The Unauthorized Dead Sea Scrolls

For nearly 2,000 years, the manuscripts known as the Dead Sea scrolls lay buried in the Judean desert, concealing a treasure trove of information about the origins of Christianity and modern Judaism. Since the discovery of the first parchment in 1947, hundreds of manuscripts have been unearthed, reassembled from crumbling fragments, deciphered, translated and published. But hundreds more remain unpublished and virtually unknown except to a tiny coterie of editors who control the archive at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Since 1960, the rate of publication has slowed greatly. The editors say they need more time to ensure that their work is accurate. Those who are shut out of the process, like Martin Abegg, a graduate student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, have a different view: "It really comes down to scholarly greed and jealousy-'I've got it and you can't see it'."

But last week Abegg helped change all that, when he and his professor, Ben-Zion Wacholder, published the first unauthorized volume of Dead Sea scrolls. The new material, comprising religious calendars and rules of cleanliness from the first century, was reconstructed from a concordance to the scrolls originally compiled in the 1950s. The concordance, whose very existence had been secret until 1988, lists all 52,000 Hebrew and Aramaic words that appear in the scrolls, giving a portion of the sentence that precedes and follows them in the text. By stringing together these phrases, Wacholder and Abegg were able to reconstruct the documents on a Macintosh computer with an accuracy they put at 90 percent.

Naturally, the official Dead Sea scrolls editors regard this freelance operation as proof of the dangers of a little knowledge. Real scholars should wait for the authorized version of the missing books, which will definitely be out in the next five years, said Eugene Ulrich of Notre Dame, one of the elite group descended from the original eight professors anointed by the Jordanian government. That's not good enough for Wacholder, who is 67 and has been waiting for virtually his whole career for a glimpse of the sacred scrolls. "What we have done is sensational," he exulted last week. "After 40 years in the desert, you can now read a coherent story."