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“I was also indirectly responsible for the second run of carbon tests in 1995. . . . Of all the disappointments I have experienced in Qumran Studies—and there have been many—and mistakes I made in the struggle to free the Scrolls, this turned out perhaps to be one of the most painful and ill-considered . . .”

-- Robert Eisenman (The New Testament Code [2006], p. 42)

By Greg Doudna
October 2013

I became interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls from reading books by Robert Eisenman, and it was the first radiocarbon datings done on Dead Sea texts at Zurich in 1991 prompted by a letter of Eisenman and Philip Davies that started my interest in radiocarbon dating. Eisenman helped me in earlier times. I first met him at a Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Boston in 1987. He gave advice as I entered the academic world and then applied to graduate schools. During a dark time at Cornell Eisenman was there for me, making phone calls to colleagues at the University of Chicago helping to facilitate a transfer there. Despite anything that has happened since, I will always remember these things.

During my first semester of graduate study at Cornell in the fall of 1991, Eisenman called me inviting me to fly out to the West coast to appear with him for a filming of “Nova” in the Huntington Library at San Marino, California. The Huntingon Library had just announced that photographs on microfilm of all of the heretofore unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls would be made publicly available, breaking decades of secrecy and controversy over that secrecy. In this way, at Eisenman’s invitation, I became the first student in the world to view photographs of the previously unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls now made public. Eisenman’s invitation and the hospitality of his family on that trip were very generous and gracious.

On pages 41-44 of his 2006 book The New Testament Code (London: Watkins Publishing), and in articles published last week on the Huffington Post (Oct. 22, 2013, “James the Just as Righteous Teacher—The Radiocarbon Controversy”) and the Jerusalem Post (Oct. 21, 2013, same article), Eisenman refers to me as one of his worst disappointments and states the reason for his displeasure: because I brought about the second series of radiocarbon datings on the Dead Sea Scrolls carried out at Tucson in 1994-95. This unusual story starts with Eisenman’s account of a conversation at his home with me regarding radiocarbon dating, on the occasion of the “Nova” filming. Eisenman’s account of that conversation is essentially accurate with only minor qualifications.

The radiocarbon datings of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Zurich were in the news when I visited Eisenman on that occasion. They had been reported in wire services. It was this public domain reporting of Dead Sea text radiocarbon datings which was the start of my intense interest in radiocarbon dating. At that point everyone in the entire Dead Sea Scrolls field was interested in radiocarbon dating.

The Zurich radiocarbon datings involved the use of AMS (“Accelerator Mass Spectrometry”), a method of radiocarbon dating which required only small sample sizes. Before the advent of AMS the amount of material that was necessary to obtain an adequate amount of carbon made radiocarbon dating of texts impracticable. Robert Eisenman and Philip Davies had written the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Amir Drori, urging the new method, AMS radiocarbon dating, be used to date the Dead Sea Scrolls. Several months later this request of Eisenman and Davies was acted upon by the Israel Antiquities Authority and fourteen Dead Sea texts were radiocarbon dated, eight from Qumran. The eight texts from Qumran dated generally in agreement with the existing more precise palaeographic date estimates on each of these texts, within margins of error (with the exception of one text, 4QTestament of Qahat, which gave a date inaccurately too early due to contamination). It was an overstatement at the time for some to characterize these datings as having confirmed the exact accuracy of the palaeographic dating system, given the margins of error of the individual radiocarbon datings and so few texts dated. It would be more accurate to say that the Zurich radiocarbon datings were compatible with the more precise palaeographic date estimates in the sense of not showing clear disagreements with them (which is not quite the same as the first claim, a subtle but important distinction).

Before the AMS datings at Zurich, the Qumran texts had been dated on the grounds of archaeology and palaeography (in addition to internal textual allusions to figures and events of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, and according to Eisenman but not most other scholars, the 1st century CE). Now radiocarbon dating added a third, independent external means of dating these texts.

Because of Eisenman’s high profile as a critic of establishment scholarly views on the Qumran texts and his role in calling for open access to the unpublished texts at a time when they were still being held secret, combined with a personal style which can fairly be described as occasionally combative, he had accumulated a few scholarly enemies along the way who were only too happy to characterize the new radiocarbon datings as evidence—they claimed—disproving Eisenman’s theory of large-scale 1st century CE composition of the sectarian texts.

