To the Editor:

With his customary elegance (except, of course, for his characterization of me as “leather-lunged”), Robert Alter answers the question posed by his title, “How Important Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?” [February] with an emphatic, “Not very.” As an antidote to the exaggerated, sensational, and irresponsible claims sometimes made for the scrolls, especially expectations for the unpublished ones, I heartily welcome Mr. Alter’s critique. On the other hand, I believe he goes too far in downplaying their significance.

Consider the following opinions, which are either widely held by leading scholars and/or often associated with the scholar cited in parentheses:

  • The scrolls cast a direct light on Second Temple Judaism, revealing a variety of elements that previously could at best be adumbrated.
  • The biblical texts among the scrolls reveal how the Hebrew Bible developed from three different local texts—Palestinian, Egyptian, and Babylonian—probably under the influence of Hillel, who, since he came from Babylonia, selected Babylonian texts as authoritative (Frank Cross of Harvard).
  • Occasionally, the Qumran biblical texts preserve a passage that was dropped, apparently accidentally, from the Hebrew text of the Bible.
  • Since there are polemical texts among the scrolls directed against the Pharisees, we can learn a good deal about this group from these texts. This is important because the earliest rabbinic text that provides us with information about the Pharisees (the Mishnah) is more than a hundred years later than the latest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (The Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds are several hundred years later yet.) These rabbinic sources have often been dismissed as historically unreliable—they are said to tell us nothing about the Pharisees before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. This conclusion must now be reassessed in light of the new evidence from Qumran (Lawrence Schiffman of New York University).
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls are also important for tracing the history of early Christianity. The new conclusions are: (1) early Christianity is grounded more deeply in Jewish thought than was previously supposed; (2) aspects of Christian belief previously considered unique were in fact part of the intellectual baggage of the time (James VanderKam of Notre Dame).
  • Finally, at the risk of sounding sensational, I will mention the Copper Scroll, which may be a secret treasure map telling, in perhaps some sort of code, where the Temple treasury was hidden.

This list could be lengthened, but there is enough here to demonstrate that the conclusions which may be drawn from the texts of the scrolls are very exciting indeed. They are not bombshells; they will certainly not undermine or even threaten the basic tenets of Judaism or Christianity; the marriage certificate of Joseph and Mary will not be found among them. But there is much that is important and significant in the scrolls even for the lay person.

No one can write about the scrolls without error, as my own writing on the subject would amply demonstrate (though I am certainly not a scholar of Robert Alter’s stature). Yet in minor ways, here even Homer has nodded. . . .

Thus, Mr. Alter says that the Metropolitan Samuel, of the Syrian Jacobite Church in Jerusalem, who sold four intact scrolls to Yigael Yadin through an intermediary, “would hardly have sold them knowingly to an Israeli.” However, according to Professor Harry Orlinsky who, under the alias Mr. Green, examined the Yadin purchase in a New York warehouse for authenticity, the Metropolitan may well have known—or at least strongly suspected—that he was selling them to an Israeli. The Metropolitan had been trying for years—unsuccessfully—to sell them on the international market. The reason he had such difficulty was that Jordan had made known its claim to title to the scrolls. This presented an obstacle to anyone but an Israeli. The price—a mere $250,000 for four intact scrolls—further suggests that the Metropolitan knew he was in effect selling the scrolls to Israel.

Mr. Alter says that, “In one cave alone, Cave 4, 800 scrolls and fragments were discovered.” No intact scrolls were found in Cave 4. They were all in fragments. The best estimate of the number of scrolls from which these Cave 4 fragments came is somewhat over 500 or, let us say, 500. The number of scrolls, whether intact or fragmentary, in all eleven Qumran caves is about 800.

Mr. Alter says that Père Roland de Vaux, under whose direction the excavation in the Qumran region took place, was “frankly anti-Semitic.” That Père de Vaux was no friend of Israel is true, but people who knew him differ as to whether he was anti-Semitic. We have no quotations from him to this effect. If he was anti-Semitic, he was not frank about it.

