Robertdworkin’s Weblog

July 12, 2008

The Ethics of Exhibition: Romancing the Scrolls

by Robert Dworkin

The following article was originally published on the Spinoza’s Lens site, which has since been taken down.

In recent years, history, science, and religion have had a series of increasingly embarrassing encounters. An especially significant, if rarely analyzed, example of this phenomenon is the inaccurate treatment of the current state of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship in traveling exhibitions being presented all over the United States and elsewhere. As of this date, one such exhibit is at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Almyra, New York. Another, entitled “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of Christianity,” is at the National War Monument in Seoul, Korea. Others were recently presented at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle and at the San Diego Natural History Museum (the latter at a cost of six million dollars), and one will be opening on June 28 at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh — a division of the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. Judging from the descriptions of these exhibits available on the websites of the exhibiting institutions, each of them fails to give the public a balanced view of a deepening academic struggle that has divided the world of Scrolls research for the past decade.

The theory of Scroll origins favored in the exhibits is the “traditional” one, first proposed sixty years ago — at a time when scholars had read only seven of the 900 scrolls ultimately found in the caves to the north of the famous Khirbet Qumran site. Academics who defend this theory (for the most part biblical scholars rather than historians or professional archaeologists) hold that Qumran — whose fortified ruins are located on a desert cliff overlooking the Dead Sea — was home to a small, celibate sect usually said to be Essenes. They argue that the Dead Sea Scrolls were composed and copied by monks living at this site. Speculation that the claimed Essenes of Qumran were forerunners of early Christianity (reflected in the title of the Korean exhibit) quickly made the Dead Sea Scrolls the most popular archaeological discovery of the 20th century.

Over the past decade, however, an increasing number of researchers, including Hebrew University archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld (who died following a heart attack in 2006) and a top archaeological team led by Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg of the Israel Antiquities Authority, have come to favor a fundamentally different view. Responding to anomalies in the traditional theory (e.g., the presence of over 500 scribal hands among the scrolls, the wide variety of doctrines they contain, and the failure to find evidence of scribal activity at Qumran or any organic link between the scrolls and the site), they have concluded that Qumran was a secular site well integrated into the economy of the region, inhabited by soldiers and pottery makers — but never by any religious sect — and that the Scrolls are the remnants of libraries from the Jerusalem area, the writings of many different Jewish groups taken down to the desert for safe-keeping shortly before the siege and sacking of the city by the Romans in 70 A.D.

These conclusions echo and amplify those forcefully argued for by University of Chicago historian Norman Golb since the late 1970s. One reviewer of Golb’s 1995 book (suitably entitled Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?) summarized some of the stakes involved in the ongoing controversy as follows: Many traditional scholars “held or were influenced by the ‘entrenched belief that the culture of the Jews mattered relatively little, and that urban civilization was a force inimical to it.’ These scholars could not accept or possibly even conceive the extent of the literature associated with Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans” (G. Armstrong, in Church History, vol. 64, no. 4 [1995], p. 636).

The opposition to the sectarian theory is, by any normal academic standards, both serious and concerted. The rift was clearly visible by 1998, when the pertinent volume of the Cambridge History of Judaism appeared: it contained two lengthy articles on Scroll origins, one representing the Essene theory, the other the Jerusalem theory. Four years later, a major New York Times article reported on a wide disagreement of scholars at a Brown University scrolls conference. The article quoted Dr. Katarina Galor, the conference organizer, to the effect that there was no longer any “consensus” on the topic. By 2006, the same newspaper (in an article focused on Dr. Magen’s excavations) described opposition to the sectarian theory as “a rising tide of revisionist thinking.”

Yet, museums across the country have chosen to ignore this situation and, what is worse, have systematically failed to inform the public of any of the reasons that have led to it. While the exhibits occasionally pay lip service to “some scholars” who “believe” the scrolls came from Jerusalem, the exhibiting institutions appear to have gone to considerable length to convince the public that the “consensus,” and even the recent findings of archaeologists in Israel, still favor, or at any rate do not threaten, the Essene theory. Evidence supporting the Jerusalem theory is simply omitted or, as in the case of the famous Copper Scroll (whose contents, according to most current specialists, point to the Temple in Jerusalem as the source of the hidden treasures and artifacts that it lists) is treated as “mysterious.” The descriptions of the other texts on display tend to read as if the sectarian theory were a presupposed fact.

Nor can the exhibitors plead ignorance. Golb himself, in a series of articles published on the University of Chicago website, has presented several lengthy lists of what, according to him, are egregiously false and misleading claims made in the exhibits. Surprisingly, however, not one of the institutions in question has even attempted to respond to any of Golb’s criticisms. If the exhibits, according to a respected scholar in the field, consist largely of propaganda that fools the public, then wouldn’t one normally expect the directors of the prestigious museums where they are being held to investigate these claims?

