Chronology of Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

September 27, 2007

The following is a chronology of events connected with the current controversy surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum. This information will be updated, corrected or revised periodically.  Please note: the titles up above (“Author responds to Dead Sea Scrolls criticism,” etc.) are links to other postings in this blog.


1995: Following in the wake of the Scrolls monopoly scandal, University of Chicago historian Norman Golb publishes Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Golb argues that the scrolls are the remnants of Jerusalem libraries and not the writings of any specific group in ancient Judaism, but rather contain a wide range of conflicting doctrines. Evidence supporting the argument includes the Copper Scroll, the presence of over 500 scribal hands among the scrolls and the wide variety of doctrines they contain, and the lack of any demonstrable organic link between the scrolls and Khirbet Qumran.

2002: New York Times article “Debate Erupts Over Authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls” reports on wide disagreement of scholars at Brown University conference. Several Israeli archaeologists announce that they have concluded there was no link between Qumran and the scrolls, that no sect ever inhabited Qumran, and that they accept the Jerusalem libraries theory.

2004: Israeli Archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld publishes Qumran in Context: Reassessing the Archaeological Evidence. Hirschfeld endorses the Jerusalem theory of scroll origins and argues that no sect ever lived at Qumran. Rachel Elior, the head of the department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, publishes The Three Temples, in which she also rejects the Qumran-sectarian theory and focuses on links between the Dead Sea Scrolls and priests in Jerusalem.

2006: Israeli archaeologists Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, leaders of the official Israel Antiquities Authority Qumran excavation team, publish the results of ten seasons of digs at Qumran. In their articles (the first of which appeared in The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates: Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 57), they reject the identification of Qumran as a sectarian site and conclude that the scrolls are the remnants of Jerusalem libraries.

August 2006: John Noble Wilford reports on the Magen and Peleg conclusions in The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune. The article is picked up by other newspapers including the San Diego Union-Tribune, and quickly spreads over dozens of internet blogs. Scrolls exhibit opens at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center.

December 2006: The Seattle scrolls exhibit winds down and is packed for its move to Kansas City, while San Diego Natural History Museum publishes website description of its own exhibit to open on June 29, 2007, billed as the “largest Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit ever to take place in America.”

2007 events

January 9, 2007: San Diego Jewish Sightseeing website publishes an exchange of letters between Charles Gadda (New York) and Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, curator of the San Diego exhibit. Gadda notes that The Cambridge History of Judaism features two separate articles on the “two salient theories of Scroll origins, namely (1) the old Qumran-Essene theory and (2) the Jerusalem-libraries theory which has come to be increasingly supported by the newer generation of scholars,” and asks why the museum’s “announced roster of lecturers is stacked with scholars who support the old Qumran-Essene theory of Scroll origins, without including a single opponent of it.” In her response, Dr. Kohn does not address the question of lectures, but asserts that the San Diego curators “are well versed in the variety of theories and hypotheses concerning … the Scrolls and have sought … to present facts based on current scholarly consensus as well as considered analysis of the evidence, including the variety of theories posited by Golb and others.”

January 11, 2007: Anonymous bloggers republish the Jewish Sightseeing exchange with detailed commentary on Dr. Kohn’s letter. The bloggers point to a New York Times article quoting Qumran archaeology specialist Katarina Galor’s statement that there is no longer any scholarly “consensus” on Scroll origins. The bloggers suggest that Dr. Kohn might have a conflict of interest stemming from her position as president of the West Coast chapter of the Society of Biblical Literature, and conclude that her letter “puts a spotlight on the danger of entrusting an exhibit on a topic of this importance not to a specialist in history, archaeology or Hebrew manuscript investigation, but to a professor of religious studies who describes herself as a ‘Dead Sea Scrolls scholar’ even though no publication by her on this subject appears in her bibliography.”

February-May 2007: Scrolls exhibit takes place in Kansas City.