The reference to “talmudist Ezra Sussman” should obviously be to Yakov Sussman, as appears later in the article.

Whether Emanuel Tov was the first Jewish member John Strugnell brought onto the team, as Mr. Alter asserts, is debatable. He may mean Elisha Qimron, who was asked by Strugnell, slightly earlier, to work with him on the document known as MMT. Whether either Tov or Qimron should be considered a member of the team in the 1980’s or simply recipients of a scroll assignment is uncertain.

Mr. Alter says that Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, “insisted that each scholar assigned to editing a scroll be given an unambiguous deadline, with 1997 set as the date for submission of all materials and 2000 as the date for the completion of publication. These energetic steps have by and large been ignored in the recent outcry. . . .” But it was not Broshi who insisted on the deadline. Whatever credit is deserved for this “insistence,” as I am sure Mr. Broshi would agree, goes jointly to the scrolls advisory committee of which Professors Jonas Greenfield and Shemaryahu Talmon were also members, and especially to the new director of the Antiquities Authority, Amir Drori. Indeed, Mr. Broshi was one of those who defended the slow pace of publication. . . .

But the sad fact is that the deadlines that were “insisted on” were not “unambiguous.” They were, in the language of the timetable itself, “suggested” deadlines. At the time this “suggested timetable” was made known, the Antiquities Authority would not say who “suggested” the deadlines (it was Strugnell), who had agreed to the deadlines, or what would happen if the deadlines were not met. Finally, no deadline for “the completion of publication” was included. This is why the “energetic steps have, by and large, been ignored.” In the event, few if any of the projected deadlines in the “suggested timetable” have been met.

As to the percentage of the scrolls that have been published, Mr. Alter says that “Israeli authorities claim as much as 80 percent of the material has already been published; some critics put the figure at only 25 percent.” The difference lies not so much in the estimate as in what the estimate is of. The critics, like me, who refused to accept the laggard pace of the official editing team, pointed out that the team had completed only slightly more than 20 percent of its assignment. Its assignment was to publish only the 500 fragmentary scrolls from Cave 4, of which, after nearly 40 years, it published about 100. When defenders of the team, like Mr. Broshi, say that 80 percent of the scrolls have been published, they are counting words; they include the large intact scrolls that were published early on by Israeli and American scholars, implicitly giving the Cave 4 team credit for publications with which they had nothing to do.

Martin G. Abegg, Jr., who, with Professor Ben-Zion Wacholder of Hebrew Union College, created the computer-generated transcripts of the scrolls, is not a “computer specialist,” as Mr. Alter states. He is at best a computer buff, as he himself is the first to acknowledge.

The concordance from which these computer-generated transcripts were made was not “privately circulated” before being printed in an edition of 30 in 1988. Before this edition, there was only one copy of the concordance—on three-by-five cards in the basement of the Rockefeller Museum.

Mr. Alter says that the computer-generated texts produced by Wacholder and Abegg are not only “shady” but “shaky.” I have already addressed the “shady” charge on the op-ed page of the New York Times (September 7, 1991), so I will not address that issue here. It is true, however, that people who objected to our publication of these texts, like Professor Strugnell, have said they are 20-percent inaccurate. A less biased source, Professor Hartmut Stegemann of Gottingen University, has pronounced the computer-generated texts that he is intimately familiar with (the Damascus Documents; Stegemann is charged with arranging the fragments in proper order) to be 98-percent accurate.

It is not difficult to understand why these texts are so accurate. The original transcriptions, made mostly in the late 1950’s, were copied by men who are recognized on all sides as expert transcribers—people like Strugnell and J.T. Milik. The concordance was then made by other scholars who are also recognized for their careful work—people like Joseph Fitzmyer and Raymond Brown. Before entering a word in the concordance, Fitzmyer and Brown would examine not only the transcription, but the actual plate containing the fragment, and a photograph—usually infra-red—of the plate. If the concorder read the text differently in any way from the transcriber, the matter was discussed and resolved. After the transcription was computer-generated in 1991, it was reviewed and sometimes corrected by Wacholder, no slouch himself. The result is not nearly as “shaky” as Mr. Alter suggests.