And so it was that the same wire service reports which went around the world telling of the results of the new radiocarbon datings on the famous Dead Sea Scrolls included, in these same stories, statements that the theory of 1st century CE sectarian text compositions had been refuted, a clear reference to Eisenman (and also Barbara Thiering, another scholar who argued for 1st century CE contexts) even if not always by name. To put it succinctly, Eisenman was being publicly pilloried in the name of the radiocarbon results from Zurich. Therefore I knew that radiocarbon dating was likely to be a sensitive subject to Eisenman. For this reason, though I was burning to discuss radiocarbon dating with Eisenman when I went out to California, out of consideration for his peace of mind I made a conscious point not to raise the subject or ask him about radiocarbon dating until after the “Nova” filming was completed. After the Nova filming was over, in the car leaving the Huntington, I asked Eisenman about the Zurich datings which were so much on my mind.

Not surprisingly Eisenman had quite a bit to say about the radiocarbon datings in response to my questions to him about it. Unexpectedly the conversation turned to him suggesting I write a letter to Biblical Archaeology Review criticizing the Zurich datings, naming the things which according to Eisenman had been done wrong in the way those datings had been carried out, in order to discredit them. This was Eisenman’s view, not mine. I saw no reason to criticize the Zurich lab or the initial scientific report in the ways Eisenman wanted, nor did I say I would do this. However I was sympathetic to helping Eisenman if I could do so in a manner consistent with what I believed. At this stage Eisenman commented to me how few texts had been radiocarbon dated when, as he told me then, the Israel Antiquities Authority officials should have decided to radiocarbon date all of the Qumran texts.

When I returned to Ithaca, New York, with radiocarbon dating on my mind I composed a letter to Biblical Archaeology Review, not criticizing the Zurich datings but urging more datings and, thinking to help things along, offering to pay for a radiocarbon dating of a text myself. I was poor, but I reasoned that in the unlikely event such an offer was accepted it would be worth it to come up with $600 (or $1800 for three runs on the same text) even if I had to beg or borrow it, to pay for a dating of one text. At this stage I was still under the impression that more datings was also Eisenman’s wish. But when I phoned Eisenman and read him my proposed letter, I learned to my surprise and distress that Eisenman actually was opposed to further radiocarbon datings. The results on the first set had been disappointing, he told me, and there was no need to press further. He said fortunately they had not dated any text actually critical to his theory and he wished to keep it that way. He said he had carefully reviewed his analysis of the Qumran texts based on the internal evidence of the texts, and it was sound, and that meant the radiocarbon datings were either unreliable, had been overinterpreted, or possibly had been influenced or shaped to meet expectations. In any case the radiocarbon datings were not coming out clearly favorable in the direction Eisenman held was the true 1st century CE datings of the sectarian texts. Eisenman was interested in discrediting the radiocarbon datings that had already happened at Zurich, not in seeing more radiocarbon datings done. I disagreed. I believed the radiocarbon datings done at Zurich had been solid science and a good thing, and that the way forward was more of exactly that kind of science. Eisenman and I went around and around in that phone conversation, Eisenman insisting that no further radiocarbon datings should be done and appealing to me not to send the letter I had written, and I defending the need for more radiocarbon datings.

Because I believed in the importance of further radiocarbon datings, and because Eisenman’s reasons for not wanting further radiocarbon datings to come to pass did not seem reasonable to me, I mailed my letter despite Eisenman’s disagreement. My letter was published in the May-June 1992 issue of BAR. To my surprise Hershel Shanks, editor of BAR, took up my offer of paying for the dating of a text. Shanks forwarded my offer to Amir Drori of the Israel Antiquities Authority asking, “Why not do it?” A couple of months later I received a courteous letter from Emanuel Tov from Jerusalem informing me that the advisory committee of the Israel Antiquities Authority for the Dead Sea Scrolls had considered my request and had decided to carry out a second series of radiocarbon datings on Dead Sea texts. All of these outcomes totally floored me as they developed over the succeeding months; I had no idea my letter would be that successful when I sent it. I went on to obtain the offer from the Tucson AMS facility to the Israel Antiquities Authority to conduct radiocarbon datings on the Dead Sea Scrolls. And so in this way my letter to BAR started a series of events which resulted in the second series of radiocarbon datings of Dead Sea texts at Tucson in 1994-95.

As these events unfolded and my BAR letter resulted in the unexpected real possibility that such datings might happen, Eisenman attempted to persuade me not to proceed with such radiocarbon datings. He was especially insistent to me that he did not want one text in particular, Pesher Habakkuk—more central to the argument of his theory than any other text—to be radiocarbon dated. Now it should be clarified that so far as I understand, Eisenman did not regard his attempts to persuade me not to move forward with the radiocarbon datings as motivated by any fear or question of learning his theory was wrong. As far as I could tell, that was not Eisenman’s issue, because in his view, he knew—from his reading of the texts—that the sectarian texts were 1st century CE, no matter what claims of external scientific methods such as radiocarbon datings might appear to say. In Eisenman’s view (as I understand it), if the radiocarbon datings seemed to come out differently than what would be expected on the assumption that his interpretations of the texts were correct, that did not affect the truth of the 1st century CE Qumran text datings.

