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Update—Finds or Fakes?

Hanan Eshel's Real Crime

Publishing Looted Antiquities

July 21, 2006

At the behest of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), a leading Dead Sea Scroll scholar was arrested last year for purchasing four Dead Sea Scroll fragments from Bedouin who claimed to have found them in the Judean Desert. Hanan Eshel of Bar-Ilan University in Israel promptly published the fragments (of the Biblical book of Leviticus) and donated them to the state (the purchase funds had been provided by his university).

In an ad in the leading Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, 59 prominent scholars from around the world protested his arrest, calling the IAA's action a "vengeful" act. The ad had no effect, however. The case is still under investigation by the police.

Bar-Ilan president Moshe Kaveh called the IAA action a "scandal." The university stands "fully behind" Eshel.

Hanan Eshel

So why was Hanan Eshel arrested?

Many believe that Eshel is, in the IAA's view, on the wrong side of an issue that has divided the profession: Should unprovenanced materials, which are often looted, be studied and published by scholars?

Everyone is opposed to looting. But what happens when important inscriptions and artifacts come on the antiquities market without provenance? Should they be ignored—or studied and published?

Two prominent American professional organizations, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) will not allow such materials to be published in their journals. A segment of the scholarly community agrees with this position.

Many scholars in the United States and elsewhere, however, strongly disagree with it. Harvard Professor Lawrence E. Stager recently circulated a "Statement of Concern" that has been signed by nearly 300 scholars world-wide (and published on this website) expressing the importance of studying and publishing unprovenanced, even looted materials, although strenuously opposing looting. Leading scholars have said that a history of the Near East could not be written without reliance on unprovenanced finds.

No one from the IAA has signed the "Statement of Concern."

Hanan Eshel is among those scholars who publishes looted inscriptions, as does his wife Esther Eshel, who is also a prominent Dead Sea Scroll text scholar. For example, the couple (with Esther Eshel as senior author) recently published five Dead Sea Scroll fragments that turned up in the United States (Dead Sea Discoveries, Volume 12, no. 2, p.134 [2005]). Because the fragments were in private hands and had been poorly preserved, they were blackened and unreadable. With the help of infra-red photographs (and permission from the private, mostly unnamed owners), the Eshels could read and identify them. They all belong to Dead Sea Scrolls that are known to scholars, adding important information to the ancient texts.

Before being studied by the Eshels, these fragments would have been regarded as unprovenanced. No one knew where they came from. Now we know, but they were looted. One of them the Eshels recognized as having come from a scroll found in Cave 8, one of the few caves that were discovered and excavated by scholars, rather than by the Bedouin. The Eshels suggest that a Bedouin working for the professional excavator stole this fragment from the excavation. How it got to the United States 50 years after it was excavated in February 1955 is anybody's guess.

Another fragment published by the Eshels appears to be from Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac (the Aqedah). In the standard Biblical text, after the angel of the Lord tells Abraham to desist, Abraham sees a ram caught in the thicket and decides to offer it as a sacrifice to the Lord in place of his son (Genesis 22:11-13). In the Dead Sea Scroll fragment that the Eshels published, they suggest that it can be read as the angel's commanding the sacrifice of the ram. As the Eshel's explain the possible significance of this difference:

"The essential aim of the Aqedah story is to emphasize that God prefers animal offerings to human sacrifice. If indeed the angel of God commands Abraham to take the ram in this fragment, it appears that 4Q226 places emphasis on the fact that the ram was offered not because of human decision, but in direct obedience to a divine order."

One clear consequence of Hanan Eshel's arrest: No new Dead Sea Scroll fragments will turn up in Israel again, thanks to the IAA. The looters, the smugglers, the underground dealers know that they cannot now find a buyer among or through Israeli scholars. Like Eshel, anyone who makes a purchase will be arrested. Much easier and safer simply to spirit any scrolls out of the country.

Although not widely known, numerous Dead Sea Scroll fragments are in private collections all over the world. The Eshels detect a "trend among collectors and antiquity dealers (perhaps due to economic factors) to share privately held fragments with the scholarly world." In the opinion of the Eshels, "Qumran scholars should be encouraged to make an effort to publish these fragments, which provide a more complete picture of the Qumran corpus."

Encouraging the publication of unprovenanced finds—that may well be Hanan Eshel's real crime.


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