Qumran (Israël) : What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?



Controversy and the Curse of the Scrolls

The physical Scrolls have been the subject of some political debate. Jordan has claimed ownership of the Scrolls, but its protests of Dead Sea Scroll exhibits have not been recognized by hosting countries.

According to Schiffman, “The Palestinians have also made claims on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Oslo Accords stated that there would be a settlement of the claim, which the Israelis assume would be financial.

“They can make all the claims they want. The notion that the Israeli government is going to give away Torah scrolls, or a Bible, or however you would look at the Scrolls - it’s not going to happen. They could be the most wonderful people in the world and it wouldn’t happen. The reality is that we are not going to give these manuscripts away.”

Schiffman sees the Scrolls as a valuable repository of information about Jewish life and thought during the era of the Second Holy Temple.Professor Schiffman himself has been hit by a controversy concerning the Scrolls. In August of 2010, Raphael Golb, a real estate lawyer, was convicted of 30 criminal counts related to online impersonations he had made of Professor Schiffman and other Dead Sea Scroll scholars who disagreed with his father, Norman Golb of the University of Chicago, about the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Raphael Golb was sentenced to six months in prison but has appealed the verdict.

Professor Schiffman explained that among the 150 leading scholars there is a strong consensus about the origin and content of the Scrolls. There are, however, a number of theories backed by only several of the scholars.

“I have no problem with that, until they start impersonating other scholars. They should come to conferences and get up and explain why their theory is right, and people will argue with them and we’ll have a good time.

“There’s something that we call the ‘Curse of the Scrolls.’ It’s like the Jerusalem Syndrome, when people go there and think they are biblical figures.”“The problem with some of these theorists is that they refuse to accept certain basic facts and then no one is willing to consider what they have to say. If these theorists were to say, ‘Here are the facts, as we all know, but I have a different interpretation,’ the scholars would be happy to listen.

“It’s not that we don’t want to hear alternative theories. We just don’t want to hear theories that are baseless.”

The extreme passion, and even craziness, has a name, says Professor Schiffman.

“The Scrolls generate a lot of genuine interest and enthusiasm, and I get emails from people worldwide. Sometimes it’s a pain in the neck to have to answer all the questions, but they are usually intelligent ones.

“But there’s something that we call the ‘Curse of the Scrolls.’ People lose balance, even scholars, or, in my case, the son of a scholar. It’s like the Jerusalem Syndrome, when people go there and think they are biblical figures. From the moment that the Scrolls were found, there have been people who have gone completely overboard.”

Getting the Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are currently on exhibit, through April 2012, at the Discovery Times Square museum.

“I don’t think the public is going to read through the scrolls,” the professor says, “but that they can look at the them—it gives you a special feeling.

“It’s true even for me, although I’ve been doing this for years. I was [at the museum on] the Monday before the exhibit opened, going over the show with the curators, making sure that there were no mistakes. While I was there, they were putting the Leviticus Scroll into its case. It’s about two-and-a-half feet long. I had never seen that scroll so close. And I was seeing it before they had put it in the case. So I was three inches away from this particular scroll. It’s a great thrill to realize that here is the Torah from 2,200 years ago. There is a tremendous feeling of continuity.

“That’s why I think Jewish schools should bring their students to this exhibit. They, of course, have to prepare them beforehand, but I’m sure they do that before any trip.”

Leaving my meeting Professor Schiffman, I too felt some of the excitement that he radiated. It was surprising to realize that such ancient texts, wrapped long ago in earthenware pots and hidden in desert caves, could still inspire excitement, madness, awe.

Watch a lecture on The Tefillin of Qumran