Tired of Waiting, 2 Scholars Publish Pirated Volume of Dead Sea Scrolls
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Tired of Waiting, 2 Scholars Publish Pirated Volume of Dead Sea Scrolls

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Two Bible scholars have reconstructed a portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls from a secret concordance of the text, breaking “the lock a small group of scholars have hitherto maintained on the scrolls,” according to Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Society and publisher of the new book.

The Dead Sea Scrolls comprise some of the most extensive documentation extant of life in Judea during the Second Temple period, the era to which both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity trace their roots.

But both the authors of the new volume and members of the committee charged with the scrolls’ official publication agree that the version assembled in the newly published “A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls: The Hebrew and Aramaic Texts From Cave Four,” is no more than about 80 percent accurate.

“The reliability of such a document is highly questionable,” according to Eugene Ulrich, a senior member of the official editorial committee and a professor at Notre Dame University, who was interviewed Wednesday on public television’s MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour.

Authors Ben-Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg reassembled the Dead Sea Scroll texts from a concordance compiled between 1957 and 1960 by four scholars chosen by the committee of editors with official control over the scrolls.

That committee kept the concordance secret until 1988 when, according to Shanks, it was made public to a select few.


The Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where Wacholder is a professor and Abegg is a doctoral student, obtained a copy of the concordance in 1989. In 1990, the two scholars began the task of re-creating the fragments.

The concordance alphabetically lists each word in the non-Biblical texts found at one of the Qumran sites, identifies the document in which it appears and lists adjacent words.

With the aid of a computer, Wacholder and Abegg then pieced together the texts.

The concordance “was not meant to produce a version of the scrolls,” John Strugnell of the Harvard School of Divinity told Reuters. He said that he gave Wacholder a copy of the concordance solely for his scholarly use.

Strugnell was removed from his position as chief editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls project after giving an interview published in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz in October, 1990, in which he called Judaism “a horrible religion,” “originally racist,” and said that “the correct answer of Jews to Christianity is to become Christian.”

His comments have since been attributed to alcoholism and mental illness.

The step taken by Wacholder, Abegg and Shanks in publishing an “unofficial” volume of transcriptions is the latest round in what has been a very political — and public — war over access to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The scrolls have been under the tight control of the official editors since an original committee of eight was appointed by the Jordanian government, soon after the first scroll was discovered by Bedouins in 1947.

The original scholars, some of whom have since died, claimed the right to bequeath the scrolls to younger scholars, which has had the effect of restricting control over the important documents to a handful of experts, Shanks asserted.

The site of the first scroll discovery, an area then under Jordanian control, came to be known as Qumran Cave One.

Between 1952 and 1956, 10 more caves were found to contain 800 manuscripts — scrolls and fragments of scrolls — documenting the life of a group believed by many scholars to have been the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish sect that flourished in Palestine from 200 BCE to 68 C.E.


The richest of the sites was Cave Four, which contained approximately 575 manuscripts. The first of Wacholder and Abegg’s volumes contains 23 of those manuscripts.

Only about 20 percent of the scrolls’ transcriptions have been published in the nearly four decades since they were discovered, according to Shanks, a figure contested by those connected to the official committee.

“Seventy-five to 80 percent of all the real usable knowledge has long since been available,” Ulrich said.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls have been a scandal,” Shanks said at a news conference Wednesday. “They are probably the greatest manuscript discovery of this century, and it has been marred by this scholarly attitude of secrecy.

Shanks also publishes the magazine Biblical Archeology Review.

“This secrecy is a breach of trust,” he said. “These texts do not belong to these men, they are fiduciaries, trustees. The beneficiaries of that trust are you and me,” he added.

“The time has come for a little cultural glasnost, some scholarly perestroika in the way these scrolls are doled out by a small group of men who have enormous power.”

In the early 1950s, the contents of Cave Four were collected by Jordan in what was then known as the Palestine Archeological Museum. It is now the Rockefeller Museum.

The international team of eight editors, none of them Jewish, was appointed to edit and publish the manuscripts.


“Until the Six-Day War in 1967, Jewish scholars were completely cut out of work on the scrolls under the editing team’s authority,” Shanks wrote in the March/April 1991 issue of Biblical Archeology Review.

The scrolls came into Israeli hands during the war, but the committee of non-Jewish scholars, most of whom were “openly and vehemently anti-Israel,” remained in control of the scrolls, according to Shanks.

Until the mid-1980s, no Jewish scholar worked on the scrolls. Ironically, it was Strugnell, then chief editor, who began enlisting the aid of Israeli scholars.

When he was removed from his post last year, an Israeli scholar, Dr. Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University, was appointed to replace him.

The Dead Sea Scroll texts from Cave Four published this week reveal intimate details of the life the Essenes lived, the way they organized their group, whom they admitted and what they believed.

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