Posted by: michaeldaybath | July 23, 2010

The Dead Sea Scrolls as research data

Earlier this year I uploaded a short review of an exhibition at the Bibliothèque de France on the Dead Sea Scrolls. This, together with the publication of a new book on the Scrolls by Geza Vermes [1],  has prompted me to think again about whether there might be any lessons for research data management from the (so called) Battle of the Scrolls in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, the editorial team’s monopoly over the unpublished scrolls before 1991 has occasionally been cited as an example of bad data management practice in the humanities [2].

The discovery of the Scrolls was widely covered by the world’s media. Indeed, the archaeologist W. F. Albright was reported to have said that the Scrolls were the “greatest manuscript discovery of modern times” [3].  However, as Timothy Lim has pointed out, this phrase might mean something different to specialists and the public [4].

The public expects by such a characterization something of an ‘earth-shattering’ significance of the origins of Christianity and Judaism … For the scholar, the description is much more specific; relative to what specialists of ancient Jewish history and biblical studies previously had in terms of evidence of the period the scrolls have been a boon, because they have contributed so much new information to a past that is only partially known.

With public interest remaining high, the publication of the scrolls seemed at first to be progressing fairly satisfactorily. A new publication series known as Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (or DJD) was established to publish the first scholarly editions of scroll content, as established by the international team of scholars working on them. The first volume of DJD – covering the finds in Qumran Cave 1 – appeared in 1955, but progress on subsequent volumes was extremely slow. By the mid-1980s, only seven volumes (of a series that will eventually reach 40 volumes) had been published. In particular, the large and heavily fragmented finds of Qumran Cave 4 were proving difficult to publish on schedule.

Part of the problem lay with the nature of the international team of scholars appointed to work on the Scrolls. Under a series of editors-in-chief, the team of scholars appointed by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities was far too small for the task in hand and it was progressively dissipated by chronic illness and death. In addition, many of the scholars eventually gained full-time posts elsewhere, meaning that work on the scrolls was effectively undertaken part-time or delegated to graduate students. This may not have mattered too much if scholars that were not part of the editorial team had been allowed some kind of access to the scroll fragments – as reconstructed by the editorial team – but successive editors-in-chief preferred to keep the content of the manuscripts private until their publication in DJD. The problem was compounded by that fact that DJD gradually became understood by the editors as a means of publishing an authoritative editio princeps, rather than as a rapid means of publishing their transcriptions of the reconstructed scrolls.  As James VanderKam put it, “as time went on, scholars were no longer content to prepare transcriptions and brief treatments of the texts; they preferred to write exhaustive commentaries in addition to doing the basic editing work” [5].

The situation was even further complicated by political changes in the middle east. The Six Day War in 1967 saw control of both the Qumran area and East Jerusalem pass from Jordan to Israel. Almost immediately, de facto control of most of the scroll fragments as well as the Rockefeller Museum (formerly the Palestine Archaeological Museum) passed to the Israel Antiquities Authority. A political vacuum was created that led to further procrastination and delay. Criticism of the editorial team gradually built up over the next decades, which saw the publication of approximately one volume of DJD per decade.

At a meeting held at London in 1987, the then editor-in-chief, John Strugnell, dismissed the team’s critics by pointing out that the publication of manuscripts has often ended up being a very slow job. For example, publication of the vast corpus of papyri discovered at Oxyrhynchus (Egypt) commenced in 1898, is currently at Volume 72 (2008), and there are around 30 to 40 more projected volumes sill to come [6]. However, given the public and scholarly interest in the Qumran discoveries, the extremely slow progress on publishing the scrolls represented a public relations disaster for the editorial team. By the mid-1970s, Geza Vermes was beginning to describe it in very stark terms; “the greatest and most valuable of all Hebrew and Aramaic manuscript discoveries is likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the twentieth century” [7].

Matters came to a head in late 1991, in part due to increased media attention following the publication of a book that alleged that the scrolls were being suppressed on the orders of the Vatican [8] . Almost simultaneously, several different groups began to challenge the “embargo” on the scrolls by placing surrogates in the public domain. First, Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati began to publish a version of the Cave 4 texts based on a concordance produced by the editorial team to support their work in the 1950s. Later the same month, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California – an institution not particularly well known for its ancient manuscripts – made available to scholars copies of a set of photographs of the scrolls that it had obtained from the philanthropist Elizabeth Hay Bechtel. A media storm followed, but the Huntington stuck to its principles, which were based on the concept of “free and open access” to scholarly content [9]. In November the same year, the Biblical Archaeology Society published a two-volume Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls edited by Robert Eisenman and James Robinson, based on photographs whose source has never been divulged. The ethics of doing this was questioned. For example, Stephen Kaufman argued that the publication of photographs of the reconstructed texts without permission was “theft, pure and simple” [10]. Eventually, however, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) bowed to the inevitable and announced that a new policy of access would be implemented. In 1993 the IAA published a complete version of The Dead Sea Scrolls on Microfiche together with a host of supporting apparatus and documentation. Simultaneously, under a new editor-in-chief and with a much expanded editorial team, publication of DJD picked up speed. At the present time (2010) only one of the 40 DJD volumes remains to be published. A range of high-resolution versions of the scrolls are also now available online.

