Where Dead Sea Scrolls Go, “Controversy” Follows

From the moment word of Muhammed edh-Dhib‘s discovery in the Judean desert began to circulate in scriptural and archaeological circles, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been shadowed by controversies. As a subscriber to Biblical Archaeology Review throughout the sturm und drang of the “liberation” of the scrolls in the early 1990s, the Strugnell controversy, and the theories and counter-theories about their origin, I followed the whole story in wearying detail. No one really cares any more, since the text–not the wounded vanity or past sins of an academic elite–is the important thing here, but I’m reminded that nothing–absolutely nothing–is said about the DSS without some controversy erupting from some quarter, often expressed in an alarmingly personal and insulting manner.

I’m not sure I can say why this is, except for the scrolls’ mystique of “hidden wisdom” that some once believe would rewrite Biblical history. The wife of a friend once assured me that the Vatican was keeping the scrolls secret because they would “blow the lid off the lie of Christianity.” The DSS, of course, were composed by the Essenes (an ascetic Jewish sect), not Christians, some time between the 2nd century BC and first century AD. Although this overlaps with the origins of Christianity, and thus illuminates one aspect of the culture in which Christianity took root, the texts themselves have no Christian connection whatsoever. (No, Robert Eisenman‘s ravings are not true. Not even close.) Oh, and the Vatican never had control of the scrolls. Other than that…

We’ve now seen all the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they are quite clearly sectarian documents from a minor, but fascinating, group, as well as extensive copies of the Hebrew scriptures and some pseudepigrapha. What they tell us about these people, their time, and these texts is priceless, but only by way of fine-tuning what we already know: not by rewriting history. They show–contra Bart Ehrman–that the texts of scripture were actually fairly well preserved and consistent over time, with the variations in texts amounting to little more than minor alterations of language and syntax, and occasional compression or clarification.

Here’s an example from Deuteronomy 5:15 (changes in italics):

Masoretic Text: Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

DSS: And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out the from there with a mighty hand and an outstreteched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day to hallow it. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them and rested the seventh day; so the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

I know: mind-blowing! It rewrites the whole story of Judaism and Christianity! I’ve been living a lie all these years! I’m going to have to renounce my faith, write a lot of BSy books, and go on a lucrative speaking tour.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Hebrew scripture will recognize the additions in the DSS example as a kind of midrash: an elaboration of the passage for pedagogic purposes. Textual differences–even among radically disparate textual traditions such as the Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, and Masoretic–rarely amount to more than this: subtle changes of syntax, elaborations, commentary, some censoring of racy material, and the like. There’s nothing earth-shattering, like Moses being the illegitimate son of pharaoh, or Isaiah running a pawn business on the side, or Jesus showing up at Qumran to show the Essenes the proper way to go the bathroom (a topic which, like everything related to the DSS, is fraught with–you guessed it–controversy).

And so I shouldn’t have been surprised when a simple exhibit of artifacts and scrolls brought the trolls out of the woodwork. Honestly, I’m reluctant to even link to these posts, because they are so biased and filled with casual slanders, but here are a couple. Click at your own risk.

First, there’s the idea that the Israel Antiquities Authority has created and supported an anti-Jewish exhibit. Some of the complaints are directed at the preponderance of Christians attending the exhibit, and the way in which the exhibit highlights the “Holy Land” angle and the common threads of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That’s not a bug: that’s a feature. How an exhibit which draws people together and looks at the common wellspring of Christianity and Islam in Judaism can be anti-Jewish is a mystery to me. As for the exhibit’s alleged attempts to “appeal” to “Evangelicals” (meaning: Christians the writers don’t like for reasons of class, politics, and belief): first, I didn’t see that at all; and second, if they are “appealing to Evangelicals,” well … duh. There’s more Christians than Jews in America. Why create something for a narrow demographic when you can create a wide-ranging exhibit that draws in Christians as well as Jews and even Muslims? Again: this is a bad thing … how?

We can also wave away the attacks on Lawrence Shiffman, a renowned scroll scholar who served as an adviser to the exhibit, because most hatred directed towards him is wholly separate from his actual work on the scrolls. However, the bizarre accusations of Schiffman’s “mistreatment” of one of his critics is fascinating. The critic in question is Norman Golb, who we’ll get to in a second. As background, go ahead and read this.

That’s right: Golb’s son Raphael impersonated Schiffman for the express purpose of destroying his career, and was sentenced to six months in jail for his actions, and the author of the Salon pieces reads this as evidence of Schiffman persecuting Golb.

Why on earth would Raphael Golb do this? Who knows, but Norman Golb and Lawrence Schiffman are on opposite sides of the scroll debate, and Golb’s “side” (comprised of, well, Golb and pretty much no one else  of any standing) is losing badly. Golb, you see, thinks the Quram/Essenes/DSS story that’s been the dominant theory since the 1950s is hogwash. He thinks Qumran was a fort without connection to the scroll caves, and that the caves were a repository for scrolls of many sects out of Jerusalem.

Except … Qumran was not a fort, and no reasonable archaeologist believes it is. And if this was a repository for multiple groups, why do all the contents of the community scrolls line up with Essene practices and the evidence of Qumran itself? Where are the scrolls of the Pharisees, for instance?

And, by the way, Cave 4 was so close to Qumran (less than 500 meters) that you’d pretty much have to walk through the settlement to reach the cave. So, no: Golb’s theories are dust and ashes.

I’ve read Norman Golb’s book, and I’ve always gotten the impression that, while he has a clear mastery of the materials, he’s reached all the wrong conclusions. He’s desperate to put forward his theories and tends to attack other scholars, such as Geza Vermes and Schiffman, often on a very personal level. He has a tendency to regard disagreements with the theories of Norman Golb as indication of some hard factual error. That’s a nice rhetorical trick, but it doesn’t magically turn his theories into facts.

The DSS came primarily from Qumran, and were the work of the Essenes. That’s been the dominant narrative from almost the beginning, and I’ve found all the attempts to rewrite that narrative unpersuasive. Golb (and some of the others cited) has an ax to grind, and his use of phrases like “the presumed ‘Essenes’” is a clear indicator that he’s simply being contrarian. The complaints outlined by critics of the exhibit appear to be just more of the background noise that accompanies the scrolls. It’s merely Golb and other scholars trying to whip up outrage at a high profile exhibit in order to draw attention to their own work and theories. Having read him in the past, I feel pretty comfortable ignoring anything he says. He’s not merely wrong, which we all are from time to time: he’s obnoxious in his wrongness.

All of this amounts to a non-story, inflated into an imaginary controversy by a lot of hand-waving, ominous rhetoric (use of the word “Evangelical” is positively Pavlovian for urban elites: you can almost feel them shudder with distaste), and sad attempts to promote minor scholarly work by piggy-backing on a high-profile story. Even if you invent an imaginary “controversy,” the media often feels duty-bound to report the “controversy” in order to provide balance, and thus any old fringe theory might be able to get an airing. Scholars are no more immune from this kind of vain grandstanding than anyone else, and scroll scholarship seems to attract some of the worst.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.