Rather, it meant that the radiocarbon datings were either inaccurate, were being mistakenly interpreted or overinterpreted, or possibly that darker forces were at work cooking the data.

Eisenman’s reasons to me at the time for being opposed to further AMS datings of Qumran texts were similar to criticisms he has published in the years since to the radiocarbon datings after they happened. One reason was that the data would be wrongly interpreted, while another was that the wrong people would be doing the interpreting. Each of those objections has this answer: if the data has been wrongly interpreted, simply publish an article interpreting the data rightly, and convince other scholars by the power and force of a better argument that that is so. Another objection Eisenman raised was that the labs might be wittingly or unwittingly influenced in their production of data and reporting of it by what the customer wants. But that is not a reasonable objection to having radiocarbon datings done, in the absence of the slightest evidence or cause to suppose such corruption or bias in the Zurich or Tucson labs. Both the Zurich and the Tucson labs are among the top tier of radiocarbon labs in the world, of excellent reputation. And the remedy for any possible bias in a lab that might exist is repeatability and more data, not refraining from obtaining data.

Another issue Eisenman considered very important was who was conducting the radiocarbon datings of the Qumran texts—whether “opposition” scholars were involved. I would say this is very close to a non-issue; if the lab is good does it even matter? Who cares who else is on the coauthor list with the lab’s scientists in the initial publication? It is the data that matters—scientific information, put out on the public record, out in the open, new information, for all to view and analyze and, in the best case, we learn something we did not know before. And the data is cumulative.

And finally, Eisenman has argued that whereas he initially called for AMS radiocarbon datings on the Dead Sea Scrolls for the purpose of obtaining relative datings of Qumran text copies (older versus younger), he is opposed to radiocarbon measurements being done for the purpose of obtaining absolute datings of the texts (calendar year date ranges). This objection does not appear very sensible either. First of all, the very margin of error issue that Eisenman (with some justice) raises to weaken the usefulness of individual radiocarbon measurements for determining precise absolute datings of individual Qumran texts, affects the same data’s usefulness for establishing relative datings between individual texts no less. But even more importantly, in radiocarbon dating, absolute dating is relative dating—it is relative dating of the age measurements of items of unknown age compared to the age measurements of tree rings of known dates. That is what radiocarbon calibration is. And since calibration computer programs are widely available including on the internet, anyone can run a calibration on the raw data of the lab measurements. It would be considered very odd if a publication of radiocarbon dates of Dead Sea texts listed only relative datings of the raw data compared with each other but refused to consider the relative datings of the raw data against the raw data of dated tree rings (because that would produce absolute dates). In such a case some other authors would quickly publish the calibrations in a second article remedying the first publication’s omission, and there would be the absolute datings at the center of discussion. What would be the point of keeping them out of the initial publication to begin with? Unless Eisenman clarifies further, his repeated point that the Zurich and Tucson radiocarbon datings were not done properly because the publications of the results focused on absolute instead of relative datings does not seem logical as it stands.

It is one thing to disagree with the interpretation of scientific or lab data. The Zurich and later the Tucson labs published their data and findings, and that is public record. Anyone is free to publish their own evaluation and assessment or interpretation of this data, or to criticize the processes and procedures used. But it is another thing to oppose undertaking scientific investigation and obtaining of data in the first place. That goes against the enterprise of scientific inquiry, of learning and discovery in the sciences and humanities.

My education in radiocarbon dating came from Peter Kuniholm’s dendrochronology lab at Cornell, the Aegean Dendrochronology Project, in which I studied and worked during my year at Cornell. After the Tucson datings were done, Peter Flint and James VanderKam invited me, now a Research Associate at the University of Copenhagen and working on the Danish doctorate, to write the article in their 1998 Volume I of The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years that was my major article on the scrolls and radiocarbon dating and which remains to this day recommended by Emanuel Tov as probably “the best non-technical exposition of C-14” (E. Tov, “The Sciences and the Reconstruction of the Ancient Scrolls: Possibilities and Impossibilities”, in A. Lange et al. [eds.], The Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, Volume I [Leiden: Brill, 2011], 3-25 at 6 n. 14). I also learned from a number of scientists at radiocarbon labs who gave generously of their time, notably Douglas Donahue at Tucson, Thomas Higham then in New Zealand, Paula Reimer then in Seattle, and above all Kaare Lund Rasmussen, former head of the radiocarbon laboratory at the National Museum of Denmark, with whom I have coauthored a number of scientific papers in the succeeding years. Philip Davies, the other half of the coauthored letter of Eisenman and Davies which called for AMS radiocarbon datings and instigated the Zurich datings, was always wholly supportive of my initiative in obtaining further AMS datings on the scrolls and has remained so to the present day.

