The part of The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls by James VanderKam and Peter Flint that actually dealt directly with the meaning of the scrolls, I finished last week. The final chapter deals with the drama surrounding the publication of the scrolls, particularly the scrolls from Cave 4.
The cave, which had more than 15,000 scroll fragments, was found in 1952. General access and publication did not begin to happen until 1991, This caused consternation and conspiracy theories. Why did it take so long? Was there something in the scrolls that somebody wanted to hide?
Late in that period both James VanderKam and Peter Flint joined the small group of scholars working on the project. So they are not in a position to be neutral or totally objective. They were involved in the events. Yet, it is my judgment that they are mostly fair in the way they tell the story.
So why did this take so long? Some reasons include:
* Many of the scrolls were in very bad shape, consisting of scattered fragments, unlike the nearly complete scrolls found elsewhere.
* There was war and politics. The project was abandoned for a while because of the Suez war in the mid 50s. Jordan controlled the site and the manuscripts at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem until 1967. Jordan did not allow Jewish scholars to work on the project. After the 1967 war, Israel came to control both, So there was some change-over in the scholarly personnel.
* Some of the scholars involved in the project had agendas that included drastic or extreme theories. Some of these seemed based on religious and political bias. This caused other scholars to fear sensationalism and misuse of the data. I wrote about the minority opinions of John Allegro and Robert Eisenman in previous posts.
* Rockefeller funding became sparse in the 70s and 80s.
Still VanderKam and Flint do not really defend the delays. They seem to agree that it took way too long.
In 1991 some people went rogue and published photographs of many of the scrolls. There was controversy, accusations and law suits. Our authors recount these events without personal animus. But it was a very complicated time with scholars scrambling to keep up with events.
This led, though, to what our authors call the “golden years of publication” from 1992-2002. So now interested parties have access to all the scrolls. Translations of the complete scrolls have been attempted.
In the popular mind there is still probably a hangover from the conspiracy theories that were circulated about the delayed publication.
One widely read book from 1991 was The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception: Why a Handful of Religious Scholars Conspired to Suppress the Revolutionary Content of the Dead Sea Scrolls by M. Baigent and R. Leigh. The authors answered the subtitle’s question by claiming that the Vatican was threatened because the Catholic-dominated team knew the contents of the scrolls would undermine Christianity.
But now, with the open publication of the results from Cave 4, it is hard to see anything there that would threaten Christians or anybody else. It is just historical material, mostly relating to a time slightly before the emergence of Christianity.
In my opinion, the ridiculous delay in publication was caused by the rivalry and territoriality of some scholars.
VanderKam and Flint take heart in the positions adopted in the wake of the scandal by the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research. Both now
“affirm the principal that discoveries must be made accessible to others in an expeditious way and not kept out of circulation for as long as they were in the case of the Cave 4 manuscripts.”