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The battle for the scrolls...
on 26 June 2004
This book, written in the early 1990s, had much more punch when it was first written. The Dead Sea Scrolls were still essentially under lock-and-key, accessible as a whole only to a few selected scholars who were selected by unclear and seemingly biased methods - that bias often being misconstrued as the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church. History has proven something rather different going on, but reading this book is still a good study of what can happen in even the most banal and esoteric of endeavours when secrecy and restricted access to information is the norm.
The Dead Sea Scrolls is a name given to a general collection of scrolls found in the area of Qumran, in the desert near the Dead Sea in the West Bank of the Jordan River. The first scrolls from this region were found in 1947/48. Many more scrolls have been found since then (and there may be some still missing, or hidden, by various regional authorities and antiquities dealers and collectors), including some in areas as far away as the British Museum (manuscripts collected from a Cairo genizah 50 years earlier were later found to match the scrolls).
Part of the politics of around the scrolls, which always featured into their saga, was that, while they were primary early Jewish texts (the Hebrew Bible, additional psalms, community writings of early sects of Judaism, etc.), the scrolls were found in what was then Arab territory by Arab traders and bedouins. The fragile state of Israeli/Palestinian/Jordanian politics always factored into the scrolls' fate; the scrolls came under control first of the Orthodox (Christian) leaders in East Jerusalem (then in Arab control), then later as scholars were sought under general Western academic supervision. It just so happened that many of the noted scholars in ancient Hebrew manuscripts (apart from Jewish scholars, who were prevented from participating) came from the ranks of the churches and seminaries, particularly the Roman Catholic Church.
This is where the seeds of mistrust and division were sown. For decades, the scrolls had to be reconstructed, as many of them were in fragmentary condition. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing, the pieces had to be reassembled as best they could be. This takes much longer than one might think - in the pre-computer days, without electronic assistance for cataloguing and matching, things had to be done manually, with cards, files, and photographs. It is true that many of the larger, in-tact scrolls were published early. But as time dragged on, it seemed somewhat as if there was a deliberate with-holding of information.
Baigent and Leigh trace the history of the scrolls and the history of the ideas of deception and restriction around the scrolls. Unfortunately, the issues are a bit overblown at times, to make the book more sensational. The feeling of 'they're hiding something' was certainly very real, and scholars, church leaders and the general public were clamouring for more access to the scrolls, if only to prove that there was not something vastly damaging to the church being hidden. Ideas were floated wildly speculating that there were writings that showed Jesus was never crucified, or somehow didn't die, that he had children and they continued a 'royal' line (it doesn't hurt to remember here that Baigent and Leigh co-authored the book, 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail', that attempted to trace the origins of the legends of the Holy Grail to the descendents of Jesus and his family). The idea was also given that the Roman Catholic scholars, at the instruction of the Vatican, were suppressing these damaging writings. This of course leaves aside the fact that there were non-catholics as part of the International Team, but that became problematic in and of itself, as the one avowed atheist, John Allegro, published scroll findings for which his published later had to issue retractions and apologies.
After the 1967 war, Jewish scholars gained access on a more equal footing with the European (mostly Christian) academics, but the general access was still restricted. Conspiracy theories grew.
Alas, history is sometimes far more mundane than one might hope - it wasn't vast conspiracies of keeping damaging texts hidden that was driving the restricted access, but largely academic politics and careerism of a rather common stamp (despite the fact that they were working with world-famous materials). When it became apparent that particular scholars (who were, along the way, assigned and given 'authority' over particular sub-sets of the scrolls) were keeping access so as to have first publication rights, and were treating these assignments as personal goods to be passed along to successors of their own choosing, this is when things really came to a head.
Complete copies of the scrolls had been made and deposited in other places around the world (given the general insecurity of the Middle East, which meant that a war could destroy them quite easily), but stringent security measures guarding access to these copies were put in place, and rigourous controls over who could use them meant that the scrolls were still hidden. However, the computer age made assembling large compendia of data fairly easy - such cataloguing of scrolls and scroll-bits was available, along with word and letter studies, and computers made it a task of weeks rather than decades to reconstruct the entire set of the scrolls. Once this was done, and then distributed (without permission), while the scroll team kicked up a fuss, the genie was out of the bottle, and the Huntington Library in California, one of the depositories of the copies, made them generally available. It is now more than 10 years after the scrolls have been freed, so some material is a little out of date.
Baigent and Leigh's work here gives the most sensational of conspiratorial leanings, while eventually coming down to the mundane side of things. They add an overview of the scrolls' content and interpretations, too, making this interesting both from the standpoint of the scrolls as well as history of the scroll battle.