Even jurisdiction over Qumran is a source of contention. The site is located on the West Bank, where Palestinians and some Israeli archaeologists say that Peleg’s excavations are illegal under international law.
The Qumran controversy took a bizarre turn last March, when Golb’s son, Raphael, was arrested on charges of identity theft, criminal impersonation and aggravated harassment. In a statement, the New York District Attorney’s office says that Raphael “engaged in a systematic scheme on the Internet, using dozens of Internet aliases, in order to influence and affect debate on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in order to harass Dead Sea Scrolls scholars” who disputed his father’s findings. The alleged target was Golb’s old rival, Schiffman. For his part, Raphael Golb entered a plea of not guilty on July 8, 2009. The case has been adjourned until January 27.
About the only thing that the adversaries seem to agree on is that money is at the root of the problem. Popular books with new theories about Qumran sell, says Schiffman. Golb notes that the traditional view of Qumran is more likely to attract tourists to the site.
Some scholars seek a middle ground. Robert Cargill, an archaeologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, envisions Qumran as a fort that later sheltered a group producing not only scrolls but an income through tanning or pottery making. It was a settlement, he says, “that wanted to be self-reliant—the question is just how Jewish and just how devout they were.”
Efforts at compromise have hardly quelled the conflicting theories. Perhaps, as French archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Humbert suggests, Qumran scholars are shaped by their personal experience as well as by their research. “One sees what one wants to see,” says Humbert, whether it’s a monastery, a fort, a tannery or a manor house.
But the debate matters little to the thousands of visitors who flock to the Holy Land. For them, Qumran remains the place where a modern-day miracle occurred—the unlikely discovery of sacred texts, saved from destruction to enlighten future generations about the word of God. As I climb into Peleg’s jeep for the quick trip back to Jerusalem, new crowds of tourists are exiting the buses.
Andrew Lawler, who lives in rural Maine, wrote about the Iranian city of Isfahan in the April 2009 issue of Smithsonian.