Statements from the past pertinent to San Diego ethical controversy

Anyone who is interested in the controversy surrounding the exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls taking place at the San Diego Museum of Natural History, may find it useful to consider the past words of two scholars with no stake in any particular theory of Scroll origins, commenting on some of the issues that were already looming ten years ago, and that lurk at the core of the present discussion as well.

Here then are two self-explanatory book reviews involving (in one case entirely, in the other in part) the work of University of Chicago professor Norman Golb.  We recall that Golb is one of the principal proponents of the Jerusalem theory of scroll origins, which the Cambridge History of Judaism treats as one of the two salient theories in the field.  The theory is today shared by key Israeli archaeologists and many other scholars as well — all of whom have been excluded from the San Diego exhibit.

A few technical terms from one sentence of the first review, and passages from the second one that don’t concern the Dead Sea Scrolls at all, have been eliminated. Several sentences that “sound familiar” in the context of the current controversy have (towards the end of each review) been put in bold print.  We take no stand on the issues raised in these reviews, but we feel they bear fruit for thought.  We have added one explanatory comment of our own in bold.


Church History: Vol. 64, No.4 (1995), pp. 635-636


Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Search for the Secret of Qumran. By NORMAN GOLB. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995. xvi + 446 pp. $25.00.

Norman Golb offers here a book-length version of his incisive critique of many aspects of the prevailing theories about Khirbet Qumran and the scrolls found in its vicinity. This book is “must reading” for every historian regardless of her or his period of specialization. It demonstrates how a particular interpretation of an ancient site and particular readings of ancient documents became a straitjacket for subsequent discussion of what is arguably the most widely publicized set of discoveries in the history of biblical archaeology.

I find Golb’s argument that the site has all the characteristics of a military fort compelling, especially since the final report of Père Roland de Vaux’s original excavations at Khirbet Qumran was never completed (the notes of de Vaux were published in 1994 — too late for Golb to use). The editors now working on the final report have proposed a distinctly idiosyncratic interpretation; others have proposed that it was a “commercial entrepot”; and new excavations are being planned [note this refers to the excavations of the Israel Antiquities Authority team led by Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, who later concluded that no sect inhabited Qumran and that the scrolls came from Jerusalem]. From the outset the presence of a cemetery with male and female burials remarkably close to the buildings raised a giant question mark about the site being an Essene monastery. Likewise, it is not just Golb who argues that the brief statement in Pliny the Elder about the Essenes above (not some miles to the north) En Gedi can hardly be applied to the ruins at Qumran.

Not only has the variety of the writings found among the scrolls not been adequately acknowledged, but, equally important according to Golb, they are almost all scribal copies. These are primarily literary works, not autographs or documents as such. Moreover, the number of scribes involved is in the hundreds. They must be associated with libraries, and their variety and quantity suggest many libraries and thus an urban center like Jerusalem. Reconsideration of the archaeological evidence also eliminates the supposed scriptorium at Qumran and makes it doubtful that any significant copying activity was carried on there. Again this is not Golb’s conclusion alone.

Numerous considerations point to the First Jewish War or Revolt, probably the months just prior to the siege of Jerusalem, as the occasion for the hiding of the Scrolls. He connects, rightly in my opinion, the reports [by medieval chroniclers] of the discovery of Hebrew manuscripts in the vicinity of Jericho … in the third century and … around 790 with the hiding of scrolls in the late 60s C.E. There was a widespread effort to preserve the Jews’ religious and intellectual heritage — and we are the unintended beneficiaries. Golb therefore wants us to take the Copper Scroll with its lists of hidden treasures and specific hiding places in the Judaean wilderness seriously; it is “a genuine documentary autograph” (p. 119). Manuscript discoveries at Masada and in several Dead Sea caves other than the eleven associated with Qumran fit the same pattern.

If Golb has an agenda, it is his concern that many of the scholars associated with the Dead Sea scrolls from the outset and until quite recently 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” (p. 171). 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. Golb goes on to lay out in commendable detail the controversies surrounding the scrolls and their publication as well as their interpretation. Especially interesting is the account of events related to the exhibition of scroll fragments in the United States in 1993-1994. What is most distressing here is the reluctance of so many parties to the scrolls controversy — by then widely publicized — to engage in a full and free discus­sion of the many questions which had arisen. Golb, at least, has now had his day in court, and it is good day for all of us who claim to be serious historians.

Sweet Briar College
Sweet Briar, Virginia

University of Texas/Libraries & Culture/33:4 112098

Book Reviews

The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. Edited by Simon Hornblower and AnthonySpawforth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. liv, 1,640 pp. $99.95. ISBN0-19-866172-X.

This volume constitutes a substantial revision of a work long recognized as a standard reference in English for the study of ancient Greek and Roman civilization (1st ed., 1949; 2d ed., 1970). The revision incorporates 6,250 contributions written between 1991 and 1994 by 364 scholars from well over a dozen countries. […]Students of ancient libraries will find the greatest concentration of pertinent information under books, Greek and Roman (24952) and libraries (8545), and in the entries cross-referenced there. […]

On the margin of classical studies but of interest to readers of this journal, the entry for Dead Sea Scrolls mentions the hypothesis that these texts constitute the remains of private libraries rescued from the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., rather than the documents composed or collected by a sect resident in the Judean desert (432, col. 2, par. 4), but there is no mention of relevant bibliography or even the name of the University of Chicago professor who developed this hypothesis (see Norman Golb, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? [New York: Scribner, 1995], which references his several articles published between 1980 and 1994). This is characteristic of the mode of response of many Scrolls scholars to the “Jerusalem library hypothesis” but is no less regrettable for that.

Jeffrey Peterson
Institute for Christian Studies
Austin, Texas

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