on recent erroneous claims made by the minnesota dead sea scrolls exhibition

Science Museum of Minnesotaa point of order, mr. speaker.

i recently came across the march 13, 2010 associated press article on the kstp.com website entitled, ‘dead sea scrolls exhibit goes on display in minn.‘ the article is publicizing the latest dead sea scrolls exhibition at the science museum of minnesota in st. paul, minnesota. before i could even get a couple of paragraphs into the article, i noticed some glaring mistakes.

i must take issue with the ap’s article on two matters. first, the article claims the following incorrect statement:

By incorporating new archaeological finds and recent scholarship, the exhibit is the first to fully present two competing theories: Were the scrolls written and collected by an ultra-religious Jewish group living in the desert? Or were the manuscripts smuggled out of Jerusalem on the eve of the Roman invasion in A.D. 70 and hidden for safekeeping in the wilderness?

this statement is not only misleading, it is downright false. and not only is the statement untrue, it is guilty of the very overly-simplistic, either-or dichotomy that has plagued dead sea scrolls scholarship for the past six decades.

let’s deal with the first problem first.

as a matter of fact, previous exhibitions have indeed discussed the multiple theories concerning the origins of the dead sea scrolls and the nature of the settlement at qumran. in my ‘ancient qumran: a virtual reality tour‘ movie that was on exhibit at the san diego natural history museum in 2007, i specifically noted that some scholars argue that the dead sea scrolls came from elsewhere and that qumran was established as a hasmonean fort. in addition, i also mentioned the multiple other theories concerning the nature of qumran, including a pottery factory, a trading depot, a tannery, a pilgrimage site, all in addition to the identification as a sectarian center. likewise, i asked who the residents of the cave were and what that meant for the origin of the dead sea scrolls.

don’t believe me? here’s a clip from the movie’s trailer:

thus, the minnesota exhibit is certainly not ‘the first to fully present two competing theories.’ it was done at san diego in 2007.

likewise, there aren’t just two theories! this ‘two salient theories’ argument has been the mantra of norman golb and his indicted son, raphael, since the dead sea scrolls began touring the united states years ago. in one of raphael golb’s anonymous blogs written under the now notorious alias ‘charles gadda,’ golb points out that the language of a simple dichotomy of ‘two salient theories’ comes, in fact, from a cambridge history of judaism article (1999, vol. 3, chap. 25) on the dead sea scrolls written by none other than norman golb himself!! here we have an example of a scholar (golb in this case) writing an article about his particular theory, using an anonymous alias to promote the article and the theory while discrediting other museum exhibitions that do not talk enough about said scholar, and a museum being influenced by a student of said scholar (in this case michael wise) to frame their exhibit in the form of the very dichotomy which was set forth by the very scholar who originally wrote the article. if that sounds confusing (and self-serving), that’s because it’s supposed to be! one of the purposes of using aliases is to disguise the origins of something to make it look objective, when in reality it is nothing more than self-citation. apparently, the minnesota dead sea scrolls exhibition was circularly talked into framing its exhibit in a manner that promotes the very scholar (golb) who originally came up with the framework adopted by the museum. thus, while multiple other museums presenting other dead sea scrolls exhibits managed to see through the charade of aliases and anonymous reports that according to the new york district attorney’s office were the product of the golbs (see here and here), the administrators of the science museum of minnesota fell prey to it. and, in an attempt to justify their decision, they have claimed to be ‘the first to fully present two competing theories,’ when, as has been shown above, that is simply not the case.

this, of course, is precisely why we’ve seen no massive, negative online campaign criticizing this minnesota exhibition like we did with seattle, san diego, north carolina, and toronto. for one, norman golb, the ludwig rosenberger professor of jewish history and civilization at the university of chicago’s oriental institute, has finally been invited to speak as a part of a dead sea scrolls exhibition. that norman golb was repeatedly not invited to speak at the various exhibitions was a major point of contention for the golbs (see here and here). second, golb’s son, raphael, was arrested on 50+ felony and misdemeanor counts of identity theft, forgery, criminal impersonation, aggravated harassment, and unauthorized use of a computer in connection with his participation in an online smear campaign that attacked various museums and administrators, their dead sea scrolls exhibitions, and the scholars that participated in them (like lawrence schiffman, jodi magness, william schniedewind, david noel freedman, risa levitt kohn, bart erhman, myself, and others) because, in part, he felt the exhibitions did not adequately represent his father, norman’s, point of view regarding the dead sea scrolls. when golb was arrested on march 5, 2009, all online hostilities immediately ceased (with the exception of a few anonymous comments on a few articles a few months later). court documents recently made available to the public have shown that raphael, his father, norman golb, and his brother, joel golb, exchanged emails regarding critiques of the exhibitions and comments made about other scholars, and demonstrate that the golbs employed numerous aliases to propagate a campaign of criticism and harassment against scholars that disagreed with norman golb’s theories. thus, the combination of norman golb being invited to speak, the science museum of minnesota following a simplistic paradigm that golb created, and the indictment of golb’s son mean that criticism of the science museum of minnesota is not surprisingly lacking.