A further complication resulted from the publication of Eisenman and Robinson’s Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1991. In his foreword, Hershel Shanks had included, without attribution, a transcript of an important text known as 4QMMT. This had been prepared by the Israeli scholar Elisha Qimron, who promptly sued Shanks, the editors, and the Biblical Archaeology Society for breach of copyright. His claim was upheld both by the District Court of Jerusalem and the Supreme Court of Israel. The case, however, has generated a substantial amount of comment, mostly focusing on the potential consequences for scholarship from conferring copyright on editorial work [11]. The key question is originality [12]. Based on US law, David Nimmer recognises that Qimron’s scholarly work in reconstructing 4QMMT was complex, but says that the “amount of work put into copying an original work of art is irrelevant when it comes to the originality required to establish copyright protection” [13]. Instead, Nimmer considers that Qimron’s suit simply constituted “an attempt to use copyright law not to promote the progress of science, but as an engine of suppression” [14]. Intellectual property experts from other domains sometimes differ, e.g. arguing that conferring copyright on edited texts might benefit scholarship, providing incentives for editors and publishers [15]. For Timothy Lim, the key lesson is the need to remember the basics of collegiality and proper attribution [16].

The complexity of these issues means that it is difficult to tease out particular lessons for digital curation. The legal debates over 4QMMT all agreed that the raw text fragments were not protected by copyright law, just the transcriptions. The complexity that surrounded the ownership of the scroll fragments and governmental control over the editorial team tasked to publish them also means that it is difficult to see where exactly there might be lessons for scholars and scientists thinking about the need to manage the records of research. One of the significant problems that the editorial team faced was a lack of funding to complete their work. Once the immediate work on reconstructing the Cave 4 fragments had been completed, publication seemed to take a back seat to the scholars’ other duties. The changes in political control over the scrolls in 1967 also meant that those who could have taken decisive action over the project chose not to, at least not until the appointment of Emanuel Tov as joint editor-in-chief of the scrolls team in 1990.  Perhaps the main lesson of the affair should be the principle upheld by the Huntington Library, that of free and open access to scholarly materials. Scholars not linked to the editorial team could gain access to the Cave 4 data, but the decision making process appeared capricious and the secrecy requirements absurd. Another key lesson would be about the importance of attribution and other scholarly conventions. It  it possible that the legal challenges over 4QMMT could have been avoided if the provenance of Qimron’s transcript had been noted and his permission sought before publication in the Facsimile Edition. Perhaps a final lesson should be how the opening up of the scrolls in 1991 rapidly led to a surge in Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship – to the benefit of all.


[1] Geza Vermes, The story of the Scrolls: the miraculous discovery and true significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls (London: Penguin, 2010).

[2] For example:

[3] W. F. Albright, e.g. cited in: Edward M. Cook, Solving the mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls: New light on the Bible (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1991), p. 21.

[4] Timothy H. Lim, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A very short introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 117-118.

[5] James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls today (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 191.

[6] University of Oxford, Faculty of Classics, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (2007), available from: (see also:

[7] Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in perspective (London: SCM Press, 1981), p. 24.

[8] These claims have been refuted in: Otto Betz and Rainer Riesner, Jesus, Qumran und der Vatikan: Klarstellungen (Giessen: Brunnen; Freiburg : Herder, 1993).

[9] Sara S. Hodson, “Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls: A question of access,” American Archivist, 56 (1993): 690-703.

[10] Stephen A. Kaufman, cited in: Cook, Solving the mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 76.

[11] Timothy H. Lim, Hector L. MacQueen and Calum M. Carmichael, (eds.), On scrolls, artefacts and intellectual property (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).

[12] Michael D. Birnhack, “The Dead Sea Scrolls case – Who is an author?” European Intellectual Property Review 23. 3, (2001), p. 128, 2001. Available from the Social Science Research Network:

[13] David Nimmer, “Copyright in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Authorship and originality,” Houston Law Review, 38. 1 (2001): 1-122 (here, p.119). Available in PDF from:

[14] Ibid., p. 89.

[15] Hector MacQueen, cited in Lim, The Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 18.

[16] Timothy H. Lim, “Intellectual property and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Dead Sea Discoveries, 9.2 (2002): 187-198.


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