Israeli Court Bars Distribution of Dead Sea Scroll Facsimiles
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Israeli Court Bars Distribution of Dead Sea Scroll Facsimiles

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One of the editors officially charged with reconstructing the Dead Sea Scrolls is suing the publisher of a book of scroll facsimiles, and has obtained a restraining order enjoining the American publisher from distributing any more copies of the work.

The suit, which seeks $160,000 in damages, was filed in Israel by Professor Elisha Qimron of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.

The suit names as defendant Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Society, which recently published a two-volume edition of Dead Sea Scroll facsimiles.

The Jerusalem District Court issued the restraining order against Shanks on Tuesday. No date for trial has yet been set.

Though he is not yet sure whether an Israeli court order can be enforced in the United States, Shanks is complying with it until the Israeli counsel he has retained advises him further.

“We’re going to fight the lawsuit, but I don’t want to be in violation of an Israeli court or be put in an Israeli jail next time I visit,” he said.

The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouins four decades ago in caves near the Dead Sea. Over the next nine years, 800 leather and papyrus manuscripts were unearthed in nearby caves and ruins.

They tell the story of a sect of Jews, widely considered to be Essenes, who forsook mainstream Jewish life for a more ascetic existence. This knowledge has enriched understanding of the roots of modern Judaism and Christianity.

The translation and publication of the fragmented documents was left to seven scholars, who have maintained tight control over access to the scrolls. As the scholars retire, they pass on their rights to their proteges.

Qimron is the official editor of a letter included in Shanks’ facsimile edition that is believed to have been written by the founder of the Dead Sea sectarians in the second century before the Common Era.


It is known as Miktsat Ma’asei HaTorah (Some of the Precepts of the Torah) and referred to, in scholarly circles, as 4QMMT.

4QMMT is believed to have been written by an author known as the Teacher of Righteousness, and details some 20 Pharisaic laws with which the sectarian leader disagreed, highlighting differences between the Qumran sect and Jerusalem’s main-stream Jewish community of the day. It was the only letter found at Qumran, according to Shanks.

The 121-line document is “very important” and “said to have extraordinary importance for determining the identity of the Jewish sectarians who hid the Dead Sea Scrolls 2,000 years ago,” Shanks said.

He published it in his “Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls” last November, after the letter was published, in an unauthorized version, in a Polish journal called Qumran Chronicle in December 1990.

Threats by the Israel Antiquities Authority forced the Qumran Chronicle’s publisher to withdraw it from circulation, Shanks said, but unauthorized photocopies of the document had been circulating among scroll scholars for some time.

The court order, which enjoins the Biblical Archaeology Society from selling or circulating the book of photographs as long as it contains the copy of the letter, also names the two scholars who prepared the facsimile: Professor Robert Eisenman and Professor James Robinson.

Qimron, who succeeded John Strugnell, a professor of Christian origins at Harvard Divinity School, as the editor and possessor of the letter, told the court that he had reconstructed the letter over 11 years of painstaking work, and that it was included in Shanks’ publication without crediting him or obtaining his permission.


Unlike the other documents in the “pirated” facsimile edition, which are photographs of scrolls that had been physically pieced together by scholars from fragments, Qimron said, the 4QMMT letter includes place where he filled in numerous gaps in the available text by deducing what the original must have said.

“I don’t think he did more than complete a word or two or three from the text,” Shanks countered. And “they’re not his words, they’re conjectures as to what the original text said. Any copyright of this text expired 2,000 years ago.”

According to Qimron’s lawyer, Yitzhak Molho, publishing the letter deprived Qimron and Strugnell of their due academic recognition and caused them the financial loss of anticipated revenues from publication and lectures.

Shanks has waged a six-year campaign to enable all qualified scholars to have access to the scrolls, which had been controlled by a small group of editors, and said that he regrets “that a few Israeli scholars are still trying to put the genie back into the bottle.”

(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)

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