Finally, Mr. Alter says that the “exclusive subject” of the Wacholder-Abegg volume is “a rotation of priestly celebrants.” Not so. Without commenting on the importance of the Qumran calendar which is revealed in this “rotation of priestly celebrants” (the contents have not yet been subjected to scholarly analysis and interpretation), . . . I would only add that the volume also contains fragments of the critically meaningful Damascus Document. Even more important—something Mr. Alter could not know—the next volume of the Wacholder-Abegg project is ready to go to press. It contains more than three times as much material as the first volume. It will not make the front page this time, but it will supply scholars with exciting new texts (in Hebrew only, as Mr. Alter points out) to study and interpret.

Hershel Shanks
Editor, Biblical Archaeology Review
Washington, D.C.



Robert Alter writes:

On the essential question of the importance of the scrolls, I differ with Hershel Shanks only in regard to emphasis, though emphasis may be crucial. I clearly stated in my article that the scrolls offer precious testimony about a historical moment that was hitherto known quite imperfectly, and Mr. Shanks cites several particular instances in which that testimony is proving instructive. What I objected to were the inordinate expectations as to what the scrolls might reveal about the origins of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, and nothing Mr. Shanks says in any way tempts me to modify my view.

Let me briefly address Mr. Shanks’s catalogue of claimed errors. There were two typographical errors in the piece, the initial reference to Yakov Sussman as Ezra, and the inadvertent substitution of Broshi for Drori as the man who insisted on deadlines for delivery of materials for publication. Surely someone with Mr. Shanks’s experience as an editor could have figured out that these mechanical slips had nothing to do with a lack of familiarity with the facts. Indeed, Yakov Sussman’s essential Tarbitz article, which I cite later in my essay, precisely confirms my own sense that the Dead Sea Covenanters represent an evolutionary dead end in the development of Judaism. As someone who has had occasion to request materials on deadline from other scholars, I can make no sense at all of Mr. Shanks’s growling about suggested deadlines. You can set a date for a scholar and then urgently remind him, but if he refuses to deliver on time, you are faced with the choice of starting from scratch with someone else or chiding and waiting. Because of this lamentable circumstance, all scholarly deadlines are suggested ones.

I am mystified by the fuss Mr. Shanks makes about the percentage of the scrolls still unpublished: precisely what I said was that given the fragmentary nature of the materials, anyone was free to manipulate percentages to his own advantage. The quibble about Martin G. Abegg, Jr.’s professional designation is silly. Whatever Mr. Abegg’s vocational attachments, he is enough of an expert to carry out the formidable task of using a computer to generate texts from a concordance, and he was identified in the New York Times as a computer expert. The reliability of the concordance itself, as Mr. Shanks himself concedes, is a matter of dispute. I made no claim either to have examined the concordance or to have done paleographic work with the scrolls, though at least some authorities who have done both raise doubts about the reliability of the concordance. But I do thank Mr. Shanks for informing me and my readers that the concordance existed only in a single copy on three-by-fives until 1988. John Strugnell consulted Yakov Sussman as well as Elisha Qimron on the MMT document (mainly because he needed help about questions of Jewish law, of which he is ignorant). This is surely not equivalent to inviting a scholar to join the international editorial committee, as Strugnell did with Emanuel Tov. On Père de Vaux’s prejudice against Jews, I relied on the anecdotal evidence of people who had known him. In any case, a youthful affiliation with Action Française hardly suggests a great fund of sympathy toward the Jews.

As to the contents of the Wacholder-Abegg volume, I had forgotten that it included a few fragmentary variants of the Damascus Scroll (which already exists in two different manuscript versions), though the bulk of the book is certainly devoted to tables of rotation of priestly celebrants. It remains to be seen whether “scholarly analysis and interpretation” will manage to spin out of this historical straw the gold of illuminating evidence about Judaism around the turn of the Christian era, though it is understandable that Mr. Shanks, as the publisher of the volume, should live in hope of that magical transformation.

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