avoidance of discussion on all the above developments, but also insistence on treating the traditional Qumran-Essene theory as well as its corollaries as received or demonstrated truths - with a concomitant effort to make the newly published scrolls fit into the structure of that theory. This development represents more than the fulfillment of the concern I voiced somewhat in advance of the onslaught of new publications, when calling attention to the way in which the researchers who contributed to the volumes - a group that grew from approximately eight to over fifty participants in the wake of the breaking of the monopoly - appeared to be included on the basis of their adherence to the traditional Qumran-Essene theory. Is it not fair to ask, given these present circumstances, whether the text-editors of this series - whose stated purpose had been to make the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, both in their original languages and in translation, fully available to readers within a reasonable span of time consistent with good scholarship - might rather have taken a different course in pursuing that goal? We may note that the Coptic gnostic papyri of Nag Hammadi - another twentieth-century manuscript discovery of importance whose origins and precise significance have also been hotly debated - have been superbly published, under the general editorship of Prof. James Robinson, [7] as texts and translations alone, without additional paragraphs of pleading with respect to one theory or another. Once edited in that objective way, the Dead Sea Scrolls and their history could have been - and still could be - critically studied and interpreted, on an equal footing, by both proponents and opponents of the traditional theory.

The other effort under way has to do with the world of museology. Thanks to diligent news reporting, many Americans have become aware during the past decade of changing views regarding the way museums should portray ancient and modern art, as well as various aspects of the historic past, to their viewing audiences. (One has only to remember the uproar over what appeared to many to be unfairly one-sided curatorial presentations being planned for the Sigmund Freud exhibition at the Library of Congress and for the Enola Gay/atomic bomb showing at the Smithsonian, causing the plans to be substantially changed.) The American Association of Museums had already paved the way for moderation and flexibility in American museum exhibitions in its publication Excellence and Equity, stating, [8] for example, that

Divergent points of view as well as different cultural perspectives can be given voice in the interpretive process … debate, even controversy, is integral to the scholarly endeavor, and it can stimulate a balanced interpretive message that can challenge the visitor to discover ideas and form opinions.

This view of the modern museum's way to best serve the viewing public has not, unfortunately, yet made itself heard overseas to the extent it has in America. And in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls and its guardians - the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book - the problem is made yet more complicated by an accrued tradition of learning, carried on by revered and respected scholars, that long ago lent assent not only to Père de Vaux's theories concerning Khirbet Qumran but also to the general consensus formed in the infancy of Dead Sea Scrolls research regarding a connection between the manuscripts and that particular site. This being the case, those responsible at the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Shrine of the Book, apparently somewhat dismayed by the challenge of the new ideas in the wake of the freeing of the scrolls (to which those same authorities were initially opposed), during the past decade planned and presented a variety of scroll exhibitions in Israel, the United States, and other countries that were decidedly one-sided in their approach. [9] While in the aforementioned exhibitions there were occasional allusions to the existence of differences of opinion with the traditional Qumran-Essene theory, the underlying reasons for those differences were never explicated in the exhibitions. By contrast, the traditional theory was defended at length in all of them.

In one, the curators went so far as to state that scrolls had actually been found at Khirbet Qumran itself (which never happened). While in each of the exhibits the many problems connected with the traditional theory were glossed over, the fiftieth anniversary exhibit at the Shrine of the Book did take account of the fact, however indirectly, that no single piece of evidence had ever conclusively related the scrolls to the Khirbet Qumran site. This was done, however, through the claim that the conclusive piece of evidence, hailed in a museum news release as "the first archaeological proof" of an intrinsic connection between the scrolls and Khirbet Qumran, had now indeed been found, in the form of an ostracon (i.e., an inscribed potsherd) discovered near the Khirbet Qumran exterior wall that contained a contract ceding some orchards to the "Yahad" (i.e., Unity Group) mentioned in several of the scrolls. This latter would indeed have been an important discovery, were it not for the fact that the crucial claimed term is not to be found in the ostracon in question. The claimed term was produced only by an error in transcription, as has been shown in several publications of 1997 and 1998. [10] Notwithstanding the actual palaeographic evidence, however, the claim continues to be presented at the Shrine of the Book's continuing exhibit, leading even so distinguished an art journal as Minerva to state [11] recently that the current exhibition in Jerusalem includes a "unique 1st-century ad document from an ostracon discovered in … 1995 [that] reveals the connection between the site and the scrolls discovered in the caves." No ostracon contains such information, and the first archaeological proof of an intrinsic connection between the scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran site has yet to be discovered.

