FROM the outside, the futuristic dome of Jerusalem's Shrine of the Book seems an incongruous monument to one of the great prizes of the past. But if the sanctuary housing seven of the venerable Dead Sea Scrolls comes as a surprise, so too does this fact: Forty-two years after they were discovered in Judean Desert caves, most of the documents that make up the archaeological find of the century remain under lock and key in a basement vault across town. And herein lies a tale of rousing academic controversy.
After the scrolls were discovered at Qumr^an, an international team of seven scholars was entrusted with the painstaking but prestigious job of piecing together and analyzing the ancient fragments, segments of over 800 manuscripts found in the Dead Sea caves.
But with more than half of the documents still inaccessible, outside scholars have grown impatient, charging that delays have become unwarranted and demanding an end to the monopoly over the crucial texts now housed in East Jerusalem's Rockefeller Museum.
The simmering dispute was brought to a boil last summer by Hershel Shanks, publisher of the influential layman's journal Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR). Mr. Shanks alleged that the small group of scholars that has exclusive control over the documents has been engaged in a ``conspiracy of silence and obstruction'' that jeopardizes publication of the remaining scrolls.
``We're feeling the heat,'' acknowledges one member of the expanded team of 20 scholars now at work on the scrolls, adding that the broadside published in BAR has needlessly divided the global community of Bible scholars ``into the camp of those who have the scrolls and the camp of those who don't.''
``The real dividing line is between those who are competent and those who are not,'' says John Strugnell, the Dead Sea Scrolls project director, explaining why many researchers have been denied access to the treasured manuscripts.
When the first of the 800 leather and papyrus manuscripts were discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947 in caves along the Dead Sea coast, they caused a sensation.
The documents contain the earliest Hebrew texts of all but one book of the Old Testament. Comparison with the authorized Scriptures, or canon, has revealed significant differences in certain books but has also demonstrated how faithfully Jewish scholars have preserved the Bible texts.
The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts also contain texts of books not included in the Bible, including the Apocrypha, plus hundreds of previously unknown documents describing the theology, liturgical practices, and daily life of the late Second Temple period [200 BC to AD 70] when Jewish thought was in ferment and when Christianity was in its infancy.
Almost immediately after the discovery, volumes containing anotated photographs of several nearly complete scrolls were published. But progress slowed as members of the editorial project faced the daunting task of sorting through the thousands of tiny manuscript fragments that remained, the longest of which contained only a few words or lines.
With 300 of the 800 scrolls now published, the Qumr^an editors insist that the pace is normal for work on ancient documents.
``It's as if someone wrote you a letter, ripped it up, partially burned it, then put it in an envelope and sent it to you,'' says project scholar Sidnie White, describing the taxing job of reading and analyzing the five manuscripts from the book of Deuteronomy to which she has been assigned.
Partly because of outside pressure and partly because of increased funding for the project, the circle of scholars working with the manuscripts has expanded gradually to about 20. But while applauding the move, many established experts in the field complain that the work has gone mainly to younger scholars, usually students and colleagues of the original editorial team.
Dr. Strugnell insists that if other capable scholars can be found to carry on the research, they will be hired.
``If there are other qualified people I will bring them here to help out with the work,'' says Strugnell, a member of the original team of Dead Sea Scroll scholars, who also teaches at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
But such assurances have not satisfied many of the outside scholars who have been forced to cool their heels for a generation while the material needed to be at the cutting edge of their professions remained inaccessible.
``Almost anybody who doesn't have access is frustrated,'' says Ben Zion Wacholder, an expert on the Talmud at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
Although in theory any researcher can request photocopies of individual Dead Sea manuscripts, critics say that without a complete catalog of the unpublished documents it's impossible to know what manuscripts exist to be requested. Strugnell says such a catalog will be published within one or two years.
Critics also charge that four decades after work on the scrolls began, there is still no clear end to the work in sight. Strugnell says he plans to complete the editorial work on the remaining documents by 1997, in time for publication by the year 2000. But he acknowledges that the estimate is an educated guess, not a guarantee.
``What happens when the year 2000 comes and they're still not out?'' asks exasperated BAR editor Shanks. ``We still have not been told what documents there are so we can't judge whether that's a credible estimate.''
``The team of scholars assigned more than 30 years ago to publish the Dead Sea Scrolls will never publish them because they cannot,'' concluded Shanks in last summer's controversial BAR cover story.
Cautious about interfering in work begun under Jordanian auspices in the 1950s, Israel's Department of Antiquities has played a largely passive role in the controversy, agreeing earlier this year to a 1996 deadline proposed by Strugnell for delivering the remaining manuscripts to the chief editor.
With no real enforcement powers, the timetable is a ``chimera,'' says Shanks. ``If the deadline is missed, I'll resign,'' responds Strugnell.