I would also like to acknowledge other persons who played a role in my work with radiocarbon dating more indirectly but no less importantly. My teacher Martin Bernal at Cornell, who died several months ago and cannot see these words, did so much to support and encourage my independent voice. Norman Golb and Michael Wise at the University of Chicago were helpful and encouraging of my radiocarbon initiatives at all stages. Niels Peter Lemche at Copenhagen gave a great deal of encouragement and inspiration to my work. Especially memorable to me is what Lemche calls his “kill your parent” theory of the ideal teacher-student relationship, by which he meant the best teacher truly succeeds when the student becomes capable of destroying the teacher’s idea, an ideal as a teacher I support. Lemche has suggested that formalizing this as a requirement for degrees would result in healthier scholarship. Thomas Thompson has been the best mentor I could have wished for in this life, and has the distinction of having survived the Pope himself, then Professor Joseph Ratzinger of the University of Tübingen, personally killing his PhD degree (an academic horror story difficult to top). Even Stephen Goranson, for whom despite past disagreements I retain a grudging respect for his doggedness and sincerity, is on the right side of the radiocarbon dating issue in this sense: it was Goranson, then unknown to me, who authored an article in Biblical Archaeologist (not to be confused with BAR) at the time, reporting on the Zurich radiocarbon datings and suggesting further radiocarbon datings be undertaken, the sensible and prevailing sentiment at the time which I shared.

On the 2004 Dead Sea Discoveries article on radiocarbon dating of Joseph Atwill, Steve Braunheim, and Eisenman (“Redating the Radiocarbon Dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls”, DSD 11:143-157), this was responded to in a 2007 article in the same journal by Johannes van der Plicht, the senior scientist at the Center for Isotope Research at the University of Gröningen. Van der Plicht’s article is very informative for anyone interested in these issues. Van der Plicht ended this article:

“[T]he [Atwill et al.] article discusses 14C dates measured by the laboratories at Oxford, Zürich and Tucson: “not incuriously, these were the same laboratories that had previously been selected for the C14 testing of the Holy Shroud of Turin.” This is a not very scientific statement: it is not related at all to the subject of the paper, i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls. In addition, the Dead Sea Scrolls were only 14C dated by Zürich and Tucson, and not by Oxford. At present, there are many AMS laboratories worldwide, providing the community with many thousands of 14C dates annually. Twenty years ago, however, only a handful of AMS facilities existed which specialized in 14C and archaeology—including the laboratories mentioned here. And of course these were used for spectacular dating projects after the AMS technology had been introduced and matured as a significant dating tool—projects like the Shroud of Turin, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and many others in and out of archaeology. Dating such samples using the 14C yardstick-in-time simply was not possible before. All the 14C laboratories repeatedly check themselves against each other in intercomparison exercises. We do not have an agenda, except providing the best possible 14C measurements to the community.” (J. van der Plicht, “Radiocarbon Dating and the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Comment on ‘Redating’”, DSD 14 [2007]:77-89 at 88-89)

I have published further analysis of the radiocarbon datings on Dead Sea texts carried out at Zurich and Tucson at pages 108-112 of G. Doudna, “The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE: Toward a New Framework for Understanding”, in D. Stacey and G. Doudna, Qumran Revisited: A Reassessment of the Archaeology of the Site and its Texts (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013), pp. 75-124. This is my most substantial treatment of the radiocarbon datings since my 1998 article in Flint and VanderKam.

Comments (3)

Thanks for this Greg. I consider both you and Eisenman my friends and I regret any dispute or unpleasantness between the two of you. My hope is your account here will serve to promote understanding and fair exchange on this important issue and its history. As you know I consider Bob an honorable colleague whose work has been dismissed all too often by colleagues who have not taken the time to really read his basic academic publications. I look forward to the day when his ideas will be given a fair hearing pro and con as I think you try to do in your own published work, even if you end up disagreeing.
#1 - James Tabor - 11/13/2013 - 09:31

Thanks James.
#2 - Greg Doudna - 11/13/2013 - 22:03

After reading this post, I went to the Huffington Post site and read Eisenman's article. I can set aside the adolescent carping, but here is something that I find troubling, referring to Carbon-14 tests: "Though some may provide useful information, they may just as likely be wildly inaccurate." Eisenman might be a talented person, but his article did not persuade me of flaws in scientific tests. He simply impugned data that works against his views. If that is his standard for scholarship, then I must wonder how much other evidence has he filtered.
#3 - jfjoyner3 - 11/17/2013 - 18:12

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