Monday, December 06, 2010

Robert Eisenman in Malaysia – plus defense of original DSS team

PROFESSOR ROBERT EISENMAN has been lecturing in Malaysia and is profiled in the Malaysia Star. I learned something: I didn't know that he had been an anti-Beat beatnik. Be that as it may, I'm going to stick with "controversial" to describe his views. And I do have to comment on this, which hits a sore spot:
“We said (the [Dead Sea] scrolls) should be open to anybody,” said Prof Eisenman. “It should be free for anyone – religious, non-religious, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, whoever – to look at the scrolls for themselves. And the Israelis didn’t want that. They wanted their scholars to see the documents and write the principal work so that their version would be the official interpretation.”
I make no assumption that Professor Eisenman is being quoted correctly, but I'll respond to the charge as stated. The above quote is flirting with conspiracy theorizing and the last two sentences are simply wrong. The original team were Christians (Protestants and Catholics), plus one agnostic (Allegro), which hardly seems like the ideal makeup for Israeli mouthpieces. Indeed the Jordanian government had the ultimate remit for assembling the team and they made it a condition that no Jewish scholar be included.

Regarding the later expansion of the team when the Israelis were in charge, I was one of the doctoral students to whom original team members reassigned Scrolls material to publish in the 1980s. I knew the other students and we had a wide range of political, religious, and theological views (and no one ever showed the slightest interest in asking us about any of these views). The expansion of the team to 40 or more included Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

The original team of eight was simply too small for the size of the job, which was an understandable mistake given that no one had ever tried to coordinate a manuscript publication project of that size and complexity before. That said, a team that had been much larger would have strained the space and resources available in the Rockefeller Museum, where the team spent ten years sorting the tens of thousands of fragments into manuscripts. It is also understandable, and very human, that they were reluctant to give up the material after they had spent so many years of their lives on this basic task of reconstruction, for which they still get little credit. Nevertheless, this project was far better coordinated, executed, and completed than the publication of, say, the Oxyrhynchus papyri or the Cairo Geniza archive, neither of which are anywhere near being fully published after more than a century.

Our resources for this sort of project are almost inconceivably better than those available to the original team of Scrolls researchers and they should be judged in the context of the time in which they were working. I'm sure they could have done better, had they been granted our perspective and hindsight with a flashforward, but could we have done better than they did if we didn't know what we know now?

I have offered these and other points in defense of the original team here, here, here, and here.

Regarding the rest of the quote above, of course the material should be available to anyone to study. Happily, it now is. I'm not aware of any Muslim or Buddhist specialists in the Scrolls, but we would all be glad to hear their insights if they turn up.