The Dead Sea Scrolls, A Full History, Vol. 1

by Weston W. Fields

Leiden/Boston, Brill, 2009, 592 pp.
$99 (hardback)
Reviewed by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor

This review of The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Full History was written by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor for Brill publishers, and was originally published on Brill’s Web site.

Even though the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered only 62 years ago, much of their early history has been shrouded in obscurity. Details of persons and places were compromised by focus on the scrolls themselves, and on occasion deliberate deception facilitated the continuation of illegal, but highly profitable, excavation. In 1998 Marcel Sigrist, OP, suggested to Weston Fields, Director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation in Jerusalem, that the only way to acquire clarity would be to record critically the testimony of the original eye-witnesses. Some had already died, others were getting old, and this would be the last opportunity.

Fields took up the challenge, and the thoroughness of his oral history is illustrated by the fact that he even gives the number of sheep (about 55) in the care of Muhammed ed-Dib the day he threw the stone into what became Cave 1. The surviving actors were all happy to cooperate, and a number revealed that they had extensive private archives that had never been exploited. These amounted to tens of thousands of pages of precise written and photographic documentation, which was contemporary with the events. This greatly widened the extent of the project, and gave it a much more solid base. No longer did Fields have to rely on aging memories, and the unsupported word of one witness against another. He had documentary evidence that could be compared, contrasted, and critically evaluated. In the case of the ten actors who have died since the project began he just got there in time.

So much material became available that it quickly became clear that one volume would not be enough. The change in de facto ownership of the scrolls in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of June 1967 might seem an obvious place to break. Fields, however, opts for 1960, both for practical reasons, and because that year caused an even greater upheaval in the publication of the scrolls. The Rockefeller funds supporting the full-time scholars working at the Palestine Archaeological Museum (PAM) dried up, and the team had to disperse to find jobs that ate into the time they could devote to the scrolls. Publication inevitably slowed.

From 1947 to 1960 Fields follows a strictly chronological order, often with subheadings of great precision, e.g. “19 July 1947, Saturday”; “Last week of July 1947”. He wisely refuses to treat the scrolls as a unified whole. The circumstances concerning the discovery, acquisition, and publication of Cave 1, for example, differed radically from those of Cave 4, and again from those of Murabba‘at, and still more from those of Cave 11. Thus separate topics are treated individually and chronologically. Fields is also right in quoting as much as possible from letters and interviews. As he points out, this is the only way “to taste the flavor, and to enjoy the nuances of entire letters or other documents from the earliest actors in the unfolding drama of the scrolls” (13 my emphasis). More importantly, it enables the attentive reader to formulate his or her own conclusions based on the evidence. Was the writer stating a bare fact or merely being ironic or sarcastic? Was the presentation tailored to the recipient?

Fields rightly restores to Gerald Lankester Harding the pivotal role in every aspect of early research that popular legend assigns to Roland de Vaux. The situation in Jerusalem was so chaotic that Harding, then Director of Antiquities of Jordan, learnt of the first scroll cave only through the April issue of BASOR, which arrived in Jerusalem in November 1948. The cave was identified by Captain Akkash el-Zebn of the Arab Legion on 28 January 1949. After it had been inspected by Harding, it took him only two weeks to organize the official excavation of the cave. Realizing that he could not devote full time to the scrolls, because he had to fight the bureaucratic battles involved in setting up the fledgling Department of Antiquities in Amman, Harding invited de Vaux to share the direction of the dig. In addition to this professional relationship, at that time de Vaux was president of the board of trustees of the PAM, whose secretary was Harding.

