Library That 'Freed' the Scrolls Hears a Jericho-like Blast of Support
SAN MARINO, CALIF. — IN the lush garden outside his office here, Huntington Library Director William A. Moffett guffaws with delight at a moment of naivete that preceded his recent foray into the world spotlight."At first we thought, maybe we'll make the statement and no one will notice," he said of the library's decision to make a complete photographic set of the Dead Sea Scrolls available to scholars without restrictions. The announcement last month broke a 40-year monopoly on study of the documents held by a small group of academics since the scrolls were discovered in 1947 in a cave northwest of the Dead Sea. Considered one of the most important archaeological finds in modern history, the scrolls contain the earliest renderings of the Hebrew Bible and parchment and papyrus manuscripts chronicling the earliest days of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To ensure long-term study of the documents despite decay or natural calamity, several photographic copies were made over the years under a variety of complex agreements with institutions. In 1980, Elizabeth Hay Bechtel, president and founder of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center (ABMC) in Claremont, Calif., financed two such sets - one for research at the center and another for safekeeping. A subsequent rupture between Ms. Bechtel and the ABMC left the master set in her hands. This set was entrusted to the Huntington Library at her death and has been stored in special vaults since 1980. Appointed director last year, Dr. Moffett discovered that the photographs were never listed in the library's comprehensive roster. Spurred by personal and professional convictions of free access to ideas, the publication of a book in England The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception," by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh - charging a conspiracy to monopolize access to the scrolls, and pressure to give up the copies to "official scholars," Moffett freed the images to unlimited access. In quick succession, Moffett was hailed as a hero by hundreds of fellow librarians, curators, and media editorialists but as a traitor by the organization claiming exclusive access to the artifacts, the Israeli Antiquity Authority (IAA). At first threatened with legal action by the IAA through international posturing, Moffett saw the threat fade quickly when the head of the organization, Amir Drori, agreed "in principle to facilitate free access." Moffett attributes the change of heart to a worldwide and nearly instantaneous show of support the power of an idea whose time had come. "It was the Jericho battle plan in which all the trumpets sounded at once with a mighty blast," he says. He sees great symbolism that the logic of events has freed the images "after 40 years in the wilderness. "Much of what the scrolls are about are the Jewish people's early struggles for freedom - it would be extremely ironic if those documents were to be kept captive," he says. He shows his interviewer one of hundreds of faxes he received from supporters. "ATTA BOY!" says one from the Mt. Vernon (Wash.) City Library. "This episode has reaffirmed what libraries are all about," Moffett says, "unfettered access to ideas."