Pondering the events and images surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls in the past year, one cannot help but marvel at the rapidity of change and the degree of public interest in the usually sleepy hollow of the academic study of ancient texts. The “scandal of the scrolls” captured the imagination of the American people. Images of secrecy and intrigue filled the air. The current scroll editors were portrayed as illicitly hoarding the cache, even obstructing the public dissemination of knowledge. The tabloids shared in the fun, quoting “scholars” who found secret references to Elvis buried deep in the supposedly “secret archive.”
Ironically, this controversy occurred after the editors had overcome many organizational and personal obstacles to accelerate the publication of the scrolls at an unprecedented rate. As we look back over the controversy, however, we find little, if any, awareness of this irony.
Why? What happened to the contours of discourse as the “debate” over the scrolls moved from academic circles to the general public via the media? Perhaps before we look to the future in order to understand the contents of the scrolls, we might look to the past to understand how the rhetorical framework of media coverage shaped, or even generated, the scandal of the scrolls.
The controversy over the scrolls can be traced to this lively archaeological journal, Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), and its editor, Hershel Shanks. Shanks began his coverage of the scrolls in earnest in 1984. Initially, Shanks took no offense at the publication process, noting that publication proceeded “according to scholarly convention” (“Jerusalem Rolls Out Red Carpet for Biblical Archaeology Congress,” BAR 10:04). A year later, however, while still talking about the “proprietary aspects” of the editors, Shanks developed his rhetorical categories—“the insiders,” the editorial team, versus “the outsiders,” members of the scholarly community who supposedly did not enjoy the editors’ favor (
In 1989, BAR began waging an extensive propaganda war, escalating the rhetoric against the editorial team by infusing spy novel language into the insider/outsider typology: “Dead Sea Scrolls Scandal: Israel’s Department of Antiquities Joins Conspiracy to Keep Scrolls Secret,” BAR 15:04. One final rhetorical ploy remained to be added: the language of a monopoly. By July/August 1990, Shanks could entitle an editorial: “The Dead Sea Scroll Monopoly Must Be Broken,” BAR 16:04. BAR even used its campaign against the scroll editors to advertise BAR (“We need your help in releasing the Dead Sea Scrolls!!”).
Although the number of scholars working on the scrolls increased at least fourfold during this period, the rhetoric had grown from “scholarly convention” and “proprietary rights” to “conspiracy” and “monopoly.”
Despite the gap between the rhetoric and reality, the mass media and editorial departments of major American newspapers uncritically adopted BAR’s rhetoric. When Hebrew Union College professor Ben Zion Wacholder and his graduate student Martin Abegg released their BAR-sponsored computer-reconstructed scrolls (A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls—The Hebrew and Aramaic Texts from Cave Four [Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1991]), the New York Times front page story read “Computer Breaks Monopoly on Study of Dead Sea Scrolls” and Time magazine discussed “the circle of abnormally secretive experts that was granted control of the documents.” Shanks’ rhetoric morally legitimated the violation of the scroll editors’ proprietary rights, even among newspaper editorial boards. Indeed, the New York Times increased the shrillness of the rhetoric, entitling an editorial, “Breaking the Scroll Cartel” and writing, “The committee, with its obsessive secrecy and cloak and dagger scholarship, long ago exhausted its credibility with scholars and laymen alike.”
Given the rhetorical typology already established, any response of the editorial team that raised questions of data or ethics had already been emptied of any persuasive force. How else would a secretive monopolist conspirator respond?
Such was the rhetorical scenario when William Moffett decided that the Huntington Library would provide access to pictures of the scrolls to persons he deemed qualified. Moffett skillfully built upon BAR’s earlier rhetoric, yet transformed it by introducing American cold war language. Consistently referring to the editors as “the cartel,” Moffett described his action as “like bringing down the Berlin wall.… It’s time to stop shrinking from freedom.… When you free the scrolls, you free the scholars.” According to Moffett, the Huntington’s action “flows from the First Amendment clearly.” With the determination of one launching a campaign to halt communist aggression in Vietnam, Moffett proclaimed the moral supremacy of his position vis-á-vis the editors as the defender of freedom: “If we surrender the collection to the cartel that would be immoral.”
