Dead Sea Scrolls Stir Lively Debate
SAN MARINO, CALIF.
THOUGH the event that prompted the hottest religious and archaeological controversy in decades - making public a set of Dead Sea Scroll photographs - has moved out of the spotlight (see related story below), many of the issues it generated have not.Religious scholars, theologians, and archaeologists alike say the incident teaches several lessons and underlines glaring needs in the academic community: for clearer definitions of the rights of excavators and their discoveries; for funding and support for such projects; for consensus on the meaning of "official" scholarship and access to ideas. "We have got to establish international rules for major archaeological finds," says Rev. James Charlesworth, a scrolls expert at the Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J. Under the auspices of such groups as the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums (Jerusalem), Jordanian Department of Antiquities (Amman), and the Society of Biblical Literature in the United States, newly discovered documents and artifacts could be distributed to distinguished teams of international scholars representing the international community. Some say time limits should be set on when subsequent photographs and critical texts would be published - say, three and five years respectively. "It's clear that discoveries are going to have to be released at much faster rates," says Lawrence Schiffmann, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. Others are leery of any kind of "official" bodies or limits to free access. "We need not to manage information and access to these discoveries," says Robert Eisenman, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at California State University, Long Beach. "We have nothing to fear from competition - it is the fertilization of different viewpoints that creates progress." In one of the most bitterly contested agreements in modern archaeology, study of the Dead Sea Scrolls was granted exclusively to a small number of scholars - seven at first, increasing to 40 - in 1953. Since then, only half of the scrolls' contents have been published. "They strung out the process to their own benefit for 30 to 40 years," says Dr. Eisenman. "They had transcriptions done by 1960 ... why couldn't it all have been published then?" While the monopoly was in force, a whole generation of top scholars was denied access, observers say: noted academics such as William F. Albright, the father of modern archaeology, Nelson Glueck, Roland de Vaux, Morton Smith. De Vaux had helped excavate the ruins where the scrolls were found. "An irreplaceable amount of insight into the scrolls has been lost forever," Mr. Charlesworth says. "There has to be sufficient academic accountability at the outset to ensure the best interest of the most people," adds Jeff Rogers, a professor of religion at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Other such finds are languishing in the hands of scholars overloaded with teaching duties or other projects - among them the Samaritan papyri, which date to the time of Alexander the Great. "The puzzle of documents such as these is far too complex to make progress [while devoting] only an hour a day," Charlesworth says. THE Huntington collection of scroll photographs had been stashed in 20 metal boxes inside a secret vault for a decade until museum director William A. Moffett liberated the images last month. When he became the director last year, Dr. Moffett did not know the photographs were there. Though other institutions had strict contractual agreements to limit access, Moffett found that the Huntington had no such limitations. "We can't let these things sit around on a shelf for decades until someone says, 'Gee, this ought to be looked at, Charlesworth says. A major part of the problem, some observers say, is lack of government, foundation, and philanthropic support for such projects. Scholars must teach for a living, leaving precious little time for additional endeavors. "Foundations too often say they are interested in value but not religious things," Charlesworth says. "And religious societies are more interested in proselytizing. We need individuals to come forth and fund a center from which study and publication could arise." Public and media interest during the scrolls episode is proof that the appetite exists, he adds. Another lesson of the current controversy is that open-ended study without publishing generates a vacuum of concern. "People begin to think the scholar has found out something that is a threat to their previous beliefs and is withholding information," Charlesworth says. "When the study is religious, the stresses are all the greater."