Sometime in early 1950 these two came to a momentous decision. The PAM would pay for scrolls and for information as to where scrolls were to be found. It is easy to forget how extraordinary this decision was. Jordan owned all the antiquities found on its territory, and unauthorized excavation was illegal. Though trained as an archaeologist by Flinders Petrie, Harding had been a bureaucrat for most of his adult life. A rigid administrator should react with indignation at the idea that he should pay for what was his by right. The correct response was to arrest the offenders and to police the desert to ensure that it would not happen again. Harding, however, was very close to the bedouin, and realized that they could not be intimidated. They, after all, had discovered the scrolls and they were desperately poor. Moreover law does not always serve the cause of justice. Such flexibility of mind is an attribute of greatness.

Once the decision had been made, the simplest procedure was put in place. Kando collected what fragments the bedouin brought to him and offer them to the PAM, which was represented by de Vaux, who could draw on it for funds. There was no bureaucratic machinery to wade through; no oversight committees to satisfy. Fragments brought immediate cash. Very quickly the price was fixed at one pound sterling (then = 1 Jordanian dinar = $2.82) per square centimeter. This was a clever device to prevent the bedouin from tearing fragments into smaller pieces to inflate prices. The policy was reinforced by baksheesh for unusually large fragments.

Fields reproduces a handwritten ledger entitled Purchase of Antiquities belonging to the PAM. It is the record of the acquisition of fragments from Caves 1, 2, 4, 11, Murabba‘at, Khirbet Mird, Wadi Seyyal/Nahal Se’elim, etc. between 6 May 1950 and 8 April 1957. The four columns record: (1) the identity of the seller (or the buyer in case of reimbursement); (2) the sum paid; (3) the locations of the finds as reported by the sellers; (4) the rewards paid for information. Only those with a highly detailed knowledge of the surface area of the fragments can begin to have some idea of the sums of money involved. The sub-total for 1952 alone is JD 14,084.860 = $39,719.305.

By September 1952 the PAM/Department of Antiquities had exhausted its resources, and the Cave 4 fragments were just beginning to pour onto the market. In a letter dated 29 September 1952 (the day the excavation of Cave 4 ended) to Carl Kraeling of the Oriental Institute, Chicago, Harding estimated that £15,000.00 = $42,300.00 was necessary to cover the acquisition, conservation and publication of these fragments. Where was the money to come from? Not only had sellers to be paid, but scholars had to eat and support families.

There was no alternative but to beg. One might have thought that it would be easy to raise funds for documents important to so many people throughout the world. Over many years the opposite has proved to be true. It is one of the leitmotifs of Fields’ book that the lack of funds caused Harding and de Vaux consistent anxiety and crippled the speed of publication. It is noteworthy that none of those who cried most loudly for access to the scrolls ever offered to put their hands in their pockets. In this connection Fields makes a startling revelation. “As I write this there are as many as 16 Hebrew biblical fragments and one fragment of Enoch languishing in a vault in Switzerland, 140 Greek fragments in Jerusalem, and a large fragment of Genesis elsewhere, for whose purchase I have not been able to get one penny despite four years of work, scores of letters and meetings, and hundreds of dollars’ worth of phone calls” (157). Fields estimates that between 1988 and 2005 alone at least $4 million was spent on publishing the scrolls.

Fields pointedly draws attention to another aspect of Harding’s letter to Kraeling, namely, the words: “if the money is forthcoming I would propose to make it an international affair, inviting the various institutes represented on the board of the museum [PAM] to send a scholar to Jerusalem to take part in the big work of sorting, assembling of fragments, photographing and translating the material for final publication” (156-57). This is the first hint of a team of scholars specifically brought together to publish the huge mass of documentation from Cave 4. How this team was put together, why certain individuals were invited, who accepted and who refused. These are the themes of Fields’ fascinating narrative for the years 1952-54. He interviewed four of the original eight, and had access to many personal letters from one team member to another.

One can appreciate this material properly only when it is recognized that Fields is concerned not merely to record the facts but to present them in such a way as to refute what became ‘international common knowledge’ namely “that there was some small shadowy group of selfish men who had been keeping the scrolls all to themselves, conspiring to hide their contents, presumably to protect their own fame and fortune, or to protect Christianity or in other permutations, to protect the Vatican” (191).