April 13, 2007: The Forward publishes editorial by Golb entitled “Take Claims About Dead Sea Scrolls With a Grain of Salt.” Golb attacks the scientific credibility of the scrolls exhibits: “A sophisticated media campaign has accompanied all the current exhibits, aimed at convincing the public of the truth of an old, and now increasingly disputed, theory of the Scrolls’ origins.” Golb denounces “scholarly disregard for ancient Judaic culture” evidenced in exhibits: “Like the recently propagated claim that ossuary coffins found in a Jerusalem crypt contain the remains of the family of Jesus of Nazareth and of Jesus himself,” the claims made in the exhibits are “based not on scientific research per se, but rather on conjecture and a tendentious presentation of evidence — techniques feeding on a largely faith-based fascination with Christian origins.”

April 26, 2007: Golb lectures at Scrolls exhibit in Kansas City. Report on event in Kansas City Jewish Chronicle quotes Raymond Shubinski, the science director who invited Golb to be part of the series, as stating: “This kind of heated scholarly dispute happens in every scientific field… [Golb’s] ideas need to be discussed…”

June 6, 2007: Golb publishes detailed article “Fact and Fiction in Current Exhibitions of Dead Sea Scrolls: A Critical Notebook for Viewers.” The article is immediately cited on various biblical studies blogs. An appendix critiques the San Diego exhibit, concluding that statements made on the museum’s website “raise basic questions regarding the scientific conduct of the San Diego museum in respect to its forthcoming exhibit of the Scrolls.”

During the several weeks that follow, San Diego area newspapers repeatedly publish articles announcing the opening of the exhibit and making no mention of Golb’s criticisms. On June 11, the Jewish Observer and on June 26, the Jewish Journal publish letters by Mr. Gadda attacking the exhibit. Gadda asserts that the “Museum is being accused … of taking sides in a bitter and widening academic dispute. The Museum’s motives for hosting such a biased exhibit are unclear; thus, its conduct manifestly violates the ethical-transparency standard promulgated by the American Association of Museums.”

June 26, 2007: Los Angeles Times publishes article by Mike Boehm entitled “A lively debate over the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Boehm quotes Golb’s article: “The museum, instead of guiding viewers toward an understanding of the controversy over the origin and significance of the scrolls, manifestly undertakes to manipulate the layman’s comprehension of them,” and Kohn’s reply: “You don’t want to confuse people with so many competing theories, so they walk away, saying, ‘Well, nobody really knows anything!”

June 27-28, 2007: Comments appear on various websites accusing Dr. Kohn of insulting the public’s intelligence with her statement “you don’t want to confuse people,” and pointing to the contradiction between this statement and her earlier claim of January 9, 2007 (see above) to the effect that the exhibit would not be slanted towards one particular view but would include “the variety of theories posited by Golb and others.” Commentators argue that the exhibit violates the San Diego museum’s declared mission to “educate the public.”

June 29, 2007: San Diego scrolls exhibit opens.

July, 2007: UCLA press campaign publicizes “findings” of Dr. William Schniedewind, presented at the museum in a “virtual reality” film produced by his graduate student Robert Cargill. Mr. Cargill announces that the film was funded by $100,000 provided jointly by the San Diego museum and Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation. Writing on the Nowpublic site, Charles Gadda questions the originality of Schniedewind’s “findings” and suggests that the film and accompanying press campaign are designed to mislead the public as to the grounds for the research conclusions of several Israeli archaeologists.

August 2, 2007: Article by Mr. Gadda entitled Christian Fundamentalism and the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego appears on Nowpublic site. Gadda exposes apparent evangelical affiliations of several individuals involved in creating and setting the agenda of the exhibit. Among other revelations, the article indicates that Dr. Schniedewind serves on the Board of Advisors and adjunct faculty of the University of the Holy Land, a Christian educational institution, and that before enrolling at UCLA, Dr. Schniedewind’s student Robert Cargill received a Master of Science degree in Christian Ministry and a Master of Divinity degree from Pepperdine University, affiliated with the Churches of Christ.