Michael Wise

Dr. Michael Wise, student of Norman Golb, is advisor to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Norman Golb

Dr. Norman Golb was Michael Wise's teacher at the University of Chicago.

this leads us to ask: why has the minnesota exhibition taken this ‘new’ approach, which they claim to be original? the answer may lie in the fact that one of norman golb’s former university of chicago doctoral students, michael wise, is listed as a ‘museum consultant’ and advisor to the exhibit. now, michael wise is a fine scholar and an excellent choice as an advisor for the minnesota dead sea scrolls exhibit. he has spent his career studying the scrolls and i am certain he will be an asset to the success of the minnesota exhibition. but let us not forget that michael wise was a student of norman golb at the university of chicago. it should therefore be of no surprise that norman golb has finally been invited to speak as a distinguished lecturer at the minnesota exhibition – a demand his son, raphael, has been making anonymously on his behalf for years now. at the same time, it is unfortunate that the science museum of minnesota’s administrators have apparently (at least, accorting to the associated press’ article) bought into golb’s straw man argument that there are only two theories concerning qumran: golb’s theory and the ‘traditional’ theory.

specifically, there is a third ‘salient’ theory that essentially blends the two polar opposite approaches. it is a theory that has been researched and advanced by scholars like stephen pfann (see his articles here, where i first encountered the theory). the theory works well with the research of lawrence schiffman (nyu) and john collins (yale). i adopted this approach in my recent book, qumran through (real) time. this theory is alternatively called the ‘multi-cave’ theory, the ‘cave cluster’ theory, or the ‘multi-party’ theory (or make up your own name). but in the long run, i am convinced it will be known as the dominant theory concerning the origin of the dead sea scrolls: that different groups (including essenes, priests, zadokites, sadducees, zealots, pharisees, and/or other unknown jewish groups) hid different scrolls (including the damascus rule, the serekhs (1qs, 1qsa, and 1qsb), biblical literature, and extra-biblical/pseudepigraphical literature) in different caves or cave clusters (caves 4-5 and 7-9 immediately surrounding the qumran settlement vs. cave 1 and 2 farther away vs. cave 11 vs. cave 3, etc.) near qumran. the cave cluster theory (as pfann has dubbed it) allows for a small sectarian group (perhaps the essenes or a sub-group identifying with the essenes) at qumran to have hidden scrolls in caves 4, 5, and 7-9, while a different group (like zealots) to have hidden their scrolls in cave 11, priests (of some origin) to have hidden scrolls in caves 1 and 6, while still other unknown jewish groups to have hidden completely different scrolls in cave 3 (for example, no copies or fragments from the serekhs or the damascus rule were discovered in cave 3 with the copper scroll).

it is worth noting that this multiple cave/multiple peoples theory will be the focus of a forthcoming documentary on national geographic channel in april. of course, the great irony is that one of dr. golb’s contributions to dead sea scrolls research is the suggestion that some (not all) of the dead sea scrolls may have come from outside qumran, an idea that is now widely accepted (despite the fact that golb’s son often intentionally mischaracterized the original theory for rhetorical purposes, claiming that those who believe there was a sectarian group living at the site believed that all scrolls came from qumran, which golb held up as a straw man argument to knock down). likewise, dr. golb was correct (imho) in his understanding of qumran as having initially been constructed as a fortress, a position that yuval peleg, i, and others have accepted and that many scholars and explorers prior to dr. golb also published, such as bar-adon, masterman, dalman, among others. however, some of dr. golb’s conclusions also appear to have been in err, like his suggestion that qumran was always a fort, or the suggestion that absolutely none of the dead sea scrolls came from qumran. thus, there is evidence that some of the scrolls may have come from qumran, and evidence that some (like the copper scroll) may have not.

of course, this entire argument is lost on the science museum of minnesota’s curator of archaeology, dr. ed fleming, who later states in the article:

“Really there is no serious evidence, in my mind,” he said.