As far as Fields can work it out, the constitution of the Cave 4 team came about in this way. The Jerusalem-based academic institutions represented on the board of the PAM were the École Biblique, the American, British and German schools of archaeology. They were invited by Harding to nominate two scholars each to be part of the Cave 4 team. When names surfaced, either Harding or de Vaux made an approach. Once the invitation had been accepted, the candidate came to an agreement with Harding or de Vaux as to time of arrival, length of stay, and remuneration for expenses. On arrival in Jerusalem, he came under de Vaux’s authority as ‘supervisor’ of the Cave 4 team. At this stage de Vaux was wearing a great number of hats, and Fields summarizes the roles he played. “As president of the trustees of the museum [PAM], he [de Vaux] probably approved the over-all plan, and in some or all cases, approved the individual choice; as director of the École Biblique et ArchÉologique he was responsible to invite the École’s two allotted scholars; as chief editor of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, he was at least loosely in charge of the work of the team in general; and as director of the excavation at Qumran de Vaux also made decisions about what to include and not include in DJD about the archaeology of the site” (193).

Fields then goes through the development of the team in the chronological order of their recruitment given by de Vaux in a document of 1960: J. T. Milik (Pole/RC); F. M. Cross (American/Presbyterian); J. M. Allegro (British/Methodist/atheist); J. Starcky (French/RC); P. W. Skehan (American/RC); J. Strugnell (British/Presbyterian/RC); C.-H. Hunzinger (German/Lutheran); and M. Baillet (French/RC) (542 n. 13). He gives a succinct biography of each, accompanied (where possible) by photos of each in youth and old age. He also deals with those who were invited but had to refuse. One of these was John Emerton, later to become Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, who had to cry off because he could not get leave from Durham University for the minimum period of a year and a half demanded by Harding. Another was Hunzinger, who after some work in Jerusalem was forced to choose between the scrolls and a position at Göttingen. Skehan and Starcky were in their mid-40s, while all the others were in their 20s or early 30s. Not surprisingly their letters to one another often exhibited a youthful frankness far removed from the prudent formulation of elders.

The team turned out to be international and interconfessional but these were not the criteria for selection. Fields’ precision with respect to each member is admirably illustrated by his summary of how Cross was recruited, “From the documentation that survived it is obvious that the invitation [to Cross] came from Kraeling to Harding to de Vaux to Cross” (543 n. 22). On rather slender evidence Fields concludes that “it is virtually certain that Jewish scholars would have been invited to join the Cave 4 team had Jerusalem not been divided in 1953 (sic!)” (541 n. 4). The complex way in which the team was funded over time is laid out in great detail in a report of de Vaux to the Director of Antiquities of Jordan dated 12 June 1960.

The way the Cave 4 team worked is described by Cross, “Initially we all worked on all materials, only specializing when the team had to split up. We searched out and identified particularly the manuscripts which interested us, but also we all contributed to the plates of manuscripts belonging to others. Often we passed over whole manuscripts to others. I got rid of the so-called Pentateuchal paraphrases as soon as Strugnell agreed to take them. The lots remained somewhat fluid until 1956” (232). In a long interview Strugnell describes how fragments were assembled into a document by first identifying the scribal ‘hand’. Thus everyone looked at everything in a quest for the ‘hand’ on which he was currently working.

In this atmosphere there could be no secrets. It would have been impossible to hide fragments considered damaging to Christianity or to the Vatican. Not surprisingly those who cried conspiracy never even quoted anything from memory. In an unguarded moment Allegro wrote, “I am convinced that if something turns up which affects the Roman Catholic dogma, the world will never see it. De Vaux will scrape the money out of some other barrel, and send the lot to the Vatican to be hidden or destroyed” (432 my emphasis). In other words, Allegro was keeping his fingers crossed that such a document would emerge from a still undiscovered cave! It never did.

