I teach a graduate seminar in Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Virginia, and we naturally cover the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is then that I regale my students with my own brush with archaeological history. It concerns a dramatic moment in the history of the scrolls and involves a mystery that has gone increasingly unnoticed.
At the 1993 Jerusalem trial in which Israeli scholar Elisha Qimron sued my father, BAR editor Hershel Shanks, I served as his unofficial translator. I was a 23-year-old graduate student at the time.
The lawsuit had been instituted after the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) published a two-volume set of photographs of unpublished Dead Sea Scroll fragments. No one knew how the photographs had been obtained. But the trial concerned only the book’s foreword, which happened to have been written by my father. In the foreword, he explained why the publication of this two-volume set was such a momentous occasion: More than 45 years after the first scrolls had been discovered, thousands of fragments were still unpublished and unavailable to scholars; as a result, scholars wrestling with the obscurity of history could not avail themselves of important evidence from antiquity. With this publication, that would now change.
No scroll was more emblematic of the problem of unpublished scrolls than 4QMMT, the so-called “Halakhic Letter.” Scholars who knew the letter claimed it had the capacity to reshape our understanding of the Dead Sea sect and its identity. Unofficial mimeographed copies of the reconstructed text had circulated widely. A copy had even been published in (and then withdrawn from) an obscure Polish publication.
My father, being at heart a journalist, wanted to make the drama of 4QMMT’s delayed publication as vivid as possible. Among the illustrations in his foreword, he included Figure 8: a photograph of the Hebrew transcription that had circulated in the late 1980s. The text accompanying Figure 8 attributed the transcribed and reconstructed text to Professor John Strugnell and “a colleague.”
Professor Qimron (the “colleague”) was now suing my father because Qimron had not been properly credited for his work. My father had explained that he had not wanted to draw a young Israeli scholar into his long-standing (and sometimes vicious) vendetta with Strugnell. Now my father was standing trial in Israel for violating Qimron’s copyright in his still-unpublished work.
During the trial, the corridors outside the courtroom were filled with everyone who was somebody in the scholarly world of ancient Judaism. The trial gave me, an aspiring student, the chance to rub shoulders with some of the greatest minds in my field. (I didn’t begrudge them the fact that they were often there to testify against my father!)
There was, however, one man who was oddly out of place. He had a handsome square jaw and wore jeans and cowboy boots. The Texas-born California lawyer, a man named William Cox as I remember, was there because he—representing his anonymous client—was the person who had contacted my father and made the photographs available to BAS.
On the stand, the Texas lawyer was cross-examined by Professor Qimron’s lawyer, Yitzhak Molcho, one of the most prominent members of the Israeli bar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal lawyer.
Near the end of his cross-examination, Molcho asked the Texas lawyer the name of his client who provided the photos of the unpublished scroll fragments to BAS. The question had no bearing on the issues in the case, but it electrified the courtroom. The mystery was about to be solved. We would now learn where these unpublished photographs of the scrolls came from and how they became available.
“I am not at liberty to divulge the name of my client,” the witness replied.
Lawyer Molcho, not easily satisfied, turned to the judge, Dahlia Dorner, who would later be appointed to Israel’s Supreme Court, and asked her to order the witness to answer his question. It had been clear throughout the trial that the judge 076favored the plaintiff, Professor Qimron, and she ultimately ruled in his favor.
A breathless courtroom awaited her ruling on Molcho’s question: “Who was your client?”
She denied Molcho’s request. The Texas lawyer did not have to answer the question. To this day, we don’t know the source of the secret photographs that BAS published. My father claims that even he doesn’t know. (He received them from coeditor Professor Robert Eisenman.) It is one of the enduring mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but one that has largely been forgotten.
I teach a graduate seminar in Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Virginia, and we naturally cover the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is then that I regale my students with my own brush with archaeological history. It concerns a dramatic moment in the history of the scrolls and involves a mystery that has gone increasingly unnoticed. At the 1993 Jerusalem trial in which Israeli scholar Elisha Qimron sued my father, BAR editor Hershel Shanks, I served as his unofficial translator. I was a 23-year-old graduate student at the time. The lawsuit had been instituted after the Biblical Archaeology […]