Given this and many related facts, it is somewhat difficult for me to believe, at least at the present writing (January 2000), that the exhibition of the scrolls shortly coming to Chicago will satisfy the criteria of "divergent points of view… debate [and] even controversy" that are increasingly becoming part of the American tradition of fair play at the important museums of our country. With respect to this premonition, let it be said that, while in general scholars don't like to be proven wrong in their instinctual sentiments, I should on the contrary be relieved and delighted to be so proven when the scrolls are finally revealed to the public at large here in this great city. (But then again, that will only demonstrate once more that historians simply should never attempt to predict the future.) What we may all agree upon is that the coming of the Dead Sea Scrolls to Chicago represents a cultural event of importance that will surely induce many members of the public to reflect upon their value and ponder anew the enigma of their origins. [12]

Norman Golb, who specializes in historical investigation based on documentary manuscript sources, has been a professor at the University of Chicago since 1963. Associated continuously with the Oriental Institute as of that time, he is the author of many articles and of several books, the most recent being The Jews of Medieval Normandy: A Social and Intellectual History (Cambridge University Press, 1998). His Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?: The Search for the Secret of Qumran has appeared in several foreign languages since its publication in 1995. In addition to his various activities on campus, he is a member of the Public Affairs Committee of the Union League Club of Chicago.

  • 1. See Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site: Present Realities and Future Prospects, edited by Michael O. Wise, Norman Golb, John J. Collins, and Dennis G. Pardee (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 722; New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1994).
  • 2. See my detailed discussion in Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? The Search for the Secret of Qumran (New York: Scribner, 1995; New York: Touchstone, 1996), pp. 117-29.
  • 3. See "The Archaeology of Khirbet Qumran," by Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voûte (in Methods of Investigation, pp. 1-38).
  • 4. See "Recent Revelations about Qumran Promise to Shake Up Dead Sea Scroll Scholarship" in the Jerusalem Post (6 May 1994).
  • 5. See "Early Roman Manor Houses in Judea and the Site of Khirbet Qumran," by Yizhar Hirschfeld (Journal of Near Eastern Studies 57 [1998], pp. 161-89).
  • 6. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series, currently being published by Oxford University Press.
  • 7. The Coptic Gnostic Library, edited by James M. Robinson, Martin Krause, and Frederik Wisse. Nag Hammadi Studies. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977-1991.
  • 8. Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, edited by Ellen Cochran Hirzy (Washington, dc: American Association of Museums, 1992 and 1998), p. 19.
  • 9. See my critique of the American exhibitions in Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?, pp. 342-60. (The exhibition that took place at the Shrine of the Book beginning in 1997, in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the discovery of the scrolls, is reviewed in the French edition of Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?, published by Plon in 1998.)
  • 10. See particularly the article of Dr. Fred Cryer (Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament11/2 [1997], pp. 232-40), and that of Dr. Ada Yardeni (Israel Exploration Journal 47 [1997], pp. 233-37). Dr. Yardeni observes "that the identity of those who wrote the Qumrân scrolls and their place of residence cannot be determined on the basis of the present ostracon" (p. 236). See also my observations in Qumran Chronicle 7 (1997), pp. 171-73.
  • 11. Minerva 10/6 (November/December 1999), Calendar, p. 68.
  • 12. On these and other developments in scroll studies, see most recently my contribution to Cambridge History of Judaism, Vol. III, pp. 822-51 ("The Dead Sea Scrolls and pre-Tannaitic Judaism").

Revised: April 28, 2011

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