August 18 (?), 2007: British humanist View from Number 80 blog attacks San Diego exhibit, asserting that “in the USA, a country half-choked by its own religiosity, a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit has been doing the rounds, oddly promoting an old and largely discredited theory about the origin of the scrolls and their authors…” Referring to Gadda’s Nowpublic articles, the blog further asserts that “celebrities, including Steven Spielberg, have contributed considerable sums of money to fund the exhibit and its associated ‘scholars’, most likely unaware that they were aiding in the dissemination of pseudo-archaeology and an unjustified and partisan interpretation of the evidence both textual and archaeological.”

September, 2007: Updates to Mr. Gadda’s “Christian Fundamentalism” article reveal that David Noel Freedman (a well-known professor of Biblical studies and one of the organizers of the exhibit) has been a Presbyterian minister since 1944, and that he was a member of the original Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly team (we summarize Gadda’s statements about Freedman on a separate page).  Gadda further reveals that Dr. Russell Fuller (who teaches in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, a Roman Catholic institution) is a consultant of the museum.  Fuller’s July 23 lecture at the museum was entitled “Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” which is the title of the well-known book by Golb (who was excluded from the lecture series).  Fuller’s lecture was sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene University, an institution affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene.  Point Loma’s program states that it aims to become a “nationally prominent Christian university.”

September 24-25, 2007: In a comment submitted to the Nowpublic page featuring Gadda’s article, Dr. Pam Fox Kuhlken, who is the co-author with David Noel Freedman of a popular book on the Scrolls, responds to criticisms, defending Dr. Freedman and suggesting that Gadda is establishing “guilt by association.”  Gadda replies, pointing to Dr. Kuhlken’s own associations with Christian educational institutions (she is in fact the founder of a Christian on-line “college”) and to her role as a “Christian writer.”  We have reproduced excerpts from this public exchange on a separate page.

October 6, 2007: A new article by Gadda, again on the Nowpublic site, reveals that Martin Abegg, co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University, was involved in the creation of the San Diego exhibit. The Dead Sea Scrolls Institute’s program states: “We believe that Evangelical Christian scholars should play a significant role in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” In addition, Gadda reveals that in an interview of June 2, 2007, Dr. Kohn denied that the Dead Sea Scrolls were “Jewish” texts. Gadda concludes that the museum’s conduct has resulted in an “appearance of impropriety,” and suggests that “we appear to be dealing, at the very least, with an exhibition tainted by intellectual antisemitism, with an obscurantist, seemingly irrational fear of debate, and with biased conduct that is abhorrent to our basic social sentiments and to the principle of freedom of inquiry which lies at the core of our system of values.”

October 22, 2007: Golb launches wide-ranging critique of San Diego exhibit in 24-page article entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls as Treated in a Recently Published Catalogue.  The article examines the translations and descriptions of the various scrolls contained in the exhibit’s catalogue (authored by the curator, Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn), arguing that they are repeatedly erroneous, misleading and mendacious.  Golb offers 23 examples of “factual errors and unprovable assertions presented as truths.” He concludes that “every conceivable effort appears to have been made to convince readers of the truth or verisimilitude of the Qumran-sectarian theory,” and that evidence to the contrary is “thoroughly suppressed from the catalogue.”  In the lack of “scientific evidence to justify this course of conduct,” he questions whether the museum was motivated by “financial gain … regardless of the truth or falsehood of the curatorial claims.” 

November 16, 2007: Golb publishes review of “Virtual Qumran” film funded by Steven Spielberg and being shown at exhibit: The So-Called “Virtual Reality Tour” at the 2007 San Diego Scrolls Exhibit.  The article offers further examples of false assertions made throughout the film.  A passage towards the end focuses on marginal comments in the film script that apparently were not intended for publication, and in which the author of the film (Robert Cargill) appears to be referring to secret deliberations over the contents of the film (Cargill’s exact words are “there is a third reason, but I never write it down.”  Golb concludes: “The effort here expressed cannot but raise troubling issues regarding the genesis and purpose of this show.”