A long-running, bitter dispute among biblical scholars over access to the Dead Sea Scrolls is about to become moot: A California museum has decided to release a complete set of photocopies of the priceless Hebrew manuscripts that date to the age of Jesus.
The Huntington Library, a research center and art museum in San Marino, Calif., will make available immediately on microfilm its complete set of 3,000 photographs of the scrolls through the interlibrary loan system that links the nation's universities.
With that stroke, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, will become as easy for scholars to view as ordinary books that university libraries routinely exchange on behalf of their researchers.
Until now, some of the world's foremost biblical scholars have been unable to examine large sections of the scrolls, which have been guarded jealously by a tightly knit group of researchers since their discovery more than 40 years ago.
The few libraries with photocopies of the scrolls have been under strict orders to withhold them from all other scholars.
The Huntington's decision to release the photos to the public, to be announced officially today by its director, William Moffett, comes three weeks after an equally striking circumvention of the embargo on the scrolls.
In early September, two U.S. researchers disclosed that an inventive use of a desktop computer had enabled them to reconstruct parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls no outside scholars had been allowed to see.
After being denied access to the scrolls, Ben Zion Wacholder, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, authorized Martin Abegg, a graduate student turned computer hacker, to produce a bootleg version. Abegg programmed his Macintosh to stitch together pieces of the texts from a five-volume concordance.
Wacholder, a widely respected biblical scholar, said he was publishing his computer-generated texts to draw public attention to the embargo on the scrolls. He argued that, as a crucial part of the religious heritage of Christians and Jews, the manuscripts must be available to everyone.
"I send my congratulations to the Huntington for its courageous decision," Wacholder said Thursday night when informed of the development. "By the way, do you have the Huntington's address? I want to order a set of photocopies myself."
The scrolls were found beginning in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea, where the documents - handwritten in Hebrew and Aramaic on parchment - had been deposited for safekeeping 2,000 years earlier.
Some scrolls, chiefly biblical texts, were published soon after their discovery. But many others were placed in the archives of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, and exclusive rights to their publication were assigned to a small, international committee of scholars.
Other scholars eagerly awaited the texts' appearance. But about 200 key documents never have been published.
Members of the international academic community, led by Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, have been campaigning vigorously for the scrolls' release.
The scrolls committee said the long delay in publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls stemmed solely from difficulties in deciphering the handwriting of ancient scribes. Committee members denied they had monopolized the manuscripts to advance their own academic careers.
"In the last few years, our committee has been taking steps to open up access to the scrolls," said Eugene Ulrich, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and the American representative on the international scrolls committee.
But in fact, the scrolls committee recently tried to close at least one possible avenue of access to the material.
In July, Ulrich wrote the Huntington Library demanding that its photographs of the scrolls be transferred immediately to the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont, Calif., an institution allied with the international committee.
Ulrich insisted in an interview with the Tribune last week that he simply wanted to consolidate all the photographs of the scrolls at one site so they could be inventoried and released to the scholarly world at large.
However, that was contradicted by Stephen Reed, cataloger of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center, which has its own set of scrolls photographs that Reed has been inventorying.
For his purposes, Reed said, it would be sufficient to examine the Huntington's photos at their present site.
Reed also said the manuscript center did not plan to change its longstanding policy of restricting use of scrolls material to only those researchers accredited by the international committee.
Scholars familiar with the controversy said Ulrich's letter helped convince Moffett, the Huntington's director, that the time had come to break the scrolls blockade.