Despite the fact that the Huntington had acquired its pictures in violation of a contract between the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at Claremont, California, the media again parroted Moffett’s rhetoric. Invoking images of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Chicago Tribune proclaimed: “Museum move frees Dead Sea Scrolls at last.” The New York Times story heralded the 065Huntington’s move as a “liberating influence on scroll scholarship.” The Washington Post’s editorial board fell prey to Moffett’s rhetoric in applauding his action, stating that “the academic iron curtain, for that is what it was, began to fall earlier this month.” Conservative newspapers could extend Moffett’s imagery even farther. For instance, the Independent Weekend entitled its story, “Scrolls better dead than read?” Though the international scroll editors still worked “according to scholarly convention,” the rhetoric transformed them into a communist regime of oppression and thought control against whom the democratic forces for good had prevailed in the fight for freedom. Interestingly, this rhetoric remarkably mirrors the recent neoconservative attack on the academy for Political Correctness. Given the media’s adoption of these rhetorical contours and their American political subtexts, it is no wonder that the scandal of the scrolls has fascinated the American media and populace. It is also no wonder that the actual publication of the photographs of the scrolls generated so little media attention. With American moral discourse, Moffett had already extended the rhetoric to its ultimate end—what higher good remains after “freedom” has been preserved from its totalitarian enemies?
As we now try to gain perspective after the fray, it is important that we learn from the events and rhetoric of the past. In 1984 it seems that Hershel Shanks correctly framed the issue of the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls: What is the balance between the proprietary aspects of unpublished material and public access? This issue, however, became all but forgotten underneath the terms of the “debate,” a rhetoric that skewed discourse and produced misinformation. Further, the rhetoric of “anti-monopoly” and “freedom” justified academic vigilantism that itself is not without its own interests. Can a rhetoric of freedom ethically justify any public action in our society, whether it be the unauthorized publication of unpublished antiquities or ethnic slurs aimed at minority students? Within public, democratic discourse, should issues of public interest be decided by the fair weighing of the position of all sides in a dispute or by the production of a persuasive rhetoric that precludes the airing of the other party’s position? If the latter, then the world will belong to the sophists. Perhaps it already does.
One thing is certain: the official editors of the scroll materials lost the debate. As this academic issue moved into mainstream America, the rhetorical play of the media prevented the airing, not to mention serious consideration, of reliable information and alternative perspectives. Contrary to popular images, however, the losers were not generally a “clique of aging scholars,” but young scholars with new small assignments beginning their careers.
Academic discourse works best, both for the academy and the public, in an atmosphere of respect, collegiality and open dialogue. Herein lies the great potential that projects such as the Biblical Archaeology Society’s (BAS) proposed Institute for Dead Sea Scroll Studies might provide for both the academy and the public. As we now seek to move beyond the scandal of the scrolls, perhaps we might beat our rhetorical swords into ploughshares in order to understand better the treasures that those caves in the Judean desert have granted us.
Though BAR editor Hershel Shanks and I may differ in our analysis of the editorial committee’s handling of the scrolls in the past few years, I think that we have similar visions of what we would like the future to hold. BAS has an important role to play in the next stage of scroll research, especially in presenting academic discussions to the general public. So much basic research remains yet to be done before we can begin to articulate accurately the enduring significance of the scrolls. I think we will know we have made progress when working relationships between the Biblical Archaeology Society and the official editorial committee of the scrolls begin to emerge. This would be one of my hopes for BAS’s Institute for Dead Sea Scroll Studies.
While I have criticized the rhetoric employed in the debate, I hope the foregoing is fair, accurate and ultimately conciliatory. No one benefits by stirring up old controversies, but we can benefit by articulating different perspectives on the past to shape a better future. That is my intent.
Pondering the events and images surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls in the past year, one cannot help but marvel at the rapidity of change and the degree of public interest in the usually sleepy hollow of the academic study of ancient texts. The “scandal of the scrolls” captured the imagination of the American people. Images of secrecy and intrigue filled the air. The current scroll editors were portrayed as illicitly hoarding the cache, even obstructing the public dissemination of knowledge. The tabloids shared in the fun, quoting “scholars” who found secret references to Elvis buried deep in the supposedly […]