Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit: professor denounces misleading statements in NYC’s Discovery Center show
I had been planning to update my mini-series on the NYC Discovery Center exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls with a discussion of some rather sordid aspects of the academic politics behind the exhibit. Just yesterday, however, I read a relevant article that has come out on the Oriental Institute website at the University of Chicago.
The article is by Dr. Norman Golb, a leading researcher whose work lies at the center of the debate over the provenance of the famous Scrolls.
In addition to debating the Scrolls and the archaeology of Qumran in books like Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (Scribner, 1994), Golb has published several important essays in which he analyzes the errors and rhetoric deployed in various museum exhibits dealing with these topics. In fact, he appears to be the world’s main expert on “how the Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed to the public.” In his new article, he starts out by pointing to a few relatively trivial points, and then discusses several categories of "more serious" misinformation in around ten different exhibits — in the process singling out the Discovery Center display for special attention.
Since the article helps shed light on what is really taking place at Times Square, I thought it would be useful to quote some of Golb’s criticisms. In this, the first of two opinion pieces, I cite his paragraph on the Center’s claim that most Jews in antiquity were barely able to read and write — a claim that struck me and two of my colleagues as anti-Semitic when we saw the exhibit. The paragraph may be found on p. 5 of Golb’s article. I here divide it into several sections, inserting Golb’s footnotes in brackets:
In a class by itself is the claim found on a plaque in the exhibit currently taking place at New York’s Discovery Center, informing visitors that most Jews, during the time the Scrolls were being written, “were barely literate.” The Discovery Center exhibitors fail to supply any information as to their sources for this claim. It is based on the unwarranted and dogmatic assumption that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by a presumed sect living at Qumran, and not by the Palestinian Jews at large.
[Footnote: The assumption figures, for example, in C. Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine…. On p. 426 of that work, the author asserts: “… the practice of literary composition and writing amongst the Qumran group cannot be considered representative of contemporary Palestinian Judaism as a whole.” The assertion begs the question, since no one has ever demonstrated that any of the Scrolls were written by a group living at Qumran, rather than by multiple groups living in an urban center: Jerusalem.]
The claim [of illiteracy] receives comfort from the belief in an “oral law” — i.e., the orthodox Jewish belief that rabbinical law was given simultaneously with the written Biblical law to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, and that it was then passed down “orally” from one generation to the next and put in writing only by the final generation of the Tannaitic rabbis (third century C.E.). Unfortunately, discussion of the legendary nature of this belief is often avoided by scholars.
[Footnote: See, e.g., the words of L. Schiffman (who is acting as consultant for the Discovery Center exhibit) in Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls…: “In the Jewish tradition, the Oral Law — the unwritten, revealed tradition — bridges this chasm. This Oral Law, when it was finally committed to writing in the third century or later in a text known as the Mishnah, preserved traditions from a much earlier period.” The author initially acknowledges that the idea is a “tradition,” but then slides into treating it as a fact, without explaining to his readers that the legend actually originated as a response to the arguments of early Christian polemicists who sought to delegitimize rabbinical authority by pointing out that the rabbinical laws were different from the Biblical laws.]
Golb concludes this portion of his article by stating:
The claim of Jewish illiteracy, based on dogma and faith rather than science, is highly dubious and should not have been featured in a public exhibition of the Scrolls.
So were “most Jews … barely literate,” as claimed in the Discovery Center exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Readers will have to draw their own conclusions on this topic by comparing the conflicting reports. It is perhaps not surprising, however, to learn, that the claim was allowed to stand by “acting … consultant” Lawrence Schiffman, who left his position at New York University a year ago and now serves as vice provost for undergraduate studies at the ultra-orthodox Yeshiva University.
(Schiffman, by the way, is also criticized at another spot in Golb’s article, for a statement of his concerning the “Jewish tradition” about art. According to Golb, this statement, made in an earlier Scrolls exhibit, “may well reflect particular faith-based attitudes, but only partially depicts actual historical Jewish tradition.” See the bottom of p. 2 in Golb’s article for further details.)
All of this seems to lead straight to the question whether the Discovery Center has decided to present religious beliefs to the public without verifying their historical accuracy, a question I hope to address again at some later time. Meanwhile, I plan to focus the next piece in my mini-series on Professor Golb’s discussion (see pp. 10-15 in his article) of other false claims presented in the Times Square exhibit, concerning the origins of Christianity and the “Holy Land.”
Tags: Dead Sea Scrolls , Discovery Center , NYC , New York , Norman Golb , Judaism , Literacy , Exhibitions , Controversies
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