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The Last Battle of the Great Dead Sea Scrolls War

        Noted university scholar comments on the validity of Qimron's copyright protection award.



By Paul V.M. Flesher
University of Wyoming
December 2000


    The last battle of the Great Dead Sea Scrolls War of the 1990s has finally ended. The right side won the war, a different right side won this last battle, and that is how it should be. To be more specific, Professor Elisha Qimron of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the winner of this last battle, was awarded copyright protection over his reconstruction of a key ancient text by the Israeli Supreme Court on August 30, 2000.

    The losers in this suit were Hershel Shanks, the editor of Biblical Archeaology Review, and two prominent California professors, Robert Eisenman and James Robinson. All three were important warriors on the winning side of the war to liberate the scrolls for public access and scholarly study.

    Just in case you don’t recall all the details, let me remind you. In 1947, a cache of ancient scrolls were found in a cave near the Dead Sea. Over the next decade, many more scrolls and scroll fragments were found in other caves near by. Many were found to date to the first century, the time when Jesus lived, while others came from the previous two centuries.

    Over the following decade or so, nearly all the complete or nearly complete scrolls were published and thus made available to the scholarly world and the general public. By the early 1970s, most of what remained unpublished was in a fragmentary state, 1000s of pieces of 100s of different scrolls. Although most of the fragments had already been arranged into their respective scrolls, publication ceased at this point, with access to the unpublished restricted to fewer than 20 people. Despite regular calls for publication and access, matters remained this way up to the 1990s. This treasure trove of information about our heritage was denied to the world.

    Then the Great Dead Sea Scrolls War began. Although the details of the many battles of words, agreements and betrayals, and general scullduggery are too numerous to tell, one important salvo occurred in 1991. Hershel Shanks somehow obtained photographs of all the unpublished scroll fragments, and he turned to Eisenman and Robinson for scholarly help in editing them. Together they published all the photographs in a two-volume work titled, A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This volume in essence made all the scrolls available and basically won the war, although it still took some time before disengagement terms were agreed upon.

    If the Facsimile Edition had contained only the scroll photographs, the war would have ended there. But Shanks decided to include, without permission, a copy of Qimron’s private essay in which he reconstructed an important Dead Sea text called 4QMMT. The scroll’s odd name belies its importance, for the document reveals much about who the writers of Dead Sea Scrolls were, and what they thought of the priesthood in Jerusalem. Qimron had not only assembled the text from its fragmentary remains, but had also used his expert knowledge to fill in some of the missing blanks.

    This last battle was thus no longer about access to the scrolls, 40 years after their discovery, but about another important scholarly value, the ownership of one’s intellectual property, i.e., the right to be recognized for one’s ideas and hard work. Qimron’s victory in this last battle upholds this scholarly principle.

    In the end, then, it seems that the victors here are the two scholarly principles: the one allowing access to important discoveries and the other supporting a person’s right to the fruits of his intellectual labor. All is right with the scholarly world, then, and Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship is shining model of how scholarly work should be done. . . . Not!!!

    From the beginning, the Dead Sea Scrolls and their investigation have provided an example of how NOT to deal with finds from the ancient world and how scholarship should NOT be conducted.

    After the initial discovery, the scrolls were smuggled out of the country in which they were found (Jordan), brought to New York and offered for sale to the highest bidder. They were purchased through several removes by Jordan’s then arch-enemy Israel. The archaeological site near the caves was excavated but the finds were never published or made available by those in charge. Few of the caves were actually excavated by archaeologists because the Bedouins beat the scholars to them. Many of the scrolls were thus never found in situ but instead were purchased by the inch from the Bedouin. The last nearly complete scroll, the Temple Scroll, was acquired in a questionable manner by an Israeli General during the 1967 Six-Day War. And all this happened before scholars were denied access to the discoveries.

    Then there has been the way scholars have milked the finds to enhance their own status. Reputations have been built solely on publishing the finds, rather than on the intellectual achievements of interpreting them. Indeed, scholars who could only interpret published scrolls because they had no access to the finds themselves were treated as second-class citizens, regardless of their international standing.

    As the amount of unpublished material diminished, the little that remained was hoarded. By the late 1970s, publications were of a small fragment here, or a couple of fragments there. By the 1980s, scholars were publishing only descriptions of fragments and leaving out the text itself, or giving lectures but not permitting the text to be used by other scholars. It was a presentation of this latter sort by Qimron that Shanks published and which led to the court case discussed above. The principle that scholarly reputations should be built upon intellectual achievement, rather than possession of material, was lost.

    Finally, the fascination with the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has attracted dozens, if not hundreds, of scholars to their study and away from the study of other forms of ancient Judaism. The resources that have gone into Scrolls' study far exceed those that have gone into studying more important Jewish movements of the time. Rabbinic Judaism and the Jerusalem Temple, two of Judaism’s most important religious movements, have attracted nowhere near the interest generated by the Dead Sea Scrolls—even though the Dead Sea Scrolls group was a rather unimportant "monastic" sect that had no lasting influence on Judaism or on events in first-century Land of Israel.

    So the battle over Qimron’s reconstruction of 4Qmmt constitutes not a victory of scholarly principles, but one more event in the sordid scholarly history of Dead Sea Scrolls study. It can only be hoped that with the publication of all documents and fragments nearing completion, this kind of grandstanding will end and the real work of analysis will begin.