on the acquisition of dead sea scrolls fragments by azusa pacific university

A fragment of the biblical book of Deuteronomy photographed in infra red by Bruce Zuckerman, Ken Zuckerman, and Marilyn Lundberg Melzian of West Semitic Research in Rolling Hills Estates, California for Lee Biondi of Los Angeles, CA.

A fragment of the biblical book of Deuteronomy photographed in infra red by Bruce Zuckerman, Ken Zuckerman, and Marilyn Lundberg Melzian of West Semitic Research in Rolling Hills Estates, California for Lee Biondi of Los Angeles, CA.

the recent acquisition of five fragments of dead sea scrolls by azusa pacific university from two sellers is only the latest in a long history of antiquities dealing involving the dead sea scrolls.

four of the fragments were acquired from lee biondi of biondi rare books in venice beach, california. one fragment was acquired from legacy ministries international. regarding the fragment acquired from legacy ministries international, it is said:

This remarkable relic, from Qumran Cave 4, contains a portion of text from Deuteronomy 27:4-6 written on four lines. On the bottom left edge of the fragment is the revered Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew character YHWH.

while the legacy fragment is said to be from a deuteronomy scroll from cave 4, less is known about the provenance of the biondi fragments, which causes concern for many in the field of archaeology attempting to stem and ultimately stop the trade of antiquities. the purchase and sale of antiquities in general – especially by private collectors – has been thought to increase the practice of illicit looting of archaeological and cultural heritage sites around the world. because these objects often have religious value, collectors are often willing to pay high prices for objects, and are frequently reluctant to inquire about how the collector and middle men came into possession of the objects.

i belong to asor (the american schools of oriental research), which has played an important role in condemning the illicit trade of antiquities. asor has done so, in part, by refusing to publish articles about unprovenanced objects. the reasoning for doing so is straightforward; by refraining from giving any mention of unprovenanced antiquities, asor withholds its stamp of approval, and in doing so withholds the endorsement of the academy of archaeological professionals that ultimately grants credibility and verifiability to the object. if the object is unverified by a guild of professionals, the object remains suspect and therefore cannot command the desired price that professional authentication would allow. thus, asor applies some downward pressure on the price of antiquities, making it less profitable for looters, middle men, and dealers, while simultaneously casting those involved in the antiquities trade in the same suspicious light regularly reserved for drugs and arms dealers. (for further study on the illicit trade of archeological objects, i recommend the work of dr. morag kersel.)

given asor’s position against the trade of antiquities, how should we receive the news that azusa pacific university has acquired five fragments of the dead sea scrolls? while many condemn the transfer of antiquities of any kind of from one owner to another (the denotative definition of ‘trade’), i differentiate between the acquisition of objects by museums and universities on the one hand and dealers on the other. museums and universities like the university of chicago, princeton theological seminary, and now azusa pacific have demonstrated that they become the final owners of ancient objects. these credible institutions care for the objects, research them, create public viewing areas for them, publish academic reflections upon them, and do not trade them. thus, while the acquisition of archaeological objects – in this case the dead sea scrolls – does admittedly involve trade, this acquisition is preferable to the continued purchase and resale of these objects in the open market.

it is always better to get ancient objects out of the hands of dealers and into the hands of museums, universities, and their respective researchers and caretakers. for this reason, i applaud azusa pacific, their donors, and their administrators for their willingness to ransom these fragments from the antiquities market on behalf of the academy. in turn, it is my hope that azusa pacific will act responsibly and make these objects available to scholars for critical study, to the public for viewing, and to the world in the form of print and digital publications. it is also my hope that should azusa pacific ever choose to relinquish these fragments, they return them to one of the established repositories of dead sea scrolls collections in israel, palestine, or jordan.

of course, one could argue that the amount paid for these antiquities only funds and fuels the illicit antiquities trade. however, looters and thieves will continue to search and steal regardless of whether or not a university removes a few fragments from the open antiquities market. it is worthwhile to note that azusa pacific has not disclosed the amount that was paid for these five fragments. let us hope that neither party ever reveals the amount of compensation provided in exchange for the fragments, for doing so would place a real price on the objects, which in turn might fuel additional speculation and looting.

the acquisition of five dead sea scrolls fragments by azusa pacific university is a momentous occasion. this acquisition removes five fragments of the scrolls from the open market and places azusa pacific firmly on the map as an institution of higher learning committed to the academic study of the bible and the archaeology of the ancient near east. as long as the fragments are cared for, published, and made available to scholars for research and to the public for viewing, i support the acquisition, and would ask my colleagues to do the same.

3 Responses

  1. […] it was yale and the university of chicago who owned scroll fragments. then azusa pacific acquired some fragments. now it’s southwestern baptist who has […]

  2. […] southern california academic powerhouse azusa pacific university surprised the world by announcing (blog) they had purchased fragments of the dead sea scrolls from a southern california antiquities […]

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