As indicated, some of the exhibits have been held in religious (particularly Mormon) institutions. Leaving aside the question of whether such institutions may reasonably be expected to meet the standards applicable to science museums, another more basic question is whether the large numbers of people who pay to see these exhibits are not entitled to the simple truth. For example, the website description of the exhibit taking place at the church in Almyra, NY states that “scholars do not agree on the origin of the scrolls,” but then pointedly adds that the exhibit “includes artifacts … found in the Qumran area, home to the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” The reader is left with the impression that the scholarly disagreement referred to has no impact whatsoever on the veracity of the assertion pronounced, as a fact, a few sentences later.

Over and beyond the question of scientific accuracy, other disturbing problems must also be confronted. Even the exhibits taking place in science museums have been created largely by Christian scholars, some of them affiliated with educational institutions with names like “University of the Holy Land.” Some of the exhibitors are members of the team that strictly controlled the Scrolls (refusing access to those who disagreed with the Essene interpretation) until the famous “Scrolls monopoly” collapsed in 1992. With one rare exception, the Jewish, secular-minded scholars who have rejected the Qumran-sectarian theory have been excluded from the lecture series accompanying the exhibits. The exception occurred at Kansas City’s Union Station, where Dr. Golb — i.e., a single opponent of the sectarian theory in a field of over twenty lecturers — was invited to speak. The Kansas City museum director explained his decision by invoking his own “scientific background,” indicating that “if you are trying to decide on a theory, you need as many data points as possible.” This opinion, however, has apparently been rejected by the directors of exhibiting scientific institutions all across the country. Interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, the curator of the San Diego Natural History Museum’s exhibit justified that institution’s stance with the statement: “You don’t want to confuse people with so many different theories.”

As for the North Carolina exhibit, it quite clearly has been designed to cater to a particular religious audience, thus once again raising the question of the proper role of scientific institutions — and now for the first time one run by an American governmental branch — with respect to issues having a religious dimension. The museum’s website explains that the scrolls’ purportedly sectarian authors saw themselves as the “true Israel.” What large numbers of visitors may not know is that the expression “true Israel” was a polemical phrase used by figures in the early Christian church who believed that the Christians, not the Jews, were the True Israel. In the lack of any evidence that such an expression is found anywhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the museum’s website statement must be either an arbitrary piece of misinformation or something offered with specific religious intent. (In this respect, it is worth noting that since at least the late Renaissance, some Christian writers have argued that the purity-loving Essenes, rather than wicked, “priestly” Jews from Jerusalem, were the “true,” direct link with Christianity; Jesus himself has sometimes been popularly understood to have been an Essene — a tradition not grounded in any historical evidence, but which certainly forms part of the backdrop to this unfolding scholarly controversy over Scroll origins.)

The “true Israel” statement — and others included on the museum’s website are equally dubious — cannot help but raise the question of whether the North Carolina exhibit violates the United States Constitution by, in effect, taking a Jewish cultural treasure (as many now consider the scrolls to be) and presenting it with a Christian slant under state auspices. Surely a strong argument exists that state institutions, should they choose to exhibit the Scrolls, are legally bound to present both salient theories of scroll origins in a neutral manner, without imposing an unverifiable (and possibly fabricated) “consensus” on the public. Unfortunately, the warm reception generally accorded to these exhibits wherever they have previously showed does not encourage one to hope that the local media in Raleigh will directly address this issue and help set a standard for future exhibits.

Writing on the “View from Number 80” blog, British skeptic Ross Sargent comments on the controversy as follows: “Far from all this being a storm in an inkwell important principles are at stake. Archaeology, in the atmosphere of aggressive religiosity that now pervades society is becoming a football kicked around merely to further sectarian, and associated political, interests.” Surely we are dealing here with a pressing cultural problem. Yet the very nature of the problem invites reticence and discretion on the part of precisely those individuals to whom one would naturally look for action. Understandably, few people wish to become involved in a potential scandal, or to be sucked into a complicated academic dispute that does not directly concern them; above all, people do not wish to lay themselves open to charges of anti-Christian bigotry. Our natural reaction, then, is to shrug it off: what does it really matter if these exhibits cater to a Christian audience? After all, museum exhibits are often inaccurate, and the progress of science, along with “peer review,” can be expected to gradually work their effects.

Such an outcome, however, should not be taken for granted — particularly if, as appears to have occurred here, millions of dollars are being pumped into a propaganda effort designed to defend the interests of one group of scholars at the expense of another. In this regard, it is disconcerting to read, in an account of a lecture given by a defender of the Qumran-sectarian theory at the 2007 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, that the lecturer repeatedly attacked the highly regarded Israeli archaeologists who have rejected that theory following ten seasons of excavations at Qumran, and that an audience of biblical scholars greeted these attacks with encouraging laughter — but that the archaeologists in question, unlike the lecturer, were not invited to attend the SBL annual meeting. Sadly, as North Carolina prepares to host a Scrolls exhibit that is bound to excite immense popular interest, one is left to wonder whether financial and religious concerns have, in this domain, been allowed to trump the basic principle of free and open debate.

Blog at