Scandal erupts around Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit

author: 
Don Matthews

This article reports on charges of unethical conduct brought against the San Diego Natural History Museum, where the creators of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit are accused of intentionally misleading the public by excluding a major group of Jewish scholars and by distorting the current state of research involving the origin of the Scrolls.

According to a series of recent articles on the Nowpublic site (see the list of links appended below), an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls currently taking place at the San Diego Natural History Museum hides the state of current research from the public and promotes an old and largely discredited, proto-monastic "Essene" theory about the origin of these famous manuscripts, hidden in caves near the Dead Sea (see photo) around 70 A.D. and first discovered in 1947.

The "Essene" theory was for a long time the "official" version and those who rejected it, arguing that the scrolls are the writings of Jews who smuggled them out of Jerusalem during the Roman siege of 70 A.D., were systematically excluded from accessing the unpublished texts for research; accordingly, the clique that did have access was able to call all the shots. In the early 1990's, in the midst of scandal and after the dramatic release of photographs of the scrolls by a third party, this scholarly monopoly was broken. But the "Jewish" view of the scholars who opposed the monopoly has continued to be been downplayed, distorted and excluded in a series of museum exhibits, despite the growing number of researchers who have come to reject the "Essene" theory and favor the "Jerusalem" theory.

Independent author Charles Gadda began to investigate and found that a web of Christian institutions and "bible scholars" was involved in setting the agenda of the San Diego exhibit. Gadda documents statements of these institutions to the effect that "Evangelical Christian scholars should play a significant role in Dead Sea Scrolls research," and the corresponding assertion of the exhibit's curator that the Scrolls are not really "Jewish" texts. He explains how celebrities, including Steven Spielberg, have contributed considerable sums of money to fund the exhibit, presumably unaware that they were aiding in the dissemination of pseudo-archaeology and a misleading, partisan interpretation of the textual and archaeological evidence.

Gadda concludes that the facts give rise to an "appearance of impropriety," and that "we appear to be dealing, at the very least, with an exhibition tainted by intellectual antisemitism, with an obscurantist, seemingly irrational fear of debate, and with biased conduct that is abhorrent to our basic social sentiments and to the principle of freedom of inquiry which lies at the core of our system of values."

On the other hand, supporters of the museum, including Christian author Pam Fox Kuhlken (wife of mystery writer Ken Kuhlken) have angrily responded with comments suggesting that Gadda is a "bigot" who is is "playing the religion card" and establishing "guilt by association." Gadda's measured responses tell a different story, of someone who has stood up for freedom of inquiry, scientific neutrality and public responsibility of exhibiting institutions.

Here are the links to three of Mr. Gadda's articles:

http://www.nowpublic.com/node/662653 ("Did Christian agenda lead to biased Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in San Diego"?)

http://www.nowpublic.com/node/582470 ("Christian fundamentalism and the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego")

http://www.nowpublic.com/node/525806 ("Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit misleads public?")

The sources provided by Gadda include an important editorial by University of Chicago historian Norman Golb, who states that in current exhibits of the scrolls the "complex history of the Palestinian Jews on the eve of the First Revolt is being pushed aside in favor of a bizarre, Christologically colored thesis." This article appeared in The Forward; the link is http://www.forward.com/articles/10497/.

An interesting chronology of the controversy can be read at http://museumethics.wordpress.com/.