Allegro’s work in what became known as the Scrollery is documented by regular letters to his wife, which are a mine of details. After surveying his first few letters Fields comments, “After one month working on the fragments as the most junior member he already had delusions of grandeur, and the pity is, he never lost them” (233). The assessment is amply borne out by the subsequent documentation.

Allegro saw radio and newspaper interviews as the road to fame and fortune. His ‘discovery’ of a crucified Teacher was repudiated by de Vaux and the Cave 4 team, first privately and then publicly in a letter to the Times of London. The latter only enhanced Allegro’s appeal to publishers. He lists the offers he received in a letter to Hunzinger and then comments, “So you see what a little scurrility can do for one!” (333). Shortly afterwards in a letter to Strugnell he says, “Tell me what you’d like me to say [in a new book] that you think you can knock down, and I’ll see what I can do. And if you can induce my revered professor [H. H. Rowley of Manchester University] to have another go in Time Magazine it would add another half-million or so to my sales. I am sorry that you couldn’t have waited a little longer, because the great work won’t be on the bookstalls for another three or four months, and it’s difficult to keep the pot boiling till then” (335). The deterioration of Allegro’s relations with the Cave 4 team is easily understandable. The climax came in an extraordinary letter dated 10 January 1959 from Allegro to Awni Dajani of the Department of Antiquities, suggesting that the Jordan government dismiss de Vaux, and that it nationalize the PAM in order to keep the Cave 11 material out of the Cave 4 team’s hands. Allegro’s reputation, he underlined, would be the guarantee that no material would be suppressed for any reason!

1956 was a bad year for the Scrollery. Harding was forced out of office on the basis of a farrago of absurd charges regarding improprieties with the scrolls. In contrast to his usual approach Fields here leaves us to deduce the accusations from Harding’s response. The Suez crisis led to the departure of the Cave 4 team from Jerusalem, and the scrolls were packed and stored for security in Amman. They were eventually returned, but the complete team never worked together in the Scrollery again. Worse was to follow. On 6 January 1957 the Minister of Education of Jordan formally claimed full rights with respect to “all ancient manuscripts which were discovered in the area of the Dead Sea” (363). The following month the same minister established a board to oversee the scrolls at the PAM. The members were to be the Director and Assistant director of Antiquities and the Directors of the École Biblique and ASOR, presided over by the mayor of Jerusalem. This almost amounted to nationalization of the PAM, which turned out to be rather less of a success when the authorities discovered the extent of its borrowings to acquire fragments. Not surprisingly, therefore, on 28 December 1957 the Jordanian Council of Ministers declared the actions of the Minister of Education to have been illegal and thus null and void. These momentous events had the potential for great disruption but seem to have had little impact on those free to work on the scrolls. The amount of material led to a proposal to enlarge the Cave 4 team by two, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and a German, but nothing came of it.

The length of this review testifies to the intense interest inspired by Fields’ book. His quest for sources alive and written took him around the world. He interrogated them with enviable thoroughness and scrupulous fairness. If there is an agenda it is to squash definitively the falsehoods that have swirled about the scrolls. This, however, is done ironically by letting the known facts speak for themselves. The life given to the personalities by his gifted pen is complemented by magnificent photographs whose reproduction is superb. The story is so complex that it would have been very easy to get lost and confused and so bewilder the reader. A detailed time line defines the succession of events. Their cause and effect relationships are teased out with such critical subtlety that the narrative unfolds with clarity and grace. In areas where the evidence is contradictory Fields does not hesitate to suggest what seems more probable. Where the data is inconclusive he says so bluntly. The second volume will deal with an already complicated situation made immeasurably more complex by the Israeli appropriation of the PAM in June 1967. The scholarly world looks forward to it with eager anticipation.

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor is professor of New Testament at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem, and the author of many books including Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford, 1998), The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford, 1998), Paul: His Story (Oxford: 2004), St. Paul’s Ephesus: Texts and Archaeology (Liturgical Press, 2008) and Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues (Oxford, 2009).

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