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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

In late 1946 or early 1947, Palestinian Bedouins discovered the first of what by 1956 proved to be hundreds of ancient scrolls in eleven caves in bluffs overlooking the Dead Sea. These scrolls can be divided into two categories: biblical and sectarian. Dated to the second and first centuries b.c.e., they may be the oldest surviving manuscripts of both types of Jewish literature.

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The texts of the earliest discovered scrolls were published quickly, and the Jordanian government allowed the chief archaeologist at Qumran to form an eight-person team that would publish the remaining manuscripts. Since then, all the texts from Cave 1 and a small number from eight other caves have been published. By 1990, only a few of the many scrolls in Caves 4 and 11 had appeared, however, leaving about 55 percent of the scrolls unpublished. Many scrolls from Cave 4 crumbled in their containers and had to be reassembled like jigsaw puzzles. That task was finished by the early 1960’s. Shortly thereafter a photographer made infrared pictures of the scrolls, copies of which were stored for security in California, Ohio, and England. The original scrolls were kept in the Palestine Archaeology Museum.

When the West Bank came under the control of the State of Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Israeli government assumed responsibility for the scrolls and promised speedy publication of the remaining texts—a promise it has not kept. Since 1967 four members of the original publication team have died, one retired, and one became a recluse. Several team members passed their scrolls to hand-picked successors, while others have used their own graduate students to speed up publication. Meanwhile access to the scrolls has been denied to some of the foremost biblical scholars in the world.

Publication delays have raised charges of censorship. Some critics claim that the Vatican made a deal to suppress texts that might undermine Christian teachings. Critics have implicated both the Jordanian and Israeli governments in the scheme. However, no public evidence supports such claims. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Israeli government has entrusted the scrolls to a very few scholars—some of whom have admitted to keeping the scrolls to themselves for their own professional gain. Other critics have leveled charges of deliberate tampering with texts because of apparent differences between photographs of the same texts taken at different times.

Over the years the physical condition and legibility of the scrolls—as well as some of the original photographs and negatives—have deteriorated, raising the fear that some texts will never be published. In 1989 the Israeli government’s antiquities department announced a “suggested timetable” for publication of the remaining scrolls. When new delays occurred, “unofficial” publication of the scrolls began. As early as 1988 a concordance to the scrolls was published by young scholars in West Germany. Three years later the Biblical Archaeology Society published a computer-generated version of the unpublished scrolls based on that concordance, as well as a two-volume set of the photographs of the previously unpublished texts.

These publications did not resolve the dispute, however. Publication team members denounced the computer-generated texts as inaccurate and several law suits were filed. Meanwhile, the changing political climate in the region left the future of the scrolls uncertain.

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