Peering Into the Mystery of Those Enigmatic FragmentsI understand the feeling.
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Published: October 6, 2008
They are not really scrolls. They are scraps — darkened, cracked fragments of parchment. Yet the faded ink strokes of Aramaic or ancient Hebrew refer to epic incantations: to trumpets blowing in battle, to praise of the righteous and condemnation of the wicked, to “the heavens, the earth and all its thinking creatures.”
Go see these six encased bits of ancient text at the Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World,” before it closes on Jan. 4. Go, but not because these scraps are themselves new to our understanding. Though these six “scrolls” have never been seen in New York before, and though three have never before been exhibited anywhere, the literature about these findings has become as voluminous and familiar as the texts are gnomic and condensed.
Go, finally, because there is something rarely felt in exhibitions, and which the critic Walter Benjamin argued was heading toward extinction. In the 1930s he suggested that art objects were now so easily reproduced that they were being stripped of their “aura.” Aura, he suggested, is connected with uniqueness, but it also involves a sense of distance. An object possessing aura stands at a distance from us, no matter how near we get to it.
Here, you can feel the essence of this idea. Even though you can lean over these cases, even though there seems nothing intrinsically remarkable about these bits of parchment, they stand alien and apart; their history and their significance make them seem immeasurably remote.
Yet they are also intimately close to us. Some scholars have speculated that Jesus or John the Baptist could have handled these scrolls; certainly Christianity developed out of their milieu. And their preoccupations with messianism, communal law and textual exegesis foreshadowed the concerns of later Judaism.
But after the 1948 war, Jordan annexed the West Bank, took control of the caves and appointed the Rev. Roland de Vaux of École Biblique et Archéologique Française in East Jerusalem as overseer of an international team of scholars that would publish the scrolls. Then came 40 years in which the scrolls were passed among generations of scholars like esoteric possessions, until the lack of progress was called by the Oxford scholar Geza Vermes “the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.”There are valid points here, but I think this is being a little hard on the original team. Anyone who wants to critize them on their slowness should also note that they spent ten years of their lives just piecing together the bits and pieces into manuscripts – with only the handwriting and the quality of the leather to go by. And they are not to be blamed for not using the more rigorous processes for handling of the Scrolls which we have in place today. As for Strugnell, Mr. Rothstein should be ashamed of himself for not noting that Strugnell suffered from bipolar disorder and was in the midst of a severe manic episode when he made those comments. (More on that here.)
It is discomfiting, too, to see photographs in which scholars — who pieced together fragments using scotch tape — smoke over them as destructive daylight streams onto tables.
In addition, Jewish scholars were deliberately excluded from de Vaux’s original eight-member team, which was dominated by Roman Catholic priests and scholars. De Vaux later rejected offers by Israelis to help his team and persisted in referring to Israel as Palestine.
In the 1967 war Israel won control over the caves and scrolls, but two decades passed before it asserted any real authority over the project. One of de Vaux’s early appointees, John Strugnell, became head of the team in the 1980s but was dismissed in 1990 after an interview in which he called Judaism a “horrible religion” that “should have disappeared.”
UPDATE: Stephen Goranson notes some other problems with the article. (Via Joseph I. Lauer's list.)