Extracts from an article exposing San Diego exhibit’s Christian bias

A new article by Charles Gadda has appeared on the Nowpublic site, entitled Did Christianity skew San Diego scrolls exhibit? Since the article appears to sum up the essence of the San Diego controversy with considerable accuracy, we here reproduce several extracts from it.

Interviewed on June 2, 2007, the curator of the San Diego exhibit, Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, stated:

“The truth is, I wouldn’t classify these as Jewish texts… Because I would say Judaism, the way we tend to think about it, even early Judaism, is not yet fully crystallized in this period….”

This statement, of course, is tendentious and arguably inappropriate for the curator of a supposedly scientific Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. [An] important group of scholars have argued, both on account of the texts and on the basis of archaeological findings of the past decade, that the scrolls are specifically the remains of Jewish libraries in Jerusalem, removed to multiple locations in the desert for safekeeping shortly before or during the Roman siege and sacking of the city in 70 A.D.

The evidence supporting this “Jewish” view (treated, let us recall, as one of the two salient theories of scroll origins in the Cambridge History of Judaism) is concealed in the San Diego exhibit….

We must note, moreover, that in the same interview, Dr. Kohn asserts that she studied the scrolls only in a “tangential” way, thereby contradicting her earlier written statement of January 9, 2007, to the effect that she is a “Dead Sea Scrolls scholar.” 

[Let] us now turn to the religious background, training and affiliations of the five key individuals known to have been involved in the creation of the San Diego exhibit … :

  • David Noel Freedman: Presbyterian minister since 1944, biblical scholar and member of the original team that monopolized the Dead Sea Scrolls for many years.
  • Weston Fields: claims to have a Th.D. and a Ph.D.; affiliated with Christian fundamentalist “University of the Holy Land” network; also connected with the old monopoly team, through the “Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation” of which he is the director.
  • Russell Fuller: professor in the “Theology and Religious Studies” department at the University of San Diego, a “Roman Catholic institution” with a declared religious mission. His recent lecture at the museum was sponsored by “Point Loma Nazarene University,” which aims to become a “nationally prominent Christian university.”
  • William Schniedewind: B.A. and M.A. from two Christian educational institutions (“George Fox University” and “Jerusalem University College,” which was the predecessor of the “Institute of Holy Land Studies”); Ph.D. from Brandeis; biblical scholar at UCLA; described in one news item as a “practicing Christian with a deep appreciation of Judaism”; until recently listed as adjunct professor and member of board of advisors on personnel page of the “University of the Holy Land”; apparently no longer affiliated with that institution.
  • Robert Cargill: Schniedewind’s graduate student at UCLA, holds Master of Science in Christian Ministry and Master of Divinity degrees from Pepperdine University (Christian educational institution affiliated with Churches of Christ).
  • These five individuals have, both separately and in tandem, (1) taught Risa Levitt Kohn at UCSD and recommended her as curator to the museum; (2) arranged for the scrolls to come to San Diego; (3) served as consultant(s) to the museum’s exhibit; (4) defended the old Qumran-Essene theory of Dead Sea Scroll origins in a variety of articles that ignore the major archaeological research developments of the past decade and feature titles like “Qumran Hebrew as an Antilanguage”; and (5) created a similarly misleading “virtual reality” film being shown at the exhibit.  They have also (6) snitched the title of a book authored by one of the excluded scholars for a lecture at the museum attacking the excluded scholars’ views; and (7) used the exhibit to promote their own books, engaged in sensationalist media campaigns designed to promote their own ideas as well as the exhibit, and remained utterly silent in face of criticism. 

    In the case of Mr. Cargill, it must be emphasized that his work on the misleading “virtual reality” film being shown at the museum was inappropriately funded with $100,000 that the museum obtained from Stephen Spielberg’s Holocaust fund. Why was a project of such importance entrusted to a graduate student with a ministerial degree from an institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ, rather than the group of seasoned Israeli archaeologists who, in 2006, published their detailed account of ten years spent re-examining Qumran?

    Mention should also be made of the elaborate network of evangelical “Bible blogs” that have in essence advertised the San Diego exhibit free of charge. Take, for example, the case of Jim West (Th.D. from Andersonville Theological Seminary in Georgia; currently a pastor in Petros, Tennessee). West has gone to considerable lengths to promote the above-mentioned “virtual reality” film, even using images from it (including the imaginary reconstruction of a “scriptorium” at Qumran which archaeologists now believe never existed) for his blog header.

    Interestingly, West has also risen to the defense of Nadia Abu el-Haj, the Palestinian “sociologist” who is about to receive tenure from Columbia University despite (or indeed because of) her fashionably post-modernist claims to the effect that the abundant material evidence of a Jewish kingdom in ancient Palestine has simply been manufactured by Israeli archaeologists for political purposes. West (who has made his own “anti-Zionist” views abundantly clear in numerous postings) condemns Abu el-Haj’s detractors on the basis that they have not attempted to “engage” with her. Yet he has had not a word to say about the San Diego museum’s refusal to “engage” the prominent scholars who have rejected the theory of scroll origins defended in its current exhibit.  Which is worse, various individuals failing to “engage” with Abu el-Haj on internet blogs, or a scientific institution violating the principle of free debate by excluding an entire group of major scholars from a six-million-dollar exhibit?

    [With] respect to David Noel Freedman, we must also mention some of his principal associates, past and present:

  • Father Roland de Vaux (Dominican priest, now deceased; chief promoter of Qumran-Essene theory, member of original monopoly team)
  • Frank Cross (Bachelor of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary, professor at Harvard Divinity School, member of original monopoly team; “co-wrote” Freedman’s Ph.D. dissertation)
  • Pam Fox Kuhlken (co-author with Freedman of popular book on scrolls timed to coincide with San Diego exhibit; ministerial degree from Bethel Seminary, founder of a Christian college)
  • All of these people appear to share a conviction (whether it is based on scientific or religious grounds is subject to debate) that the “beliefs, literature and men of the Essene community” were a “vital part of the fabric of Jesus’ world.” In addition, given the programs of the institutions with which they are affiliated, it appears likely that at least some of them believe that on account of “disobedience … Israel was temporarily set aside … but will again be awakened through repentance to enter into the land of blessing.” Such “repentance,” of course, is Christian evangelical lingo for conversion of the Jews to Christianity…

    At the same time, as indicated above, the evidence supporting the views of a group of major Jewish and Israeli historians and archaeologists who disagree with Freedman and his Christian colleagues has been belittled and excluded, the only explanation offered being that “you don’t want to confuse people with so many competing theories.” The excluded scholars believe that no Essenes lived at Qumran, that the Scrolls came from the Jewish capital and, as University of Chicago historian Norman Golb phrased it in a Forward editorial, that the “complex history of the Palestinian Jews on the eve of the First Revolt is being pushed aside in favor of a bizarre, Christologically colored thesis.”


    I believe these facts speak for themselves. While there is certainly no easy answer to the question of why any of this “matters,” what is now known surely gives rise to an appearance of impropriety. In sum, 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.

    What is more, the view being defended in the exhibit may well distort the true picture of the historical relationship between Judaism of the intertestamental period and early Christianity — a topic that is of immense significance to many people. And the exhibitors were clearly worried that the possibility of such distortion might become known.  Why else would they be afraid to invite the opponents of the view in question to explain their objections to the San Diego public?


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