Bart Ehrman and the Essenes in Raleigh

July 17, 2008

UNC professor admits he’s “not a scrolls expert,” defends museum exhibit’s bias as legitimate; Jewish Museum in New York disagrees


In putting together its series of eight “distinguished lectures” to accompany the current Raleigh exhibit on the Dead Sea scrolls, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences decided to invite Professor Bart Ehrman to deliver the concluding talk of the series, entitled “The Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Christianity.” Dr. Ehrman, who chairs the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is well known as a scholar of New Testament and “Jesus” studies and, in that capacity, has appeared on various televised “documentary” features.

The announcement of Ehrman’s lecture on the museum’s website reads as follows:

“Like the Essenes, who were probably responsible for producing the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus and his followers were Jewish apocalypticists. Even though Jesus and his disciples are not mentioned in the Scrolls, understanding the message of the community at Qumran can still contribute to our understanding of the Jewish milieu in which Jesus lived and out of which early Christianity emerged.”

The problem

There is, yes, a problem with this announcement: While Dr. Ehrman himself has never published any substantive work on Qumran or the Dead Sea scrolls, a series of major historians and archaeologists specialized in the field, including top Israeli archaeologists Yizhar Hirschfeld and Yitzhak Magen, have, over the past decade, rejected the theory that any type of “community at Qumran,” let alone Essenes, were “reponsible for producing the the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and have concluded that the scrolls must have come from the Jerusalem area.  These specialists, however, have been excluded from participating in the museum’s lecture series.

Two questions thus arise: (1) why did the museum invite a non-specialist to give such a lecture, while excluding from its series all of the historians and archaeologists who have rejected the Qumran-Essene theory? (2) What are the museum’s grounds for asserting, in its announcement of Dr. Ehrman’s talk, that the “Essenes were probably responsible for producing the Dead Sea Scrolls”? One can only assume that Dr. Ehrman approved (or even wrote) this statement.

The exchange

In the hope of clarifying these matters, Mr. Jerome Cooper emailed Dr. Ehrman, and received a lengthy response, which he has been good enough to forward to me. In his statement, Dr. Ehrman admits that he is not a Dead Sea scrolls scholar, but attempts to justify the exhibit and lecture series on the grounds that the Essene theory is a “common opinion” shared by many of his colleagues.

In putting forth this argument, however, Dr. Ehrman neglects to mention the names of the many highly respected researchers who have rejected that “common opinion.” And he fails to mention that The Jewish Museum of New York, in its announcements here and here of its upcoming scrolls exhibit (produced by the Israel Antiquities Authority), specifically states that scroll origins are “still being debated”; that there are “two basic theories” about the scrolls, and that “it may be many years before scholars can come to a consensus on who wrote and used the Dead Sea Scrolls, where they lived, and how this impacts on our interpretation of their meaning for our lives today.”

Dr. Ehrman suggests that the “vast majority” of scholars support the Essene theory and regard the views of their adversaries as “inadequate, speculative and, probably, dead wrong,” but he fails to point out that this accusation is precisely what many current researchers (i.e., the ones whose names he fails to mention) believe about the Essene theory.

Given (1) the popularity of the Dead Sea scrolls; (2) criticism that has been leveled against the Raleigh, N.C. exhibit; and (3) the North Carolina Department of the Environment’s involvement in creating the exhibit and lecture series (presumably at taxpayers’ expense), we are clearly dealing here with a matter of genuine public interest. Therefore, since Dr. Ehrman’s statements appear to shed considerable light on the attitudes and considerations that went into the creation of the Raleigh exhibit, I am reprinting the statements below, along with Mr. Cooper’s replies and a few additional comments of my own (in brackets) that will allow readers to judge for themselves whether Dr. Ehrman’s arguments are convincing.

Dr. Ehrman: I’m participating in the DSS exhibit by giving a lecture simply because I was asked to do so. I was asked because I’m an expert on the historical Jesus and the early Christian movement, and I will be talking about how the apocalyptic character of the scrolls allow us to see the Jewish apocalyptic milieu out of which Christianity emerged.

Mr. Cooper: I can certainly understand why you would accept an invitation to give a talk, but you have apparently not given any serious thought to the rigged quality of the lecture series in which you will be participating; to the obvious exclusion of a series of prominent historians and archaeologists who, over the past decade, have rejected the Qumran sectarian theory; and to the appearance of impropriety that, as a consequence, surrounds the lecture series as well as the exhibit as a whole. This is a museum of natural sciences run by a N.C. government agency, not a propoganda organ for a disputed theory.

[Mr. Cooper might have added that only a small portion of the Dead Sea scrolls have the “apocalyptic character” Dr. Ehrman apparently attributes to the scrolls as a whole.]

Dr. Ehrman: Are you familiar with scholarship generally? What views of ancient Judaism or Christianity do you consider not to be disputed? It’s not an issue of there being “another” side to the story. There are tons of different sides. Do you expect all of them to be represented? And you think that would be helpful? Maybe you don’t know just how many other views are floating around out there?

