The Israeli agency in charge of the Dead Sea scrolls announced Sunday that it will grant researchers free access to hundreds of unpublished photographs of the scrolls.
The decision by the Israeli Antiquities Association (IAA) eliminates a monopoly on access to the scrolls previously held by a small panel of experts.
The panel included two Harvard faculty members: Hancock Professor of Hebrew Frank A. Cross and, until last year, John Strugnell, professor of Christian origins.
"Of course I have mixed feelings about this," said Emanuel Tov, the editor of the Dead Sea scrolls special project, "since I've been protecting the non-opening [of the scrolls to the public] for some time in order to defend members of the team."
"Under the circumstances, the IAA had no choice but to do this, so we'll have to adapt ourselves to the change in reality," Tov said.
The first move toward expanded access to the scrolls occurred last month when the Huntington Library, an independent research center located in San Marino, Calif., decided to make photographs of the scrolls available to the public.
Peggy Park Bernal, the communications officer at the Huntington, described Sunday's announcement as "certainly a triumph for intellectual freedom, and it's my impression that their action was hastened by the Huntington's action in September."
Some experts, however, were more critical of the IAA decision. Hershel C. Shanks, the editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, called the announcement "kind of a subterfuge," and said that "the IAA is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century."
Shanks said that after the Huntington Library made its announcement, the IAA "accused Huntington of being ethical and immoral and threatened a lawsuit."
When that tactic didn't work, they called a meeting to be held on December 4, "and proposed a compromise--that scholars could look, but couldn't print what they see," Shanks said.
When Huntington refused to attend the meeting, Shanks said, the IAA "pulled a pre-emptive strike" by cancelling the meeting but announcing the compromise.
Shanks said that in the announcement, their statement that "at the same time [as the photographs are being released], research interests of scholars should not be harmed," meant that "you can't publish ahead of them."
Shanks said that in order to know what is important for a scholar to study "you need the whole corpus," and that "the only solution is to print a facsimile copy of the whole thing and let everyone read it."
"To me, I don't think any scholar will sign [a request to see the scrolls] under these conditions--you can look, but you can't print what you get," Shanks said. "It's limiting access masquerading as granting access."
Norman Golb, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Chicago, called the decision "a step in the right direction," but did not agree with all the particulars in the IAA announcement.
"I don't think any authority should be telling scholars of Hebrew manuscripts whether they should be publishing so many lines of a text."
Tov said that the IAA's decision was more wide-ranging than was generally believed.
"The only thing the IAA does not want is that the scholar publish a so-called text edition, that is a transcription of the [entire] text...because that would be unfair to the scholars actually preparing a text edition.