Handwriting analysis suggests the manuscripts were written by several hundred people, too many to have lived in one location. And the texts represent more than one community’s point of view.

this is the analysis from the museum curator who, according to press and with all due respect:

received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Minnesota. Most of his research is focused on material culture of the Late Prehistoric period in the Upper Mississippi River.

according to fleming’s analysis, there were too many different scribal hands used in writing the scrolls (which, by the way, has been one of norman golb’s central arguments for decades) for all of the authors to have lived at qumran. but this assumes all the scrolls were written by sectarians at the same time! and yet, we know that the scrolls were not all authored all at the same time, but from the late third century bce down until 68 ce – a period of nearly 300 years! and, lest we forget, there is a cemetery adjacent to qumran consisting of nearly 1000 tombs. given magen and peleg’s (and everyone else’s except magness) calculation that the site was occupied form the mid-hasmonean period until 68 ce, if there were enough time to fill a cemetery with 1000 people, then probably more than a few of them could write over these many generations, thus explaining the diversity of scribal hands. if we add to the mix the fact that inkwells were found in a site surrounded by a tannery used for making parchment, animal bones and stables located on site that provided the leather, pottery of the same chemical composition as those ceramic vessels discovered in the caves with the scrolls, and, lest we forget, a bunch of scrolls discovered in caves 7-9 in the qumran settlement’s backyard and caves 4-5 right next to the site, then i’d say, with all due respect to dr. fleming, that there is perhaps some evidence to support a claim that some of the scrolls were created at qumran. further more, if after reading the scrolls, we read about a community of initiates (that is, not born into the sect, but joining from the outside) that sought to remove itself from what it considered a corrupt temple and into the desert, pooled their assets (explaining the wealth of coins found at the site and further explaining the diversity of scrolls brought from outside the site), and obsessed with ritual purity (explaining the presence of at least two miqva’ot or rital baths), then maybe we can explain why so many scrolls from so many different time periods from so many scribal hands could be found in the caves next to qumran. some were written there, some were brought to the site over the 150-200 years of its occupation, and some had nothing to do with the site.

but to dr. fleming, ‘really there is no serious evidence.’

alex jassen, on the other hand, the fine dead sea scrolls scholar from the university of minnesota whom i had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with this past december at the association for jewish studies annual meeting in los angeles, understands that were the scrolls all from disparate libraries throughout jerusalem and none from qumran, one would have an even harder time explaining the congruency of the scrolls (especially the sectarian manscripts), and the loathing of the contemporary jerusalem temple leadership and the sanhedrin in scrolls originating from jerusalem. simply put, arguing that all the dead sea scrolls come from jerusalem creates more problems than it solves.

the article states:

Jassen subscribes to a variation on this theory – that a religious group lived and wrote at Qumran but also brought manuscripts from other groups and places. When the Romans threatened their community, they hid their library in the caves.

“I think the evidence seems to be pretty strong that this is a unified collection that represents the distinct library of a community of ancient Jews who were quite devout in their observance of Jewish law and ritual,” he said.

the conclusion is, of course, that some of the scrolls originated from or were brought to qumran by sectarians, while other scrolls, like the scrolls from cave 3 like the copper scroll were placed there by other jews. there is no reason to force a choice between two equally bad extreme choices.

in sum, the curator of the minnesota dead sea scrolls exhibition has apparently caved in to the demands of norman golb, who along with his student, michael wise (a consultant to the exhibition), has apparently convinced museum administrators that the exhibition should follow golb’s approach to the dead sea scrolls. these museum curators are either ignorant of the contents of previous dead sea scrolls exhibitions (as demonstrated above), or have knowingly turned a blind eye to the other exhibitions and have made false claims about the nature of their exhibition. the curator of the minnesota dead sea scrolls exhibit has erroneously characterized previous scrolls exhibitions as negligent of the different theories surrounding qumran (specifically of golb’s theory), a claim that has principally been made over the years by none other than norman golb himself.

enjoy the exhibit.

(for tickets visit the science museum of minnesota website.)

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2 Responses

  1. Crikey, that’s fascinating – your heading almost seems too mild for this rather extraordinarily skandalous debunkel. And Michael Wise! Not only a brilliant archaeologist but a detective who writes well to boot. Now go and get married… ;-)

  2. hi bob,

    I went to see the St Paul exhibit this past weekend. The exhibit itself is less either/or and more balanced in presenting the multiple views that have come out in Scrolls research and Qumran archaeology than that press release would seem to indicate. Maybe another example of over-sensationalized media spin.

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