Yes, I think the Essenes probably did produce the scrolls. That’s not as controversial claim as you seem to think. There are always loud minority views, but that doesn’t keep them from being very much in the minority. I personally know some of the top experts in the study of the scrolls, and some of the top archaeologists of Palestine in the world. So far as I know they all, to a person, think the Essenes wrote the scrolls. This would include my colleague Jodi Magness, who has written what many have touted as the authoritative book on the archaeology of Qumran (whose office is next to mine, and whom I hired at UNC when I was chair), my Duke colleague Eric Meyers, with whom I have served on dissertation and PhD exam committees at both Duke and UNC for twenty years, and who is one of the two senior Palestinian archaeologists in the country, as well as the other senior archaeologiest, James Strange, as well as editors of the scrolls, such as Armin Lange, one of the leading experts on the scrolls in Western Europe, who was my colleage for a number of years, and on and on and on. I am not an archaeologist or scrolls expert myself, but I have read the scholarship for over twenty years. And everyone whom I know who is personally committed to doing research on the scrolls thinks that the Essenes probably wrote them. I could list names for a very long time.

So it doesn’t seem so strange or exorbitant to me, at least, for a public display of the scrolls to present the opinio communis of scholarship, and let the experts wrangle over it, rather than giving equal air time to views that the vast majority of scholars have considered to be inadequate, speculative, and, probably, dead wrong.

Mr. Cooper: Forgive me for speaking frankly, but it’s almost embarrassing to read these obscurantist arguments of yours.

As anyone can see from reading major news sources like the New York Times, or authoritative reference works like the Cambridge History of Judaism, there are today two salient theories of DSS origins; indeed, the museum implicitly recognized as much by inviting Rachel Elior to speak. To invoke a plurality of marginal views obscures this basic reality.

To voice your approval of “senior” archaeologist James Strange and speak of Jodi Magness’ popular book as “authoritative” is arbitrary and absurd in light of [the refutation of her claims in] Yizhar Hirschfeld’s book and the official Israel Antiquities Authority report of Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg (to say nothing of the Donceels, Bar Nathan and many other professional archaeologists who have rejected Magness’ views). What archaeological training do you even have that allows you to erect Dr. Magness … as an authority? [I have omitted a parenthetical remark critical of Magness’ conduct with respect to lectures she gave at ASOR/SBL.]

You cite your friend Armin Lange [a member of Emmanuel Tov’s Dead Sea scrolls editorial team, sometimes referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly group], but have any opponents of the Qumran-sectarian view been invited to participate in “editing” the scrolls? This itself is a serious problem, of which you don’t even seem to be aware.

You also cite Eric Meyers who, like you — but unlike the excluded researchers –, has never published any substantive work on Qumran or the DSS. What kind of an authority is that?

You speak of an “opinio communis.” It is true that many scholars who based their academic careers on the Qumran-sectarian theory have sought to fabricate a “consensus” by refusing to admit they erred, and by excluding their opponents from conferences and lecture series; but the fact remains that virtually all the professional archaeologists who have specifically reexamined the issue over the past fifteen years (including the Donceels, appointed by the Ecole Biblique, and the Magen and Peleg team, appointed by the IAA) have rejected that “opinio communis.” We are not speaking of light-weight “minority” figures here. Science is not decided by taking votes, but by analysis of the evidence and open debate of opposing interpretations. Do you think the public benefits from being denied the opportunity to weigh such an exchange?

It is sad to see the prevailing ethos of smug camaraderie and exclusion expressed in your remarks. Have none of you and your colleagues any sense of decency, at long last?

[Mr. Cooper might have added that “in questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” This, at least, is what Galileo famously said. In his remarks, Dr. Ehrman vigorously touts what he claims is the “vast majority” opinion of his colleagues, but does he give any sign of critical thinking on the debate over Qumran and the DSS?]

Dr. Ehrman: Who the hell are you and what kind of bee is in your bonnet? Whatever it is, I hope you get it removed.

Mr. Cooper: Who are you to participate in a transparently unethical scheme and implicitly present yourself as an expert on the “probable” Essenes? Shame on you.

A few afterthoughts

Thus concludes the debate between Dr. Ehrman and Mr. Cooper. I will allow readers to draw their own conclusions on whether Dr. Ehrman has successfully rebutted criticism of the Raleigh exhibit, or whether he has simply illustrated an attitude of scorn for those who disagree with him, and of non-critical acceptance of outdated views which, over the past decade, have been rejected by a series of respected historians and archaeologists.

Especially noteworthy, however, is Dr. Ehrman’s assertion that “it doesn’t seem so strange or exorbitant to me … for a public display of the scrolls to present the opinio communis of scholarship, and let the experts wrangle over it.” In view of Dr. Ehrman’s apparent belief that the “wrangling” of scholars should be a private affair, it would be interesting to know whether he also agrees with the ongoing policy of excluding researchers who have rejected the Qumran-Essene theory from participating in “international conferences” such as the one that recently took place in Jerusalem, and which are generally not open to the public.

Furthermore, by acknowledging, as he apparently does, that the Raleigh exhibit is biased toward the Qumran-sectarian theory, Dr. Ehrman directly contradicts the statement of Hava Katz, one of the exhibit’s curators, denying any such bias: “We say there is a debate, and we leave it open. The visitor can decide.”

Is Dr. Ehrman simply unaware of the exhibit’s contents? Or was curator Katz being less than candid when she made her statement? Many mysteries remain, particularly in light of The Jewish Museum’s explicit denial that a “consensus” exists in this field of studies.


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