Library Provides Access to Photos of Dead Sea Scrolls, Despite Threat
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Library Provides Access to Photos of Dead Sea Scrolls, Despite Threat

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Despite the threat of legal action from Israel, one of the world’s foremost research libraries went ahead this week and opened its photographic collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls to all qualified scholars.

The move by the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., was hailed by many biblical scholars as the breakup of the tight academic cartel that for the last four decades has controlled the rare manuscripts, which are widely regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

But it was bitterly attacked by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem as tantamount to trafficking in stolen property and as a flagrant violation of a longstanding agreement.

The Antiquities Authority, an Israeli government agency that is the official custodian of archaeological finds in Israel, said it is considering legal action against the library.

The library’s director, Dr. William Moffett, received a faxed message Sunday from the authority’s director, Amir Drori, warning Huntington that it faces litigation if it insists on granting access to unpublished extracts from the scrolls.

The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday quoted Drori as saying, “If they do this, it would be a clear legal and ethical transgression. We have informed them that if this occurs, we will weigh action.”

A decision to take legal action was made at a meeting of the special committee of scholars overseeing publication of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts, the Post reported.

Until now, access to the scrolls has been restricted to about 40 scholars around the world, to whom fragments have been parceled out for deciphering and analysis. They work under the supervision of the Antiquities Authority.

Critics have long charged that the privileged scholars have been slow and secretive in researching the fragments and in sharing their findings with other scholars and the public.


But Drori has been quoted as saying that 80 percent of the scroll material has already been published and the remaining 20 percent should be ready for publication by a 1997 deadline set by the scholars committee.

Israeli officials contend that open access to the uncompleted texts could prevent a “definitive interpretation” of the scrolls.

An unnamed Israeli scholar warned that “black market publication” of the remaining fragments would set off “a gold rush conducive to slipshod scholarship.”

Another source said it invited “the law of the jungle.”

The Huntington Library has stored about 3,000 photographic master negatives of virtually all of the original scrolls and fragments. Its announcement last weekend that it would grant access to them was an academic bombshell that made the front pages of major newspapers world-wide.

Moffett told reporters that his action will render restrictive agreements on translating and publishing the scrolls “null and void — or at least pointless. At one stroke, we liberate the scholars as well as the Scrolls,” he said.

He described his action as the scholarly equivalent of breaching the Berlin Wall and freeing hostages in Lebanon.

But according to Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, which houses the scrolls, along with the Rockefeller Museum, “It’s a most scandalous thing.”

Drori accused the Huntington Library of breaking an accord under which the photographic copies were to be kept solely for preservation and safe-keeping.


The Antiquities Authority claims that in 1980, fearing loss or damage to the scrolls in the event of war or other disaster, it signed a contract with the Huntington Library allowing the library’s chief photographer to make microfilms of the fragments.

But the agreement was for safekeeping only, not for distribution, the authority contends.

Moffett told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that his library was not bound by any agreement with Israel and stated that by the terms under which Huntington acquired the photo collection, the library was “indemnified from any legal action.”

Whether a formal or implied accord existed restricting the use of the photos is likely to be the subject of future bitter debates.

The original scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in caves in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea. They remained under Jordanian jurisdiction until the 1967 war, when they came under Israeli control.

The Jordan government, like Israel, had restricted access to a small group of selected scholars.

The scrolls consist of 800 leather and papyrus documents, which have been dated from between 200 BCE and 68 C.E. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic, they include some of the earliest known Old Testament texts and descriptions of the community life of an ascetic Jewish sect, the Essenes.

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

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